Vicki Lawrence's beloved 'Mama' takes on a life of her own

If Vicki Lawrence had a fragile ego, she might get jealous.

When she walks into a room, fans of The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family often make a big fuss, which she says is very gratifying.

But if Lawrence dons a blue-gray wig, stuffs some padding under a frumpy housedress and enters a room as Thelma Harper, aka Mama, "Oh, my God," she says, "it's as if Elvis is in the building."

To this day, Lawrence is amazed and delighted by the unlikely popularity of Mama, an abrasive old Southern woman who speaks her mind at the top of her lungs.

"People just love her," Lawrence says. "I often feel I could fall off the face of the earth and nobody would really miss me as long as Mama was still around."

That's why, instead of doing the traditional one-woman stage show, Lawrence is sharing the spotlight with her TV alter ego in Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show.

The two ladies -- one a sunny redhead and the other a cranky old blue hair -- will be at Casa Mañana Theatre in Fort Worth for its "Laugh With a Legend" Gala on Saturday. The annual event benefits Casa Mañana's Arts Education & Outreach Program, which reaches more than 155,000 North Texas children each year.

Mama might demand a separate dressing room, Lawrence jokes, but otherwise they make a great team.

Mind you, it was never supposed to work out this way. Thelma Harper was not meant to become Lawrence's signature role. The comedy sketch that introduced Lawrence's character and her bickering family on The Carol Burnett Show was a one-time skit that unexpectedly became a recurring viewer favorite.

Mama's Family, an '80s sitcom spinoff, was canceled during its first season on NBC, only to become a long-running ratings hit a year later when it was revived in first-run syndication, where it ran four more seasons.

"Nobody expected any of that when we did the sketch for the first time," Lawrence says.

What's more, the role wasn't even conceived with Lawrence in mind. The writers wrote it for Burnett to play.

"Mama is yet another of the many gifts I received from Carol over the years," Lawrence says.

A gift that keeps giving.

We chatted with Lawrence about the show she'll be doing and the character she'll be playing.

What do you think of Casa Mañana labeling you as a "legend"? Do you think, at age 61, that you're too young to be a legend?

Not only that, but also too alive to be a legend. But I think it's very sweet of them to call me that. I am flattered. I think The Carol Burnett Show is legendary, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be but a small part of that. If being a part of legendary television makes me a legend, I say bring it on.

What was the genesis of Mama and her family?

She was written by two wonderful writers on The Carol Burnett Show. I think it was an homage to their mothers. They both hated their mothers, and they decided they had to get her on paper. They wrote the character for Carol. But when Carol saw the sketch, she felt that Eunice spoke to her and that's the character she wanted to play, which devastated the writers. Then she decided she wanted me to do Mama, which really devastated the writers. Then she decided she wanted to do it Southern, which just completely threw them for a loop. They were appalled, they were upset, they felt we had ruined their sketch. The writers got up and walked out the first time they saw it. But it just got such great feedback from the fans.

Mama could be so abrasive and politically incorrect. How do you explain the love she gets?

Mama is like Archie Bunker. Everybody knows an Archie Bunker. Everybody has one in their family. But nobody ever fesses up to being him, so nobody was ever offended by him. It's the same with Mama. People come up to me all the time and they say, 'Oh, Mama is just like my aunt.' Or 'Mama is just like my grandmother.' Or 'My mother.' But they never say, 'You're me.' It's always someone they know. So they're never offended. That's why they get to laugh at it.

When and why did you start doing the two-woman show with Mama?

In 2002, we launched the show in Las Vegas. We put the show together on the heels of the first giant Burnett Show reunion, which aired shortly after 9-11 in 2001. The appetite for anything having to do with the Burnett Show was just voracious. I had had a lot of people telling me that I should put a show together, that I could do whatever I wanted, that I would have a blast. After the reunion, I thought, 'Maybe it would be fun.' So we put a show together.

For half of the show, I'm myself. That part of the show is largely autobiographical -- and me trying to look cute before I'm not anymore. The second half is Mama.

In your portion of the show, will you sing The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia?

If you have only one hit record, I think you must sing it. It's an interesting blip on my career. So, yeah, that's mandatory.

What's your favorite part of playing Mama?

Mama is my chance to be like Chris Rock. I get to come out and say everything I would like to say, everything that we're all thinking but it's too politically incorrect and we would never say it. But Mama can say it because she's a crazy old lady. The other great thing is that, when your biggest role is an old lady, you can literally age into the part. When Mama's Family was on NBC, none of the young guns at the network understood why a young woman was playing an old woman. But I sure do benefit now.

Also, the older I get, the more I find myself agreeing with that crazy old lady.