BWW Interview: Vicki Lawrence Speaks for Two
Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show
Sunday, February 17, 2013, at 2 pm at Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston, Robinson Theater, 617 Lexington Street, Waltham, MA; Box Office 781-891-5600 or www.reaglemusictheatre.org
Emmy Award-winner Vicki Lawrence of the renowned "Carol Burnett Show" and beloved "Mama's Family" brings Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show" to Reagle Music Theatre of Greater Boston on Sunday, February 17, for a one-show-only engagement. On January 30th, BroadwayWorld talked with one half of the duo by telephone. We think that Vicki is authorized to speak for Thelma Harper aka Mama.
BWW: How did the idea come about to turn this into a theater piece?
Vicki Lawrence: I put my show together on the heels of a Carol Burnett reunion which happened after 9-11. It was really clear to all of us how much the country loved the "Carol Burnett Show" and loved all of uS. Harvey and Tim had put a show together and were on the road and Harvey, who was really such a mentor to me, took me aside and said, "Really, it is time for you to put a show together. You would have so much fun and clearly the audience would absolutely adore it." I never felt like I wanted to be onstage alone, it was daunting to me, but I got together with trusted people, literally pushed the furniture back in the living room, and put a show together. I know that Mama has to be in a show because everybody loves her so much that I could disappear and nobody would miss me as long as Mama was there.
BWW: Well, I think that would have made it a lot easier for you to be out on the stage alone because at least you're hiding in her.
VL: Well, yes, but she's not 'til the second half of the show. So the first half is me because I need to be me before I'm not me, Nancy.
BWW: You mean you were losing yourself?
VL: Honestly, I feel like it's been fun to put together a half of the show. I feel like my life has been very serendipitous and really kind of humorous. Everything that's happened to me has been like an, "Omigod, are you kidding me?" Everything - from the way I met Carol, to becoming a natural redhead, to having a hit record, to meeting my husband (Al Schultz), to how Mama happened; it's all been, "Are you kidding?"
BWW: You didn't plan all this.
VL: No, and it's just been so serendipitous and fun and silly, so I knew the first half of the show would be fun as well, and funny, and it answers every question that everybody could possibly have if we were to bump the lights up and do questions and answers.
BWW: So you're not actually taking questions, you're anticipating them.
VL: All of the stories of my life, and it's an equally fun part of the show, I think. And then we take just a little short break and run some outtakes from "Mama's Family"and then Mama comes on. I said when we put the show together, I don't want to do retrospective, I really want to push her forward and into the new century, and get her out into the world of technology, and what's in the news and let her comment on all of it and make her very modern. I said to my writing partner, "I would like her to do a rap song," and he said, "What's she gonna rap about?" I said, "Her life." We wrote her a rap number 'cuz she's a hip kind of a gal. This show is so fun for me because I get to keep it really topical.
BWW: You're one of the writers?
VL: I have a writing partner (Monty Aidem) who helps me a lot. It's really funny because in the beginning he did not speak "Mama-ese" at all. I'd put down what I thought was the idea and he would fix it and send it back, then I would have to translate it into "Mama-ese." Over the years he's really learned to speak "Mama-ese" really well.
BWW: Did you actually create her for the "Carol Burnett Show?"
VL: Well, I would like to say yes, but two of the writers wrote the original sketch - a one-time sketch - because they both hated their mothers, so they wanted to write this comical homage to their dysfunctional families. They lovingly wrote Mama for Carol and had figured they would get a guest star to play Eunice. But when Carol saw the sketch, she said Eunice is the part that speaks to me which was very upsetting to them. She said, "I think Vicki should play Mama," which was very upsetting to them. Then we went into rehearsals and she wanted to play it southern, which spoke to her West Texas dysfunctional roots, and that was further upsetting to the writers. They didn't even watch. The first time we did the run-through for them, they walked out. They were so upset, they walked out. Carol said this is the way we're gonna do it, this is the way I see it, and of course so did America love it, and those poor writers had to keep writing those characters. They couldn't write 'em fast enough, Carol loved those characters so much. Yes, I would like to say that I created her. I was trying to do an older version of what Carol was doing with Eunice, but I also was in my own first dysfunctional marriage; I had the southern mother-in-law to draw on at the time, and mothers I have known. My own mother, at one point, when the family sketches were getting really popular on the Burnett show, she watched the show one night and she called me and she said, "You know something, you take that old lady way too seriously." I thought I'm doing a good job, she's hitting real close to home.
BWW: You've moved her forward and you've made her modern for this traveling bit. I'm wondering - she's not a stand-up person, she never operates on her own; what she's always done best is to harangue people, so how much do you connect her with the audience? Is there interaction with the audience during her piece?
VL: Not a whole lot other than I know that they're laughing awfully hard. I mean, well, you never know what's gonna happen, and I think Mama's certainly ready for anything. She is a stand-up kind of a gal; she's got a lot to say.
BWW: Some of the other actors I've interviewed over the years have said how much it has helped them when they get into the costume. What would you have to say about that? Talk a little about what the costume and the wig and making the face do for you.
VL: Carol and I have talked about this many times, how many times there were we didn't know who we were and we'd be struggling for a character. We'd start rehearsals on Monday, and Wednesday we'd go in to see (costume designer) Bob Mackie, and you'd come over to the studio on Wednesday afternoon and say, "I know who I am." You know, he'd get you all dressed and you'd look in the mirror and go, omigod, there she is! I know exactly who I am! He was just a genius. He still is - he has such a comic flair. The best example of which is the curtain rod in the Gone With The Wind sketch. That was not in the script. It said in the script that Carol comes down dressed in a dress made from the curtains, and when she went to the wardrobe fitting, Bob said, "I kind of have a funny idea. See if you think I've lost my mind." And he took her into a little side dressing room and he pulled the curtain up and it had a mannequin standing there with the curtain rod dress and Carol said, "I pee'd in my pants - this is going to be the funniest sight gag we've ever had on the show!"
