Lawrence wants 'light, loose' show

September 01, 1992|By Jonathan Storm | Jonathan Storm,Knight-Ridder News Service

Burbank, Calif. -- If Vicki Lawrence's talk show bombs, don't blame it on a lack of publicity.

She has been all over the country flogging the syndicated product, "Vicki!," which premiered yesterday on WJZ (Channel 13).And she has developed the interview into an art form, giving everybody the same core, in almost the same words -- yet somehow making it seem interesting and fresh.

Maybe it's the salty language.

Here she is looking like a country-club lady at her show's offices in the NBC studios: spectacular nails, copper-colored dress matching her tan skin and flattering her red hair, and she's talking about the show:

"I want to keep it very light, loose. I'd have kids review all the new movies because I know, as a parent, that those kids see every frigging movie out there.

"I don't care if it's R-rated. I don't care what the hell it is."

It seems as if Ms. Lawrence, who isn't really Carol Burnett's little sister but who played that character on TV, has been around since TV was invented. She's 43, yet it's strange to hear her talking as a parent.

Or as a businesswoman, plainly lambasting network executives and Hollywood in general. She's certainly outspoken enough to host a talk show.

"I've told the kids: If you ever want to go into show business, major in business, minor in psychology. That way you'll know how to hold on to the money, and hopefully, you'll be able to figure out what the hell they're thinking about at the networks, if anything.

"The acting will come. You'll take an acting class somewhere else."

"The kids" are daughter Courtney, 17, off to Stanford this fall, and son Garrett, 15, a player in the senior division of the Long Beach Little League that sent younger boys last week to the Little League World Series.

"The networks" are unspecified, but, except for Fox -- "they're just sort of flying by the seat of their pants" -- they sound pretty much alike.

"They're all so scared of each other. One does a series about something, and then everybody comes out with a series about the same thing. They literally build series now from the computer backwards.

"It's become a computer science instead of an art form."

If the networks don't get you, Ms. Lawrence says, then the studios will, grasping for money and doing whatever is necessary to keep actors at bay.

"Talent is absolutely expendable in this town and not respected at all."

She has long said that she was exploited as a young woman on "The Carol Burnett Show," which she joined right out of high school in 1967. Even though she became a key player, she never got to the same pay level as the other, male, supporting actors.

Later, when she starred in "Mama's Family," she was threatened with being replaced by someone who would work cheaper -- VTC even though the "Mama" character she originated on the Burnett show was the central premise of the syndicated sitcom.

"It's a tough business. . . . But when you get to the stage, and the tape is running, there is just absolutely no funner thing to do.

"It's just getting through the land mines, from the office to the stage to the dressing room without running into too many of those suits. That's the trick."

The "suits" -- Hollywood parlance for executives -- have kept hands off of "Vicki!," the star said. Group W is producing the show. "They say, 'Let's ask Vicki. Let's defer to Vicki.' I'm getting to do what I'm comfortable doing."

In addition to having movie reviews by youngsters, that would include "talking about things that the average viewer sitting at home in daytime cares about . . . and doing it with a sense of humor.

"America really needs to lighten up. First of all, watching the current shows, you begin to wonder if you're the last normal person left on Earth. . . . And then everybody has to be so damn perfect. The kids have to be perfect, and the wife has to be perfect. I don't think that will ever happen, so we'd best just laugh about our differences and get on with it."

Saying she's "celebrity-friendly," Ms. Lawrence hopes that her talk show, the only daytime one based in Los Angeles, can milk the Hollywood star circuit. Her stage is almost next door to "The Tonight Show." "I'm hoping somebody will stand out in the hall with a clipboard" and sign guests up as they leave Jay Leno, she said.

Whole casts of TV shows -- including a fixture on the old "Merv Griffin Show" -- could also liven things up. "After rehearsals, we'd limo them over here."

Ms. Lawrence was keeping plenty busy before Group W, eager for a hit daytime show, approached her about doing a talker. Her "Mama's Family" continued as a first-run syndicated series from September 1986 through January 1990 following its 1983-'85 run on NBC. And while doing "Mama," she hosted the network daytime version of the "Win, Lose or Draw" quiz show for two seasons starting in 1988.

After the sitcom and the game-show runs ended, Ms. Lawrence went through what she said was a frustrating experience trying to pitch another series to the big networks. Then along came Group W's offer.

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