By Paul Lane
The Tonawanda News
NORTH TONAWANDA — Editor's note: The Vicki Lawrence show has been postponed until July 25. All pre-sale tickets to the original Tuesday show will be honored on the new date.
When Vicki Lawrence first performed the character of Thelma Harper some 40 years ago, she never envisioned still playing the part when she was actually as old as the character.
But Mama has lived on and continues to entertain generations of fans, who have a chance to see both Mama and her creator this week during two shows at the Riviera Theatre.
The 64-year-old comedian hasn’t grown the least bit weary of playing Harper, who debuted on the “Carol Burnett Show” and was popular enough to have her own spinoff in the 1980s, “Mama’s Family.” She thought the fire for Mama’s cantankerous brand of humor might have been extinguished after that, but a “Burnett Show” reunion in the early 2000s proved otherwise. She put together a show that debuted to sellout crowds in Las Vegas in summer 2002 and has kept it going since.
“My goal was to make people laugh for 90 minutes and take them away from a lot of the crap going on in the world,” she said of the show, which started getting crafted soon after the Sept. 11 attacks.
As the name suggests, the show has two parts. The first half is Lawrence speaking about her life and career. She said she tailored the monologue to answer the questions people might bring up if it were a question-and-answer session.
The second half sees Lawrence don the familiar grey wig and glasses and discuss events as Harper. In spite of the character’s age, Lawrence said keeping her fresh is surprisingly easy.
“I knew I didn’t want the show to be retrospective. I wanted to push her into the next century,” Lawrence said. “God only knows what’s going to happen in the news today that I will have to put in the show. Who every dreamed that General Patreus (David, former CIA director) would be in my act?”
Whether discussing philandering military men or the wizardry of modern appliances, Mama still carries the edge that made her so beloved decades ago. Harper said that’s a big part of the character’s charm.
“She’s really my chance to say all the things I think most people are thinking but they don’t talk about because they’re not PC,” said Lawrence, who compared the character’s blunt nature to that of Archie Bunker from “All in the Family.” “Everybody has a Mama in their family. Everybody knows how outrageous they could be.”
The character wasn’t even written for Lawrence. Burnett was supposed to play the part in a 1974 sketch about crotchety in-laws. But Burnett passed the part on to Lawrence — who joined the show at age 18 after writing to its eponymous star as a high school senior — and she’s never been able to keep the wig off.
“People will stop me all the time and ask where’s Mama, like she should be right there next to me,” she said. “Everybody loves her so much that sometimes I feel like I could fall off the face of the Earth and nobody would miss me as long as she was there.”
Not that she’s complaining, though. After all, most writers create a character and see it discarded after a single performance. So one that generates college students born 15 years after it was created to laud it is a significant achievement, she said.
And Mama will finally gain new life on home video. “Mama’s Family” is set to debut on DVD later this year, 23 years after the show was canceled (pirated copies can be had on the Internet, but Lawrence said a copy she purchased was of horrendous quality).
As for the show, Lawrence has no intentions of reducing its year-round touring schedule. With every town she visits, she said she only adds to Mama’s family.
“You’re not really going out there alone. You’re going out there with a bunch of fans, and it feels like a bunch of friends.”
Contact Paul Lane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
• WHAT: "Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two-Woman Show"
• WHEN: 2 and 8 p.m. July 25
• WHERE: Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda
• MORE INFORMATION: Call 692-2413 or visit www.rivieratheatre.org.