“Mama’s Family” was a sitcom starring Vicki Lawrence as a woman named Thelma Harper, AKA “Mama.” The series was a spinoff of a sketch called “The Family” featured on “The Carol Burnett Show” and “Carol Burnett and Company.”
True comfort food, the series began in 1983 and followed Mama (a 65-year-old wise cracking, gray-haired widow) and her family in a southern suburb. In some ways, she was Madea about twenty years before Tyler Perry put on a dress. The series was a bit of a hit or miss and was abruptly cancelled in 1984 — but it then became a trailblazer of first-run syndication, rising again in 1986 and becoming an afternoon staple on local channels nationwide.
White was a recurring character during the show’s sketch beginning, as well as its first incarnation. She played Mama’s eldest daughter Mary Ellen Harper, the snobby one of the bunch, who always thought herself too good for the Harpers’ podunk attitudes and rural influences. Married to an unseen character named Bruce Jackson, Mary Ellen had two unseen daughters named Mary Beth and Debbie.
Though White has often played dimwitted characters during her career, Mary Ellen was a smart, posh socialite. The “favorite” of Thelma’s daughters, her conflict with her Mama stemmed from their major differences in lifestyle, attitude, and outlook. White’s natural sweetness here was turned high society and a bit uppity, showcasing her range.