The Family (sketch)
"The Family" is a series of comedy sketches featured on The Carol Burnett Show, with one installment airing on Carol Burnett & Company. The Carol Burnett Show debuted the skit series during its seventh season in 1973–74. 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 four-week summer series titled Carol Burnett & Company. This was the only installment of "The Family" 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" sketches.
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. 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 The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family producer Joe Hamilton, who owned all the Mama's Family characters. Burnett also resented Vicki Lawrence for accepting the role of Mama in first-run syndication as she would be working for Hamilton.
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"), 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.
"The Family" sketch was created and written by Dick Clair and Jenna McMahon. 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.
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 to air on The Carol Burnett Show had Eunice talking to a psychiatrist trying to figure out what went wrong with her life.
- Eunice Higgins – As the very fiery, stormy, irrepressible, browbeating daughter of Mama and wife of Ed, Eunice is histrionic and full of powerful emotions: cheerful and giddy one minute and uncontrollably upset the next. Eunice seemingly never changes outfits as she's always seen in the same olive green dress. Greatly ambitious, Eunice aspires 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, she feels deprived of even minimal contentment due to what she perceives as an inconsiderate, 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 rarely visit or call Mama, all live successful lives. Eunice is the only offspring willing to care for Mama, but Mama ungratefully treats her the worst. This is often shown in Mama's tendency to praise her other children for their successes, and in the same breath belittling Eunice for having no talent and thereby making nothing of herself. 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. OF the three characters, Eunice exercises the most control in the gang.
- Mama – In "The Family" sketches, Mama is a cold, 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 limited to constant captious complaints, belligerent remarks that instigate the other characters, and an easily annoyed demeanor. She also makes 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 dependent senior. 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, ol' lady!"
- Mama originally lives on her own in "The Family" sketches, but ends up moving in with Eunice and Ed when old age catches up to her. It's worth noting as well that the home Mama is said and shown to have raised her children in is different among "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, 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 to show it fiercely. When they're not at each other's throats, Eunice and Mama regularly bash Ed. 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's carping, he has no qualms with exploding at and bickering with them, although it only gets him into shouting matches and heated altercations with Mama and Eunice, who will quickly move to 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 Mama's Family appearances.
- 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. Although Phillip was Mama's favorite (along with Ellen), he was never spared Thelma's criticism, insults, or wrath.
- Larry Harper – In "The Family" sketches, Larry was Mama's middle son. 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 Mama's youngest son. 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, 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 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.
|Season||Episode||Airdate||Title & Description||Guest Stars|
|Season 7||Ep 23||March 16, 1974||The Reunion – Phillip comes home for a visit.||Roddy McDowall as Phillip|
