A new PBS documentary, Pioneers of Primetime, airing on PBS Wednesday, November 9th (check your local listings) will feature interviews with the living legends of yesterday's best loved television shows.
It’s worth remembering that not all beloved primetime pioneers were originally so beloved. “The critics didn’t like our show at first,” I Love Lucy writer Bob Carroll once remarked at a TV Land press conference, surveying a room full of television critics. “Nothing personal.”
Carroll’s old writing partner, Madeleine Pugh-Davis, recalled that she was at first heartened to read a Time review that described the show as “a triumph of bounce over bubbling material.”
“I thought, that’s not so bad,” Pugh-Davis said. “And I read it again and it said, ‘A triumph of bounce over bungling material.’ They didn’t like the writing. But I think the show got better.”
Lucille Ball was such a brilliant physical comedienne that Lucy fans always ask how much of the show was written and how much was improvised. The answer is that almost all of it was written. I remember Lucille Ball herself telling an audience that, a few years before she died.
“We wrote everything out, all the moves,” said Pugh-Davis. Ball always called this “the black stuff” because in the scripts, her physical antics were described in big black capital letters. “But she added so much on the set,” Pugh-Davis noted. One example: In the famous pizza-making episode, the script has Lucy letting the pizza dough fall on her head so she could hide when Ricky happens by.
“And then the thing she added,” recalled Pugh-Davis, “was she made two little holes for the eyes.”
Did Lucy ever balk at any of the physical indignities the writers imagined for her?
“Well, she’d say, ‘Is it funny?’” said Pugh-Davis. “And we said, yeah, it’s going to be real funny. So she’d say O.K. She never minded looking awful, blacking out her teeth, getting hit with mud. And that gave us a wonderful license. We could just think of anything because she would do it. She was fearless.”
I Love Lucy director William Asher added that once Lucille Ball turned to him and said, “Bill, would you ask your wife to do this?”
“I was married to an actress,” Asher noted. “And I said, ‘I’m not married to Lucille Ball.’ And she said, ‘Oh,’ and went on and did it–did it very well.”
It’s worth noting that I Love Lucy got all its laughs with just three writers (Carroll and Pugh-Davis also worked with Jess Oppenheimer) and a couple of sets. Contrast that, Carroll pointed out, with today’s rooms full of sitcom writers, not to mention reality shows.
“Sixteen contestants, 100 crew, tons of equipment, go to Borneo,” he said. “And all we had to do was say, ‘Ethel, if Ricky finds out I bought this hat, he’ll kill me.’ It was that simple.”