On This Day: ‘Mama’s Family’ Premiered on NBC, 38 Years Ago

by Matthew Wilson

In 1983, NBC welcomed viewers to the family. It’s been 38 years since the popular sitcom “Mama’s Family” first premiered on the network.

Starring an aged-up Vicki Lawrence as Thelma Harper or Mama, the show focused on Mama and her various brood. Underneath Harper’s frequent sarcasm and quick temper was a woman that cared greatly about her family and its various members. Harper was often a source of wisdom as well as quick one-liners.

Though viewers remember the show fondly and it grew popular, the first two seasons of the show failed to catch on when they aired on NBC in the 1980s. Though the show premiered in 1983, it actually got its start much earlier than that on the “The Carol Burnett Show.”

‘Mama’s Family’ Started Off As a Sketch

Mama and the gang started out as little more than a sketch on Burnett’s variety hour. Burnett and Lawrence formed a tag team during the sketch, bringing to life a dysfunctional Southern household. The popularity of the sketches gave life initially to a TV movie “Eunice” and then to a full-fledged TV show.

While those first two seasons are fondly remembered now, they weren’t popular ratings-wise at the time. The show featured both Rue McClanahan as Harper’s sister and Betty White as Harper’s daughter as well. Both actors would soon begin their tenure on the popular show “The Golden Girls” a few years later.

After only two seasons, the network canceled “Mama’s Family” amid dwindling ratings. The show stayed gone for two years before a producer approached Lawrence about resurrecting the show in first-run syndication. The new “Mama’s Family” would be different from the old.

In addition to a new set, only Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry, and Dorothy Lyman made the jump to the news series. Both McClanahan and White had moved on to star in “The Golden Girls” and couldn’t return. McClanahan’s character was killed off while White made a guest appearance.

Meanwhile, Lawrence and Burnett had a falling out over the show’s resurrection. And she refused to return as Eunice in the new production. This version of the show proved to be a hit and it ran for four seasons, producing a total of 100 episodes.