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Series: Mama's Family

Mama's Family was a sitcom that aired on NBC from 1983 to 1984 and in first-run syndication from 1986 to 1990. It was a spin-off of a recurring sketch called "The Family" on The Carol Burnett Show, which was adapted into a prime time special "Eunice" for CBS before being turned into a TV series.

The show was about Thelma Harper (née Crowley) ("Mama") and her family: Thelma's son Vinton and his girlfriend (later his wife), Naomi; Vinton Harper Jr. ("Buzz") and Sonja, Vinton's two kids from a previous marriage; and Francis Crowley ("Aunt Fran"), Thelma's spinster sister, all lived in the house with her. Her daughters Ellen and Eunice visited frequently, along with Eunice's husband, Ed. By the syndicated episodes, the cast was narrowed down considerably, keeping only Mama, Vinton, and Naomi (guest stars still reprised their roles, however). Also introduced were Thelma's fresh-out-of-juvie grandson Bubba and nosy spinster neighbor Iola Boylan. This five-person cast would keep the show going for the rest of the series' run.

The show revolves around the family's lives and is an example of a Dom Com.

Show provides examples of:

  • Aloha Hawaii: Thelma's dream vacation for most of the series. The family finally visits Hawaii after Thelma wins a trip on Jeopardy!.
  • And Starring: Used with Aunt Fran (Rue McClanahan), Ellen (Betty White), Eunice (Carol Burnett), and Ed (Harvey Korman).
  • The Artifact: NBC episodes featured an opening segment with Harvey Korman introducing the story as Allister Quince. Since these were generally self directed by Korman, but on occasion were instead directed by Dick Martin, the Director's Credit was (Main Director) and Harvey Korman or Dick Martin. The credit remains to this day in re-runs, even though the segments themselves were removed.
  • Aww, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: For all the bickering and arguing they do, the Harper family really does love each other and will stick up for each other in their times of need.
  • Back to School: Thelma returns to school to get her high school diploma in "Educating Mama."
  • Big Screwed-Up Family: The show lives off this trope, although the Carol Burnett sketches and the NBC episodes play it up the most. The family is genuinely dysfunctional, if not outright abusive, and skits rarely ended in anything short of a screaming argument. By the time syndication came around, Mama's nastiness — and by extension the family's dysfunction — was toned down considerably.
  • Berserk Button: One episode revealed that underage drinking was a HUGE berserk button for Mama due to an incident involving Eunice several years prior.
  • Brother Chuck: Thelma had many more kids in the original "Family" sketches. She mentions four kids briefly in an early episode of the show (possibly to account for Philip along with the others), but thereafter it's established that Ellen, Eunice, and Vint are her only children.
    • Also, Eunice and Ed originally had two sons, but no reference is ever made to the other one even by his own brother Bubba.
  • Brotherhood of Funny Hats: The Order of the Cobra, the organization Vinton joins in "Fangs A Lot, Mama."
  • California Doubling: The house used as the front of the Harper house is located in South Pasadena.
  • Canon Discontinuity: "Eunice"; it featured the death of the "Mama" character. Ironically, the success of the special was what ultimately got Mama's Family greenlit.
    • Also, Ken Berry played Philip Harper in that special, and Eunice and Ed stayed split. Let's just say upon Mama's Family, lots of retconning was done.
  • The Casanova: Bubba.
  • Catch Phrase: Several of them:
    Iola: "Knock, knock!"
    Vinton: "Thanks a lot, Mama!"
    Mama: "Good Lord!"
    Mama: "I'm just a poor old widow woman."
    Mama: "I bet the neighbors are just loving this!"
  • Character Development: Mama becomes a much nicer person as the series goes on. In the original Carol Burnett sketches and in the network season she was rude, nasty, and petty all the time. As series progressed, she evolved into a much sweeter character who reserved her ire only for people who deserved it, admittedly a rather long list.
