The Family (sketch)

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Eunice works with drama coach Madeline Kahn for a Little Theater role in 1976.

The Family is a series of sketches that appeared on The Carol Burnett Show, with one installment airing on Carol & Company. The Carol Burnett Show debuted the skit series in its 7th season in 1974. It would air new installments of the skit for the remainder of its 11-season run, through its final season in 1977-78. However, the final installment of The Family wouldn't air until September 8, 1979, on a different series Carol & Company. This was the only installment of The Family series that did not air on The Carol Burnett Show. The Carol Burnett Show had completed its run almost a year and a half earlier on March 29, 1978. Altogether, there were 31 installments of The Family sketch.

Not only was The Family well-received enough to become a recurring skit on The Carol Burnett Show, but it was admired enough to be developed into a 1982 made-for-TV movie, Eunice, and then spun off into a full-fledged comedy series in 1983, titled Mama's Family: a show which first aired on NBC, until it was cancelled in 1984; then revived in 1986 in first-run syndication, lasting until its series finale in 1990.[1] Carol Burnett, whose Eunice Higgins character was central in The Family sketches, did not appear in the sitcom's second life, due to her acrimonious 1984 divorce from Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family producer Joe Hamilton, who owned all the Mama's Family characters. Burnett also resented Lawrence for accepting the role of Mama in first-run syndication as she'd be working for Hamilton.[2][3]

Along with featuring Carol Burnett as Eunice Higgins, The Family skits featured Vicki Lawrence as Thelma Harper (originally, only known as "Mama" for the most part, although Mickey Hart, Ed's employee, had referred to her as "Thelma"[4]), and Harvey Korman as Ed Higgins. In the Family sketches, Mama has five children (in the subsequent series, she has only three): in addition to Ellen Harper (played by Betty White) and Eunice, there were three sons: Larry Harper (Alan Alda), Phillip Harper (Roddy McDowall), and Jack Harper (Tommy Smothers). All three were replaced by Vinton Harper, played by Ken Berry, in the spin-off television series. Berry played Phillip in the made-for-TV movie, Eunice (precursor to Mama's Family). Tim Conway played recurring character Mickey Hart, Ed's employee.

Background[edit]

The Family sketch was created and written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon who hated their mothers. They originally had Burnett in mind to play Mama and have a guest star to play Eunice. However, Burnett decided that she wanted to play Eunice and wanted to give the part of Mama to Lawrence. Burnett also decided to do the sketch southern because of her own Texas background. The writers were so displeased with these decisions that during the first run-through, they threw down their pads and pencils and stormed out of the rehearsal hall. They complained that the sketch was ruined and that it would offend the South. After airing and the enormously favorable viewer response, Clair and McMahon wound up writing the sketches for the rest of the run of the show.[5]

Premise[edit]

Among plot techniques, The Family uses: (A) satire and observational comedy, as the sketch subtly pokes fun of real life occurrences and real-life human behaviors, inflating them and making fun of them; (B) comedy of manners, as the characters satirize the behaviors of blue-collar, working-class southerners and speak in southern drawls.

Unlike Mama's Family, the central character of The Family sketches is Eunice. The Family sketches are about the noisy, quarrelsome couple of Eunice and Ed and Eunice's unwelcome house guest who only adds to the drama, that being her catty elderly mama. There was a great deal more squabbling in The Family sketches than on Mama's Family. It was stated many times that Eunice and Ed had two young sons, named Bubba Higgins and Billy-Joe Higgins (though in one skit, Eunice calls her children Bubba and Raymond); they are unseen characters in The Family sketches. The Bubba Higgins character, however, regularly appears in the first-run syndication version of Mama's Family, being described as Eunice's only son by that point. Mama, Eunice, and Ed often have uproarious verbal wars over petty issues, such as board games (they played Monopoly, Sorry!, and Password), how much butter has been used for the bread, what exactly happened 30 or 40 years ago, etc. The final Family sketch had Eunice talking to a psychiatrist trying to figure out what went wrong with her life.

