October 27, 2005

IU journalism grad became 'I Love Lucy' writer

A funny thing happened to Madelyn Pugh Davis on her way to a career in newspaper journalism.

She became a comedy writer instead.

One of the first women to write comedy for television, in fact. One of the three principal writers for "I Love Lucy," among other accomplishments. And a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement in Television Writing award from the UCLA Film School.

Not bad for a self-described "Indianapolis girl" who arrived on the Indiana University campus at age 17, "as green as green can be."

Davis recounts her experiences in the recently published book, "Laughing with Lucy: My Life With America's Leading Lady of Comedy." It's an entertaining and informative book whether you loved Lucy, loathed Lucy or simply enjoy a well-written memoir focused largely on one of the most popular television comedies of all-time.

Now retired, the 1942 IU journalism graduate's wit and humor elevates "Laughing With Lucy" well above the standard remembrance fare, which raises the question, why did you wait so long to do it?

"I never thought about such a thing," she said from her Los Angeles-area home last week. "I went to a luncheon for women writers one day and they all made such a fuss over me ... they were all so impressed that I was one of the first women comedy writers in television and everyone kept saying I ought to write a book.

"I thought, 'There have been so many books written about Lucy. Who needs another one?'," Davis said. "But they did convince me to sit down and get started and once I did, I realized that so many people have written about Lucille Ball that didn't work for her that I thought maybe I did have something to offer."

Getting started

Davis tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job with the Indianapolis Star, News and Times before landing a job at the AM radio station, WIRE. After a brief stint there, she moved to Los Angeles, where she continued to write for radio and had the good fortune of working with Bob Carroll Jr., who became her lifelong writing partner and contributor to "Laughing With Lucy."

Eventually the two writers would be hired to work on the radio program, "My Favorite Husband," which featured Lucille Ball. Once they became familiar with Ball's talents and working style, they became the natural candidates to be the writers, with producer Jess Oppenheimer, for the proposed "I Love Lucy" television program.

"She was remarkable. We were very lucky. She loved doing comedy and anything we wrote, she'd do," Davis said. "We'd say, 'Would you mind working with a horse or an elephant?' or 'Would you mind blacking out your teeth?' and she'd say, 'Is it funny?' and that's about all she wanted to know."

Working it

The writers didn't just rely on intuition or confidence. They'd act out what they'd written and often improve scripts in the process. "One time we wrote a scene that involved handcuffs and Bob and I handcuffed ourselves together and we realized how you can't do much of anything with handcuffs on. We tried to take our jackets off and saw what a circus that was and we came up with some of the stage directions just from experiencing that," Davis recalled.

Lucy rarely questioned her writers' work and when she did, her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz, usually stepped in to alleviate her apprehensions. "Desi was a very charming man and he was great at protecting the writers," Davis said. Once when an advertising agency (agencies had a lot of say about content in those days) called and didn't like our script, Desi called them back and said, 'Don't you ever do that again. You talk to me. You don't talk to my writers.'

"So we were in the enviable position of having a star who'd do anything we wrote and a co-star who would protect us so we could do our jobs," Davis said. "Lucy was wonderful about giving us credit, too. When people would ask her on talk shows, 'Why are you so successful,' she'd say, 'My writers.' A lot of stars would never do that."

The legacy

Davis said she continues to be amazed at how popular - how remembered - "I Love Lucy" is. "I think part of it is because we picked story lines and ideas that could happen to anybody. We didn't do topical jokes because we didn't particularly care for them and now that seems very wise," she said.

"For example, in one episode, the Mertzes bought the Ricardos' old washing machine and it broke, so everyone knows what that's like. Who hasn't sold a car to a brother-in-law and then found out the engine dropped out? Things like that," Davis said.

Davis and Carroll worked with Lucy for 20 years, including the shows that followed "I Love Lucy." They went on to write for other shows and produce the hit sit-com, "Alice," for eight years.

And despite spending most of her life in Southern California, Davis said on behalf of herself and her Marion-born husband, Dr. Richard Davis (who she dated at IU), "We're still Hoosiers at heart. I mean, I've never thought of myself as anything but a Hoosier living in California."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Help Support this Lucy Blog - Shop Amazon