During the formative years of television, when few women were working behind the screen, Madelyn Pugh Davis wrote one of the most popular shows of all time—I Love Lucy—and devised an ideal format for situation comedy that endures to this day. She and her longtime writing partner, Bob Carroll, Jr., began their careers in radio but easily made the transition to television. The secret of their success? Their visual writing style played perfectly for Lucille Ball’s physical antics, and, as Davis told a Houston Chronicle reporter, “we used to start every episode with a very ordinary premise, an idea that would be familiar to people, and then it would just escalate.” As one of the few women behind the screen, Madelyn Pugh Davis not only made her mark as a writer and producer, but also opened the door for other women to follow in her footsteps. Her work continues to resonate with each new generation of viewers. “It’s still hard for me to grasp it when people tell me, ‘I’ve seen every episode dozens of times.’ I meet fans of the show who can tell me every line of dialogue. And this is marvelous, but at times I find it kind of astonishing.”
In an era when women were relegated to the role of housewife, Davis’s mother encouraged her three daughters to “make something of themselves.” Born in Indianapolis in 1921, Davis—an avid reader—decided to be a writer when she was ten years old—and with a discipline that most children do not possess, she wrote a three-act play that she performed with a friend. At Shortridge High School, she was an editor and writer on the school’s daily newspaper. Strongly influenced by her school’s excellent writing program, Davis went on to work with the school’s fiction club—of which her classmate Kurt Vonnegut was also a member. She attended Indiana University where she edited and wrote for the school’s newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student, and received a degree in journalism. In 1942, the year she graduated, women journalists were pigeonholed as society page writers, but Davis wanted to be a foreign correspondent and cover World War II. “I figured I would start on the society page and work my way in as a regular reporter,” said Davis in an interview for the Archive of American Television. But after being turned down for jobs at three newspapers, she took the first writing job that came her way—at Indianapolis radio station WIRE, an NBC affiliate, where she wrote musical intros.
In 1943, she moved with her family to Los Angeles, bringing along a letter of recommendation from the WIRE station owner—which helped her land a job at NBC in Los Angeles. She later switched to CBS radio, where she became the second female writer to be hired on staff. As a woman breaking into a profession that was run entirely by men, Davis’s timing was perfect. “I would not have had any of these jobs if it wasn’t for the war because men were being drafted and women were not working much then.” But her career lasted long past the end of World War II. At CBS, she became an established staff writer and was paired up with others to churn out radio scripts—which resulted in her meeting Bob Carroll, Jr. The two writers clicked and were paired together for numerous shows, including Steve Allen’s program It’s a Great Life, but found they their stride with My Favorite Husband, a half-hour weekly program about a hare-brained wife and her Midwestern banker husband starring Lucille Ball. With Carroll pacing back and forth and Davis typing away, they wrote a whopping thirty-nine shows a season. She would later say of those first years of their collaboration, “It was marvelous training. We learned in radio. We just did it, we did it every week. It’s a deadline like a newspaper writer. You get the story done one hour, two minutes before it is due.”
As Davis stepped into the uncharted territory of television, she carried this discipline with her. In 1951, My Favorite Husband was developed into a television show for Lucille Ball. The title of the new program was I Love Lucy, and the show would chronicle the life of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban bandleader played by Ball’s real-life musician husband Desi Arnaz. Davis and Carroll were asked to write the pilot. In collaboration with I Love Lucy producer Jess Oppenheimer, who had directed and produced My Favorite Husband, Davis and Carroll wrote every episode during I Love Lucy’s six-year run on CBS. (Oppenheimer left in 1956 to become a programming executive at NBC.) Their familiarity with Ball’s comedic style allowed them to write custom-made scripts for her specific brand of visual comedy. “We weren’t doing joke jokes or funny word jokes as much as we were setting up physical situations for her (Lucy),” said Davis, who would often test the physical stunts to make sure they were feasible for Ball. This meant that Davis stomped on grapes, rode a unicycle, and tried out a wild vibrating water bed, just to name a few of the outrageous set-ups that subsequently showed up on some of the most memorable episodes of I Love Lucy. On set, these stunts became known as the “Black Stuff” since Davis would type these zany feats in all caps on the script so Ball would know exactly what she was getting herself into.
Right from the start, I Love Lucy became a favorite of the public, never ranking lower than third among all television programs. Americans, it seemed, couldn’t get enough of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo and their neighbors, best friends, and landlords, Ethel and Fred Mertz (Vivian Vance and William Frawley). I Love Lucy became part of the cultural landscape—no more so than when Lucy Ricardo gave birth to little Ricky on the January 19, 1953, episode of the series (the same night that Lucille Ball gave birth to her second child, Desi Arnaz, Jr.).
After a six-year run of 179 episodes—during which time the program received two Emmy Awards for Best Situation Comedy and two Emmy nominations for Best Comedy Writing—I Love Lucy ceased production as a weekly series in 1957. Afterward, the Ricardos and the Mertzes continued to appear with regularity on a series of high-budget specials, while prime-time reruns of I Love Lucy were broadcast weekly on CBS for another two years.
The universality and non-topicality of the program’s story lines made it, quite literally, a show for the ages. (It is still popular in syndication, and at practically any time of the day is playing somewhere in the world.) “We didn’t do topical jokes,” Davis explained in the 1993 American Archive of Television interview. “We wrote so far ahead that by the time the live shows were on it would have been stale so we just didn’t do it. This long after, people would say ‘huh’ to those references.”
Even after Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz divorced in 1960, Davis and Carroll continued to write for them. Over the next twenty years, they wrote three situation comedies for Ball. The Lucy Show, which aired on CBS from 1962 to 1974, was the most successful of the three. They also teamed with Arnaz to write The Mothers-In-Law, a 1967 sitcom starring Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard that tried to capture some of the screwball feeling of I Love Lucy.
In 1977 Davis and Carroll were brought in to spruce up the sitcom Alice (which they wrote and also, eventually, produced), based on the movie Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. With their magic touch, they turned it into a hit that earned multiple Golden Globe Awards and Emmy nominations. They subsequently produced other shows, including Dorothy (for the comedian and actress Dorothy Loudon, best known for her wickedly funny role as Annie’s Miss Hannigan). Davis’s writing discipline and comedic talent earned her several Emmy nominations, a “Woman of the Year” award from the Los Angeles Times, and the Writers Guild’s Laurel Award for television writing achievement.