Remembering The Darling Of Sitcom

Aug 3, 2015

A radio pioneer and the woman credited with inventing the sitcom died last month at her home in Becket, Massachusetts. Peg Lynch spent roughly 70 years creating, writing and starring in radio and television shows. She was 98.

Peg Lynch wrote more than 10,000 radio and television scripts over the course of her life, having started as a 14-year-old copywriter for KROC in Rochester, Minnesota.

“She had to sell stuff like an Alice Chalmers tractor,” King said. “She realized that if she put it within the parameters of a husband and wife dialogue it was a little more interesting than saying every week ‘Buy an…’ she rewrote into this 30-second dialogue and I think Ethel and Albert evolved from that.”

Ethel and Albert would go on to be Lynch’s most well-known work, as her daughter Astrid King points out. It ran locally in Minnesota before appearing on ABC, NBC and CBS.

“When she came to New York within a month she had not only found an apartment on Gramsey Park, she had $500 in her pocket and she had an offer from NBC for a series,” King said. “She turned them down because they wanted to own the show. She, in one of the few smart business decisions my mother ever made, said ‘If I give you that I don’t have anything. It’s all I have. Within a day ABC called and said ‘We want the show. You can own it.’”

With show producers not finding a suitable actress for Lynch’s character, she was asked to play the role and the rest is history. The show, and a reprised version called The Couple Next Door, followed a married couple in everyday situations. An Ethel and Albert NBC television show recorded live in 1954 recalls a nerve-racking visit by an income tax auditor. Just when everything seems to be checking out, the tax man, played by Walter Abel, reminds the couple that he often finds wives keeping secret nest eggs of money from their husbands.

“Well, I don’t want Mr. Arbuckle to know about this, but I do get some money from the upstairs rent of a house,” Ethel says. “I also cook and bake and sell things. I just wanted to ask you this one little question…would you call that income?”

“You cook and bake and sell things?” asks the tax man, Gilbert.

“Uh huh,” responds Ethel.

“And you collect rent money?” continues Gilbert.

“Yes, but I wasn’t sure that would be called ‘income’” answers Ethel.

“That’s called income,” Gilbert clarifies after a short pause.

King says her mother loved real-life comedy and coincidences. Lynch shared one with me last year. She explained a couple of raccoons ran onto her porch shortly after she moved to Becket in 1970.

“So I called my husband to come and look… ‘What have we got to feed them? Oh, dear. Oh, dear,’” Lynch said. “I started racing for the kitchen and the phone rang. I answered it and they said ‘I’m looking for Peg Lynch.’ I said ‘This is Peg.’ She said ‘This is Mrs. So-and-so and I’m in Pasadena, California and I’m in charge of the raccoon wildlife association for southern California. I couldn’t believe that. I said ‘Well, what do I feed them?’ She said ‘Don’t feed them anything unless you want them forever.’”

When I called Lynch out of the blue she was happy to talk radio for 20 minutes even though I was asking her about being awarded The Boston Post Cane as Becket’s oldest resident.

“Why don’t you come over sometime?” Lynch asked me. I’d like to talk to you about your work.”

She told me she wanted to do a show about Ethel and Albert as an older couple.

“I can’t think of anything funny about being old,” Lynch said. “Then I got to thinking about winning and getting this gold-topped cane. I got mad about that. Well, that’s just dumb. Women want to go younger, they don’t want to go older.”

I finally did get to meet Peg in person this June. At 98, her humor was alive as ever. After a fall that forced her to go to the hospital and undergo hip surgery, King says her mother delivered a one-liner to a nurse asking how she was doing as they headed for the operating room.

“And Peg looked up, batted her eyes, beamed and said ‘We’re hoping for a girl!’” King recalled. “That’s Peg. She just had them in stitches all the time. She cared about people. She loved people. For an only child I have hundreds of brothers and sisters because she welcomed everybody into her home. Had she hung around a little bit, Jim, you would’ve been in there too.”