Mama's Family

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Vicki Lawrence as Mama Harper.

Mama's Family was a American sitcom which ran from 1983 to 1985 on NBC and from 1986 to 1990 in first-run syndication. It was a spinoff of a series of comedy sketches called The Family which appeared on The Carol Burnett Show. The Family was roughly based on Burnett's childhood.

After the cancellation of The Carol Burnett Show, The Family was spun off into a series called Mama's Family which aired first an NBC network program. Burnett, who played Thelma's short-tempered daughter Eunice, never appeared after the first season.

After the show was cancelled on NBC, it continued to film for first-run syndication. Many cast changes occurred around this time, with only the characters Thelma, Vinton, and Naomi staying on as regulars. Two more characters were added: Iola Boyland, the Harpers' neighbor, and Bubba Higgins, Eunice's son and Thelma's grandchild. New relatives and neighbors were brought in to evoke comedic situations.


Setting and Premise


The show was set in a fictitious suburb community called Raytown. It is presumed that Raytown is somewhere in the South or Midwest. Although a specific state is never mentioned as the setting of the show, some of the cast claim that it was modeled after the actual city of Raytown, Missouri. It is often mentioned on the show that the town is in "the Tri-state Area," which means it is located near the junction of three states. It should be noted that Raytown, Missouri actually is located near such a junction—that of Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska.


The show centered around a squabbling family headed by buxom Thelma Harper, a gray-haired, opinionated, sharp-tongued widow. Living with her originally was only her high-strung, stick-in-the-mud sister Fran, a journalist for a local paper. At the start of the series, her somewhat dim-witted son, Vinton (whose wife had just left him to become a Las Vegas showgirl), and his two children, Sonja and Vinton Jr. ("Buzz"), moved in with her. Vinton was a locksmith by trade and took a job at Kwik Keys, a lock sales shop in the Raytown Mall.

During the first season, Vinton had a relationship with the flirtatious next-door neighbor Naomi (a checker at a grocery store called Food Circus), whom he soon married. Thelma thought little of Naomi, referring to her as a floozy. Also seen (but occasionally) during the first few seasons was her daughter, foulmouthed Eunice, Eunice's husband Ed, and her other daughter, the snobbish Ellen; Ellen's husband, Bruce, was talked about but never seen. Both Eunice and Ed had appeared in “The Family” skits on the Carol Burnett Show, and Ellen had also occasionally appeared. Although Eunice never appeared again after the show's syndication, she was referred to numerous times, and a younger actress played her in a flashback of a Mother-Daughter dinner in which she embarrasses Thelma by arriving completely drunk. This episode also reinstated the fact that Iola has lived across the street from the Harpers since birth.

When the show went into syndication, major cast changes occurred and only Thelma, Vinton, and Naomi remained as regulars from the first seasons. Vinton’s children, Buzz and Sonja, had moved away, never to be spoken of again. Aunt Fran had passed away (Rue McClanahan left the show to star in another NBC sitcom The Golden Girls), and Eunice and Ed had moved to Florida. Their son Bubba, who had just been released from juvenile hall after doing time for car theft, was foisted on his grandma Thelma to raise. He moved into Fran's old room, much to the disgust of Vinton and Naomi who thought that they were going to move into that room (their bedroom was in the basement).

Also added to the cast of characters was Iola, a thirty-something prissy neighbor with a crush on Vinton. Iola lived with her demanding and severely obese mother and her equally eccentric father (both referred to but never seen) and had practically no social life, especially with men, choosing to hang around Thelma much of the time, sometimes to Thelma’s annoyance. Iola had been friends with the Harpers since childhood. She was known for her numerous and ridiculous handi-crafts, including the Monitor and Merrimac kitchen cozies. She was usually the most knowledgable of the group, but much of this "knowledge" seemed to come from various magazines and television programs such as Oprah. Although Iola was not added to the cast until the show went into first-run syndication, it was told that she lived across the street from the Harpers her entire life. She's known for her catchphrase: "Knock, knock!" (rather than actually knocking on the door)

A recurring theme throughout the syndicated seasons was Naomi's desire to become a mother. Following through with this, the penultimate season concluded with Naomi's announcement that she was pregnant. Preparation for the baby then became a major theme in the final season. The series finale had Naomi giving birth to a baby girl, whom the family decided to name Tiffany Thelma.


  • Thelma Harper, the sardonic, widowed matriarch of her family. Played by Vicki Lawrence.
    • Vinton Harper, Thelma's slow-witted son and third husband of Naomi. Works at Kwik Keys as a locksmith. Played by Ken Berry.
    • Naomi Oates Harper, Vinton's girlfriend and later, second wife. Works as a checker, and later, regional manager of Food Circus, a local grocery store. Vinton's pet-name for her is "Skeeter," and no one seems to know why. Played by Dorothy Lyman.
      • Vinton "Buzz" Harper, Jr., Vint's son with his first wife. He later moved out and was never spoken of again. Played by Eric Brown.
      • Sonja Harper, Vint's daughter with his first wife. Like her brother, she later moved out and was never spoken of again. Played by Karin Argoud.
      • Tiffany Thelma Harper, Vint and Naomi's newborn daughter. Born in the series finale.
    • Ellen Jackson, Thelma's rich, snobby daughter. Played by Betty White.
    • Eunice Higgins, Thelma's short-tempered and melodramatic daughter. Played by Carol Burnett.
    • Ed Higgins, Eunice's dolt of a husband. Played by Harvey Korman.
      • Bubba Higgins, Ed and Eunice's son. Just returned from juvenile hall. Played by Allan Kayser.
  • Aunt Fran Crowley, Thelma's sister. Works as a newspaper reporter and free-lance writer. Dies by choking on a toothpick. Played by Rue McClanahan.
  • Iola Boyland, Thelma's nosy, prissy neighbor. Lives with her obese mother and eccentric father. Has a crush on Vinton. Played by Beverly Archer.


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