CBS’s revival of Murphy Brown this past season was welcome news for fans. But for a while — back in a “very scary” time, English says — it was a political and cultural flashpoint.
In fall 1988, two of the most brazenly feminist sitcoms ever to grace prime time premiered just weeks apart: Murphy Brown and Roseanne would rule American remotes for the next decade, redefining our ideas of "family values" and inciting unprecedented controversy.
Murphy Brown was a career-focused single woman, an abrasive 40-year-old broadcast journalist "living like a man and making no apologies for it whatsoever," as series creator Diane English noted. The character's name was deliberately masculine, like Fatal Attraction's Alex Forrest. English liked to describe Murphy as "Mike Wallace in a dress."
Wearing chic, loosely constructed suits like prêt-à-porter armor, Murphy had little time for small talk, let alone flirting or love affairs; she channeled all her energy into exposing corporate criminals and government scandals. Murphy, in other words, epitomized the kind of career woman who sent the religious right into convulsions. Immensely popular and wildly provocative, she was a heroine you either admired or abhorred.
Over its 10-year run, Murphy Brown inspired countless trend pieces about its feminist spirit. English and her staff were hesitant to embrace the label, however.
"If feminism means that my female characters or my friends or myself are respected, in all walks of life, then I'm a feminist. But I don't get involved in the politics of it very often," English insisted back in 1989. She further suggested that her characters disliked the label: "You don't hear feminist polemic coming out of her mouth. She is what she is."
English finished the Murphy Brown pilot script on a Sunday night in March 1988, and the next morning, March 7, the Writers Guild announced it was on strike. That meant English's original script could not be revised.
There was concern that the strike could go on for a long time — it would last five months — so CBS chose to film the script almost exactly as drafted. Nearly all network shows are products of heavy compromise, with jagged edges sanded off by crews of note-giving executives. The writers' strike allowed English's vision to make it to air with edges intact.
It's easy to imagine Murphy as a version of her creator writ large: avidly ambitious, effortlessly elegant. Yet where English worked smoothly and quietly to get what she needed, Murphy was obnoxious and noisy. It was funnier that way — and it was also something that hadn't been seen on television before. She was a human tempest, a ruthless dervish whirling through prime time.
In the debut episode, Murphy — returning to work after a month in rehab — flings herself back into the fray via a live interview with Bobby Powell, a handsome young man who allegedly had an affair with a married woman running for vice president of the United States (an inverted riff on the then-recent Gary Hart–Donna Rice scandal).
After work, Murphy heads back to her empty, luxurious Georgetown home, where she kicks off her heels and belts out an off-key rendition of the Aretha Franklin song "Natural Woman." In the world of Murphy Brown, there is no reason that a demand for respect can't coexist with the desire to be a natural woman.
That song returned as a coda two seasons later, in one of the series' most infamous episodes: the one where Murphy gives birth.
Murphy Brown started flirting with the idea of motherhood shockingly early. In the sixth episode, "Baby Love," a pregnant friend urges Murphy to join the club: "Do not miss this experience or you'll regret it till the day you die." By the end of the episode, Murphy is swathed in a scarf and dark glasses while paying a research visit to a sperm bank and asking best friend and colleague Frank if he'd consider donating some of his swimmers.
Like the 1987 movie Baby Boom, in which Diane Keaton plays a high-powered lady executive who suddenly inherits a baby, Murphy Brown coaxed laughs from the fish-out-of-water scenario.
In "Brown Like Me," Murphy is left alone with her father's infant son. As the baby wails, Murphy, clad in black velvet for an awards ceremony where she will be honored, lectures him, "I know your type! You think you can just snap your fingers and we come running? Let me tell you something, buster, those days are over. Ever heard of Gloria Steinem? Does the name Betty Friedan ring a bell?"
Of course, within minutes she is rocking him like… a natural.
The idea of Murphy getting knocked up had been percolating since the earliest days of the show. Bergen adored being a mother to her young daughter, Chloe, and she told the Los Angeles Times, "I thought it would be too tragic if Murphy didn't have a child… Going into her late 40s in a career in which she was an aging success, with no friends, no relationship and no child, I thought there was not too much funny stuff to be gotten out of that."
English herself did not have kids, but she thought an unwieldy new challenge would be good for Murphy. Some of the show's writers worried it would be a show killer, but English fended them off. "I always thought that there was a way for her to have this baby and be a very irreverent mother."
English recalls visiting the New York office of a magazine editor friend who had just had a baby. "She opened a drawer, and she had put bunting in the drawer, and she put the baby in the drawer," English says. "I thought: That is something Murphy would do. That would be so great! Bringing the baby to work when women weren't supposed to do that."
By this point, Murphy Brown had a couple of successful seasons under its belt and seven Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actress. (The show would ultimately rake in 18 Emmy statues and 62 nominations.)
Although network execs had sought to defang Murphy at the start, now the top brass pretty much left the series to its own devices. So there was little to no pushback on Murphy's pregnancy.
"It never occurred to me that a woman who was 42 and had a one-night stand with her ex-husband and got pregnant and decided to go forward with the pregnancy — that that would somehow become controversial," English says emphatically.
CBS's standards had loosened substantially since the Mary Tyler Moore Show era, when the network insisted that viewers would not accept a divorcee as their heroine. Besides, 1.2 million babies were born to unmarried American women in 1990 alone.
