Mama's Family: The Complete Collection is the single best vintage television DVD release of the year.
I love writing that.
Good Lord the "Joe Hamilton" cuts are finally here! StarVista Entertainment and TimeLife, through Warner Brothers, have released Mama's Family: The Complete Collection, a 7-volume, 24-disc, 130-episode collection of the cult sitcom's entire run--both the original year and a half NBC go-around from midseason 1982-1983 to Spring, 1984, and the show's first-run syndication reincarnation, from 1986-1990. A spin-off of sorts from the celebrated "The Family" skits featured on the classic The Carol Burnett Show, Mama's Family never came close to receiving anywhere near the critical accolades of its host series. However...where it really counts--with the viewers--this funny little sitcom has generated an incredibly loyal following over the past 30 years, a core group of supporters who no doubt will be ecstatic to see the series (finally) so well represented on DVD. In addition to the restored "Joe Hamilton" cuts of the original network episodes (first time ever on DVD), over ten hours of bonus material has been included in this gift set (detailed descriptions of those at the bottom of the review), putting Mama's Family: The Complete Collection in the "must-have" column for the rapidly-approaching Christmas gift buying season.
The set-up for the first incarnation of Mama's Family had bustling, bosomy, sharp-tongued, mule-headed Thelma "Mama" Harper (Vicki Lawrence, expertly hoeing a tough row, keeping Mama annoying and loveable) living in tiny Raytown, Missouri, along with her prissy, socially-correct sister, Fran (Rue McClanahan, beautifully frazzled), who paid rent for a room in Mama's modest house. Enter Thelma's divorced, homeless son, Vint (beatific Ken Berry, perfect as a befuddled dunce), a none-too-bright locksmith whose wife left him to become a Vegas showgirl, and who now has two teenaged kids in tow: Buzz and Sonja (Eric Brown and Karin Argoud). Thelma's next-door-neighbor, "that tramp" Naomi Oates (hot pistol Dorothy Lyman, all long legs and sexy shoulders, and funny as hell), takes an instant liking to Vint and they soon marry; a bad business move, however, finds Naomi homeless, as well, and the couple eventually move into Mama's basement--an arrangement that neither Mama nor Fran particularly like. Infrequent visitors to Mama's house include her desperately unhappy (and possibly deranged) daughter, Eunice (Carol Burnett), her good-natured dolt of a husband, Ed Higgins (Harvey Korman), and Thelma's other daughter, the snobbish, fake Ellen (Betty White). In Mama's Family's second series go-around (for syndication), Mama's sister Fran had died (choking on a toothpick at The Bigger Jigger bar), daughter Ellen was nowhere to be seen, and daughter Eunice and son-in-law Ed had moved to Florida...leaving behind Bubba Higgins (Allan Kayser, the "dumb blonde" of the show and agreeably peppy), who was forced by juvie court order to live with his grandmother Thelma. Vin and Naomi are still living with Mama...but their kids Buzz and Sonja are gone. New prudish, starchy next-door-neighbor Iola Boylan (Beverely Archer, delightfully restricted) is around, though, to add to the laughs as Mama battles with anyone more stupid than her...which is everyone.
When I first started writing for DVDTalk during the Punic Wars, I penned a review of Warner's "complete" first season of Mama's Family that pretty much started the ball rolling with our site's regular readers hating my guts (disliking Daniel Craig as Bond and preferring The Dukes of Hazzard: The Beginning over Attenborough's Gandhi sealed the deal). The fact that I, a reviewer who went to "film school" (that's a trade you can really market in the Midwest...) and who had a book published (it makes a nice doorstop), had dared write a positive review of such utterly mindless sitcom crap as Mama's Family, was akin to sacrilege to these humorless, puffed-up drones--a development that tickled me no end (I'd rather get hate mail than a kiss any day). Well, those days are long gone--most of those readers (and lots others...) have long since abandoned DVDTalk, while nobody is interested in what I write nowadays. Today, I write secure in the knowledge that since my reviews are far too long to read on a cell phone, and because I'm not in the slightest bit interested in hawking my wares on social media, nobody is going to bug me anymore about my reviews. In a way...it's quite liberating; I'm like the movie reviewer equivalent of a guy given a terminal cancer diagnosis: everything is crystal clear, and I simply don't give a sh*t what anyone thinks anymore.
