Mama's Family

Mama's Family
Mama's Family
Mamas Family title screen.jpg
Main title screen
Genre Sitcom
Created by Dick Clair
Jenna McMahon
Directed by Roger Beatty
Harvey Korman
Dick Martin
Dave Powers
Starring Vicki Lawrence
Ken Berry
Dorothy Lyman
Rue McClanahan
(Seasons 1–2)
Eric Brown
(Seasons 1–2)
Karin Argoud
(Seasons 1–2)
Betty White
(Season 1–3)
Beverly Archer
(Seasons 3–6)
Allan Kayser
(Seasons 3–6)
Theme music composer Peter Matz
Opening theme "Bless My Happy Home"
Composer(s) Peter Matz
Dick Walter
Country of origin United States
Language(s) English
No. of seasons 6
No. of episodes 130 (List of episodes)
Executive producer(s) Joe Hamilton
Producer(s) Jim Evering
Neil Lebowitz
Dave Powers
Fred Rubin
Camera setup Multi-camera
Running time 24–25 minutes (NBC episodes)
21–22 minutes (Syndicated episodes)
Production company(s) Joe Hamilton Productions
Distributor Lorimar-Telepictures
Warner Bros. Television Distribution
Original channel NBC
Audio format Mono
Original run January 22, 1983 (1983-01-22) - April 7, 1984 (1984-04-07)
September 27, 1986 (1986-09-27) – February 24, 1990 (1990-02-24)
Related shows The Family

Mama's Family is an American television sitcom that premiered on NBC on January 22, 1983. It was cancelled in May 1984, but NBC would continue to air reruns until September 1985. In September 1986, Mama's Family returned in first-run syndication, where it aired for an additional four seasons, ending on February 24, 1990. Mama's Family is a spin-off of a recurring series of comedy sketches called The Family, which appeared on The Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s.



The show, set in the town of Raytown, Missouri, revolved around a typical squabbling family, headed by Thelma Harper — a buxom, blue-haired, purse-lipped, 65-year-old widow, who is loudmouthed and outspoken. Living with Thelma originally was only her uptight spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan), a journalist for a local paper. Thelma's son, Vinton (whose wife, Mitzi, had left him to become a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas, Nevada) and his two children, Sonja and Buzz, moved in with her later.

During the first season, Vinton forged a relationship with the Harpers' flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (whom Thelma had a distaste for), and soon married her. After selling her house and losing the money in a bad business deal, Naomi and Vint are forced to move into Thelma's basement, where they remain for most of the show's run. Also seen on a recurring basis were Thelma's two daughters: the snobbish Ellen (Betty White) and the ornery Eunice (Carol Burnett). Harvey Korman, who directed many of the earlier episodes, made featured appearances as Eunice's husband, Ed Higgins. During the eleventh and final season of The Carol Burnett Show (1977), the Ed Higgins character was written out of The Family skits, having left Eunice. Korman also appeared at the beginning of each episode as the stuffed shirt Alistair Quince, who would soberly introduce the program in the style of Masterpiece Theatre. These monologues were cut out of the later syndicated reruns and the subsequent DVD release of the first season.

While not a huge ratings success, the first season garnered good enough ratings to be renewed for a second season. The first episode, "Mama Does Bellevegas" finished among the Top 30 programs, ranked at #28 for the week, garnering a commendable 18.6/28 rating/share. However, during the second season, the show dropped to 59th place in the yearly ratings due to being forced to compete with CBS's Top 10 hit Magnum, P.I..

The first-run syndication years

After Mama's Family was cancelled by NBC in 1984, it moved to first-run syndication in 1986. Major cast changes occurred during the convert, with only Vicki Lawrence (Thelma), Ken Berry (Vinton), and Dorothy Lyman (Naomi) returning as regulars from the NBC run. Eric Brown and Karin Argoud, who played Buzz and Sonja in seasons one and two, did not reprise their roles; their characters, though mentioned briefly in the first episode of the third season, were never to be spoken of again. During Mama's Family's hiatus, Rue McClanahan (Aunt Fran) and Betty White (Ellen Jackson) had both gone on to star in the NBC sitcom The Golden Girls, rendering them unavailable to return. White returned as Ellen for one episode in 1986 while Fran was killed off in the first episode of season three, having choked to death on a toothpick at the local bar. Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, meanwhile, did not reprise their roles either, resulting in their characters (Eunice and Ed Higgins) being written as having moved to Florida.

To fill the void, Allan Kayser was cast as Thelma's delinquent teenaged grandson, Bubba Higgins (Ed and Eunice's often mentioned, but never seen, young son from The Family sketches on The Carol Burnett Show), who was ordered to stay with the Harpers after being released from juvenile hall and placed on probation. Also added to the cast was Beverly Archer, who played the new character of Iola Boylan, the family's prissy neighbor; she was known for her catchphrase, "Knock, knock!" As the series continued, more new characters were sporadically brought in to evoke comedic situations.

