Vicki Lawrence: She Thought She’d Be a Dental Hygienist, but Ended Up Acting

April 03, 2013

She could have been in a dentist’s office somewhere, cleaning teeth.

“I wanted to be a dental hygienist,” said Vicki Lawrence. “I still have a little bit of a tooth fetish.”

Instead, she met comedian and actress Carol Burnett as a high school senior in California and life took a decidedly different course. She took a role on Burnett’s popular self-named variety show from 1967 to 1978 and things took off.

“I thought I was going to go to college, learn to clean teeth, marry a rich dentist and hang it up. I honestly got perilously sidetracked by Carol and by show business,” she said.

The role as the gruff and opinionated Thelma “Mama” Crowley Harper followed in the TV program “Mama’s Family” from 1983 to 1990 along with many other parts. Now, she’ll be coming to Elkhart’s Lerner Theatre on Saturday, April 6, where she’ll offer up her traveling stage production, “Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Woman Show.”

The show will start at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are still available. The Lerner Theatre box office number is 293-4469 or go to the Lerner website,

Lawrence spoke by phone Wednesday, April 3, from her home in Long Beach, Calif., offering hints of what to expect Saturday and reminiscing about the “good old days” on the “Carol Burnett Show.”

Saturday’s show: The production is divided in two parts. In the first half, Lawrence will discuss her life and how she got to where she is.

“My life has been pretty funny and pretty serendipitous. I tell the story of meeting Carol and becoming a natural redhead and meeting my husband and how Mama happened and how in the hell it is I had one giant hit record,” she said. In 1973, Lawrence received a gold record for her hit single “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” according to her bio.

Then “Mama” — sassy, sarcastic and more — comes out.

“I think she’s just one of those great characters, kind of like Archie Bunker,” Lawrence said. “Everybody knows that person. Everybody has one in their family and you love to laugh at them.”

As Mama, Lawrence uses the opportunity to push the envelope. “It’s been really fun to keep her topical, push her into the new century and let her comment on everything that’s going on in the world,” she said.

The “Carol Burnett Show”: As she describes it, Lawrence joined the “Carol Burnett Show” as a neophyte, a freshman at UCLA. “Nowadays, I think the suits would probably come down and say, ‘Get rid of her and get us a real actress,’” she said.

She described herself as “young, so inexperienced,” and it wasn’t until the midway point of the show’s 11-year run that she felt “I had the right to play with the grown-ups.” She learned, though, and thrived.

“I feel like I got to touch the golden age of television and learn from the very best teachers in the whole world,” she said.

Harvey Korman was known for cracking up during skits with Tim Conway, other Burnett show regulars, and Lawrence recalls those two — “sort of joined at the hip” — with fondness.

“They two of them were pretty special, pretty funny together,” she said. Before their skits, other cast members and workers would bet on how long it would take for Korman to laugh at Conway’s antics.

Television today: Lawrence referred to her stint on the “Carol Burnett Show” as “the good old days.”

She can’t imagine a variety show of that sort on television these days, in part because of the expense — for costumes, dancers, singers, an orchestra.

As for the current crop of reality programs, she’s lukewarm. She likes some, like “Dancing with the Stars” and “Deadliest Catch.” But she doesn’t like the trend toward outlandish behavior that seems to predominate some reality programs.

“I’d much rather watch a good drama or a good sitcom,” she said.