And you had better have that outlook, if you want to give a $200 boxed gift set of Mama's Family our highest rating here: the DVD Talk Collector Series rank.
Now, in the past, on more than a few occasions, I've had my own internal battles over awarding that coveted rank. Put simply: does one award it on the DVD's content, or for the disc or disc set itself? If a disc is bare-bones, but the content is stellar, does it deserve the rank because you want people to see it? Or if the content is iffy, but the presentation is top-notch, with tons of bonuses to entice the fans, do you reward the production effort? In Mama's Family: The Complete Collection's case...it's actually a pretty equal consideration. Putting it upfront: do I think of Mama's Family when I'm mentally making out a list of television's best sitcoms? Well...no...but it does makes me laugh every time I catch it, and frankly, what sitcom needs more validation than that? Mama's Family is amusing, and enjoyably crass, and frequently zany and slapstick-y, with an underlying sweetness to it that I find endearing. Its quasi-rural Southern humor (which, amusingly, always makes the so-called "intelligentsia" out there so nervous), blown up to broad, farcical proportions, has a quixotic, almost surreal, Capra-esque tone that's really quite charming. I like that Mama's Family is loud and obnoxious and vulgar, at times, particularly since it's aimed at general audiences: self-impressed pop culture snobs and painfully ironic little sniffs who like their comedy "relevant" need not apply here (and good riddance to their asses, too). Content factors aside, the fact that someone went to the trouble of getting the original full-length, uncut Mama's Family episodes out of legal limbo here, and then put them all together with over 10 hours of tasty new extras, that effort alone meets the qualifications generally accepted for our highest rating here at DVDTalk--particularly for the set's intended audience: die-hard fans of the series (the added mild amusement that this review may further befuddle the one or two invidious scribes out there who still surreptitiously peruse my reviews, doesn't exactly hurt, either).
As I wrote in my earlier review, the mention of Mama's Family during its commercial heyday--and there was a commercial heyday for the series, when it was the most first-run syndication strip during its first run--was (and still is) a sure-fire instant punch-line for any uninformed slave-to-current-pop culture comedian who wanted to get across a cheap shot at one of television's perceived bottom-feeders. Elitist critics seemed to agree that Mama's Family occupied some kind of low point in TV comedy, appealing only to the unsophisticated rubes and yokels out there who didn't know any better (being cancelled at the more "prestigious" network level, and then coming back stronger in hard-scrabble first-run syndication, probably aided that impression for biased urban critics who don't much cotton--then or now--to "regular folks" on television, anyway). Well, Mama's Family ain't exactly All in the Family, that's true. But it's also not Carter Country, either, with a pedigree (and many of the same creative crew) from the iconic The Carol Burnett Show, that any new sitcom would crave. Fans of The Carol Burnett Show remember one of its funniest--and most poignant--recurring skits was informally called "The Family," featuring Carol as Eunice Higgins, a raging, desperately unhappy and unsatisfied housewife, saddled with a dunce failure for a husband (Harvey Korman), and an insulting, mocking, degrading shrew for a mother (Vicki Lawrence's "Mama"). These frequently brilliant skits were memorable in that the comedy came in direct proportion to the misery and humiliation that Eunice suffered, becoming at times quite uncomfortable to watch: the truths expressed in the disappointments and hopelessness of Eunice's life came uncomfortably close to the lives of the viewers watching at home.
