Before Tyler Perry's Madea was delivering irreverent wisdom, there was Vicki Lawrence's Thelma Harper, aka Mama, on "The Carol Burnett Show." The curmudgeonly character was so successful with audiences that the spinoff "Mama's Family" was created around her. Ms. Lawrence also played the grandmother on the popular "Hannah Montana" show starring Miley Cyrus. The 63-year-old comedian and actress also had a No. 1 single on the Billboard charts, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia." Today she tours the country with "Vicki Lawrence and Mama: A Two Women Show." She's been married since 1974 to Al Schultz, and they have two grown children. She will be the special guest of Lutheran SeniorLife Services Foundation's "Excellence Is Ageless" event Friday at Heinz Field Club East Lounge; 724-453-6015.
You had a huge hit with "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia." Why do you think so many people didn't realize it was you singing?
I think back in the day you didn't cross-pollinate in show business like you do now. Back then recording stars didn't do TV. TV stars didn't go on to the movies very often. Movie stars never did television -- it was considered low class. Now everyone cross-pollinates.
So when I had the hit record, people couldn't figure out who I was or where I came from. I remember I would do interviews with disc jockeys, and they would say, "Where have you been?" "Well, I've been on 'The Carol Burnett Show' for five years."
I remember distinctly when I had that hit record I thought, OK, people are finally going to get my name straight because I got "Carol Lawrence" all the time. People would get Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence all mushed together in their brains, and, bless their hearts, it would come out Carol Lawrence. I flew to New York to do a commercial back in the day when people could meet you at the gate, and the little agent when I came off the plane said, "Oh, Miss Carr, we are so happy to have you here." I went, "Oh, for goodness sakes" [laughing].
Are you a go-with-the-flow kind of gal or do you second-guess yourself?
I definitely go with the flow because I feel like I have been so lucky and so many things have happened to me that just never should have happened. They have happened in odd ways. It's never been like an agent has put together a deal. It's always been sort of serendipitous. It's sort of like play with the doors until one opens and go through and see what happens.
You seem to be able to pick the right door.
I think the doors pick me for the most part [laughing]. Like I said, it has been very serendipitous, and I've been very lucky.
Doing Mama, did it bother you to play old so young?
I thought it then. I think I do it pretty well. Honestly, I was the supporting female on Carol's show. I feel like I was always playing the wicked witch or the grandma or the principal of the school. I was always that supporting female because she was Shirley Temple and I was the head of the school. That's the way it was.
So at the time this was just another old lady to play -- it's kind of what I did. I drew on mothers that were in my life at the time. I had a Southern mother-in-law who helped me along quite a bit. I had a crazy mom, so she helped a lot [laughing]. And Carol -- she wanted to do it Southern, so I was just trying to find an older version of Eunice.
Have you ever pulled that Mama character out around the house in your day-to-day life?
Once in a great while. Not too much. Every Halloween people want me to dress up as Mama, but I feel like I dress up like her all the time, so I'm not doing it [laughing]. ... We have a pretty silly household. Our daughter is a professor at Colorado State in forestry and environmental policy. She calls me all the time and says, "Mom, nobody has my sense of humor [laughing]. They all think I'm nuts."
She said, "How the heck do you get through it without laughing?" People are so darn serious, especially in academia, it's got to be even harder. But we love to laugh.
You took a lot of flack after posting the YouTube skit with Mama mocking Ted Williams, the homeless man with the great voice who did the talk show rounds after being discovered panhandling. Did that bother you?
I was a little bit surprised. It didn't bother me because I just feel like, good Lord, people, first of all lighten up. It was just meant to be silly, and who in the world doesn't take a bunch of flack for anything they do now? At this point, I want to post another video and say, "Excuse me, I rest my case." Where is he?
I'm sorry Ted Williams was not ready to pull himself out of the gutter. So I'm sorry, I was a little bit jealous when he was on the "Today" show kissing everybody, and he got to meet Kobe Byrant. I'm like, "Wait a minute!"
You've watched the evolution of television from "The Carol Burnett Show" days to today's reality TV. What do you make of it?
I don't know. I don't watch it because I don't get it. I don't get people baring their lives on television. Maybe it makes other people feel better about themselves. Is that what it is? You watch these people making total fools of themselves. It's like there's absolutely no privacy.
I was "Grandma" on "Hannah Montana," and I have people all the time wanting to know how Miley Cyrus is going to turn out and what's to become of her. She's a young woman. She's got a lot to go through, and when I was her age I was doing it all privately. There were no cell phones and people taking videos of you and posting them all over the world! The Internet is the world now.
You were allowed to make your mistakes and learn and grow at your own speed. I don't know that I would choose it again because she is under such a microscope. They all are. God love her. She is doing the best she can. She's got a good family, and knock wood she will get through it. It is so different -- every piece of clothing she puts on her body, every word that comes out of her mouth. Someone just the other night said, "I'll tell you what I wouldn't have done. Those pictures in Vanity Fair." I said, "Good Lord! I would have if I was that adorable and my dad was that handsome. I probably would have done the same thing!" [laughing]
How do you keep a character like Mama, who you have played so often or a song like "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" that you have sung thousands of times from being lifeless?
Every audience is different. You go on a journey with that audience every night. I know when I started doing my show, it was 10 years ago, and I was scared to death because I had never been on a stage all by myself for 90 minutes.
With "Georgia," it's good I sing it so many times because the story never made any sense, and I know it so well now. I think a good song is always a good song. I think for yourself, you find new little nuances that are fun to play with. Mama for me is my chance to go out on stage and be Chris Rock. Maybe not Chris Rock. That's going a little too far, although we love him. It's my chance to push the envelope a little bit. I deliberately try to keep her very topical so she changes a lot.
Growing up, were you a reticent child?
Extremely, horribly shy. I think a lot of performers will tell you they were very shy as a child. My mom would say, "Sit down for the company and play a song on your guitar" and I was just mortified. I did have a lot of imaginary friends. I did a lot of play acting in my room. You know, my mom would take me to a musical, and I would come home and dance with the doors.
Do you get a rush of adrenaline every time you get on stage?
Yes, and a stage I think is a different feeling than in the living room with the guests who are over for Thanksgiving [laughing].