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

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

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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.

"My mother never accepted an award where she didn't immediately say, 'I could not have done this without the writers.' She always put them first," said daughter Lucie Arnaz, in the LA Times story by Dennis McClellan. Arnaz called Davis "a class act....a very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine--all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother."

The series became so universally known around the world that it even made for some humorous recollections in the science-writing community yesterday. My colleague Ira Flatow, of NPR's Science Friday, wrote on Facebook that the late astronomer "Carl Sagan used to say that aliens would learn about earth by listening to the signals from I Love Lucy broadcasts."

The woman who helped write those signals was an Indianapolis native who edited her high school newspaper, majored in journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington and wanted to be a foreign correspondent after her 1942 graduation. When she couldn't get a job, she got work at a local radio station writing commercials and copy.  Like so many women of her generation, her big break came during World War II when jobs in the male-dominated world of  broadcasting  opened up as men went off to serve. When her family moved to Los Angeles, Davis got a job as a staff writer for NBC radio network before moving to CBS radio.

LaughingwithLucy.jpgThere, the "girl writer" (as she was known in that era) teamed up with Carroll--a partnership that would last five decades--to produce comedy sketches for a series of radio shows, including The Steve Allen Show, before working with Ball. They started out with her radio show "My Favorite Husband" before writing the television pilot for I Love Lucy in the early era of network television. The rest is history.

Davis was honored in 2006 by the Paley Center for Media because she "not only made her mark as a writer, but also opened the door for other women to follow in her footsteps," noted the New York Times obituary today. "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.

At age 84, Davis told the story behind the show in her own memoir, Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America's Leading Lady of Comedy, co-authored with Carroll (who died in 2007). The writing duo admired Ball's spunk and willingness to try the crazy schemes they cooked up, from setting her nose on fire to stomping grapes in a vat at an Italian winery--even removing money from under an elephant's foot. But often it was Davis who gamely tried them out first to see if they would fly. Interviewed about the book for her alma mater's alumni magazine, she said that "the worst one was trying out a unicycle. I ran into a wall and hit my head. We decided it was too dangerous for Lucy."

The writers sometimes thumbed through the phone book looking for ideas, landing one day on "candy making." They went down to visit the local shop and came up with one of the show's most famous episodes.  "None of us knew we were creating a classic that would endure, a show that people would love so much they memorize episodes and shout dialogue at you," said Davis.  "At that time, we just wanted to work."

Work they did. Lucy and Desi owe a lot to Mad and Bob.

Image credits: TV Land; Clerisy Press, Emmis Books

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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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