  • Chatty Hairdresser: In "Psycho Pheno-Mama." Mama and her family meet a psychic who can supposedly channel a spirit that knows all of the family's secrets. The "psychic" is actually a hairdresser who got all the information from her customers at a local beauty salon.
  • Chez Restaurant: Chez Ray
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Lots of characters. Buzz and Sonja are the two biggest examples, what with their being a main character's own children. Additionally, Bubba has an older brother mentioned in the Carol Burnett sketches, but aside from one breezy reference (forgot which series, what does that say) of him being in prison, Bubba's brother is never even mentioned again.
  • Citizenship Marriage: Vinton almost marries a woman from Portugal as a favor to a friend in the episode "Alien Marriage," but backs down.
  • Color-Coded Characters: Almost every character had one color that he or she, with very few exceptions, always wore:
    • Mama - purple/blue
    • Vinton - brown
    • Naomi - yellow
    • Iola - pink
    • Bubba - green/blue
    • Eunice - green
    • Ellen - white
  • Comically Small Bribe: A non-monetary example occurs in "There's No Place Like...No Place," when Mama is mistaken for a homeless person and arrested:
    Mama: I have a lovely home. I could take you there right now and fix you a little snack. Do you like chipped beef?
    Cop: Lady, if you're gonna try to bribe someone, you've gotta do a hell of a lot better than chipped beef!
  • Continuity Nod: For all that's dropped in Mama's Family, many references to characters and establishments from The Carol Burnett Show's "Family" sketches manage to pop up, such as the Pepper Pot Playhouse. A later episode mentions the death of Topaz, Thelma's poodle, who only appeared (offscreen) in the very first sketch.
  • Cooking Duel: In "Soup to Nuts," Thelma, Naomi, and Iola compete to see who cooks the best chili.
  • Credit Card Plot: Thelma incurs major charges on her card after she gets addicted to TV shopping in "Zirconias Are a Girl's Best Friend."
  • Dead Pet Sketch: Subverted in the episode "Mama in One." Iola leaves her pet goldfish in Thelma's care, but she overfeeds him. He doesn't die, he just becomes really fat.
    • This trope is subverted again when Iola leaves her taxidermied cat with Thelma. Vinton, Naomi and Bubba accidentally drop a trunk on the cat. Thinking they killed it, they throw it in the trunk.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Mama.
  • Depending on the Writer: How Thelma felt about Iola zig-zagged from episode to episode. In most episodes they were best friends, but every once in a while she wanted to avoid the woman at all costs with no explanation.
  • The Ditz - Vinton.
  • Don't Come A-Knockin': Played with. In "There Is Nothing Like the Dames," Thelma is trying to impress a small group of snooty upper-class women with a backyard dinner so they will let her join them. Unfortunately, Vinton and Naomi's trailer sits in the driveway, an obvious eyesore. On top of that, during one scene, the trailer starts rocking, horrifying the women... until Thelma finds out that Vinton was only trying to fix a broken table leg.
  • Drama Queen: Eunice. Dear God Eunice.
  • Driving Test: "Mama Learns to Drive."
  • Drop-In Character: Iola.
  • Dysfunctional Family
  • Easy Amnesia: Naomi bumps her head on the kitchen door and get amnesia in the episode "Naomi's Identity Crisis." Thelma takes the opportunity to "train" Naomi to be a good housewife.
  • Edited for Syndication: The Allister Quince introductions for the NBC episodes.
  • Every Episode Ending: Every episode ends with a view of the outside of the Harper house, along with a final comedic line from Thelma.
  • Fall of the House of Cards: Vinton tries to stack sugar cubes in one episode, but Thelma foils him quickly.
  • First Run Syndication: After being cancelled by NBC.
  • Flanderization: Vinton started out as man of average intelligence who made bad decisions (usually with money), but by the syndicated series he was downright affected.
    • Naomi got this too, going from an intelligent, if trashy, rival to Thelma to a shrill bimbo between network and syndication.