Characters[edit]

  • Eunice Higgins - As the very fiery, stormy, irrepressible and browbeating daughter of Mama and wife of Ed, Eunice is histrionic and full of powerful emotions. She's cheerful and giddy in one moment and out of control and upset in the next. Eunice seemingly never changes outfits as she's always seen in the same moss green dress. Greatly ambitious, Eunice has big aspirations to achieve fame, power, and a career in entertainment; however, she's portrayed as a woman who can't excel past substandard living due to a selfless nature to see after her elderly mother (heavily emphasized in the Eunice movie). In addition to that, she feels deprived of even minimal contentment due to what she perceives as an inconsiderate and lowbrow husband, who couldn't care less about her happiness.
She wishes for nothing more than to move up the ladder and live out her dreams, but lacks the initiative and get-up-and-go, choosing rather to care for her aging mother. Her siblings, who only visit or call Mama on rare occasion, all live successful lives. Despite Eunice being Mama's only child willing to care for her, Mama ungratefully treats her the worst. This is often shown in Mama's tendency to praise her other children for their successes while in the same breath, belittling Eunice on not making anything of herself, attributing this to a lack of talent. This is just one of many reasons why heated altercations break out among the three characters. When Eunice starts ranting, she brings up loads of irrelevant matters that she holds resentment over. Often, her long-drawn out rants will relate to issues dating as far back as her childhood. Out of the three characters, Eunice exercises the most control in the gang.
  • Mama - In the Family sketches, Mama is a spiteful, cantankerous elderly widow. Mama has other sides to her in Mama's Family, such as her tendency to make good-natured wisecracks and snappy retorts; however, her commentary in The Family sketches is marked by constant complaining, belligerent arguing, and becoming easily annoyed. In addition, Mama's given to making insinuative, disparaging remarks, intended to offend and anger her daughter and son-in-law. For example, she constantly lets Ed and Eunice know what's wrong with them and how they've amounted to nothing.
In contrast to Mama's Family, Thelma is much more reliant and inert in The Family sketches, portrayed as a senior who needs to be cared for. Ever an aggressor, Mama's often the one stirring up all the conflict and commotion among the three. Sometimes when they're all starting to get along (an ephemeral occurrence on the show, often arising from a mercurial trait in all the characters), Mama will say something that she's fully aware will provoke Eunice and Ed. In fact, one of Eunice's most commonly used locutions is based on this behavior of Mama's: "Don't you start with me, ole' lady!"
Mama originally lives on her own in The Family sketches, but ends up moving in with Eunice and Ed due to her old age catching up with her. It's worth noting as well that the home Mama is said and shown to have raised up her children in is different between The Family sketches, the Eunice movie, and Mama's Family (moreover, there are slight changes between the home used in the first life of Mama's Family and its second life).
  • Ed Higgins - As the fiercely ill-tempered, slovenly, goofy, and quirky son-in-law of Mama and the husband to Eunice. Ed is quick to become irritated by his wife and mother-in-law and doesn't hesitate in fiercely showing it. Eunice and Mama regularly bash Ed when they're not at each other's throats. Mama antagonizes Ed with putdowns over what a failure and unsuccessful slob he is, and Eunice regularly nags him about his "inconsiderate" treatment of her and her needs. Though Ed occasionally capitulates to his wife's browbeating and mother-in-law, he has no qualms with exploding at and bickering with them. This is often to no avail, however, as it only gets him into shouting matches and heated altercations with Mama and Eunice—who will quickly start bickering with each other in the process. Ed has nothing much to show for his life, and his low-class job and manner gives Eunice's rants and Mama's insults credibility. While in The Family sketches, as well as the Eunice movie, Ed leaves and divorces Eunice, he's seen married to her in all of their appearances on Mama's Family.
  • Phillip Harper - In the Family sketches, Phillip was the eldest of Mama's three sons. He was a successful Hollywood-based screenwriter and Pulitzer/Nobel Peace Prize-winning author. Just like Ellen, Phillip was Mama's favorite, but despite that, he was never spared Thelma's criticism, insults, or wrath.
  • Larry Harper - In the Family sketches, Larry was the middle of Mama's three sons. He was a free-spirit who is a commercial illustrator, and he was teased by Ed, who thought that painting was somewhat sissy. He appeared in the Christmas sketch, coming home for Christmas after five years, and he is unmarried.
  • Jack Harper - In the Family sketches, Jack was the youngest of Mama's three sons. He was visited by Eunice, Ed, and Mama in the hospital. It is mentioned that he and his wife Janie have children, and that he works in sales.
  • Ellen Harper - In the Family sketches, Ellen was older than Eunice, and was as snobby and stuck on herself as she was on Mama's Family with a difference: She would snap back at her mother with more frequency; and didn't even try to hide her glee when she got something that Eunice wanted. She was married (her husband originally referred to as Tom, then Arthur, and later as Bruce) and had two spoiled daughters named Mary Beth and Debbie. At one time, it was revealed that Ellen's full name was Mary Ellen.
  • Mickey Hart - In the Family sketches, Mickey was Ed's employee at the hardware store. He wears a hearing aid and calls Mama "Mother Harper" and has referred to her as "Thelma."
  • Dan Fogarty - An old friend of Ed's - portrayed by Dick Van Dyke - who stayed with Eunice for a short period of time after Ed abandoned her in the final season (Harvey Korman had left the series). Eunice evidently was rather sweet on him, but since Van Dyke left the show in the middle of the season, the relationship was never developed.
  • Carl Harper - A predominately unseen character, he is the deceased husband of Mama and father of Ellen, Eunice, Jack, Larry, and Philip. He spends the vast majority of his time nested on the toilet in the bathroom with the door closed. In fact, he died on the toilet. In flashbacks, Carl's portrayed as a grouch who doesn't want to be interrupted during his long hours on the toilet, even for emergencies.

