Spin-offs have been a part of the television world for many years now. As a matter of fact, there is even one in the works for Breaking Bad, featuring Bob Odenkirk as lawyer Saul Goodman, in Better Call Saul. Back in the ‘70s, All in the Family begat Maude, which then spun off Good Times. Happy Days led to Laverne and Shirley, then Mork and Mindy, and even the hideous Joanie Loves Chachi. As far as I know however, there was never a recurring variety show skit that was turned in to a series before The Carol Burnett Show spawned Mama’s Family.
The "Mama’s Family" vignettes were one of the most popular features of Ms. Burnett’s long-running variety show. When it went off the air, the half-hour sitcom Mama’s Family was born. The show was cancelled after two years on the NBC network, but Mama’s Family would live on as one of the first ever first-run syndicated programs. Mama’s Family: The Complete Third Season contains all 25 episodes of that first syndicated season, and has just been released as a four-DVD set.
These episodes originally aired during the 1986-87 season, and there were some changes to the cast. The main one was the loss of Rue McClanahan, who was cast in The Golden Girls. Her departure is addressed in the first episode of the season “Farewell, Frannie.” In it we discover that she died after dining out at The Bigger Jigger restaurant, by choking on a toothpick. Betty White became another Golden Girl, but she had previously only done occasional appearances on Mama’s Family. She returns for her final spot in “Best Medicine” The new addition to the cast is Bubba Higgins (Allan Kayser) who plays Mama’s (Vicki Lawrence) wayward grandson.
The relatively young Vicki Lawrence as Mama worked alright on the sketch, but it is a little ridiculous to see her playing the mother of Betty White and Ken Barry. But they had to stay true to their roots on Carol Burnett, so that is what we get. Barry’s character is Vinton Harper, and he and his wife Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) live with Mama Thelma Harper. When they return from Frannie’s funeral, they discover that Eunice’s (Carol Burnett) son Bubba Higgins has just gotten out of reform school and has moved in. The other main character is nosy neighbor Iola Boylan (Beverly Archer), who was added this season as something of a replacement for McClanahan.
It has been a long time since I watched any episodes of Mama’s Family, and believe me, it is as corny as ever. But that really is the charm of it. One example of this comes during “Soup to Nuts,” in which Vinton has to decide whose chili is better, Mama’s, Iola’s, or his wife Naomi’s. Funny thing is, we never get an answer, but Naomi’s recipe of two cans of chili, a six-pack of beer, and some Fritos would have been my choice.
Dr. Joyce Brothers never turned down a chance to get in front of the camera, and she shows up in “Mama and Dr. Brothers.” The doctor is taking calls on the local TV show Good Morning, Raytown when a voice that sounds suspiciously familiar comes on. Sex-crazed Naomi is wondering what to do about her husband “Clinton’s” impotence. Mama and Iola happened to be watching at the time, which was not a good thing for Naomi.
When Bubba goes to pick up his date in “Buck Private Bubba,” her father will not let her go out with him because he was in reform school. So to clean up his act, he joins the Army. As expected, he screws up royally the moment he walks through the door, but it is up to Mama to get him out. He even gets the girl in the end, although Mama sits between them on the couch before they get a chance to do anything.
Vicki Lawrence gets to play against herself as cousin Lydia in “Mama’s Cousin.” She is the stuck-up cousin who calls everything “grand,” and seemingly the only person in the world who actually makes Mama nervous.
In the Mama’s Family world we hear about the local restaurant/bar The Bigger Jigger all the time, but “Mama with the Golden Arm” actually opens in this fabled place. Having seen the Frank Sinatra film The Man with the Golden Arm, I was more than a little curious as to what this was all about. As it turns out, Mama is no junkie, but her golden arm turns her into the arm-wrestling champion of the joint.
It is always fun to spot the cultural references in these older shows, and Madonna gets mentioned a lot. There is even an episode titled “Desperately Seeking Anyone.” Hard to believe they did not call it “Desperately Seeking Mama,” but the focus is on Iola here. Mama and Naomi decide that she needs a man, so they place a personal ad for her.
I was surprised at the amount of bonus features included. There are four, which add up to over an hour. My favorite of the bunch has to be the first one, “Family History: A Classic ‘Family’ Sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, featuring Maggie Smith (Original air date November 15, 1975).” My family probably watched this when I was a kid, but that was nearly 40 years ago, and I do not remember it. What shocked me is the length of this skit, as it runs for almost 15 minutes. That is just seven minutes shy of the 22-minute episodes of the series itself.
“Mama’s Family Tree: The Sprouts (All About Bubba)” is as it sounds, a piece about the inspiration for the character of Bubba, and the actor who played him, Allan Kayser. (11:04). Kayser gets the floor to himself, so to speak during the “Allan Kayser Interview” (13:15). He describes the time he spent on the show as being a very pleasant experience. He played Bubba during all four seasons that Mama’s Family was in first-run syndication.
The big event is the “Mama’s Family Cast Reunion; May 7, 2013." This piece is set in a mock-up of the kitchen set of the show, and features Vicki Lawrence, Ken Barry, Dorothy Lyman, Beverly Archer, and Allan Kayser discussing their time together on the show. No big revelations here, but it is kind of fun to catch up with them. (24:43).
It had been a very long time since I had even thought of Mama’s Family, and that was probably because I saw a Carol Burnett retrospective. I do remember it though, and it is always a lot of fun to see these shows so many years after they originally aired. As I said, the humor is pretty corny, but it is very family friendly, and definitely a blast from the past. The good old days are alive and well on Mama’s Family: The Complete Third Season.