Like a Southern-fried Larry David in rolled-to-the-knee support hose, Thelma Mae Crowley Harper could curb anyone's enthusiasm. For six seasons on "Mama's Family" beginning in 1983 — and years before that on "The Carol Burnett Show" — the motor-mouthed matriarch, played by Vicki Lawrence, rarely had a kind word to say to anyone. But who could blame her?
In the insular burg of Raytown, and particularly under her own roof, Mama was surrounded by morons. Her son Vinton (Ken Berry) was a ne'er-do-well locksmith whose grocery store checker wife, Naomi (Dorothy Lyman), had a closet full of off-the-shoulder blouses and a permanent case of hot pants. Mama's grandchildren (Eric Brown and Karin Argoud) were, like, so totally '80s — and so totally forgettable that they were written out after Season 2.
When you add a brittle spinster, Aunt Fran, living upstairs and, across town, a status-obsessed daughter named Ellen — played respectively by Rue McClanahan and Betty White in a pre-"Golden Girls" pairing — anyone would be a little crabby. Mama always reserved her sharpest jabs for visits from her high-strung daughter, Eunice, a housewife with thwarted dreams of Hollywood stardom played with genuine pathos by the inimitable Burnett.
"You're playing hockey with a warped puck," Mama once memorably told her.
But no matter how lemonade-tart the vitriol hurled their way, everyone in the family loved Mama, even poor Eunice. And in more than 30 sketches and 130 half-hour sitcom episodes, so did TV audiences. As Andrew Whitenack, who obsessively watched the series on homemade videotapes to write his 2011 book "Mama's Family: The Unofficial Episode Viewing Guide," reasons, "The writing was funny, and if you grew up in the South, you could relate to them."
Now fans, Southern or otherwise, can relate to the Harpers all over again. Almost 40 years after that first sketch, "Mama's Family" has been given the complete series treatment by Star Vista Entertainment, as Time Life is now called.
The first season of "Mama's Family" was released on DVD years ago. But fans complained that the episodes weren't complete. Introductions by a stuffy host named Alistair Quince (Harvey Korman), a timeworn spoof of "Masterpiece Theatre's" Alistair Cooke, weren't included, and some installments may have been shorter than they'd been when they originally aired.
One of Mama's biggest fans, it turns out, is Fred Schneider, the front man of quintessential party band the B-52s. "Whenever I was touring in the '80s, I would turn it on. I always thought it was way funnier than 'The Golden Girls,'" he says. For many, that was not a popular viewpoint. "People would say 'You can't say you like 'Mama's Family' in interviews!' "
No matter how outlandish the situations in which Mama found herself — karate at her age, really? — audiences always related to the character. "She's in her own way very real," says Lawrence. "Everybody has a Mama in her family."
The sitcom, which ran on NBC for two seasons and then continued until 1990 in first-run syndication, was a guilty pleasure, to be sure — particularly after Mama's grandson Bubba (Allan Kayser), more hunky than half-witted, and her welcome-wearing neighbor Iola (Beverly Archer) joined in the proceedings.
From the beginning, the series was considerably more lighthearted than the "Family" sketches had ever been on "The Carol Burnett Show." On the variety show, for instance, when Eunice was gonged on "The Gong Show," it was genuinely heartbreaking. That gravitas was by design, Lawrence says. Burnett considered the "Family" sketches to be "Tennessee Williams on acid."
Southern Gothic sketch comedy was a big switch from what the writers had originally imagined for Mama and company. In fact, Burnett was originally supposed to play Mama. But the star connected with the Eunice character and felt that costume designer Bob Mackie could make Lawrence, then a mere 24, look believably like a senior. "It was all very upsetting to the writers," Lawrence remembers, adding that the characters weren't even Southern on the page.
But the role switch, which she calls "another gift from Carol," was Lawrence's biggest break, and the change in locale made the sketches better.
"There's something about that humidity. It brings out the best and worst in people," she says.
The character mellowed throughout the seasons of "Mama's Family." "She had to change," Lawrence says. "She had to become more lovable and lighthearted and multifaceted. She was very one-dimensional and mean in those sketches. In the sitcom world, it didn't quite work. I panicked."
Korman, her cast mate on "The Carol Burnett Show" and the co-director of numerous "Mama's Family" episodes, told her, "She has to be a silly sitcom character now. She can't be mean and scream at everybody for a half-hour every week."
His biggest piece of wisdom, she says, was telling her: "You are Mama. Anything you can do, she can do."
Today the role is more age-appropriate than it was in 1974. The actress still tours the country with her solo performance "Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show" and, yes, she performs her one hit record, the 1973 classic "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia."
"I'm not quite as spry and agile as Mama was back then," she says. "But she's a character who has grown with the times beautifully. She can be just as mad at Justin Bieber as she was at Eunice."
After watching a certain twerking incident on the MTV Video Music Awards recently, Lawrence says, "I called my writing partner and said Miley Cyrus has to go right into the show." That's our Mama.