Vicki Lawrence doesn’t want Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show to be just a retrospective. The Carol Burnett Show alum, who had a hit single with, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” and a hit show in Mama’s Family wants to bring her most famous character into the 21st-Century and let her comment on current events. She also wants to give fans everything they expect from Mama, and maybe a little bit more.
Fly on the Wall: I was a tour guide at Graceland, and know what It’s like to be asked the same questions over and over again. Are there questions you get so often you want to answer, “Can’t you just ask Google?”
Vicki Lawrence: Ha! Maybe. But maybe it’s like your kids wanting to hear the same story over and over again, you know? Or maybe they don’t believe it, so they really want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, if you will. That said, what’s the question?
Oh, that WAS the question. As an interviewer, I’m a little bit obsessed with how people experience interviews, particularly the questions that come up again and again. And between The Carol Burnett Show, which is iconic, Mama’s Family, which is ubiquitous, and having this career anomaly one-hit-wonder with “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” I suspect you get a lot of repeat questions.
Well, you know, when I put this show together I knew all the questions people asked me over and over again, so I made my half of the show — because I call it a two woman show — I made my half largely autobiographical, because it’s the questions everybody always asks. I know if we turned up the lights — I do questions like Carol — this is everything everybody would ask. So, the first thing I answer is how I met Carol and how I got started, and how I became a natural red head, how I only had one huge hit record, how I met my husband, how Mama happened. I think by the end of the Vicki half of the show people know more about me than they probably ever wanted to know. I don’t know what they’d ask.
That was my sense of the show.
Well, I also think my life has been pretty comical, and pretty serendipitous, so it’s kind of a funny half of the show. It’s pretty incredible what happened to me. It’s nothing I ever intended. And it’s funny, because I grew up in very close proximity to Hollywood, my dad worked in Hollywood, at Max Factor, the entire time I was growing up. That’s where I hung out and went to dance classes and worked. I was lucky enough to go see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl when they first came around. It’s where I hung out. But it never occurred to me to go into show business. I was going to go to college, study dental hygiene, learn to clean teeth, marry a rich dentist. I kind of feel like I got kidnapped by show biz.
But you were always a performer, weren’t you? How old were you when you were doing [teen singing group] The Young Americans?
High school. And yeah, I do have all that too. I auditioned when I was a freshman. End of Freshman year and sang with them all through high school.
So it was always there but just for fun?
It wasn’t anything that ever occurred to me as something I might do for a living. Or maybe I didn’t think I was good enough. Or, I don’t know. So the whole thing has been a wonderful, strange adventure.
Thelma Harper is such a complete character. So distinct from you, and you have shared a body for a long time now. Do you turn Mama on and off like a light, or is she always lurking? I’ve always thought it would be great to have a little Mama — like a cartoon angel — that just rode around on my shoulder, complaining about things.
I know her so well. It’s very easy to pop in and out of that character. And I do find, as I get older that I probably think a lot more like she does. You earn the privilege to not waste as much time anymore so you just say what’s on your mind. And I kinda understand that as I get older. It’s like everything that’s going on in Washington right now. Do you think I’m going to live long enough to see the movie? It’s going to be a helluva movie.
I feel like I’m not as prepared for this interview as I should be because instead of doing my homework I keep having to check the news to make sure all of that’s real and not the result of a bad potato before bedtime.
But back to you. You do get sucked into Show business young. Were you doing Carol Burnett while you were going to college, is that right?
My dad was a UCLA grad, and it was always his dream that I would go there. We lived near UCLA and the deal was, “Of course you can go to college as long as you’re at the studio by 11-o'clock in the morning. So I took everything I could take at 7 a.m. and didn’t have much of a college life. I made it through two years and had to declare a major. Decided I’d declare theater arts because it looked like that was what I was going to do. Started studying that, but once you sign up they expect a quarter of crew work, and they expect you to audition for shows when they come up, and that’s when the Burnett show was the busiest. In the beginning we blocked on Friday, pre-recorded Friday night, shot on Saturday. So I couldn’t do it. I was hiding from everybody. I was the kid who would dash around the corner when the professor would say, “hey you!” So I went to my parents and said I needed to change my major, and so I changed it to dance. And that was so depressing in college compared with what I’d been learning in Hollywood. I used to take jazz classes from guys who were the Jets in West Side Story. It was cool. So I dropped out of that. So I went to my favorite theater professor and said, “What am I going to do?” He said, “You’re where every kid in this department would give their right arm to be. My advice: Get a pad and pencil and go learn from the best people in the business.” And that just broke my parents’ hearts. My mom never went to college so it killed her. Till the day she died she said I needed to go back to college and get a degree so I’d have something to fall back on if show business doesn’t work. But I felt like I had no choice. And it was hard not to learn from Harvey [Korman] and Carol just by osmosis. Just sitting and listening.