The syndication years saw far less bickering than the NBC years and particularly The Family sketches. The Naomi and Vinton characters became far less serious and more dimwitted, and Mama was represented as more of the leader of the family throughout the show's syndication years. A recurring theme throughout the fifth season was Naomi's desire to become a mother. Following through with this, the penultimate season concluded with Naomi's announcement that she was pregnant. Preparation for the baby became a central theme of the sixth and final season. The series finale featured Naomi giving birth to a baby girl, who was named Tiffany Thelma.


Altogether, Mama's Family had six seasons that consisted of 130 episodes. The NBC version consisted of thirty-five episodes, making for one and a half seasons. The syndicated version consisted of ninety-five episodes, making for four full seasons.


Principal cast

Character Actor Years Description
Thelma-Mae Crowley Harper Vicki Lawrence 1983–1984; 1986–1990 The irascible, smart-mouthed, sharp-tongued, and widowed matriarch of the Harper family. Mama begrudgingly takes in her various family members when they come to her with no other place to go and they're all her biggest complaint. Her late husband was Carl Harper.
Vinton Harper Ken Berry 1983–1984; 1986–1990 The youngest of Thelma's three children, he was originally named Phillip in the pilot episode 'Eunice' and was a writer. Buffoonish and accident prone, Vint regularly makes a fool out of himself, particularly when he attempts to be assertive or knowledgeable. Works at Kwik Keys as a locksmith.
Naomi Oates Harper Dorothy Lyman 1983–1984; 1986–1990 Vinton's flirtatious second wife, who is often at odds with Thelma over his loyalty. Works as a checker (later becoming the assistant manager) at Food Circus, a local supermarket. Vinton's pet-name for her is "Skeeter."
Vinton "Buzz" Harper, Jr. Eric Brown 1983–1984 Vint's teenage son with his first wife, Mitzi. Buzz is very patient, head strong, and is always willing to help.
Sonja Harper Karin Argoud 1983–1984 Vint's teenage daughter with his first wife, Mitzi. Sonja starts out moody, whiny, lazy, and rather oblivious, but later becomes interested in boys and blossoms into a young lady interested in civic affairs. Like her brother, she later moved out, presumably going off to college.
Tiffany Thelma Harper Stephanie and Rebecca Wrate 1990 Vint and Naomi's newborn daughter. Born in the series finale.
Ellen Harper-Jackson Betty White 1983–1984; 1986 The eldest of Thelma's three children. Ellen is a pretentious social elitist, who often avoids fraternizing with the rest of the family, unless it suits her purpose. Her birthday is June 30.
Eunice Harper Higgins Carol Burnett 1983–1984 The second of Thelma's three children. Eunice is extremely tempestuous, antagonistic, and has a combative relationship with everyone in the family (especially her mother) ... and possibly on the planet. Her birthday is December 19.
Ed Higgins Harvey Korman 1983–1984 Eunice's mild mannered, browbeaten husband.
Bubba Higgins Allan Kayser 1986–1990 Ed and Eunice's teenage son who is forced to live with Thelma upon being released from juvenile hall, after his parents had moved to Florida. Initially depicted as a silly, hyperactive prankster, over time he evolved into a calm and commonsensical "every" teen.
Fran Crowley Rue McClanahan 1983–1984 Thelma's younger, uptight spinster sister. Works as a newspaper reporter and free-lance writer. She later died by choking on a toothpick at The Bigger Jigger.
Iola Lucille Boylan Beverly Archer 1986–1990 The Harpers’ pushy and intrusive pink-wearing neighbor who lives with her overbearing aging parents, and seeks escape by spending as much time at the Harper home as possible. Best friends with Thelma, and is secretly in love with Vint, causing Naomi and her to often have an adversarial relationship. Often brings handmade crafts to the Harper house which are usually ridiculed by Thelma.

Harper family tree

Grandma Crowley*
unknown parents
Frances Crowley
Thelma Crowley
Carl Harper
Effie Harper Roy Harper
Bruce Jackson (div.)
Ellen Harper
Eunice Harper
Ed Higgins
Vinton Harper
Naomi Oates
Mitzi (div.)
Bubba Higgins
Tiffany Thelma Harper
Sonja Harper
Vinton "Buzz" Harper Jr.
  • Magenta = Crowleys
  • Orange = Harpers
  • Blue = Harper children
  • Red = Harper in-laws
  • Green = Harper grandchildren

*Note: Thelma's mother was shown on two occasions on the show (once in a flashback and once as a ghost, played both times by Vicki Lawrence), but her name was never revealed. Thelma mentions in ''Pomp and Consequences'' of having an older brother, Clyde.

