Last we left off, it was the late 1940s and Madelyn Pugh Davis and her scriptwriting partner Bob Carroll Jr. had just set their sights to write for the coast-to-coast CBS radio show My Favorite Husband starring Lucille Ball.
At the time, Davis and Carroll were writing in California for a Pacific network show starring the up-and-coming Steve Allen, but they wanted to write for a nation-wide audience. They wrote a script on spec for My Favorite Husband and, much to their surprise, it was purchased. They were hired immediately to write with head writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer.
A TV pilot would be created based on the radio program. Lucy wanted a show where the husband was played by her real husband, Desi Arnaz. Desi performed on the road with his band and the couple rarely saw one another. If Desi played Lucy’s husband, then the two would see more of one another in their home in the San Fernando Valley. But, the network hierarchy thought the audience would not believe that Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it.
To prove her point, Lucy and Desi decided to gauge audience reaction by going on the road with an act they asked Davis and Carroll to write—a shtick where Desi performed his usual show with his band, and Lucy would continually interrupt in an attempt to join the act. The performance eventually became the pilot for I Love Lucy, which aired on March 2, 1951. The show sold, and CBS offered Davis and Carroll $800 per episode to write it. I Love Lucy became the first television series to depict an interracial couple.
Davis admired Desi for his business sense and positivity, and the fact that he liked and appreciated writers. If he heard “not possible,” his response was, “Why not?” Desi’s “there-must-be-a-way” attitude was challenged as I Love Lucy was launching. At the time, almost all hit TV shows were performed and aired live from New York because the largest audience was on the East Coast. The rest of the country saw a poor quality “kinescope” of the show. Desi and Lucy did not want to move to New York, so Desi came up with a groundbreaking idea—I Love Lucy became the first television comedy to be filmed using a three-camera format in front of a live studio audience.
In her memoir Laughing with Lucy, Davis said Lucille Ball was a comedy writer’s dream. She made whatever was written look funny and believable. Lucy was a perfectionist. If she had to work with a prop, she wanted the prop available the first day of rehearsal so she could become accustomed to it and flesh out any problems. Lucy often developed additional funny nuances during rehearsal that Davis and Carroll had not envisioned as they were writing.
Davis and Carroll wrote for Lucy for a total of twenty years. Davis said, “I think we were like her security blanket. She didn’t want us ever to fly on the same plane, and for some reason she wanted us to get married.” The comedy writers never married but were partners in scripting for more than fifty years. Interviewers often asked Lucy what the secret was to her popularity and the longevity of her shows, and she always answered: “My writers.”
Many thought Lucy and her fellow actors ad-libbed their lines, but every word and move was scripted. Often, Davis acted out a scene in the office to be sure it would work for Lucy on set.
Davis wrote, “People are very vague about just what it is a writer does. When it comes to television, they are only dimly aware that there ARE writers. You mean all that stuff is actually written down? And it is a no-win situation. The more natural your dialogue is, the more people think the actors are just talking to each other as they go along.”
In a Criterion Television Classics interview, Lucy said, “”Many times when we would review at the beginning of the season, they would say Viv (Vivian Vance) and I ad-libbed our way through some mediocre writing. They have since found out that that was ridiculous. They know how great our writers are because hundreds of people have copied from them. I have such respect for those kids, my writers I call ‘the kids,’ Bob and Madelyn.”
One would not even begin to think that I Love Lucy was ad-libbed if they had been in the office of Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. when they crafted their scripts. It took the duo an entire day and a half of thinking, bantering and typing to perfect just one word. That one word is now an I Love Lucy iconic masterwork of prose—Vitameatavegamin.
Pugh Davis, Madelyn, with Bob Carroll Jr., Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy (Cincinnati: Emmis Books, 2005)
Fernancez, Sofia M, ‘I Love Lucy’: 5 things to Know About the Series, The Hollywood Reporter, 6 Aug. 2011, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/i-love-lucy-5-things-220036. Accessed 30 Jan. 2017.
Gilbert, Tom, “The Woman Behind Lucy’s Laughs,” The New York Times, 5 Aug. 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/arts/television/madelyn-pugh-davis-the-woman-behind-lucys-laughs.html. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.
Hievesi, Dennis, “Madelyn Pugh Davis, Writer for ‘I Love Lucy,’ Dies at 90,” The New York Times, 21 April 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/22/arts/television/madelyn-pugh-davis-writer-for-i-love-lucy-dies-at-90.html. Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.