  • Forgotten Theme Tune Lyrics: The theme tune is instrumental, but series star Vicki Lawrence wrote lyrics for it. She sings them in her stage performances.
  • Freudian Excuse: Eunice blames pretty much every awful things she does to being The Unfavorite middle child in an abusive household.
  • Game Show Appearance: On Family Feud and Jeopardy!.
  • The Ghost: Several examples:
    • Vint's first wife, Mitzi
    • Naomi's first husband, Tommy
    • Ellen's husband, Bruce
    • Iola's parents
      • Though possibly not meant to be the same person, as this was before Iola was on the show, in "Mama Learns To Drive," as Thelma is attempting to maneuver her car down the street, she nearly knocks over a woman while shouting "Look out, Mrs. Boylan!" Boylan is Iola's last name.
    • Roselle Huplander, Thelma and Iola's acquaintance
  • Graduate from the Story: Subverted when Bubba graduates high school and is supposed to move to Florida with his mom and dad, Eunice and Ed. However, Eunice "forgets" to tell Mama that Bubba cannot leave the state because he is on probation until his 21st birthday and Bubba ends up living with Mama for the remainder of the series.
  • Henpecked Husband: Reverend Meechum.
  • Hollywood Dress Code: Subverted by Bubba. On anyone without that bod, he'd be a dork.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Raytown, O Raytown...
  • I Lied: In "Mama Buys a Car," Thelma gets screwed over by a used car dealer. She returns, demanding a refund, just as a businessman is about to buy the whole fleet of the (crappy) cars the dealer has on his lot. The businessman says he'll only sign the document if Thelma is given a total refund. Thelma gets said refund and is about to leave as this exchange happens:
    Mr. Babcock (businessman): Hey madam! Ma'am! Let me walk you out.
    Mr. Potts (dealer): Hey, wait a minute Mr. Babcock, you said if I was to give her a refund that you'd sign the papers!
    Mr. Babcock: I lied.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One:
    Mama: Your idea of exercise includes a man, a bed, and a cigarette afterward!
    Naomi: That is a total lie! I have never smoked a cigarette in my life!
  • Insistent Terminology: Bubba would like to inform you that he was in juvenile hall, not reform school.
  • Instrumental Theme Tune
  • Intergenerational Friendship: In a flashback Vinton and Iola are shown to be about the same age, making Iola and Thelma's friendship an intergenerational one.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mama. (Although, in the original Carol Burnett Show sketches, she's much more of a straight-up Jerkass.)
  • Kitchen Sink Included: In "April Fools," Mama plays a prank on her family by filling her front lawn with junk.
    Vint: Mama, you've got everything out here but the kitchen sink!
    Iola: (brings out kitchen sink) All right, Thelma, where do you want it?
  • The Lad-ette: Thelma. Though she tried to act like a respectable lady in public, her tendency toward boorishness was often her undoing.
  • Lamaze Class: Naomi takes a pregnancy class, which is quickly ruined by Thelma's antics.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: After having trouble having a child and being turned down for adoption, Naomi finds out she's pregnant after all.
  • Local Hangout: The Bigger Jigger, especially in the NBC episodes
  • Long Bus Trip: Buzz and Sonja, starting with the syndicated episodes.
  • Lovable Coward: Vinton.
    • He's not so lovable if you ask me. He's 40 something, he lives in his mom's basement, he never pays the rent, and then whines over Mama not doing all the chores when he should be greatful for all she's doing for him already. He also took Mama's silver without permission to pawn it to bail out some sleazy friend of his Mama didn't approve of anyway.
  • Mall Santa: In "Santa Mama," Vint takes a job playing Santa Claus at a mall, but loses his voice practicing his "Ho Ho Ho." Mama saves the day by filling in for him.
  • Mama Bear: Do NOT badmouth a member of Thelma's family.
  • Mattress Tag Gag: In "Harper Versus Harper," Fran tearfully confesses to a judge about how she committed the "capital offense" of removing a tag from a rug.
