Lucy in the Media

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The Writers Who
Made Us Love Lucy


by Tim Goodman

_____

It's not fair that we're surrounded by tired, boring, witless comedies, while two of the funniest television writers who ever lived are unemployed.

Unfortunately, Madelyn Pugh-Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. are retired, joyfully and restfully, living with the reputation of having written what is perhaps the mother of all sitcoms, "I Love Lucy."

Larry Jones, executive vice president and general manager of TV Land -- a cable channel that knows a little something about these things -- called "I Love Lucy" the "ultimate sitcom, the most classic of classics."

TV Land is in the middle of an "I Love Lucy" marathon that started Monday and runs through the week. Then, on Monday, those people in the Bay Area who get digital cable or who have a satellite dish can watch as TV Land unveils the very first "I Love Lucy" episode, at 9 p.m. Episodes will then follow in order, daily.

Pugh-Davis and Carroll, who wrote all the "I Love Lucy" episodes (with Jess Oppenheimer), have fond memories of the show's glory days and of the woman who made it all go.

Although "I Love Lucy" was the most popular show on television when it ran originals for six years (four No. 1 finishes, a No. 2 and a No. 3), it didn't come out of the oven with the critical glow often assigned to it in retrospect.

"Actually, the critics didn't like our first show -- nothing personal," Carroll told a roomful of critics in July.

"Time magazine wrote a review of the pilot, the very first show," Pugh- Davis said, "and I read it and thought it said, 'It was a triumph of bounce over bubbling material.' And I thought that's not so bad. And I read it again and it said, 'A triumph of bounce over bungling material.' And they didn't like the writing. But I think the show got better."

Did it ever. Not only was it the template for all future sitcoms, but the writing also has held up through generations of viewers. "We had a quartet of performers, too," Carroll said, straight-faced. "Yeah, they were pretty good," Pugh-Davis said.

"We were young and clever," Carroll said. "But they were magnificent."

Carroll and Pugh-Davis were also prolific, writing 39 episodes that first season (four were saved for the next season), an outpouring of quality that would make most current TV writers fall over.

"We were making up TV," Pugh-Davis said. "We just wrote all the time. We didn't know any better. We didn't put any reruns on because (CBS) said, 'Well, who would look at something if they've seen it before?' "

That, of course, made Jones laugh. Without reruns, he'd be unemployed.

"We were young and restless and we worked all weekend and we just did it," Pugh-Davis said. "And they locked us up."

"They couldn't get to us to tell us to stop writing," Carroll said.

Both like the writing in "Frasier," but Carroll can't understand the fascination with reality programming. "They take 16 contestants, 100 crew, tons of equipment, go to Borneo -- all we had to do was say, 'Ethel, if Ricky finds out I bought this hat, he'll kill me.' It was that simple."

Of course, the duo also had Lucy to work her magic into theirs. And they loved her as any great writers would because she was mostly fearless and trusted them.

It's interesting to note, though, that Carroll and Pugh-Davis actually wrote out much of what seems improvised by Lucy, those wacky, seemingly dangerous or embarrassing bits.

"There were none that she refused," Carroll said. "And most of them were our invention. Once we told her what to do or showed her, she was magnificent. Starting on Monday, by film time, she had done a great job of interpreting it. She was marvelous.

"By the way, it was great having Madelyn on our staff," Carroll said, smiling. "Because if we'd do something, we wanted to be sure Lucy would be OK. Madelyn would try it out. We would roll her in a rug, we'd put her in a chair. . . ."

"She never said she wouldn't do anything," Pugh-Davis said. "You'd ask her, 'Will you work with a dog or a girl or an elephant?' "

"Sing to a sheep, of course," added Carroll.

"She'd say, is that funny," Pugh-Davis remembered. "And we said, 'Yeah, that's going to be real funny.' She said, 'OK.' Never mind looking awful -- blacking out her teeth, getting hit with mud. She never minded. And that gave us a wonderful license."

And a legacy that's never been equaled. In these times of terror, it's good to know that Lucy's still there to be loved.

__________


Article © 2001 by San Francisco Chronicle
All Rights Reserved.
Photo (added for this web site presentation) by Mark Ragonese.





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Original materials © 2001 Lucyfan Enterprises. All rights reserved.
"I Love Lucy" is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
Images of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used with permission of Desilu, too, LLC.
Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing, Northbrook, Illinois.