Long before “lean in” became a rallying cry for professional women of America, there was “Murphy Brown.”
In fall 1988, the sitcom about a brash, unmarried, 40-something news anchor and recovering alcoholic premiered on CBS. Although it was slow to build into a hit, “Murphy Brown” became a top 5 show, won 18 Emmys over 10 seasons and sparked a contentious national dialogue about single motherhood, thanks to a certain vice president.
Played by patrician blond Candice Bergen, Brown may have been physically reminiscent of real-life newswoman Diane Sawyer, but with her irascible and relentless disposition, she was, as creator Diane English famously put it, closer to “Mike Wallace in a dress.”
“I wanted to see somebody on the air who was somewhat similar to myself and my friends,” English said backstage at a recent taping of Katie Couric’s syndicated talk show, “Katie,” where she and the series’ remaining cast members gathered to mark its 25th anniversary.
A quarter-century after “Murphy Brown” premiered, its legacy spans the TV landscape, where ambitious, complex single women such as Selina Meyer (“Veep”) and Olivia Pope (“Scandal”) are refreshingly commonplace. “30 Rock” even paid twisted homage to the show with an episode, “Murphy Brown Lied to Us,” in which Tina Fey’s heroine, Liz Lemon, decides to have a baby.
In recent years, however, Murphy herself has been a little harder to find: Only the show’s first season was released on DVD, in part because of the prohibitive cost of its Motown soundtrack. But in December, “Murphy Brown” began running on Encore Classics, the recently revamped premium cable channel targeted at baby boomers.
The idea for “Murphy Brown” occurred to English one day as she sat in traffic on the 405 Freeway and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” came on the radio. By the time she reached her destination, she had the pilot sketched out in her mind: Murphy, a world-renowned TV journalist, returns to work at the fictional news magazine “FYI” after a month at the Betty Ford Center. To her horror, the show has hired an inexperienced 25-year-old executive producer, Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud), and a ditzy new correspondent, beauty queen Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford).
Single and not particularly concerned about meeting someone, Murphy has a workplace family: investigative reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and straight-faced anchor Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough). She also leans on Phil (the late Pat Corley), a D.C. bar owner and keeper of the town’s greatest secrets (including the identity of Deep Throat). The closest thing Murphy has to a domestic partner is her ever-present house painter, Eldin, played by the late Robert Pastorelli, who died of a drug overdose in 2004.
The part was inspired by English’s experience with two young contractors who turned a three-month renovation into a year-and-a-half-long residency. “They had keys and they would come in at 7 in the morning and put the coffee on,” she remembers. “They became like our adopted kids, but they wouldn’t leave.”
CBS, as Bergen recalls with her castmates in Manhattan, had a few suggestions after English’s pitch: “Does she have to be coming back from a month at Betty Ford? Couldn’t she be coming back from a week at the spa? Does she have to be 40? Couldn’t she be in her early 30s? And couldn’t she be Heather Locklear?”
Amazingly, given that Bergen would go on to win a record five Emmys, CBS was not sold on the idea of her in a comedic role; at the time, she was primarily known for dramatic parts in films such as “Gandhi” and “Carnal Knowledge.”
But because English had earned her stripes at CBS — she was executive producing the soon-to-be-canceled Pam Dawber sitcom “My Sister Sam” and had created “Foley Square,” a short-lived 1985 sitcom about an unmarried assistant district attorney — the network was willing to cede creative control. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” she says wryly.
It also helped that English finished the pilot script the day before the five-month Writers Guild strike of 1988; she couldn’t have smoothed Murphy’s rough edges even if she’d wanted to. The pilot, she says, was shot “word for word.”
Though well reviewed, “Murphy Brown” cracked Nielsen’s top 10 only in its third season, after it had already taken home an Emmy for outstanding comedy series.
The show often featured media personalities playing themselves (Connie Chung, Walter Cronkite) and specialized in scenarios borrowed from the headlines. In an episode inspired by the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy, Murphy refuses to reveal a confidential source and is grilled by condescending male senators.
It was also dense with jokes that English called “10 percenters” — designed to appeal to a rarefied demographic (in the pilot, Murphy quips that Corky “thinks Camus is a soap.”)
Says Ford: “A lot of it was way over my head. I had to do research. We didn’t have Google then, so I’d be calling my mother. ‘Do you know who this is?’ ”
The show’s popularity turned to infamy when in May 1992, Murphy gave birth to a baby boy conceived during a brief reunion with her ex-husband, a ’60s radical who opts not to be a part of the child’s life.
The day after the episode aired, then-Vice President Dan Quayle gave a now-immortal speech in which he criticized “Murphy Brown” for “mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.’ ”
The comments sparked one of the most bitter chapters in the 1990s culture wars, with Murphy’s fictional bundle of joy a wedge issue in that year’s presidential election. Social conservatives rallied behind Quayle and accused English of cultural elitism. Liberals called Quayle a hypocrite for vilifying unwed mothers while also opposing abortion rights.
The firestorm caught English off-guard. “I wanted to challenge Murphy. She couldn’t keep a plant alive. How she’s going to have a child? I just thought it was good storytelling. It never occurred to me that in that day and age that it would be some sort of a taboo.”
The controversy peaked at the Emmys, where Bergen thanked Quayle in her acceptance speech and English made an impassioned defense of single mothers. An estimated 70 million people — about 41 percent of American households at the time — tuned in to the fifth-season premiere, in which Murphy dumped a truckload of potatoes on the veep’s lawn.
“Murphy was a giant magnifying glass on a lot of cultural changes that were happening in terms of how we perceived women,” says Rebecca Traister, author of a forthcoming book about the history of single women. “She reflected the changing world back at the world.”
“I just wanted to blur that line between fact and fiction,” English says, “and this was the ultimate blurring of that line.”
Ironically, though, English didn’t write the potato rebuttal to Quayle, which was the show’s truest blend of fact and fiction. She left after Season 4 to fulfill the terms of her development deal with Warner Bros. with the sitcom “Love & War.”
The transition was “painful,” Bergen says. Ratings slowly trailed off, but the show endured for six additional seasons under a number of new show runners.
At Bergen’s urging, English returned for the show’s 10th and final season, in which Murphy received a breast cancer diagnosis.
The cancer story line was “very moving and very funny and very brave,” the actress says. “I had people coming up to me in department stores, young girls saying, ‘My mother and I watched your show together,’ and their mothers had died of breast cancer.”
Fifteen years later, in an era of 24-7 cable news and culture war flare-ups seemingly every week, it’s tempting to imagine how “Murphy Brown” might take on today’s headlines, perhaps for no one so much as English.
“The NSA, drones, Ed Snowden . . . everything is so heightened,” she muses. “You couldn’t make it up.”