Saturday, April 23, 2011

pioneer "Girl Writer" made us love Lucy

I’d never heard of Madelyn Pugh Davis until this week when a friend posted a memorial tribute to “the genius behind two of my favorite TV scenes ever: Lucy and the chocolate conveyor belt scene, and Lucy and Ethel raising chickens.” (See below.) Oh! All those years I spent rushing through homework on Monday nights to catch “The Lucy Show” (remember when TV was appointment only?), it never occurred to me that a writer was behind the redhead’s comic genius. Ball, however, was always quick to attribute credit. According to Ball's daughter, Lucie Arnaz, whenever her mother was asked what she thought was the secret of her show's enduring popularity, she said: "My writers." One of them, Madelyn Pugh Davis, passed away this week at 90.

Davis always knew she wanted to be a writer. She was editor of her high school newspaper in Indianapolis and member of the school's fiction club, along with her classmate Kurt Vonnegut. She majored in journalism at Indiana University and hoped to be a foreign correspondent after graduating in 1942. She couldn’t land a job at a newspaper, and so settled (like many of us do) for advertising, writing commercials and copy for a local radio station. According to an extensive tribute to Davis in the Atlantic, her break came during World War II, as it did for many women of her generation. Her family moved to Los Angeles and she got a job as staff writer for NBC radio, and then six months later she was writing for CBS. "No one actually wanted to hire women in 1944," Davis said in her memoir. “But with so many men away at war, what else was there?"

At CBS, she teamed up with Bob Carroll in a partnership that would last 50 years. At first, they produced comedy sketches for radio, including Lucille Ball’s radio show “My Favorite Husband.” When Ball decided to launch a television series co-starring her real-life husband Desi Arnaz, Davis and Carroll and colleague Jess Oppenheimer wrote the pilot for it. The show premiered on October 15, 1951 and ran until May 6, 1957. It was ranked No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings for four of its six seasons and was never out of the top three.

Unlike much comedy of the day, the writing wasn’t just sight gags and easy one-liners. The writers had to come up with ludicrous physical predicaments for Ball to get herself into. Often, they got their ideas from phone books. One day they came across “Candy Maker” which inspired the script for one of my favorite episodes titled “Job Switching” in which Lucy and Ethel become breadwinners, working in a chocolate factory. I’m convinced the 50s episode wouldn’t have elevated housework to “real” work without influence of the “Girl Writer”, as Davis was known.

Then there was the hilarious episode where Lucy does a live commercial for a liquid vitamin supplement which turns out to consist largely of alcohol.

“I Love Lucy” was one of the first scripted TV shows to be shot on 35mm film in front of a television audience. It is said that Desi Arnaz (the co-star was also producer) was not a believer in retakes so that flubs, bloopers and prop mistakes were all left in the episodes. Which gave shows a freshness you don't find in today's sitcoms where all dialogue is rehearsed and supposedly perfect. One of show's most famous bloopers was when Desi messed up a line and blurted the F word, which he changed to  "Fine" at the last, saving second.

Because the show was filmed live, laugh tracks weren’t canned, they were actual recorded reactions. One scene is said to have gotten the longest laugh in recorded television history: the one where she and Ethel hide eggs in their clothes, but the jig is up when Lucy has to dance the tango with Desi. Talk about far-fetched premises that would never fare well in concept testing.

RIP, Davis and writing based on gut instinct.


Unknown said...

I had forgotten how funny these episodes were. And Lucy Does The Tango inspired my post for Easter Sunday:

Thanks for yet another giggle!


Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Amazing how these old comedy sketches hold up, isn't it? Trawling youtube yesterday brought back jolly memories of watching these on B&W console with my sister, both of us literally rolling with laughter on the on the shag carpet.

Terrific blog, Kym. Thanks for the shout.

Daniel Honigman said...

"I Love Lucy" will always be syndicated somewhere, in some language, on TV. I hope Madelyn Davis gets some sort of residual from the reruns. (Probably not, but you never know.)

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

I hope so too, Daniel. Although, if she hasn't by now, it's sadly too late for her to enjoy.

Speaking of long-running shows, congrats on your 500th episode!

Greys Anatomy Episode Guide said...

oh How much I love this episodes, brings back young and funny memories, the dress speaks for itself LOL