Not long after The Carol Burnett Show was cancelled in 1978, there were initial talks with Lawrence to spin-off "The Family" and specifically the "Mama" character into a regular series of its own, a proposition that Lawrence rejected without the participation of Korman and Burnett, both of whom stated they wouldn't participate on a weekly basis. When Burnett, who owed CBS several "specials," produced the 90-minute Eunice skit/playlette, it was eventually aired during 1982's spring "sweeps," with ratings that were good enough for third-placed NBC, desperate for any kind of hit, to chance a pilot-less order of 13-episodes of Mama's Family as a mid-season replacement for their 1982-1983 season (legend has it that NBC's CEO Grant Tinker bought it sight-unseen on the golf course). Produced by The Carol Burnett Show's Joe Hamilton (soon-to-be the ex-Mr. Carol Burnett), who legally owned "The Family" characters and concept, and initially co-written by original "Family" scribes Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, Mama's Family premiered in January, 1983, on Saturday nights at 9:00pm, with lead-ins Diff'rent Strokes and Silver Spoons, and lead-outs Taxi (in its last, sad year after being dumped by ABC) and flop The Family Tree. Despite formidable competition from The Love Boat over on ABC (9th for the year) and The CBS Saturday Night Movie, Mama's Family managed to eek out respectable-enough ratings (below the coveted Nielsen Top Thirty) for desperate NBC to okay a full season order for the following 1983-1984 year. Typical of NBC's ineptness at this time, Mama's Family's timeslot was changed several times, eventually to Thursdays at 8:30 (following weak lead-in, Gimme a Break!), in a futile attempt at counterprogramming against ratings juggernaut, Magnum, P.I., over on CBS. Mama's Family took a sickening nosedive in the ratings and, even with a last-minute switch back to family-friendly Saturday nights, was subsequently canceled in the spring of 1984...something Vicki Lawrence suspected was in the cards all along (Lawrence claims, probably correctly, that the new boys at NBC, including Brandon Tartikoff, misunderstood and hated the show, and had no intention of keeping it around with the likes of so-called "classier" fare like The Cosby Show and Family Ties). And that was the end of Mama's Family.
Or was it? According to Vicki Lawrence, NBC's out-of-the-blue reruns of Mama's Family in the summer of 1985 were so successful that she was then approached by producer Joe Hamilton to headline a reboot of the series for the potentially lucrative first-run syndication market (an effort encouraged by Lorimar Telepictures, which believed the series didn't get a fair shake on NBC). This coincided not only with Hamilton's very public, very messy divorce from Carol Burnett, but also with, according to Lawrence, Burnett's unsuccessful proposal to Lawrence to do her own reboot of the "The Family" with Burnett headlining (apparently, these dealings dealt a years-long blow to the two women's close friendship). Retooled by Hamilton to eliminate Burnett, Korman, Betty White and Rue McClanahan (the latter two were scoring major success on The Golden Girls at that point), Mama's Family returned in syndication with Lawrence, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman, and that's all, with new cast members Allan Kayser and Beverly Archer along for the ride. With little fanfare, and contrary to many critics' estimations (if they were even aware it was on), the syndicated Mama's Family turned into a little ratings gold mine, popping up here and there all over the dial in small and big cities across the country, scrabbling together enough loyal viewers to become the number one comedy strip in first-run syndication during its four years of production. Why Lorimar and Hamilton ended the series in 1990 is subject to debate (some say Lawrence grew tired of the role and ended the series voluntarily, while Lawrence insists Hamilton and Lorimar only needed and wanted 100 episodes for syndication purposes). Regardless, Mama's Family continued to be sold in syndication for years and years afterwards, generating many new fans in the process.
Which brings us to the Mama's Family: The Complete Collection set. Back when I wrote my review for Warner Bros.' first season release, there were a whole lot of pissed-off Mama's Family fans who didn't like Warners putting out the edited, syndicated versions of those premiere entries (Harvey Korman's funny Alistair Cooke Masterpiece Theatre spoof intros, featuring his "Alistair Quince," were eliminated, along with other small cuts). Apparently, licensing issues were at the bottom of this compromised decision, but finally, after almost seven years, the Joe Hamilton estate was able to broker a deal with TimeLife and StarVista Entertainment to not only restore those episodes to their full run times, but to gather the entire series into one mammoth boxed set and give the fans what they really wanted: all 130 network and syndication episodes plus almost everything else related to Mama (not all of "The Family" skits from The Carol Burnett Show are included here...but that may be due to a rights issue, or a space factor). Fans of the series already know it's not the greatest looking show, having originally been shot on cheap video (I believe I wrote in my first review that Mama's Family made Sanford and Son look like it was shot by Gregg Toland). And StarVista, aware of the state of the original materials, puts a disclaimer up at the beginning of each disc, letting us know that the best possible sources were utilized (I'm suspicious, however, of those "restored" claims). However, fans of the show also know that that grimy, grainy look only makes the show seem more homey (or is it homelier?), giving it a bit of nostalgic grit that doesn't detract from "the funny" at all. As for the remarkable amount of extras included in this set, I'll detail those down in the "Extras" section.