I bet. Was it unusual to everybody that you were doing school and the show at the same time?
Well, I didn’t do a whole lot on the Burnett show when I first started. Going to school and getting to the studio wasn’t a problem. People do it all the time now. You hear about movie stars that went to Harvard and Yale — I guess they weren’t doing a weekly television show.
Yeah. Time off between movies is a whole different dynamic.
But in the beginning I was hired to play her kid sister, and that’s really all I did for at least a season and a half. Then they slowly broke me into other sketches. So it’s not like I had a ton to do.
And Carol and Harvey were your mentors. They took you under wing.
Well, Carol had a show to run, so she had a lot to do. But Harvey, just being the team player he was, took comedy very seriously. And he was a trained dramatic actor. So he decided he would take me under his wing and make me a comedian. He would say, you can’t find stage right, stage left, you can’t even find the toilet. So he set about to train me. He’d work with me on dialects, and my props. And he’d explain to me who I was in those movie takeoffs when I didn’t know. It was great to have Harvey Korman for a tutor.
People make so much of Tim Conway’s antics. But the secret weapon was Harvey…
He made it work.
So you were 24 when you start playing Mama?
A Hollywood youngster, playing a much older Southern lady from circumstances very different from your own. How did you find her?
First, I played a lot of older women on Carol’s show. Mama wasn’t the first, she’s just the one that stuck. But you’ve got to remember, it was Carol’s show. So, when Carol was playing Shirley Temple, I was playing the mean old school marm. And, while she was playing Rebecca, I was the wicked old housekeeper. She was Snow White, I was the wicked witch. She was Red Riding Hood I was… I don’t know. Who was I in that? Anyway, I played a lot of older women on that show. So Mama wasn’t the first. She was written for Carol, and I tell this story in the show. I call it another gift from Carol. Because she didn’t want the part. She said, “It doesn’t speak to me, I want to be Eunice.” The writers were very upset. She went to Bob Mackie and said, “Don’t you think we should make Vicki Mama? He said absolutely and the writers were doubly upset. Then we got to rehearsals and she said she wanted to do it Southern. The writers literally walked out the first time they saw it. They said, “You’ve ruined it.” This was their baby. They came from dysfunctional upbringings, and they wrote this beautiful homage to their families and Carol ruined it. Of course, what we know is Carol really didn’t ruin it, she was right. Carol and I were doing an interview together, for extended features on a DVD, and, because some of our sketches could get pretty dark, she said she always thought it would be a good exercise for an acting class to take one of our sketches and play it seriously first, then go back and add the accents. I think that’s why she added the accents. She always said it was like Tennessee Williams on acid.
On something. I remember being young and seeing those sketches and they upset me. Everybody seemed so unhappy and angry. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I got how funny they are. I remember sitting down with the family to watch Carol Burnett — this was family entertainment. But in retrospect, a lot of it was pretty dark. Like a dwarf crushed by an elephant during an act of lovemaking. It was pretty adult stuff.
It was. And those were arguably Carol’s favorite characters. The writers couldn’t write those sketches fast enough. It was al very close to real life. Much more than anything else we did.
Mama’s costume — it’s almost like a uniform — is there one part you put on that makes you feel complete? I’ve always guessed the support hose.
The socks I rolled down because it reminded me of my grandma whose socks were always sagging. It is like a uniform. I can’t imagine not doing it in any part of it. I did go out without my glasses one time though. I reached up to touch them and was like, “Holy cow!” I didn’t say anything and the audience didn’t say anything. Maybe nobody noticed. But I felt naked after that.
I bet. These characters — Chaplin’s tramp, Groucho’s Groucho — you take away the cain or the cigar — you take away part of the identity.
Yeah, I know. And I get pictures every year of people who dress up like her for Halloween.
Did you feel right away, when you started doing this, that it was special?
We did. The writers walked out and did not. Said we ruined it. But you can tell when something’s really rolling when you’re doing it and it’s funny. They wrote it as a one time sketch, but it got so much positive fan mail.
Over time did the writers warm to the changes?