  • Missing Mom: The reason why Vint is single in the earliest episodes (before he married Naomi). Vint's first wife was Mitzi, with whom he had two children: Vinton Jr. ("Buzz") and Sonja; shortly before the start of the NBC series, Mitzi decides to follow a longtime dream of being a showgirl in Las Vegas and unexpectedly left the family behind. She fails miserably and soon becomes a cocktail waitress. These are the lone references made to Mitzi, and she apparently has no further contact with Vint or her children again, with Naomi becoming the mother figure in Buzz and Sonja's lives.
  • Mistaken Message: The episode "The Love Letter" revolved around this trope. Vint wants to do something to make Naomi happy, so he has Bubba help him write her a love letter. The letter gets misplaced a few times, and soon Naomi thinks Bubba has an incestuous crush on her, Iola thinks Vint wants to leave Naomi for her, and Mama thinks her refrigerator repairman is coming on to her. Hilarity Ensues.
  • Momma's Boy: Vinton. He still lives in his mother's basement (with his wife there too), and always succumbs to his mother's will.
  • Moral Guardians: Mama forms M.O.P., Mothers Opposed to Pornography, after she finds a dirty magazine under Bubba's bed. Her group then starts protesting outside the Food Circus for selling those magazines.
  • Never Learned to Read: In "Reading the Riot Act," Mama and Iola plan to impeach their church lady president for doing a crappy job...until Mama finds out that it's because she can't read.
  • Noir Episode: "The Big Nap." Mama has a dream about herself as the star of an old detective movie, with everyone else in appropriate roles: Naomi plays her Dumb Blonde girl Friday, Vint plays a dim gangster, Bubba plays a good-for-nothing chauffer, and Iola plays the sexy client.
  • On One Condition: After Aunt Fran dies, she bequeaths Thelma, Naomi and Vint $35,000, but only if the (very cranky) Thelma does not lose her temper for two weeks. Hilarity Ensues.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: In Bubba's first episode, he and Vinton discuss the importance of "protection". It's not until Vint hands him his helmet that Bubba realizes this trope.
  • The One That Got Away: For Eunice, it was Duke Reeves. Even the name sounds hunky.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Buzz's real name was Vinton Harper, Jr.; this was mentioned in only one episode. Bubba's real name was never mentioned on the show; during the Mama's Family Reunion on Vicki Lawrence's talk show, Allan Kayser revealed that they had decided his real name would be either Carl or Edward.
    • Carl was the name of Thelma's late husband, and Edward is Bubba's father's name.
  • The Other Darrin: Carol Burnett refused involvement with the syndicated episodes due to her divorce from producer Joe Hamilton. Therefore, when Eunice called Mama one last time in season 4, Phyllis Franklin voiced the role in Burnett's absence.
  • Panicky Expectant Father: Vinton.
  • Playing Gertrude: Mama was played by Vicki Lawrence, who was only 34 when the show started. Played For Comedy.
  • Plot Hole: The number of rooms available in Mama's house varied wildly between the network and syndicated years. Mama also lost a couple kids along the way.
  • Post Robbery Trauma: In "Black Belt Mama," Thelma gets mugged and takes a self-defense class. Also used in "The Key to the Crime" quite humorously when Thelma saw that the burglar cleaned the bathroom:
    Thelma: I ain't gonna be able to sit in there again!
  • Preacher's Grandkid: In "Child's Play," Alberta Meachum suckers Thelma into babysitting her and the Reverend's demon-spawn grandson Eugene, who spends the day putting the Harpers through hell (pouring hot sauce in their stew, coloring on Mama's tablecloth, locking Vint and Bubba in the garage, among other pranks).
  • Pro Wrestling Episode: "Mama Mania"
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: When Thelma and Naomi are driving the judge nuts in "Harper vs. Harper." See the entry on the trope page for examples.
  • Put on a Bus: Buzz and Sonja. Supposedly they were sent to live with their mom in Vegas, but they're never mentioned again past the first syndicated season.