Recurring characters

  • Aunt Effie Harper, Thelma's sister-in-law. Effie was originally named Effie Crowley. In one NBC episode she was referred to as "Cousin Effie". She lives in Ceciltown on a farm. In the sydication episodes it is mentioned that she is Thelma's sister-in-law (which would make her Carl's sister) or she could have been married to Thelma's brother Clyde which would make her Effie Crowley. Played by Dorothy Van.
  • Alberta Meechum, Reverend Meechum's stuck-up, catty wife and a perennial thorn in the side of Thelma Harper. Played by Anne Haney.
  • Eddie Edwards, a TV personality in Raytown, who hosts such programs as Good Morning, Raytown and the Grandma USA pageant. Played by Wayne Morton.
  • Clive Montaigne, the head of the community theater, who fashions himself an actor just as important as actors in New York and London. The people in town treat him like a mini-celebrity, despite only running the community theater. Played by Rod McCary.
  • Luann Fayette, Naomi Harper's flamboyant and flirtatious best friend. Played by Jennifer Richards. More spoken of than ever seen.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Boylan, Iola's elderly, unseen parents with whom she lives across the street from Thelma. Not much is mentioned of her father, while her mother is supposed to be a grotesquely huge, temperamental, T.V.-watching invalid.
  • Roselle Huplander, an obese associate of Thelma and Iola. On rare occasions, Thelma has spoken to her over the phone. But more often, she is gossiped about by Thelma and Iola. Once, at a church fair, she gave Vint a black eye when he suggested that she weighed 309 pounds at the "Guess Your Weight" booth he was running.
  • Dwayne and T-Boy, Bubba's best friends. Played by Beau Bishop and Grant Heslov respectively. More spoken of than ever seen.
  • Mr. Alan Hanson, an intelligent, laid-back night-school teacher of Thelma and Bubba, and love interest of Thelma Harper. Played by Joseph Campanella.
  • Amy Johnson, girlfriend of Bubba Higgins. Played by Amy Benedict.
  • Lolly Purdue, member and later president (succeeding Thelma) of the Church Ladies League. Revealed to be illiterate. Played first by Doris Hess, then Marge Redmond.
  • Officer Sneed, an extremely youthful-looking, strange police officer. Played by Allan David Fox.
  • Claude Cainmaker, Vint's seedy friend, who is always thinking up schemes. Played by Geoffrey Lewis.
  • Grandma Crowley, Thelma's departed mother (in flashback sequences). Her first appearance was in a flashback in the NBC version of the show, grumpily talking to Mama over the phone. In her second appearance, she was skinnier and appeared as a ghost, haunting Mama. She was excessively critical, grim, and tried to control Mama throughout the episode. It was said that it was something Mama had to deal with, growing up as well. Grandma Crowley had apparently acted the same way when Thelma was being brought up by her. Played by Vicki Lawrence.
  • Church Ladies League, also known as CLL. Their motto is: Gentle Helpers; Kind and Good" and First Lady Alberta Meechum served as the first president. Members include Thelma Harper, Lolly Purdue, Iola Boylan, Inez and Florence. The association was first mentioned in "Where's There's Smoke", when Mama was nominated for president of the Church Ladies League. It was mentioned later in "Reading the Riot Act", "Ladies Choice" and "Mama's Medicine Show". Their award bears the name "Church Ladies League Woman of the Year".


Season 1: #22

Season 2: #59

DVD release

DVD Cover Art
DVD information
Mama's Family—The Complete First Season

On September 26, 2006, Warner Bros. Television released Season 1 of Mama's Family on DVD. The DVD release features the syndicated versions of the episodes, which edits roughly three minutes from what originally aired. Warner Bros. claimed to only own the rights to the syndicated form.[1]

Since the release of season one, Warner Bros. announced they would only release subsequent seasons if there is enough fan support for the syndicated episodes. In response, fans of the series have started an online petition to support the release of season two.[2]


After the series finale in 1990, Mama's Family ran on TBS from 1997 until August 2006.[3]

That same month, ION Television (formerly the PAX network) began airing reruns of the series. The show aired Monday through Wednesday at 8:00 to 9:00 pm. ET.[3] The series left ION to make room for ION's new fall lineup in 2008.

It had also aired on various stations across the country in syndication, often in the morning hours. WGNO, for instance, aired the program from the late 80s until 2002, and it was the number one program in the Greater New Orleans area during the 10:30pm timeslot, Monday through Fridays, trumping both Jay Leno and David Letterman, until Mama's Family's time slot was changed to accommodate a new ABC affiliation in 1996.

In 2007, and in 2008, CMT began re-airing the series. Full episodes were also available online via AOL Video.

Stage show

Vicki Lawrence reprises her role of Mama in her touring stage show, entitled Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show. In the show, Lawrence first performs stand-up comedy as herself, then comes out in character as Mama, giving her opinions on modern-day topics. During the break between the two acts, the audience is shown bloopers from the syndicated seasons of the series. Lawrence also sings the lyrics she wrote for "Bless My Happy Home", the show's theme song, which were omitted from the version used on-air.


External links

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