The 'Girl Writer' Behind 'I Love Lucy' Dies

Madelyn Pugh Davis, pioneering television writer, author, and role model for women everywhere, has passed away at the age of 90 


Ya gotta love Lucy, the zany, fiery redhead who would do anything for a television laugh. But the woman behind the early queen of television comedy, Lucille Ball, was pioneering television writer Madelyn Pugh Davis, who helped create the classic gags for the beloved black-and-white I Love Lucy sit-com in the early 1950s. Davis, a role model for women in broadcasting, died Wednesday at age 90.

Amidst the sea of serious global events dominating the news, it seems like a good time to take an I Love Lucy break and celebrate some of the great comic moments--and memories-that Davis and her longtime writing partner Bob Carroll Jr. helped create for several generations of fans. The groundbreaking original Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) series, which ran from October 15, 1951 to May 6, 1957, was one of the first scripted TV shows to be shot on 35mm film in front of a television audience. It won five Emmys and for four seasons was the most-watched show on TV (we used to say TV a lot more back when).

"During the formative years of television, when few women were working behind the screen, Madelyn Pugh Davis wrote one of the most popular shows of all time," said the Paley Center.

The centerpiece, of course, was Ball as the scatter-brained housewife Lucy Ricardo who longs for stardom but always ends up in trouble. She was joined by her real-life first husband Desi Arnaz playing himself, a handsome Cuban singer-bandleader. Then there were their best friends the Mertzes, stingy Fred and wry Ethyl,  the sidekick landlords in their fictional East Side New York City apartment building. Little Ricky came along in the second season, timed to go along with Ball's real-life pregnancy and delivery, in one of the most-watched episodes in television history.

For me, hand's down, the funniest memory is of Lucy and her neighbor Ethyl (Vivien Vance), in tidy uniforms and big baker's hats, working at a candy factory. They have flunked out of several departments when a stern supervisor gives them their "last chance," working on an assembly line wrapping pieces of chocolate on their way to the packing room. You know the drill: Things start out fine, but the conveyor belt begins to go much, much faster than the two women's hands can keep up. So, as the candy speeds by, they begin hiding their failures by stuffing the extra unwrapped pieces in their mouths and hats. Watch the three-minute video excerpt on YouTube; I dare you not to laugh.

A still photo of that wonderful show, hanging in Davis's home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles (signed "To Mad" by Ball and Vance) is on the wall behind a very proper-looking, blonde-bobbed Davis in the photo that ran with her lengthy Los Angeles Times obituary Thursday.

A close runner-up is an episode in which Lucy does a television commercial for a health tonic called Vitameatavegamin, which is 23 percent alcohol. She doesn't know it, of course, so in the rehearsal she keeps sampling the tonic ("spoon your way to health") and gets progressively drunker and tongue-tied over that absurd name. Watch this one too.

Ball, who died in 1989, was one of the few stars to credit "the writers" at every turn for the enduring appeal of her CBS show, which continued in various incarnations after the original series ended. Happily the show lived on in syndicated reruns long after its initial run, and in recent years became a perennial bestseller as pricey boxed DVD sets to Lucy fans eager to replay favorite episodes at their leisure.

Presented by

Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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