I talked to Carol Burnett on the phone last week. It was for an interview I was doing about her getting the lifetime achievement honor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. She was perfectly lovely, and I’m sure all the stories about her being genuine and beatific and otherwise purely wonderful are true. The thing that struck me the most about talking to her was how it felt like I was talking to a beloved aunt. I’m sure this reaction is common. She has that way about her.
I’d actually only seen a handful of the most famous sketches from The Carol Burnett show beforehand, so I noodled around on YouTube watching whatever came up. The show was pretty wild, and I think our conception of sketch comedy has become so shaped by Saturday Night Live that we forget how well long-form sketches can work. Take this 1975 takeoff on Cinderella, for example, with the Pointer Sisters playing the evil stepsisters.
My introduction to Carol Burnett, however, came in the form of Mama’s Family, which aired on a weird indie station in my hometown that also provided Matlock, Perry Mason and whatever movies they could get their hands on. But even then, it wasn’t easy to trace the show back to Carol Burnett. Though Thelma Harper and her family started on a recurring skit on The Carol Burnett Show, Burnett herself only reprised the role of Eunice — awful, striving Eunice — in only a handful of Mama’s Family episodes. And beyond the second season, after NBC cancelled the series and episodes were running in syndication first, Burnett doesn’t appear at all.
In going back to look at old sketches, I also found out that in 1982, CBS aired Eunice, a ninety-minute movie about the Harper family that works more like a four-act play. Eunice led to Mama’s Family premiering in January 1983, clearly, but it’s a lot different. It plays out more like All in the Family or maybe some Norman Lear one-off about the death of the American dream. It’s dark. It’s also good in a way that Mama’s Family wasn’t and maybe never tried to be.
Here’s the entire film, though I’m going to post one important scene later in the piece.
The film consists of four vignettes spread across time — in 1955, 1963, 1973 and 1978 — and over the course of them you see Eunice evolve from a young woman with creative aspirations into a sad, alcoholic divorcée. Ken Barry, who played the dumb son Vinton on Mama’s Family is in the movie too, but playing a different character: Phillip, Eunice’s writer brother who becomes successful and leaves the family to move to Los Angeles. The fact that he left is a major point of discord for Mama and Eunice. He also may be coded as gay, but I’m also possibly jus projecting because Phillip is me, if you ignore the whole “successful writer” part. Betty White plays Ellen, Mama’s third child, more or less as she does on the show — stuck up and eager to rub Ellen’s nose in her relatively comfortable life.
The most interesting difference between Eunice and Mama’s Family is the fact that the movie kills off Mama before the final vignette, which centers around the three Harper children returning to the family home after the funeral. It’s a heartbreaking scene, really. Faced with her failure of a life and a lack of anyone to live for now that her mother has died, Eunice crumbles. Phillip convinces her that she should follow her dreams and move to L.A. with him. She agrees, and for a moment she has hope. But then she gets a call from an elderly aunt suffering from a sore back, and Eunice agrees to help her out, even let her move into Mama’s old room. She decides to postpone moving to L.A., and the film ends with the implication that she’ll never go.
Watch the clip — even a little bit of it. You’ll be surprised how straight Burnett and the rest play it. They get real. The audience chuckles a bit before they realize that for this big scene, the cast is not trying for laughs.
It’s interesting that Mama’s Family would evolve out this TV movie, because the sitcom was very much centered around a family unit that was dysfunctional but ultimately necessary. Eunice, however, seems to argue that family life can be toxic and ultimately destructive to anyone who dreams of something more than simply marrying and reproducing. Phillip only achieves creative success by leaving the family, whereas not leaving it destroys Eunice.
There are scattered hints at Mama’s Family throughout. Naomi Oates, she of the off-the-shoulder margarita waitress look and the character who would marry Vinton on the show, gets mentioned as Eunice’s drinking buddy. Also mentioned but unseen is Bubba, who in the movie runs away from home. And while the unseen aunt with the sore back isn’t Fran (Rue McClanahan), I’m going to consider her a kinda-sorta forerunner, just because I like Aunt Fran.
This deep into the post, I suppose I should explain why the hell I decided to write about an old sitcom that I suspect most people don’t remember as well as I do, to say nothing of remembering it fondly. When I was a kid, Mama’s Family hit just right. As Mama, Vicki Lawrence said funny things and spat out PG-rated insults to dummies. I would still watch even in high school, even if teenaged me had gravitated more toward Mary Tyler Moore at that point. It was a comfort thing.
Eunice, however, is good, and that’s 33-year-old me saying that. On its own, it’s like a dark little play about how small-town America isn’t a safe place for certain kinds of children. This version of Raytown (and real-life Raytowns around the country) work hard to stamp out the desire to try hard and be different. I’m speaking from my own experience, of course, but that’s why this pop culture footnote resonated so strongly. As a predecessor to Mama’s Family, however, Eunice is the kind of stuff I live for — a weird, forgotten history to something most people remember as this benign, familiar thing. It’s like finding a lost Brady Bunch pilot where Carol’s husband dies of a self-inflicted gunshot and Mike’s ex-wife runs off because the fourth Brady boy drowned in the bathtub.
And if you have any sort of soft spot for Mama’s Family, either in spite of or because of how corny it could be, watch Eunice. It’s a look into an alternate dimension, and how often do we get a chance at those?