As for reviewing the series itself...yes, I did watch all 130 episodes over the past four weeks (my younger kids loved it, while I caught one of my teenagers snickering before he realized what he was doing and blew it off), and no, I'm not going to give a huge, detailed look at every episode and every season (there's a limit even for the three or four people that still read me). About the only new thoughts I have on the series away from that first review, is how much more I enjoyed Mama's Family in this go-around (seeing the syndicated version helped, too, since it's even more enjoyably over the top). In that first review, I gave Mama's Family a sort of grudging respect, but seeing the whole package here in one shot, I found myself laughing consistently during this delightfully tacky, undeniably funny (and frequently bizarre) sitcom. Mama's Family is straight-ahead farce with no apologies for its obviousness or crudeness...or its frequent moments of unvarnished sentimentality. There's a poignancy to aspects of Mama's Family, particularly when it shows up the constant pain/pleasure dynamics of its dysfunctional Harper family--an unexpected element that is probably the secret to its long-term success with viewers. Sure, Mama's Family is silly and funny...but it has heart, too. The fact that this unabashed, unashamed sentimentality is melded successfully with broad farce, makes it in some ways far more palatable than the cynical, phony, often unbearably ironic, pseudo-hip mush that passes for many TV comedy-dramas today. Mama's Family isn't asking you to sneer at anybody--just laugh at them (and no, I don't want all my TV comedy to be "nice" and family-oriented; I can enjoy Mama's Family and something as sick and twisted as The League, with equal enthusiasm).
I'm sure there are viewers out there who, once having found out what Mama's Family is about (gasp!...lower income Southerners who aren't particularly well-spoken, and who drink beer, and yell at each often), will be genetically predisposed to hating this show. Owing its lower middle-class "comedy of deprivation" lineage to shows like The Honeymooners and All in the Family, Mama's Family at least has the gumption to show, with affection and allowance, TV's most neglected members of society: average "fly over country" Americans. Before the ratings' juggernaut Roseanne (you can bet your ass she watched Mama's Family), Mama's Family gave us a glimpse into the workings of an average family of underperformers who, amid the slapstick and one-liners, worried about money, about finding love, and about getting some respect in a world that basically didn't want to hear from them. I like that underdog quality to Mama's Family, especially today, since that particular demographic has been so routinely vilified as of late (it's only going to get worse, folks...). You root for the silly, sweet people in Mama's Family, and in a weird, shaggy dog sort of way, for the little homely show itself.
On-screen bonus materials are included on the last disc of each season volume. On the last disc of The Complete First Season volume, featurette Mama's Family Tree: The Branches (All About Eunice & Ellen) has clips from the series and The Carol Burnett Show "The Family" sketches, along with snippets from new interviews with Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett and Betty White (those interviews are presented in their entirety throughout the set's bonuses). It runs a hilarious 16:44. Also included is a classic "The Family" sketch from The Carol Burnett Show, episode #1012, from December 11, 1976 (the infamous "Fluffy" sketch), featuring Betty White. It runs 15:48.
On the last disc of The Complete Second Season volume, one of the most highly-anticipated Mama's Family-related bonuses is included: the original Eunice teleplay, which aired on CBS on March 15, 1982 (I don't believe it was ever aired again...). The ratings' inspiration for the series launch of Mama's Family, Eunice, written by "The Family" scribes Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon, is a rather remarkable effort for Carol Burnett and her co-stars, at times hilariously funny and devastatingly sad, its third act is about as straightforward and honest a bit of kitchen sink drama as I've seen on U.S. network television from that time period. A real find for fans of Burnett and Lawrence. It runs 91:00. Next, featurette Mama's Family Tree: The Roots (All About Mama and Fran), has writers Jim Evering, Manny Basanese, and Rick Hawkins, discussing the dynamics between the Mama and Fran characters during the network run of the show. It times in at 19:51. Next up are interviews with Vicki Lawrence (4:25), Vicki and Carol Burnett (coming in at 20:00, with solid info on the production--watch the fascinating non-verbal byplay between these two...), and Betty White (12:30).
On the last disc of The Complete Third Season volume, a classic "The Family" sketch from The Carol Burnett Show is included, episode #909 from November 15th, 1975, featuring a glam Maggie Smith. It runs 14:46. Next, the featurette, Mama's Family Tree: The Sprouts (All about Bubba), has some of the best moments of Allan Kayser as Bubba, along with his thoughts on landing the role; it runs 11:03. Next up, Mama Knows Best: A Mama's Family Cast Reunion, running 24:41, features the entire cast from the syndicated version, sitting around a kitchen table and discussing how they became involved in the series (Lyman has a particularly good story about how she was cast). Finally, an interview with Allan Kayser is included, where he goes into detail about his role in the series (he comes off, as indeed does the rest of the cast, as well-spoken and genuinely nice). It runs 13:15.
