She’s ornery, quarrelsome, and cantankerous, yet she is loved by millions. Her name is Thelma Mae Harper — generally referred to as Mama — and she is a character created by comedian/actor/singer Vicki Lawrence for The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s. Though the Burnett sketch series ended in 1978 and its spin-off sitcom, Mama’s Family, went off the air in 1990, Lawrence’s irrepressible old lady is still alive and well — and on the stage as part of Lawrence’s “two-woman” show, which she’ll perform Sunday, June 14, at the Granada Theatre.
Lawrence was still in her teens when Burnett plucked her out of obscurity and invited her to be part of an ensemble cast that also included Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, among others. Despite her youth, Lawrence often played characters five times her age. “It’s just kinda what I did: played crazy old ladies,” she explained. “I was the second female in the cast, and while [Burnett] was busy being Shirley Temple, I was the mean old schoolmarm; while she is Eunice, I’m Mama.”
The cranky, set-in-her-ways, ill-informed, politically incorrect Mama struck a hilarious chord with viewers. “I think it’s because we all have this crazy old lady in our family,” said Lawrence of Mama’s popularity. “I mean, we all have somebody that sits down at the Thanksgiving table and says the most outrageous things, and you’re doin’ the dishes with your sister, and you’re like, omigod, can you believe she said that?”
After a showbiz career that included her own talk show, Lawrence decided to resurrect Mama for the stage, creating a performance that combines stand-up comedy, music, and Thelma Harper. “We put the show together back in 2002, and we’ve been on the road ever since.”
Vicki Lawrence will perform Sunday, June 14, at 8 p.m. at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. For tickets and information, call 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.