|Season 8||Ep 1||September 14, 1974||Brotherly Love – Eunice, Ed and Mama come back from church.|
|Season 8||Ep 5||October 12, 1974||Hospital Visit – The family visits Jack in the hospital.||Tom Smothers as Jack|
|Season 8||Ep 9||November 16, 1974||Sorry! – The family plays Sorry!|
|Season 8||Ep 13||December 21, 1974||Home for the Holidays – Larry visits the family for Christmas.||Alan Alda as Larry|
|Season 8||Ep 16||January 25, 1975||Mama's Beau – Mama has a new beau, Willie.||William Conrad as Willie|
|Season 8||Ep 19||February 25, 1975||Mama's Accident – Mama has an accident and moves in with Eunice and Ed.|
|Season 8||Ep 21||March 15, 1975||Visit to Phillip – The family visits Phillip in California.||Roddy McDowell as Phillip|
|Season 8||Ep 24||April 5, 1975||Hardware Store – Eunice and Mama visit Ed at the hardware store.|
|Season 9||Ep 1||September 13, 1975||Eunice Splits – Ed goes to a massage parlor.||Jim Nabors as cab driver|
|Season 9||Ep 4||October 4, 1975||The Flashback – A flashback to when Eunice and Ed were dating.|
|Season 9||Ep 7||October 25, 1975||Charades – Mickey has dinner with the family and they play charades.|
|Season 9||Ep 10||November 15, 1975||Teacher's Dilemma – The family has a conference with Bubba's school teacher.||Maggie Smith as Mrs. Collins|
|Season 9||Ep 11||November 22, 1975||Mama's Birthday – Ellen visits Mama on her birthday.||Betty White as Ellen|
|Season 9||Ep 14||December 13, 1975||Aunt Mae Is Dead – The family goes to Mama's sister Mae's funeral.|
|Season 9||Ep 20||February 7, 1976||The Restaurant – The family goes to an expensive restaurant.|
|Season 9||Ep 21||February 14, 1976||Friend from the Past – Eunice reunites with her high school friend Midge.||Joanne Woodward as Midge Gibson|
|Season 9||Ep 24||March 13, 1976||The Business Fair – Eunice is jealous when Ed and Mickey go to a hardware convention.|
|Season 10||Ep 1||September 25, 1976||Monopoly – The family plays Monopoly.|
|Season 10||Ep 4||October 16, 1976||The Rehearsal – Eunice rehearses a play with her director Mavis Danton.||Madeline Kahn as Mavis Danton|
|Season 10||Ep 7||November 6, 1976||Mickey's Apartment – The family visits Mickey's apartment for dinner.|
|Season 10||Ep 12||December 11, 1976||The Attic – Eunice, Ed and Ellen help Mama clean the attic.||Betty White as Ellen|
|Season 10||Ep 19||February 12, 1977||The Gong Show – Eunice appears on The Gong Show.||Chuck Barris, Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr and Allen Ludden (all as themselves)|
|Season 11||Ep 1||September 24, 1977||Visit from Dan – Dan, an old friend of Ed's, comes to dinner; Ed has left Eunice.|
|Season 11||Ep 4||October 15, 1977||The Divorce – Mama drops in on a newly divorced Eunice unannounced.|
|Season 11||Ep 7||November 5, 1977||Password – Eunice and Mama play Password with Mickey and Dan.|
|Season 11||Ep 12||December 11, 1977||Mama's Exodus – Eunice and Mickey try to coax Mama into a retirement home.|
|Season 11||Ep 15||January 8, 1978||Honorary Degree – Phillip visits again to receive an honorary degree.||Roddy McDowall as Phillip|
|Season 11||Ep 21||March 5, 1978||Ellen's Anniversary – Eunice and Mama visit Ellen before her anniversary party.||Betty White as Ellen|
|Season 11||Ep 24||March 29, 1978||The Psychiatrist – Eunice and Mama visit a psychiatrist.||Craig Richard Nelson as Psychiatrist|
|Carol Burnett & Company||Ep 1.4||September 8, 1979||Carl's Grave – Eunice and Mama visit the late Carl Harper's gravesite.|
- Password Plus (1980) – Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence appear as contestants in character as Eunice Higgins and Thelma Harper vs. Joanna Gleason and McLean Stevenson (also in character as Morgan Winslow and Larry Alder from their sitcom Hello, Larry) during the TV game show's "All-Star Week" from March 10 to 14.
- The Tim Conway Show (1980) – Carol Burnett appears in the audience in character as Eunice Higgins, giddy about being on TV, and addresses the camera to say hello "to my Mama!"
On several occasions, corpsing occurred when someone ad libbed something and caused other characters to crack up. Two particular occasions are considered classics.
