The first time the Southern-fried, blue-collar “Family” appeared on “The Carol Burnett Show” was in 1974, with Burnett as Eunice, Harvey Korman as her husband Ed, and, at age 25, Vicki Lawrence as Mama, a blue-haired, buxom, loudmouth elderly woman who stole the show.
The skit became a popular occasional feature during the show’s final five years, with Betty White and Tim Conway chief among those who played recurring guest characters. And in 1982 it was revived as a 90-minute TV movie, a melancholy comedy-drama titled “Eunice,” which reunited Burnett, Lawrence and Korman for a look at the family over the course of 23 years. (That film is included in this set.)
Then in 1983, “Mama’s Family” debuted, a half-hour sitcom starring Lawrence, with Ken Berry, Rue McClanahan, Betty White and the rest of its solid comic cast, along with occasional visits from Burnett and Korman. The show only ran two seasons on NBC, but after it was picked up for syndication for a third season (with a few cast changes), it became a ratings hit and remained the No. 1 first-run syndicated show right through its sixth and final season.
Watching “Mama’s Family” today, it’s very broadly played and can occasionally become a bit shrill (if you’re old enough, think “The Bickersons”), but it generally remains funny, and sometimes rises to hilarious. By the time this sitcom began, Lawrence had honed the character into a fine-tuned comic force and her performance alone makes it worth watching. Fortunately, the rest of the cast rises to the occasion.
Oh, yes, and unlike today’s sitcoms, it’s clean. Modern comedy-show writers could learn a thing or two from these older shows that got laughs without falling back on easy sexual gags.
True, they are pricey. But don’t go to Amazon, where copies are being sold for as much as $300-plus.
And if you’d rather go on the installment plan by purchasing season sets, head to Costco, where you can find the first two seasons of “China Beach” packaged for $34.99 and the first two seasons of “Mama’s Family” in a $24.99 set.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com
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