A bubbly performer of variety shows, light comedy and game shows, Vicki Lawrence was discovered by Carol Burnett in a manner that has become show business legend. Lawrence was still a high school student in Inglewood, a small city surrounded by Los Angeles, when she wrote a fan letter to Carol Burnett remarking on how people thought they looked alike. Burnett examined the enclosed photograph and agreed. She surprised the younger woman by telephoning her and agreeing to attend the Miss Fireball pageant which Lawrence went on to win. Realizing that Lawrence had some performing experience (she had appeared with the Young Americans singing group for three years), Burnett and her husband, Joe Hamilton, signed Lawrence to appear as a regular on Burnett's CBS variety series, primarily to portray Burnett's younger sister in an on-going skit. While Lawrence was raw at first, she soon grew as a performer and took on more roles, remaining with the show for its entire 11-season run. She won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in Variety in 1975 for her work.
Over the years, Lawrence developed a repertoire of characters and was often well-cast in support of Burnett, particularly in the movie spoofs (i.e., spoofing Ann Blyth in the "Mildred Pierce"-inspired skit). But the younger actress really excelled at playing Mama, the crusty, crabby, sourly realistic matriarch of a Southern family with Burnett as her disappointed daughter. With no makeup, a gray wig and support hose, Lawrence created a three dimensional character, alternating between the monstrous and the sympathetic. These sketches of "The Family" eventually evolved into the primetime sitcom "Mama's Family" (NBC, 1983-84; syndicated 1986-90).
Lawrence was also blossoming and coming into her own in other ways. In 1968, she played the soubrette Carrie Pipperidge in a production of "Carousel" at the Dallas Music Hall. CBS also put her into "The Jimmie Rodgers Show", a 1969 summer series. She had a hit record with 1972's "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia", written by her first husband Bobby Russell. A frequent guest on game and talk shows and an effervescent personality in her own right, Lawrence demonstrated a growing popular appeal in the heartland. She made guest appearances on other TV series, including "The Love Boat", and also played light roles in TV-movies, like "Having Babies" (ABC, 1976) and "Anything for Love" (NBC, 1985). From 1987-88, Lawrence hosted the daytime version of the game show "Win, Lose or Draw" and while she was not the first woman to host a game show, it was nevertheless a rare occurrence. She launched a daytime talk show, "Vicki!" dedicated to entertainment, such as reuniting the casts of classic TV series in 1992. She also co-produced the effort alongside her second husband, Al Schultz. The show, a precursor of the type made popular by Rosie O'Donnell later in the decade, ran in syndication for two seasons, but Lawrence and distributor Group W began a public war when Lawrence quit the show claiming her input into program content and her husband's involvement as a producer had been disregarded. Although she eventually returned to the show, it was for a brief time; sagging ratings and the ongoing bad feelings resulted in its cancellation. Lawrence wrote of the events in her autobiography, "Vicki!: The True-Life Adventures of Miss Fireball", published in 1995.