The first example was in the Sorry! sketch. In the first taping, Vicki Lawrence went off script, telling Burnett's character that she was nuts. When Burnett told her to lay off (which was part of the script), Lawrence continued, saying someone blew her pilot light out, causing Burnett to begin losing composure, pausing, then unable to look at Lawrence, prompting her to say 'oh, boy. That's a new one, Mama!' suggesting that Lawrence was ad libbing. Lawrence didn't miss a beat, saying there was more, which caused Burnett to drop her face, losing her ability to stay focused. Lawrence told her she had splinters in the windmills of her mind, and stated she was playing hockey with a warped puck. At one point, Burnett looked at the camera and mouthed something, cracking up the entire time. Finally, she was able to move the sketch forward again. In the second airing, Lawrence again went off script, but Burnett thought was prepared for her, keeping her back to the camera. This time, however, Lawrence threw a new one at her, asking her if it was her time of month and if she was 'riding the cotton pony'. Burnett kept her head turned away from the audience and camera, covered her mouth with her hand and laughed while the audience screamed with laughter. As the laughter began to die down and Burnett began to regain composure, Lawrence grabbed her arm and moved it aside, demanding she look at her, at which point Burnett completely lost it, yelling 'aw, please', and falling apart laughing. Lawrence had a cat that ate the canary look on her face, obviously amused. Burnett quickly managed to regain composure, telling Lawrence in character (but still reeling) 'You got any more of those, Mama, you better say 'em now'. In a blooper shown on Carol Burnett's reunion show (Showstoppers), there was a scene from this sketch where Korman and Lawrence's characters get into an argument and Lawrence began cursing a blue streak, causing Burnett to crack up. During the height of the argument, Burnett jumped in, telling them to stop it, but her voice cracking up. She then dropped her face, and hid it with her hands, trembling with laughter.
The second example was in the final season of The Carol Burnett Show during the Password sketch. Cast member Tim Conway ad-libbed a story about elephants and cracked up his cast mates during both the dress rehearsal and the final taping. In the first one he talks about seeing an elephant with a dwarf trainer and mentioning that there was a rumor going around the circus that the elephant and the trainer were lovers, pushing Burnett, Lawrence, and Van Dyke to a breaking point and hiding their faces from the audience. At one point the camera focuses on Burnett and Lawrence staring at him in exasperation. Finally, Burnett started swatting at Conway with the game card to get him to stop. In the second one he talks 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 in hysterics the entire time while Burnett, Lawrence and Dick Van Dyke desperately struggled to maintain composure, and even Conway is seen trying to stifle his laughter numerous times. At one point Lawrence looked at Burnett, started to look away, then did a quick look back at her and had to turn away, breaking character and laughing. 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 managed to gain her composure one last time, she turned to Lawrence to help get the script moving again, to which Lawrence quipped (in character), "You sure that little asshole's through?" At that point chaos ensued with the entire cast breaking up and the audience was screaming with delight. Conway and Van Dyke both fell off the ends of the couch to the floor laughing, with Conway rolling around and Van Dyke lying flat on his back and eventually sitting up. Burnett fell back onto the couch and can be seen muttering to herself while shaking with laughter. Lawrence herself managed to keep it together for only a few seconds after everyone fell apart before cracking up herself. In an interview, Lawrence talks about the famous sketch, recalling that it was her husband's suggestion to "get" Conway when she found out between tapings that the elephant story part of the sketch was being changed but was not given any details. The director's only advice on it was "good luck". She also noted that it was one of the rare occasions when she really cut loose on the show.
- "The Mama's Family Site". Televisionhits.com. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- "Humor Helps Carol Burnett Cope – ABC News". Abcnews.go.com. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- Vicki!: the true-life adventures of Miss Fireball – Vicki Lawrence, Marc Eliot – Google Boeken. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- "The Carol Burnett Show – The Family – Mickey's Apartment 1/2 (uncut)". YouTube. 2011-11-12. Retrieved 2013-03-01.
- "Vicki Lawrence". Archive of American Television. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
- Vicki Lawrence on an infamous blooper on "The Carol Burnett Show" - EMMYTVLEGENDS. YouTube. 11 July 2012. Retrieved 29 July 2015.
- Carol Burnett Show outtakes - Tim Conway's Elephant Story. YouTube. 15 May 2007. Retrieved 29 July 2015.