Vicki Lawrence loves Mama, but she isn’t turning into her


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By GUY D’ASTOLFO

dastolfo@vindy.com

It might have once seemed unthinkable that Vicki Lawrence would ever catch up to Mama in age.

After all, the comic entertainer created the feisty old lady character back in the early 1970s, when she was just 24 years old.

But while getting older is inevitable, getting cranky isn’t, and the age-defying Lawrence will likely never catch up to Mama in personality.

But it’s still a strange feeling, right?

“I used to think of Mama as 65 and holding,” said Lawrence during a phone interview last week. “But now that I’m there, I’m thinking she’s got to be much older.”

Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show will return to the Mahoning Valley on Tuesday for a performance at Stambaugh Auditorium.

The show has two parts. Lawrence takes the stage first and delivers a mix of stand-up comedy, music and observations about life.

In addition to being a comedian and actor, Lawrence is also a singer, best known for her 1973 hit, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

Then it’s Mama’s turn. Lawrence and her writing partner keep the old battleship current by updating her material with a more modern and cutting edge.

“The Mama half is fun,” said Lawrence. “We push her into the new century. It’s still a lot of things that just bug an old lady, but a lot of it is what pops up in the news.”

Lawrence started doing Mama back when she was on “The Carol Burnett Show,” the landmark TV sketch comedy series. After that beloved show finally called it quits in 1978 after 11 years, Lawrence brought the character back in her sitcom “Mama’s Family,” which aired from 1983 to 1990.

She revived Mama in 2001, after the “Carol Burnett: Showstoppers” special aired and reawakened the fanbase. It attracted more than 50 million viewers, and prompted Lawrence to dust off the opinionated and insult-spewing character and take her on the road.

It’s undeniable that Mama has become the archetype that has influenced other characters. But where did she come from?

“I modeled her after mothers I have known,” said Lawrence. “I did have a crazy Southern mother-in-law for a second. She was much sweeter than Mama, but I took a lot of stuff from her, a lot of her mannerisms.” Lawrence also borrowed from her own mother, as well as the Eunice character that Carol Burnett created for her TV show.

Lawrence has slowed down on touring, but definitely still enjoys doing the live show, and it has strengthened her connection to her fans.

“The one-woman show has given me a lot of confidence,” she said. “It’s a trip to walk out on stage all alone and feel confident. But you are not really ever alone. I’m in a room full of fans, and they’ve grown up with me. It’s like being with friends, it’s a journey with them.

While her show is not a career retrospective, “The Carol Burnett Show” seems to naturally bob to the surface.

“I’ve found that as time goes by my half of the show is autobiographical,” she said. “People love hearing those old back stories, about how things worked back then. That half is in a special bubble of its own. It’s a gift to everybody. My hairdresser says ‘everybody already knows you, but you take them down a back alley [during the live show].’”

Each show also is unique. “Every night is new,” said Lawrence. “Every audience has its own personality, and it’s fun to be not prepared for it.”

In addition to the live show, Lawrence still dabbles in television.

She had a brief cameo on the sitcom “Great News,” which stars Aundrea Martin, two weeks ago, and a full-fledged return to the small screen is a definite possibility.

She recently finished up a pilot for a sitcom for Fox, but is still waiting to hear whether it will be picked up.

Titled “Cool Kids, it’s set in a retirement village. “It’s a cross between ‘That ’70s Show’ and ‘Golden Girls,’” she said. “It’s pretty much me – an ornery feisty old lady.”

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