My partner, Ed Scharlach, and I wrote 17 episodes for such TV series as That Girl our first year as a team, and then he was called up for six months active duty in the Army Reserve. Considering that others his age with a lower draft number were being sent to Vietnam, it was a small sacrifice.
It was a little weird laughing at my own jokes, alone in my home office where I was used to having Ed pace as I typed. When the offer came to work on a new TV comedy, The Mothers-in-Law, I jumped at the chance because it had been created by Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Pugh-Davis, legendary for also co-creating I Love Lucy with Jess Oppenheimer.
In the history of television, there has never been a phenomenon like I Love Lucy, or a performer as beloved as its star. Throughout the world, in many different languages, they were both simply "Lucy". Lucille Ball was not involved in the new series, but Desi Arnaz was the executive producer. I was in awe of him and, unlike everyone else on earth, called him Mr. Arnaz. I was not that long out of West Texas and knew my manners. I think I would have been tongue-tied if he had actually participated in our story meetings, but they were left to Madelyn and Bob, and they couldn't have been more welcoming and encouraging; they had been a boy/girl team when Ed and I were in diapers, and must have known how awkward I felt without my other half. Not for the first or last time during my 20s, I had found mentors. (Ed and I figured we could be discovered until we hit 30, and then it would all be over and we'd have to act like grownups).
The stars of The Mothers-in-Law were Eve Arden and Kaye Ballard, but the real stars for me were Madelyn and Bob. In writing sitcoms, everything started with a premise, which developed into a storyline, which became a first draft. There was an old rule: Act One, you get your character up a tree. Act Two, you throw rocks at him. Act Three, you get him down from the tree. But Bob and Madelyn jumped directly to the tree and the rocks, for what was known as the big block comedy scene.
It had come from their Lucy days: wouldn't it be funny if Lucy snuck on a submarine, which unknown to her, set off to sea, and she had nowhere to hide? Lucille Ball was a true clown and the block comedy scene where she tried to hide and then had to try to explain herself out of the situation would be a piece of cake. Now, for the work: why did she want to get on that submarine? Knowing Lucy, it wouldn't be difficult to come up with one of her typical schemes -- and it wouldn't be difficult for both Ricky and the audience to forgive her in the end, because she was Lucy.
That was the secret: everyone knew Lucy -- she was a crazy friend who came into your living room every week and sucked you into a crazy scheme, but everything came out all right in the end. But it wasn't until Ed and I worked with Greg Garrison, the producer of The Dean Martin Show, that the clue to TV stardom came into focus for me.
I was the first girl writer Greg had ever hired (another mentor), and once again Ed and I were "the kids." I had been forewarned that those to whom Greg took a liking were given one of the St. Bernard puppies that he bred. I tried not to be overly likable. We were going to write on a new summer replacement show for The Dean Martin Show called Dean Martin Presents The Golddiggers. It starred Frank Sinatra, Jr., Joey Heatherton, and troupe of beautiful girls created especially for the show. It was our first experience on a variety show, though we had written skits for a couple of Alan King specials.
The same team responsible for the Martin Show did the summer show and I was exposed to the best. Lee Hale, the music director, was responsible for what made the show work, selecting numbers that showed off Frank and Joey and the Golddiggers' abilities to be their best. The skits and bits we wrote were just sprinkles on the magnificent cake he created. I was never as good at jokes as Ed; I was all for the situation in the sitcom. But I loved the whole experience and grew fond of Greg -- close enough to be able to turn down both a St. Bernard and a spot on the Martin Show and still be in his good graces. One day, he explained to me how things went down on the show, "I've got a guy here who stumbles through a door, squints at the cue cards, and blows his lines. Don't mess with it."
Just like everyone knew Lucy was a loveable schemer, everyone knew Dean was a lovable bad boy (guys playing drunk were considered funny in those days). TV stars were people you felt comfortable inviting into your home -- they were family; you didn't have to clean up for them. They could join you for dinner, or right after dinner with the dirty dishes still stacked up. You were on a first name basis. You didn't call movie stars by their first names. You wouldn't feel comfortable having them in your home. You liked them up there on their pedestals. But you liked your TV stars to be like you. Just like Oprah.
But when I met her, I called her Ms. Winfrey.