A chat with Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett's TV sister
New York — Carol Burnett's television sister is finally making it on her own. Well, sort of. Vicki Lawrence, who got her start in TV playing Miss Burnett's look-alike sibling on the ''Carol Burnett Show'' and progressed to also playing Carol's mother in the famous Eunice sketches, is now the star of her own show, in which she plays Eunice's Mama every week: Mama's Family (NBC, Saturdays, 9-9:30 p.m., premiering this Saturday, Jan. 22.)
While Carol Burnett is not a weekly fixture on the show, she will be appearing in three of the first 13 segments, although not on the first. And yes, it is NBC (CBS, which has always been the home of the ''Carol Burnett Show,'' passed this one up).
Since all 13 in the series so far ordered by NBC have already been completed, Mama (Miss Lawrence, that is) came callin' to promote the supposedly Kansas-based comedy the other day. Her Malibu-country tan and sunny good nature seemed just a bit out of place in the blustery New York weather, although Vicki has prepared herself for the unaccustomed Eastern cold weather with a woolly fake-fur coat and a turtleneck sweater. She smiles a lot and manages to transfer her irrepressible sense of well-being to everybody within earshot or eyesight.
But our talk posed a problem for this critic. I had seen the premiere. And to put it mildly, I didn't like it very much. The problem was how to continue the interview with the enthusiastic star of a new series and not jolt her with my negative feelings about the show. It opens with co-director Harvey Korman introducing the series as Alistair Quince (in a parody of Alistair Cooke), then moves a la ''All in the Family'' to a house in the suburbs, and ends with a kind of parody of the end of ''The Waltons,'' moving away from the house as you hear the characters chatting inside.
Good start; good ending. The difficulty lies in what's in between. Bickering. Constant bickering among all the characters. Will America really find it amusing to watch Mama and her family argue with one another? Well, nobody could have predicted that TV audiences would take Archie Bunker to their hearts, either.
Maybe things will improve as the series progresses. At least, that's what Vicki hinted. ''As a character, Mama is now changed. She's gotten lovable and cute. It's not just that head-on screaming and yelling like it used to be.''
So in future segments will the show try to become a bit more serious in portraying a matriarchal household?
Vicki shrugs. ''Mainly, it's a very funny show . . . I hope. But for me the most fun has been the development of the show to the point where I feel we are also making a serious statement. It's really about the inability of people who should love each other the most to express that love to each other. I think it is a universal problem that we are so often cruel to the people we love. A lot of the things that loved ones say to each other, friends would never accept.''
Suddenly she realizes that the interview is becoming heavy and changes the subject. ''Say,'' she says with still another twinkle in her eye, ''you haven't even asked me about how I got to know Carol. Everybody does that.''
So I ask her to repeat the story which has become show-biz legend.
''I was in high school in Englewood, California, and I used to write fan letters to everybody to sort of keep me off the streets. Everybody said I looked like Carol Burnett. So when I was 17, I entered a 'Miss Fireball' contest in my hometown. It was in honor of the annual Firemen's Ball - the winner would represent the fire department and slide down a lot of poles or something. A local newspaper did an article on each of the entrants, so I took the one about me and sent it to Carol, telling her that everybody said I looked like her and that I would like to meet her someday. She saw my dad's name in the story, looked him up in the phone directory, and called me one afternoon.
I heard her voice and couldn't believe it. I froze - not a sound could come out of my mouth. Like in a dream. She told me just to listen, that she was coming to see the contest. I thought she was crazy . . . but I got her tickets. They announced that she would crown the winner and when it turned out to be me, nobody believed the contest hadn't been fixed.
''A couple of months later, her husband called and told me they were going to do a kid-sister segment and if I knew the way to the CBS studios I could audition for the part. I was absolutely awful in the beginning, but Carol now says she saw the potential from the start. I was hired and I've been there ever since.''
Are Carol and Vicki still friends now?
''She's really like my older sister. After we did the pilot, she wrote me a long letter telling me how wonderful I was and saying that since Mama was the strongest character, it should be my show.''
What next for Vicki?
A laugh, and for one moment a serious look. ''Well, I hope 'Mama' runs for 12 years. But if the show really becomes popular, I'm going to have a definite need to be me, rather than the much older lady I play. I'll want to put on a pretty dress and sing. I think coming East and doing something like Broadway would probably be a good career move. Lots of times you get lost in the TV shuffle out there. . . .''
Has she considered writing another fan letter to somebody else, enclosing her own look-alike picture?
No chuckle this time - Vicki roars.
''Well, I wrote to Raquel Welch. . . . But she didn't answer. . . .'' 'bootlegging'
You may soon be surprised to discover that you have inadvertently become a videotape ''criminal.''
Briefs were filed the other day by both sides in a suit before the US Supreme Court. Now it is expected there will be a ruling before spring as to whether you are violating the law if you videotape programs at home from your television screen.
In 1981, the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that videotaping at home constituted an infringement on the copyrights of companies that owned rights to films and videotapes being broadcast. This ruling overturned a previous federal court ruling that home videotaping constituted ''fair use.''
Walt Disney Productions and Universal Studios, which brought the original suit against Sony, have appealed the case to the final authority - the US Supreme Court. The decision is awaited with great trepidation by all involved.
If the court rules in favor of the studios, owners of the videocassette recorders may find themselves paying royalty and user fees for blank cassettes, or, perhaps, on the purchase of VCRs themselves. And recording at home without permission may be judged a misdemeanor.
So, if like millions of other VCR owners you are planning to videotape that final ''M*A*S*H'' episode next month, be forewarned: It could put you in the guardhouse. Japan invades US TV, too
In the midst of the controversy over controlling Japanese imports comes word that a weekly two-hour Japanese-American magazine-format television series will will be aired nationwide on CBN Cable Network, allegedly reaching 18 million homes. Beyond the Horizon (premiering Sunday, Feb. 6, 2-4 p.m., check local listings) will be a co-production of TeleJapan and Custom Network Broadcasting Inc.
The series will explore various aspects of Japanese culture, past and present , both in Japan and in the US.
Nobuko Maehori, general manager of TeleJapan, says: ''The economies of our two nations have been inseparably linked over the past decades. While we have diligently been producing cars and cameras for export to America, we have not spent enough time finding ways for Americans to get to know us as people.''
He hopes the show is a step in this direction. Some jobless Americans, however, might consider it still another step in the Japanese commercial invasion of American markets.
The show's hostess will be Celeste Holm, so despite the best of intentions, it may turn out to be ''Ado Annie Goes East.''