  • The Rashomon: In "Rashomama," Thelma accidentally gets hit in the head with a pot. Naomi, Ellen, and Eunice each tell their own version of how it happened, casting themselves in the best possible light and blaming the other two for the accident.
  • Remember the New Guy: Bubba and Iola.
  • Rich Bitch: Ellen, and she loved to flaunt it as passive-aggressively as she could.
    • In the reunion mentioned above, Betty White called in to discuss her time on the show. Vicki Lawrence used the exact name of this trope to describe Ellen's character, and Betty White gleefully agreed.
  • Rolling Pin of Doom: In the episode "Mama Bell," Thelma thinks the family wants to put her in a home. The weapon she chooses to defend herself against the perceived threat is, of course, a rolling pin.
  • Screaming Birth: Naomi
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Thelma and Aunt Effie
  • Spin-Off: The show grew out of a recurring segment of The Carol Burnett Show.
  • Standardized Sitcom Housing: To the letter.
  • Strongly Worded Letter: In the episode "Mama Takes Stock", Vinton finds out he's about to get laid off by the corporation that owns Kwik-Keys. Iola promises to write a "scathing letter" to the company.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: In "Child's Play," the family is babysitting Eugene, the very spoiled grandson of Reverend Meechum. During the dinner scene, Eugene puts some hot sauce in the stew while the family is saying grace. After they all go running for water, Thelma accuses him of putting the sauce in the stew:
    Thelma: (slowly and accusingly) Eugene...?
    Eugene: I didn't put anything in that stew!
  • Uncanceled / Channel Hop: After NBC canceled the show in 1984, it was picked up for a second and longer syndicated run from 1986 to 1990.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: Vicki Lawrence appeared in two episodes as Thelma's deceased mother (once in a flashback, once as a ghost) and in a another as her rich cousin Lydia.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Mama's children appeared in younger form in a few flashback episodes. Most notable was Heather Kerr as teenaged Eunice in season 4's "Sins of the Mother," doing a spot-on Carol Burnett impression.
  • Tsundere: Mama went from a heavy Type A in season 1, to a much gentler Type B as the syndicated episodes went on.
  • The Unfavorite: Eunice, at least in her mind.
  • Unlucky Childhood Friend: Iola has had an unrequited crush on Vint since they were little.
  • Wedding Day: Vinton and Naomi's wedding had crazy vows and a drunken perfomance by Eunice.
    Vinton (to Naomi): "I promise to stay together with you for as long as we both shall think it's a good idea."
  • We Sell Everything: In Raytown, there are only three stores: Neidermeyer's, Kwik-Keys and Food Circus.
    • This one might be kinda iffy. It's hinted and even explicitly mentioned there are other stores, like the donut shops in the episode where Thelma gets hired by KRAY, "Mama Fights Back."
    • While that is true, the characters do the majority of their shopping at those three places. It helps that Vint and Naomi work at Kwik-Keys and Food Circus, respectively. Also, Food Circus is the only place that sells Thelma's preferred brand of beer, so it makes sense she'd shop there exclusively.
  • Where The Hell Is Springfield?: Although the state where Raytown is located is never mentioned, take a look at the cars in the neighborhood in "Mama Learns to Drive": they have Missouri license plates.
    • Let's add to the confusion by mentioning that there is an actual Raytown, Missouri, which is a suburb of Kansas City, but that the fictional Raytown (a small town unconnected to a metropolis) and real Raytown (suburban bedroom community) are completely different.
    • Also worth noting is that Allan Kayser, the actor that played Bubba, currently resides (or did not too long ago) in Kansas City, MO.
      • Also, during the reunion, he mentioned that he had moved back to Missouri, and commented that there is indeed a real Raytown (intimating that he now lived in or near there).
  • While You Were in Diapers: After Iola questions whether Thelma is making a baby bootie correctly:
    Thelma: I was making booties before you had feet!

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alternative title(s): Mamas Family; Ptitleuv6m2sgz
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