It’s easy to see how the sitcom Mama’s Family (1983-1990) appealed to so many viewers that it wound up running for six seasons—with a total of 130 episodes. And it’s not just because it spun off from the wildly popular Carol Burnett Show either. In truth, it’s because Mama’s titular family, the Harpers, are just like anyone else’s family. Through the Harpers, the series achieves universality, for every family, no matter how well-adjusted, inevitably includes an irascible old lady like Mama (Vicki Lawrence), a well-meaning nitwit like her son Vinton (Ken Berry), or an in-law that can’t help but get on everyone’s nerves, like Vinton’s wife Naomi (Dorothy Lyman). The Harpers are—each and every one of them—a type we know all too well.
To laugh at Mama’s Family then is to laugh at, and recognize the folly in, ourselves. And that, the series reminds us, is the simplest way for us to stick together. The Harpers make viewers feel like we can overcome any obstacle as long as we’ve got our families by our sides. If we could only recognize our foibles and laugh at them, even if only in retrospect! We needn’t be perfect. Hell, we needn’t even like each other most of the time (all you have to do is take one look at the often unhealthy relationship between Mama and her daughter Eunice (Carol Burnett) to see that). These are the lessons of Mama’s Family. And they’re most apparent in the stray tender moments scattered throughout the series when we’re given a much needed reprieve from the Harpers’ incessant (yet hysterical) bickering wherein we see that they do in fact care about one another. They just don’t always know how to show it.
The one thing the Harpers are quite obviously capable of doing with consistency, however, is making us laugh. I grew up watching Mama’s Family with my mom and have always harbored fond memories of it. Happily, I find that the series and its humor holds up incredibly well, in no small part due to the aforementioned universality as well as its terrific cast. In addition to those listed above, the series also prominently features the likes of Rue McClanahan, Betty White, Beverly Archer, Allan Kayser, and, of course, Harvey Korman, whose brilliant Alistair Quince intros have been restored where previously removed for reruns and early DVD releases.
All six seasons of Mama’s Family are now available from StarVista Entertainment and Time Warner in the box set, Mama’s Family: The Complete Collection, an enormously attractive and collectible release with an outer case measuring a whopping 9.5”x7.5”x4.5”! The massive case features portraits of all the series’ central cast members down the sides while Mama is appropriately showcased solo on the front. Inside are housed the six seasons individually packaged, as well as a two-disc case devoted to additional bonus features. Factoring in this dedicated bonus features component, the Complete Collection boasts a combined total of ten hours’ worth of supplemental material. The set also includes a 24-page, oversized booklet featuring a Harper Family Tree, character info, photos of the cast then and now, and a series of wonderfully sweet write-ups and quotes from the cast and crew looking back on the series fondly.
The most extraordinary special feature included in the collection though is easily the 1982 made-for-TV movie, Eunice, featured in the supplements of season two. Eunice preceded Mama’s Family as the first adaptation of The Carol Burnett Show’s “Family” sketches by a year. But what makes the telefeature even more fascinating is how tonally distinct it is from Mama’s Family. Although certainly funny in its own right, Eunice (which obviously centers on Carol Burnett’s character rather than Mama) is actually more of a melodrama about the tendency of small towns and small-minded people to stifle a person’s dreams. Through a series of vignettes spanning 1955-1978, the movie follows Eunice from an ambitious teenager to a bitter, lonely divorcee caring for her aging mother. It’s an incredibly moving story that, like the best episodes of Mama’s Family, takes you on a roller coaster ride of emotions. Apart from its focus on Eunice and its melodramatic tendencies, the most significant difference between the TV movie and the series is the appearance of Ken Berry here as Phillip Harper (originally played by Roddy McDowall on The Carol Burnett Show) instead of Vinton. And Berry’s two characters could not be more different as Phillip becomes a best-selling novelist and successful screenwriter over the course of the movie instead of a divorced locksmith who moves himself and his kids in with his mother. If you only one watch one special feature in this set, you best make sure it’s Eunice!
Of course, if you only watch one special feature here, you’re missing out on a staggering amount of worthwhile bonus content. StarVista and Time Life have compiled an amazing amount of exclusive new featurettes including a cast reunion roundtable with Vicki Lawrence (Mama), Ken Berry (Vint), Dorothy Lyman (Naomi), Beverly Archer (Iola), and Allan Kayser (Bubba); cast interviews, including the aforementioned cast members and Betty White; a split screen discussion between Vicki Lawrence and Mama, crew interviews with executive producer Rick Hawkins, costumers Ret Turner and Bob Mackie and show writers Jim Evering and Manny Basanese. Importantly, The Complete Collection also features three classic “Family” sketches including the very first “Family” sketch ever, featuring Roddy McDowall as Phillip Harper.