Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy Birthday to Pugh!

Shhh! Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have some 's'plainin' to do.

Wanna know a secret? If you've ever watched (and who hasn't?) Lucy Ricardo try to keep up with a runaway candy conveyor belt, impersonate a Martian atop the Empire State Building, get into a grape-stomping cat fight, ride the subway with a loving cup stuck on her head, do the tango with a blouse-ful of eggs, or [insert your favorite Lucy moment here], you can give a lot of the credit to Madelyn Pugh Davis.
Left to right: Lucille Ball, Bob Carroll, Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis
With her writing partner, Bob Carroll, Jr., Madelyn's first experience with Lucille Ball was as a writer for Ball's successful radio program, My Favorite Husband (1948-51). When CBS expressed interest in adapting the radio show for television, Ball agreed, on the condition that her real life husband, Desi Arnaz,  play her husband. The network balked, ironically protesting that the public wouldn't believe that the wacky, all American redhead was married to a fiery Cuban bandleader, and insisted upon Ball's radio husband, Richard Denning.

The All Americans: Richard Denning (left) in Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942) and Desi Arnaz, c. 1950

Hoping to prove their compatibility as a "reel" couple to the network, Ball and Arnaz embarked on an exhausting vaudeville tour in an act written by Pugh and Carroll. In it, the seeds of the soon-to-be legendary characters of "Lucy" and "Ricky" were planted. The act was warmly received by the public, CBS reluctantly agreed to the Ball/Arnaz package, and Pugh and Carroll, along with head writer Jess Oppenheimer, set about reworking My Favorite Husband into a new concept titled I Love Lucy.

Madelyn Pugh Davis, Jess Oppenheimer (center), Bob Carroll, Jr.
The rest, of course, is history. I Love Lucy (1951-57) was a runaway success, then morphed into a season of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour (1957-58). Staggeringly, Pugh and Carroll never won an Emmy for I Love Lucy, in spite of being nominated three times. Lucille Ball, however, was always quick to praise the contribution that the writers made to her success; and when Ball accepted I Love Lucy's Emmy for Best Situation Comedy in 1954, she remarked, "I wish we could [give it to Pugh and Carroll]." 

Brain trust: Jess Oppenheimer, Lucille Ball, Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.
If one reads the actual scripts for I Love Lucy, the writers were astonishingly explicit and specific in their descriptions of how the lines were to be projected and interpreted; and the mechanics of the physical comedy aspects were laid out in great detail. Of course, it took great talent, like that of Lucille Ball (and Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley), to execute such instructions, but, as Lucille herself said, "You don't have to be a funny, funny person to get a laugh, if it's written [well]." Here are some of our favorite examples of how Madelyn Pugh contributed to the legend and legacy of Lucy.

"The Ballet," originally aired February 18, 1952 (with guest star Mary Wickes)

"Lucy Does a TV Commercial," originally aired May 5, 1952 (with Ross Elliott and Jerry Hausner)

"Lucy's Last Birthday," originally aired May 11, 1953 (listen for the Pugh and Carroll reference!)

"Lucy Gets Into Pictures," originally aired February 21, 1955 (with Lou Krugman)

After I Love Lucy and The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour ended, Pugh and Carroll continued to work with Lucille Ball on her subsequent sitcoms: The Lucy Show (1962-67), Here's Lucy (1968-74), and, less happily, Ball's unfortunate return to series television, Life with Lucy (1986), which was cancelled after only eight of its thirteen episodes had aired. They were Emmy-nominated for the famous Here's Lucy episode, "Lucy Meets the Burtons," in which Lucy Carter accidentally gets Elizabeth Taylor's  diamond ring stuck on her finger.

"Lucy Meets the Burtons," originally aired September 14, 1970. 
Pugh and Carroll also worked with Desi Arnaz again, writing very Lucy-and-Ethel-esque situations for the marvelous Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard on the Arnaz-produced The Mothers-in-Law (1967-69). Although not wildly successful at the time, it remains a cult favorite today, fondly remembered by fans, and rediscovered on DVD by those who appreciate sharp writing and pro acting. (Incidentally, Pugh and Carroll had less success, but ensured themselves camp immortality, by also writing the infamous pilot for The Carol Channing Show [1966], which never aired, but is included in The Mothers-in-Law DVD set -- which we highly recommend! -- and Dorothy Loudon's failed 1979 sitcom, Dorothy.)

The Mothers-in-Law: Eve Arden (left) and Kaye Ballard
Madelyn Pugh Davis (who, despite never winning an Emmy, did finally take home a Golden Globe for an episode of Alice) passed away at the age of 90 in 2011. Those who knew and worked with her invariably describe Madelyn Pugh Davis as a lady -- always polite, humorous, immaculately dressed and groomed. In the cutthroat world of the business called show, she was an anomaly -- a pioneer who wore the vaguely diminutive (and unintentionally demeaning) mantle of "Girl Writer" with grace; and who, at her best, certainly wrote better television comedy than nearly anyone else, boy, girl, or otherwise. You may not have recognized her name, but we guarantee that Madelyn Pugh Davis has made you laugh. And that, darlings, may be the greatest legacy any of us can leave. 

Madelyn Pugh Davis (center) flanked by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

March 15, 1921 - April 20, 2011


  1. A remarkable woman, indeed! As ever, you illuminate the lives of the less famous so brilliantly. She was once married to Quinn Martin, you know... Jx

    1. Those Lucy scripts were so friggin' really is comedy writing of the very first order, and they still are funny (and timeless) today.

  2. no emmy is simply amazing.

    rewatched head-dressed lucy & the staircase;
    my favorite.

  3. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!?! So happy you're back!!!

    1. Whee!!!! So glad you're still checking in! :))