I’m not sure. I guess they did. We took the writers when we went to do Mama’s Family and they didn’t warm to those changes at all. We did two episodes and I said, “This is not funny.” This doesn’t feel right.” And I shut the show down and said, please, please bring Harvey in. And so we did and I asked Harvey, “How do we fix this, it doesn’t feel funny?” He said, “Well, it’s a sitcom now, sweetie. It’s got to be silly. You can’t expect people to pop a beer, come home every week, throw up their feet and watch this old lady scream at everybody for a half-an-hour. She’s got to become a sitcom star. She’s got to laugh.” I said, “But I don’t think she’s ever even smiled.” He said, “What have I taught you — you ARE her. She is YOU. Anything you can do, she can do.” He was really responsible for turning her loose, and turning her into the peacock she became. And there was nothing the writers could throw at me that she couldn’t do, anything. From running for mayor to learning to drive to dirty dancing to falling in love. Anything. She did it all.
I’ve got to talk about “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” I’ve got a friend who’d be upset if I didn’t. A 51-year-old man. Works out to your record— The first one. Knows every word to every song.
Oh. My. Well, you know I was married to the songwriter for like 10-minutes and “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” was the only good thing that came out of it. That and I got to keep the dog.
Does the fact that it was a troubled relationship change your relationship to the song?
No, the song took on a life of its own and was the ultimate demise of an already doomed marriage. It became this big huge juggernaut of a hit from the 70’s and you know— If you have one of those you have to sing it. And I feel okay. I got the last word, I was right. It WAS a huge hit. And I lobbied long and hard for the guy that arranged that record. His name was Artie Butler and he was on the charts with a number of other songs that I loved at the time. He was not the producer’s go-to arranger and they didn’t get along so great. But he was totally responsible for the way that song ended up sounding, but wasn’t called back in to do the album. I look back and think, “You don’t break up the winning team!” So the album I’m not proud of at all.It got done because it had to but it wasn’t the great experience of doing, “Georgia.”
How did you fit the music career in around the TV show?
I didn’t really have a music career. Back then, when this happened to me, you didn’t cross pollinate like you do now.
Unless you were like the Brat Packers.
But record stars didn’t really do Television, Television stars didn’t make records. Movie people were never on the small screen, ever.
And most of the ones that did happen, didn’t work.
Right. Now, if you’re not doing it all, and a line of makeup and clothing, you’re not doing it. Back then I’d do interviews in conjunction with the record and people would say, “Vicki Lawrence, where have you been?” I’d be like, “On the Carol Burnett Show for six years.” Or I’d have people call me Vicki Carr. “No.”
It seems so very separate. I wondered if, even then, people didn’t make the connection.
People come to the show who say, “I had no idea that was you.”
You mention that nowadays you have to do everything or you’re not doing it. You’ve obviously done the Disney thing working on Hannah Montana with Miley Cyrus. As a former youngster who had such incredible mentors, did you feel the urge to step into that kind of role?
Those producers on Hannah Montana set about to surround her with actors who were really good. Brooke Shields. Dolly Parton played her other grandmother. There were a lot of big stars on that show. And they would say. “She’s like a little sponge. We want to let her learn, so please impart your wisdom. It was a very nurturing environment. I remember the first day on the set we had a kitchen scene with a lot of props and we had to get something done during the scene. I used to love those scenes on Mama’s Family because our director would choreograph them like a dance. By the end of the kitchen scene you’d have something made, or in the oven. I’d associate my lines with my props, and it made it so much easier to learn. So we were having trouble getting something sorted out and I said, “Make your props your friend, Miley.” The first thing Harvey ever taught me. So we made it a little dance and it worked fine. Flash forward, four years later, I’m doing the last episode of Hannah Montana I ever did. And Mamaw and Miley are at a Tea Room and we’re all dressed up in our high heels. And I set my purse down in the middle of the table, and it just wasn’t working. I asked Miley what she did with her purse and she said, “I hung it on the back of my chair Vicki. Make your props your friends.”
We haven’t talked much about your show.
I'll share one of my favorite stories. When we first started doing it, we got booked in Laughlin, Nevada, which is about 90 miles from Vegas, and a world away. It's on the Colorado. Mobile homes. A much older crowd. So we're working this big casino there, and the fella that booked the show came down on the second or third night to say hi. We were all sitting in the dressing room talking — me, my husband, who produces the show, and my son, who directs it — and he asks, 'Would you like to know what the word is out on the casino floor?' And I said, 'Sure, what is the word on the casino floor?' He said, 'The word is, wear your Depends.' That's probably the nicest compliment I've ever gotten.