Sketches[edit]

Season Episode Air date Description Guest star
Season 7 Ep 23 March 16, 1974 Philip comes home for a visit. [6] Roddy McDowall as Philip
Season 8 Ep 1 September 14, 1974 Eunice and Ed take Mama to church. Forgive your enemies [7]
Season 8 Ep 5 October 12, 1974 The family visits Jack in the hospital.[8] Tom Smothers as Jack
Season 8 Ep 9 November 16, 1974 The family plays Sorry![9]
Season 8 Ep 13 December 21, 1974 Larry visits for Christmas.[10] Alan Alda as Larry
Season 8 Ep 16 January 25, 1975 Mama has a new beau.[11] William Conrad as Willie
Season 8 Ep 19 February 25, 1975 Mama has an accident and moves in with Eunice and Ed.
Season 8 Ep 21 March 15, 1975 The family visits Philip in California. Roddy McDowell as Philip
Season 8 Ep 24 April 5, 1975 Eunice and Mama visit Ed at the hardware store.
Season 9 Ep 1 September 13, 1975 Ed visits a massage parlor. Jim Nabors as cab driver
Season 9 Ep 4 October 4, 1975 Flashback to Eunice and Ed dating.
Season 9 Ep 7 October 25, 1975 Mickey has dinner with the family, plays charades.
Season 9 Ep 10 November 15, 1975 The family has a conference with Bubba's teacher Maggie Smith as Mrs. Collins
Season 9 Ep 11 November 22, 1975 Ellen visits for Mama's birthday. Betty White as Ellen
Season 9 Ep 14 December 13, 1975 Mama's sister Mae's funeral.
Season 9 Ep 20 February 7, 1976 The family goes to an expensive restaurant.
Season 9 Ep 21 February 14, 1976 Eunice's friend Midge visits. Joanne Woodward as Midge Gibson
Season 9 Ep 24 March 13, 1976 Eunice is jealous when Ed and Mickey go to a hardware convention.
Season 10 Ep 1 September 25, 1976 The family plays Monopoly.
Season 10 Ep 4 October 16, 1976 Eunice rehearses with her friend for a play Madeline Kahn as Mavis Danton
Season 10 Ep 7 November 6, 1976 The family visits Mickey's apartment for dinner.
Season 10 Ep 12 December 11, 1976 Eunice and Ellen help Mama clean the attic. Betty White as Ellen
Season 10 Ep 19 February 12, 1977 Eunice appears on The Gong Show.
Season 11 Ep 3 October 8, 1977 Dan comes to dinner; Ed has left Eunice. Dick Van Dyke as Dan Fogarty
Season 11 Ep 4 October 15, 1977 Mama drops in unannounced.
Season 11 Ep 7 November 5, 1977 The family plays Password
Season 11 Ep 12 December 11, 1977 Eunice and Mickey try to coax Mama into a retirement home
Season 11 Ep 15 January 8, 1978 Philip visits again. Roddy McDowell as Philip
Season 11 Ep 21 March 5, 1978 Eunice and Mama visit Ellen before her anniversary party Betty White as Ellen
Season 11 Ep 24 March 29, 1978 Eunice and Mama visit a psychiatrist.
Carol & Company September 8, 1979 Eunice and Mama visit Carl's grave.

Final season[edit]

In the final season of The Carol Burnett Show, cast member Tim Conway ad libbed reminisces about seeing a pair of Siamese elephants during a trip to a freak show, describing in detail how they were connected at the trunk and the sounds they made. The audience was already in hysterics while Burnett, Lawrence and Dick Van Dyke desperately struggled to maintain composure. Several times when Conway would stop, the rest of the cast would collect themselves, at which point Conway would continue with his ad libbing, pushing them again to the edge of breaking up. When Burnett gained her composure one last time, she turned to Vicki Lawrence to help get the script moving again, to which Lawrence quipped (in character), "You sure that little asshole's through?" At that point Burnett, Conway and Van Dyke all fell apart, laughing.[12][13]

References[edit]