On the last disc of The Complete Fourth Season volume, featurette Mama's Family Tree: The Neighbors (All About Iola) runs 15:38 and features some truly hysterical moments with Beverly Archer's creation (someone edited together a couple of dozen of her "knock, knocks!" for a segment that's as funny as "Penny, Penny, Penny!" from Sheldon Cooper). Next, an interview with Beverly Archer is included, where she discusses her role on the show (she has an amusing story about writing her first script treatment for the series...making the cardinal error of leaving Mama out of several scenes). It runs 10:26. And finally, there's more of that cast reunion in Under One Roof: A Mama's Family Cast Reunion; it runs 27:42.
On the last disc of The Complete Fifth Season volume, new interviews are conducted with Vicki Lawrence (20:48), Dorothy Lyman (kind of uncomfortable in spots, particularly when she's referencing her own failed relationships; it runs 10:21), Ken Berry (it runs 9:56; it's fascinating when he talks about being recognized everywhere, no matter where he went...even though he wasn't on TV anymore), and head writer and executive producer Rick Hawkins (entertaining, with solid info on the show and its process...and kudos to anyone who mentions the superlative Father Knows Best in a non-condescending way; it runs 27:23).
On the last disc of The Complete Sixth Season volume, more interviews are included, featuring producer and writer Jim Evering (a funny guy who claims Lawrence didn't want the Mama character to be made "nice;" it runs 20:25), writer Manny Basanese (good story about his first script for the show; it runs 21:37), Vicki Lawrence and Rick Hawkins (having lots of fun; it runs 19:25), and legendary costume designers Bob Mackie and Ret Turner (my favorite interview here, with dismissive Mackie getting kudos for laughing at all of today's P.C. nonsense, and a very funny story about Mama's Family tying with Dynasty for a Best Costume Emmy; it runs 31:52).
And finally on the two-disc Bonus Features volume, there are even more Mama's Family goodies. On disc one, a classic "The Family" sketch from The Carol Burnett Show--the first one, actually--from episode #722, aired March 16th, 1974, is included (Roddy McDowall is featured; it runs 12:33). Next, featurette Mama's Family Tree: The Lovebirds (All About Vint and Naomi) runs 13:53, with some very funny clips of Lyman and Berry at it. Family Business: A Mama's Family Cast Reunion runs 33:40 (with some repeated material), while Family Scrapbook: Classic Mama's Family Bloopers, running a too-short 13:54, should really please fans (they all looked like they were having fun shooting the series). Next up, interviews, featuring Beverly Archer (10:32), Allan Kayser (10:23), Vicki Lawrence (19:22), Dorothy Lyman (10:45), and Ken Berry (12:33).
On disc two, seven more clip show/interview snippets featurettes are included. Mama's Family Seeds: From "The Family" to Mama's Family runs 17:35 (Carol Burnett is here, too). Family Style: Creating the World of Mama's Family runs a hefty 25:22. Family Fun: Game Shows and Showdowns on Mama's Family is a nice collection of funny moments--Mama arm-wrestling punk rocker/biker chick Kathleen Freeman is a surreal delight (it runs 11:48). Family Secrets: The True Stories Behind Some Classic Mama's Family Bloopers is next, at 13:54 (seeing pro Archer blow a take is great). Mama's Family Tree: A Little More About Vint and Naomi runs 20:23. Mama's Family Tree: The Hometown (All About Raytown) is next; it runs a too-short 8:23 (the fictional Raytown's surrounding counties and towns, all named after real-life mass murderers, is another clue that Mama's Family was a lot more hip than it was ever given credit for). And Family Folklore: The Gang Remembers Some Special Episodes runs 14:23. Finally...more interviews to round out the bonus features. Tim Conway stops by, at 12:56 (tells a hilarious story about Harvey Korman getting pissed at his participation in one of those stupid Dick Clark practical jokes). Costume designer Ret Turner is amusing, as always; he clocks in at 27:12. Rick Hawkins is back, at 27:00, as are Jim Evering (17:17) and Manny Basanese (19:45).
Good Lord that is a Ph.D. class in Mama's Family!
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.