Vicki Lawrence works to keep Mama up with the times in a new show she brings to Fort Worth

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer

Vicki Lawrence
DON’T TALK BACK | Vicki Lawrence has made Mama into such an icon that now she shares top billing in her newest show, which Lawrence brings to Fort Worth Saturday.

We like our mothers and grandmothers just the way they are: Ornery or pleasant, they are, for the most part, the only people who can get away with being themselves and remain dear to our hearts.

Tell this to comedian Vicki Lawrence. This Saturday, she’s bringing her most famous character, Thelma Harper — or as we know her, Mama — to the Laugh With a Legend Gala at Casa Manana. But it might be fair to say this is Mama 2.0.

“Mama has changed a lot,” Lawrence says. “I told myself for this run that I wouldn’t be happy going back. We need to go forward, and so we set about making Mama incredibly modern.”

Will our favorite ol’ grump be tweeting her snarky retorts? That would be a “no.” But Mama has come a long way since her inception on The Carol Burnett Show. Part of that evolution is thanks to Harvey Korman, whom Lawrence credits as really starting Mama’s growth.

“She changed between Burnett and Mama’s Family,” she says. “Korman really helped out. He made the point that people couldn’t just come home, relax and watch her be mean to everyone. She had to become a fun and silly character. I learned the most about comedy from Harvey.”

Lawrence plans to keep Mama topical because she apparently has opinions on BP and Mel Gibson. But she also has visions of Lil’ Kim in her head. For this show, Lawrence will perform Mama’s Rap to prove she’s no fuddy-duddy and knows what’s what.

Her metamorphosis mirrors Lawrence’s. As the years passed, Lawrence grew from 20something comedy ingénue into pop culture icon — and grew a little closer in age to Mama.

“She became this wonderful peacock of a character,” she says. “But I have to say, I tend to agree with her a little more as I get older. “

Vicki Lawrence
Vicki Lawrence

Through Mama, Lawrence has built her own gay fan base that surprised her initially. Her Mama’s Family co-star Dorothy Lyman was the first to show Lawrence pictures of drag queens in old lady garb. But then it all seems to make sense for her.

“Everyone has a twisted family,” Lawrence says. “And mother issues. But gay fans have been wonderful, and I guess they love that she is this outrageous female character — although probably not as much fun to dress up as as Cher.”

Lawrence is spending more time on the stage than the small screen, touring with Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show. But her heart sounds like it’s still in television. She’s had bit parts on Roseanne and Yes, Dear and even played against teen megastar Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana’s, grandmother Mamaw Stewart.

“That was a fun set, but if it’s television versus the stage, well that’s a loaded question,” she says. “We taped Burnett like a bat out of hell. I miss that kind of TV. Stage is like that with the live audience and interaction. I miss TV. Now, everybody’s putting their two cents in via committee.“

Lawrence sees today’s TV, at least behind the scenes, as far different from her heyday. It’s harder to have fun than when she was new to the medium.

“I wrote to Carol when I was in high school. She changed my life and told me I would have found showbiz anyway,” she says. “The funny thing is I don’t know how comedy found me. I was gonna go to college to become a dental hygienist, marry a dentist and be done with it!”
Of course, then we wouldn’t have Mama, or any of her other characters. But Thelma Harper is Vicki Lawrence’s comedic legacy — which is a duel-edged sword.

“I’m definitely in Mama’s shadow — she gets all the good jokes,” she laughs. “I need to be me before I’m not anymore. We were watching the Michael Jackson memorial and I think sometimes I wanna do that for Mama. The sad thing is, if I were gone, people would miss her!”

Casa Manana Theatre,
3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth. Aug. 28 at 8:45 p.m. $75.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 27, 2010