Actress Vicki Lawrence compares her 46 years in show business to living in the Wizard of Oz’s Emerald City – she still expects to wake up from a dream.
I was kind of kidnapped by show business, she says by phone. I was reading this article about (actress) Susan Sarandon recently, and she said she never felt like show business was her calling. That’s how I kind of feel.
Beginning as an 18-year-old prodigy on The Carol Burnett Show, Lawrence’s TV career has spanned many years with several TV appearances and her own spinoff show, Mama’s Family. Now the comedian tours year-round in a two-act show called, Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show.
She brings her act – an earlier show had to be added after the evening performance was sold out – to the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Van Wert, Ohio, today.
In the first act of the show, Lawrence, 64, speaks about show business and her real life before taking the stage as her most recognized sketch comedy character, Thelma Harper – a Southern spitfire in sensible shoes known as Mama. After nearly 40 years of playing the character, Lawrence says Mama is just part of her gut.
She is really well-written, Lawrence says. Everybody feels like they have Mama in their family.
Lawrence says she intentionally designed the first half of the show to be autobiographical, including her family life as a mother of two – now adult children, and a wife to Carol Burnett makeup artist Al Schultz since 1974. Lawrence speaks about being plucked out of her hometown of Inglewood, Calif., as a senior in high school to be on The Carol Burnett Show. Burnett, who was looking for an actress who could play her younger sister on her new sketch comedy show, took a chance on the teenager.
I thought, Gosh, I better take some theater classes,’ Lawrence says.
By the fall premiere of the show, Lawrence was entering her freshman year at UCLA studying theatre arts. Although, Lawrence says working with performers such as Burnett, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway was like attending the Harvard School of Comedy. By the age of 24, Lawrence was a household name. Her 1973 music hit, The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, had earned a gold record and in 1974, Lawrence would unleash Mama in the seventh season of The Carol Burnett Show.
I definitely need to be me before I go away, Lawrence says. Sometimes I feel like she’s (Mama) more popular than me.
In the second act of the show, Mama gives her honest opinion on current topics in the news and pop culture. Lawrence says she didn’t want her to be a retrospective character.
I think it’s funny to watch this woman from the sticks deal with issues going on in the world, she says. She gets all the good jokes and all the things we would like to say.
As the only supporting actress on Carol Burnett, Lawrence says she was used to playing the old lady in a number of sketches before taking on Mama. When the actors began working on the new sketch, The Family, Lawrence says she drew her inspiration from older women in her life to create the straight-shooting matriarch who constantly butts heads with her irrepressible daughter Eunice, played by Burnett.
I was married to (country songwriter) Bobby Russell for like a nanosecond – so I had a Southern mother-in-law that I could draw from, Lawrence says.
By the end of the series in 1978, Lawrence had been nominated for three Golden Globes and five Emmy awards – earning one Emmy during the show’s 11-year run. In 1983, Lawrence revived Mama for her own TV show, Mama’s Family. With the series ending in 1990, the TV show continues to run in syndication throughout the country.
I don’t think what happened to me would happen nowadays, she says. If you’re not Carrie Underwood right out of the box, the judges take you out; and if they don’t, America will.
Over the years, Lawrence has appeared in numerous stage productions and as a host for the game show Win, Lose, or Draw and the daytime talk show Vicki! With her more recent TV appearances on Hannah Montana and Yes, Dear, Lawrence says she has realized that her tour’s audience can span for generations if you stick around long enough.
I don’t think about retiring – I don’t know what I do with myself if I did, she says. Luckily, I have a character that I can grow into.