Our Judge Dennis Prince has been very forthcoming about his respect for his mama, knowing he'd "get the belt" if ever he was caught speaking out of turn.
Twenty-eight years before Cedric the Entertainer ever entertained the patrons of Barbershop, daily life was going down at Oscar's Barbershop and you could see it all, week by week, on ABC TV. Now Sony offers this unsung 70s artifact, That's My Mama—The Complete First Season. So sit down, lean back, and enjoy a soothing clip of those swingin' 70s.
Facts of the Case
Clifton Curtis (Clifton Davis, Scott Joplin) has inherited his late father's barber shop, Oscar's Place. Actually, it's a converted extension of the family's Washington, D.C., home where Clifton lives with his mother, Eloise "Mama" Curtis (Theresa Merritt, The Wiz). While Clifton, a very eligible bachelor, makes himself available to just about every eligible young woman that catches his eye and enjoys his light-hearted lifestyle, Mama wishes he would find the right girl and settle down. As the two tug in opposite ways on this matter, they share a common approach to those regulars who visit Oscar's Place and bring all manner of opportunity and calamity. Whether it's his best friend, mail carrier Earl (Teddy Wilson, Cotton Comes to Harlem), his capricious sister, Tracy (Lynne Moody, Roots), or the vivaciously free-spirited Junior (Ted Lange, The Love Boat), Clifton and Mama have their hands full every time the barber shop door opens (and often long after it has closed, too).
The 1970s pumped viewers full of all sorts of situation comedies and, perhaps in backlash to the obnoxiously bigoted Archie Bunker of All in the Family but also riding the coattails of the wildly popular anti-Archie spin-off The Jeffersons, black comedies began to flourish and develop their own strong followings. Able to span cultural boundaries, African-American comedies like Sanford and Son, Good Times, and What's Happening filled up prime-time viewing slots each week. Although it's not regularly cited in conversations of emerging black comedy of the 1970s, That's My Mama was one of the better shows. While there's nothing very new about situation itself, the show's actors help set it apart from being considered truly mundane or trite. Clifton Davis is excellent from the first episode, providing all manner of natural reactions and comedic nuances that show he's acting for the home viewer and not just the resident studio audience, unlike actors in many lesser sitcoms who look about the stage and are caught momentarily out of character while they wait for the live laughter to subside. Davis's work here is excellent and he manages the imposed audience reaction delays to near perfection. Theresa Merritt is absolutely spot-on as Mama, showing that warm milk-of-human-kindness quality yet able to bark out a retort or reaction to uproarious effect. She, too, plays to the home audience, using well-controlled facial expressions (especially the classic double-take) wonderfully. The rest of the ensemble likewise do well in their respective roles, although without achieving the excellence of Davis or Merritt. Teddy Wilson became well recognized in his role of the often-bumbling Earl as did Lisle Wilson (Sisters) in the role of Leonard, bookish husband to Tracy. Of course, it was Ted Lange's characterization of Junior that put him on the TV map, his reliable "Ooooohh…weeeeEEE!" eliciting laughs much like Fred Berry's "What's happening!!" or Jimmie Walker'
As far as the situations themselves go, That's My Mama doesn't cover anything particularly groundbreaking, although it is refreshing that it refrains from making more of the same old "whitey" or "honkey" put-downs as did some of its TV brethren, thereby making it all the more enjoyable to viewers across cultures. In general, though, you'll find Clifton up to his ears in precarious predicaments, Mama trudging through her own field of life's landmines, and the rest of the cast pitching in or putting up their fair share of digressions and dilemmas. Again, the writing isn't particularly standout but the acting really helps add a sparkle to the show.
Here are the episodes you find in this boxed set:
• "Whose Child is This?"
• "Clifton's Persuasion"
• "Earl's Girls"
Each episode is presented in a 1.33:1 full frame format as originally televised and looks good. The color is vivid and well rendered while embodying the appropriate level blandness that seemed to permeate much of the 70s sitcom production value. To that end, it works to retain the texture of the times and makes it a fun-to-look-at relic of that funky decade. You will see the usual softness, associated with the source video masters, inherent in many other sitcom releases of the day. The episodes never look bad but they're certainly not as crisp as the material we get from more current productions. The audio is suitable in an intelligible Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. The dialogue is always easy to understand and the audience's chorus of laughs never reach that sometimes piercing shrillness found on other sitcom discs. Sadly, there are no extras here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, there was a bit more than hair being trimmed at Oscar's Place, and that includes these episodes of That's My Mama. As seems to be an increasingly common (and infuriating) practice in many studios' method, this boxed-set is made up of edited syndication-length episodes. Each show runs just about 22 minutes, about 2 minutes shy of their original running time. The excised material isn't too obvious in its absence, yet the fact that it's missing with nary a disclaimer is just wrong. What would Mama say?
It's great to be back at Oscar's Place to witness the wit and wisdom of Clifton, Mama, Earl, and the rest. This is a true "sleeper" of a show that, while it ran for two seasons and comprised a respectable 39 episodes, has been wrongly overlooked by many 70s TV historians. Have a seat and enjoy the proceedings. Mama insists.
The cast and crew of That's My Mama are found not guilty of any wrongdoing whereas those at Sony Home Entertainment are hereby sentenced to be dry-shaved for their un-merited release of edited episodes.
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