BWW: I think it remains so.
VL: He was always adding to the script. He's really a genius at putting it all together.
BWW: Other than the fact that everybody probably comes from dysfunctional families, or maybe that's the only thing, do you think that accounts for the amazing popularity of Mama when we're now two decades beyond the end of the television show?
VL: Oh, I definitely think so. I have a friend who's a psychologist and she says anybody who says that they're not living in a dysfunctional family is living alone. We all are and I kind of think of Mama the same way I think of Archie Bunker. We all know him, everybody has an Archie Bunker in their family, so you love to laugh at him and you never take it personally; everybody just has a ball laughing at him. And I think the same with Mama - everybody has a Mama in their family. She says the most outrageous, ridiculous stuff and most of the time you laugh about it and after she's gone, you say, you know, she was right.
BWW: Do you think there is a "typical" Vicki Lawrence fan? Or do you separate out people who are totally devoted to Mama as opposed to people who have a broader view of your career?
VL: I think the older folks have the broader view. The nice thing is, if you stick around long enough, you start spanning the generations. When I started doing this show, I would see all these college kids showing up. They'd watch the show, then they go on YouTube and find me backwards. Then they'll come to the show again and say, "Omigod, you were cute" or "Omigod, you were really funny" - it's kind of like back to the future, almost. It's kind of bizarre to have a young guy say, "You were really hot." It's funny, you just keep spanning all these generations, and that's why it's so lovely that Time Life has put together this whole package of Carol's favorite shows ("The Carol Burnett Show: The Ultimate Collection"). We have just had a blast sitting down and watching them - because it's the first time; it's taken this many years to negotiate all the musical material that we used to do. We used to do some fabulous stuff. I think, arguably, the best stuff that we did was the music. A lot of the younger people grew up on "Carol Burnett and Friends," the syndicated version that was just the comedy. And now you can watch these shows in their entirety, the way they aired.
BWW: For you it must be like the rest of us watching our home movies.
VL: Yeah, some of it and some of it we (my husband was the makeup man on the show) don't remember. (When Michael Jackson died, someone sent her a link of her dancing with the Jackson 5 on the show and she didn't remember it. It was one of their first television appearances.)
BWW: You had contact with huge people throughout your career, starting back then when you were probably, more or less, a star struck kid because of the way you fell into it. And then you had your talk show and all these wonderful people...have you looked at yourself as being star struck, or did you get beyond it, or are you still, even with some people?
VL: I think you always are, with some people, if it's somebody you grew up with and you idolize.
BWW: Having had the mentoring from Carol and everybody else on that show, is it something you try consciously to do, pay it forward, more or less?
VL: I don't have a show to do that on, but I would like to think that I was helpful to people that were on my show. I played Miley Cyrus' grandma on "Hannah Montana," and the first time I was on, they said we love having veterans like you on because she's like a little sponge and she's really appreciative of all the veterans that are coming on the show, and we just love that you're teaching her.
BWW: You appear to be an extremely grounded person.
VL: I never intended to be in show business, I intended to be an extremely grounded person (laughs). I wanted to study to be a dental hygienist, marry a rich dentist, and hang it up. I just got perilously sidetracked by Carol.
BWW: Did you finish college?
VL: I did not get to finish. I went to UCLA, my dad's alma mater, and that was his dream. And they said to me, because I started on the Burnett show the same fall that I started at UCLA, You May Go to college as long as you're at the studio by 11 o'clock. So I virtually had zero college life - I was on and off campus before most of the kids were even awake. I made it through my second year and then I had to declare a major. By that time, I thought, well, I guess I'll pick Theater Arts, as obviously that's the direction I'm headed. So, I started doing the Theater Arts program and one of their prerequisites was that you do crew work on Thursday and Friday, and then you do a production for at least one quarter. I couldn't do it because I was working and we blocked on Friday and taped on Saturday. I finally went to my favorite theater professor and I said, "What am I gonna do?" He said, "My advice? You go sit in the audience and watch the best teachers in the world, where every kid in this department would give their right arm to be." So, I went home and told my parents I was maybe gonna drop out and just study the Burnett show and it was just devastating to them. I said I'm sorry, but I just can't do it. Interesting, Carol made it two years also (at UCLA). I feel like I got to go to the Harvard School of Comedy in front of America, but until the day she died, my mom kept saying you need to go back and finish college so you'll have something to fall back on.
BWW: It's quite a story and I'm very much looking forward to seeing the program.
VL: It's a lot of fun. When I put it together, I said to everybody, this has got to be entertaining. I can't go out there and do something that doesn't entertain the heck out of my fans. My joy in life is to surprise the hell out of people and then they say we didn't know what to expect and you are funny.
BWW: As a reviewer, it's nice to go to something once in awhile that is just for fun and laughing and entertainment, and I'm putting you in that category.
VL: Oh, thank you. Well, when we put the show together, it was about a year after 9-11 and I said we have got to take people away from everything that's going on in the world for ninety minutes. Just make them laugh. And that's been my goal. BWW: That's a very worthy goal, and you hang your hat on that; if that's what it says on your tombstone, that's okay, right?
VL: "She made me forget 9-11 for a minute."
BWW: Thank you so much and I hope I have a chance to say hello the day of the show.
VL: Oh, you're coming to see the show? Oh, super - well come back and say hi, Nancy, I'd love to meet you. Thank you.
Photo credit: Mama and Vicki Lawrence