History 301 – Madelyn Pugh: Writing the funny words for ‘I Love Lucy’

Madelyn Pugh was very active in Shortridge High School activities.

By CONNIE ZEIGLER Contributing editor

For six years in the 1950s the name of former Shortridge High School student Madelyn Pugh was in 11 million homes every week, thanks to the success of the TV show, I Love Lucy.

Pugh wasn’t an actress on the show. She was the writer.

The “girl writer” – as the 30-something Pugh was dubbed in the not-so-woke ’50s – teamed with her long-time writing partner, Bob Carroll, to author some of television’s greatest moments. Vegameatavitamin = Pugh. Runaway chocolate assembly line = Pugh. Failed DIY attempt resulting in both Lucy and neighbor Ethel wallpapered to the wall = also Pugh. Every episode, in fact, was crafted by Pugh and her co-writers.

She not only excelled at thinking up the physical comedy that made the show and its star famous, she acted out the skits ahead of time to be sure they were safe and doable by Lucille Ball.

Born and raised in Indianapolis, Pugh was one of the remarkable students who came out of Shortridge High School in the 1930s and ’40s. She served on the Student Council, alongside Kurt Vonnegut during her senior year (he was two years younger). A yearbook photo from 1938, shows Pugh – a dark-haired girl with deep set eyes and a wide smile – sitting beside a young, blonde Vonnegut.

Outside of Student Council, Pugh’s extra-curricular life was very lively. In 1937 she was a member of the Fiction Club, History Club and Social Committee. A year later, she was vice president of her senior class; editor of the Shortridge Echo, managing a high-school staff of 23; and a member of National Honor Society.

After high school, Pugh attended Indiana University where she was editor of the Daily Student newspaper and associate editor of the school yearbook. In 1942 she landed a job at Indianapolis radio station WIRE, writing patter for organist Virginia Byrd and scripts for other programs and commercials.

Then, in a bold move, in 1943 Madelyn and her mother moved to California. Her WIRE boss wrote a letter of recommendation that she took directly to an NBC radio boss who hired her immediately. Five months later she moved to a position at CBS as staff writer in the script department. In these pre-TV days, her comedy skits were featured on the radio shows of Phil Harris and Dennis Day. 

When Pugh heard that the radio show, My Favorite Husband – starring Lucille Ball as a zany housewife with Richard Denning as her husband – was looking for new writers, she and her writing partner, Bob Carroll, submitted a trial script. They were hired, along with a new producer and co-writer, Jesse Oppenheimer.

In 1950 CBS wanted to try My Favorite Husband as a TV show. Plucky Lucille Ball refused, unless they used her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, as her TV husband. The network feared that the couple’s ethnic differences would be shocking, or something, to 1950s sensitivities, so they tested the show with several live performances, all written by Pugh and her co-writers. Then in 1951 CBS went all in and put I Love Lucy into production. Pugh and her fellows carried on, writing every show script for the full run of the series.

I Love Lucy was one of the highest viewed shows during its six seasons. It never placed lower than third in ratings. The episode in which “little Ricky” Ricardo Jr. was born, titled Lucy Goes to the Hospital, was watched by more people than any other television program up to that time. (It aired on the same night that real Desi Arnaz Jr. was born.) Almost 72% of all televisions in American households were tuned in to see the hijinks of Lucy in labor and delivery – about 5% more than watched the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower a few days earlier.

Lucy wasn’t the only one having a baby during the show’s production. Pugh married producer Quinn Martin (remember The Fugitive?) in 1955. Three years later, according to one newspaper, when the Desilu production company owned by Ball and Arnaz moved to bigger studios, there was a “built-in nursery for the new baby of one of the writers, Madelyn Pugh.” 

When I Love Lucy ended, Lucille Ball, with Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, moved on to other Lucy projects, each one written or co-written by Pugh: The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film, Yours, Mine and Ours.

Despite her astonishing success, Pugh maintained a connection and a fondness to her homeland. In a 1947 interview with Marjorie Binford Woods, a special writer in Washington for The Indianapolis Star, Pugh remarked that “Indianans are thick in this sun-kissed country and I bump into someone from home almost every day.”

That fondness for Indiana came out in a Lucille Ball special in 1977. In one of the show’s skits, Lucy played a Muncie, Indiana, housewife who invited President Jimmie Carter to dinner. He accepted. Hilarity probably ensued.

The inspiration for that skit probably came from Madelyn’s own experience. She had accepted an invitation back to Indiana a few years earlier when she married a Hoosier and moved back to Hoosierdom. Dr. Richard Davis, her second husband, was a former school friend and a physician in Marion, Indiana. According to an article in The Star, Madelyn moved to Marion and into a Frank Lloyd Wright house with Davis for a while. Soon though, she was drawn back to Hollywood. Bringing her new husband with her, she returned to TV work.

From 1976 to 1985, Pugh served as co-producer and executive producer of the TV show Alice, featuring another spunky gal story, this time about a waitress in Mel’s Diner. She is also credited as writer on two episodes under her married name, Madelyn Davis.  In 2006, when she was 85, the Paley Center for Media honored Madelyn Pugh, both for her work as a writer and for opening the door for other women in the script rooms of television and film. She died five years later at age 90 on April 20, 2011, in Bel-Air, Calif.. Luckily for us she left a legacy of absurd, ridiculous and hilarious comedy that still brings a belly laugh.

Connie is a historian who researches and writes about design history and Indianapolis and owns C. Resources, a preservation consulting firm.