The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family


The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1979)
Mama's Family (1983-1990)
Type: Spin Off

   Okay, most spin offs involve introducing characters on one show as part of a certain reality and then spinning them into a connected show. But there are exceptions, and one of the principal exceptions is when a show starts as a skit on some sort of variety show and then gets fleshed out into a shows all its own. See the difference? No shared reality which, if you look around this site you'll see, is what I think is the most fun about this stuff.

   There are lots of examples of this kind of spin off: The Tracey Ullman Show and The Simpsons, The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners and, our topic, The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family.

   Starting as a recurring bit on The Carol Burnett Show, Mama's Family centered on a lower class southern family with Vicki Lawrence playing Thelma "Mama" Harper the matriarch of the Harper clan. Part of what got Vicki Lawrence hired onto The Carol Burnett Show was how very much she looked like Carol Burnett. They looked like they could be sisters. In this skit though Carol Burnett played Mama's daughter Eunice.

   The skits were basically about the various members of the Harper clan fighting and arguing over some problem or another. Lots of loudness. It wasn't my favorite skit but I guess I'm in the minority.

   Well, several years after the end of The Carol Burnett Show, Mama and her family were resurrected as a series for NBC. The show brought back Vicki Lawrence as Mama as well as Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman in their roles of Eunice and Eunice's husband Ed. Eunice and Ed only appeared occasionally though. To fill out the cast, many new characters were brought in: new Harpers, new friends of the Harpers... These parts were played by both new faces as well as sitcom vets like Rue McClanahan, Betty White and Ken Berry.

   After two seasons, NBC dropped the show. It disappeared for a season before it then reappeared in first run syndication. Gone were all the real big big names - Burnett, Korman, White, McClanahan - everyone except for Vicki Lawrence and Ken Berry and the less famous members of the supporting cast. It stayed alive in syndication for four more seasons bringing joy, I guess, to...well dozens of people... maybe... and to bring a tear of suffering to my eye when I would accidentally catch a moment of it. Given the choice of watching Mama's Family or the stunningly bad Small Wonder - the story of a young robot girl raised as a real girl by a family almost half as lifelike as herself - I would have to choose the deadly poison. Sometimes TV ain't pretty folks.


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