Even so, the writers took some precautions: they decided that the baby would be the product of a one-night stand with Murphy's ex-husband, during a brief reconciliation, and the couple even had blood tests to make sure neither of them had AIDS, which was very much in the news then.
So it was, during the season-three finale, that a disheveled Murphy walks into her bathroom and gazes with horror at a plastic stick that has turned blue.
The May 1991 episode was the number-one show of its week, and newspapers reported that "there wasn't even a ripple" of controversy. Ratings remained high during summer reruns, and fans speculated: would she opt for motherhood or an abortion? "It's not an easy choice for her," English told a reporter at the time. "Serious consideration is given to both sides. And we're prepared for whatever flak we get."
Cushioning the gravity of her situation with humor, Murphy tries to imagine squeezing a baby into the life of a journalist. "What am I going to say: 'Excuse me, Mr. President, could you speak a little louder? I can't hear you over my breast pump'?" she howls anxiously.
Meanwhile, her boss Miles worries that he'll be jumped in a dark alley by religious culture warrior Reverend Donald Wildmon. "How many unmarried pregnant role models have you ever seen on prime time?" he squeals. " None! Zero!"
The fictional head of the news division is even more nervous. "Brownie," he says gruffly, "I'm responsible for a multi-million-dollar operation that does not thrive on taking risks. I don't see that I have any choice but to take you off the air." (He eventually changes his mind.)
That scene had been inspired by a real-world kerfuffle in which 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, who served as a consultant to Murphy Brown, refused to accommodate correspondent Meredith Vieira's desire to work part-time after she had had two babies in quick succession.
The question of how a newswoman could juggle an all-consuming job and family life was increasingly topical: the year before, Connie Chung, one of the first female network anchors, announced she was quitting her newsmagazine to focus on getting pregnant.
By the time Murphy Brown returned in the fall, viewers were on tenterhooks waiting to see what she would do.
CBS acknowledged that the network had lost some advertisers, and there was pushback from the religious right. In its newsletter, the conservative Media Research Center protested the season opener's "pro-choice rhetoric— [Murphy] and her coworkers made over 15 references to the 'choice' or 'decision' she had to make.
"Throughout the show, all arguments regarding the decision centered on the impact a baby would have on Murphy's career and the quality of the child's life, ignoring the child's right to life."
Fans had other worries: they wrote and called the producers expressing concern that their favorite warrior would be domesticated. Murphy worried right alongside them.
In the baby-shower episode — guest-starring real-world newscasters such as Katie Couric and written by Michael Patrick King, later known for Sex and the City — Murphy recoils at her colleagues' tales of changing diapers in airplane bathrooms and accidentally lapsing into baby talk with workmates. NBC anchor Mary Alice Williams quips, "I once asked [newsman] Garrick Utley if he had to make boom-boom."
Approximately two-thirds of American network TV viewers, a massive proportion even by 1992 standards, watched Murphy Brown's water break at the end of season four. One minute she's grilling a tobacco company shill about liability lawsuits, the next she's in a hospital with a tiny infant, terrified by her animal nature. "My body is making milk ," she exclaims, part horrified and part awestruck. "It's like one day you find out you can get bacon out of your elbow!"
Korby Siamis, then a relatively new mother, cowrote the episode (called "Birth 101") with English. "I could never have written that line if I hadn't lived it," she says. The episode concludes with Murphy awkwardly trying to bond with her baby boy by cooing an off-key rendition of "Natural Woman," a blissful callback to the final moment of the series' pilot.
Bergen has said that singing to the baby was her idea: "I wanted to sing [the song] again but mean it."
The idea that only childbirth made Murphy a "natural woman" inevitably offended some feminists. Siamis recalls being surprised to hear from women who were disappointed, or who felt the show cast judgment on those who didn't have babies. "I never wrote thinking, Now I'm for this segment of the population. It was one character. We were not trying to change the world."
But independent women taking issue with Murphy's maternal instincts turned out to be the least of the show's problems.
On May 18, 1992, English was celebrating her 44th birthday with an afternoon of horseback riding. Murphy Brown had just aired its fourth-season finale; it was to be English's last episode running the show. She and [husband–producing partner] Joel [Shukovsky] had decided to leave the series in the hands of the show's writers to work on other projects and build their television empire.
"I went for a ride thinking about how amazing the last four years were," she says.
The next day, her office was plunged into chaos. Vice President Dan Quayle, campaigning on the West Coast on behalf of George H.W. Bush's reelection, made a speech aimed at shoring up the conservative Republican base. In the aftermath of the L.A. riots following the beating of motorist Rodney King, Quayle attributed the violence to a collapse of "family values" in inner cities.
Along with the impoverished black unwed mothers whom he accused of breeding this "lawless anarchy," Quayle blamed unwed mother Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice."
Suddenly, Murphy Brown was more than a popular TV character; she was at the center of both the presidential campaign and the culture wars.
As the story gripped the American media and public alike, English rejected requests to be interviewed by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News and to debate Quayle on 60 Minutes. The New York Daily News headlined its front-page story "Quayle to Murphy Brown: You Tramp!"
A retiring Johnny Carson quipped in his Tonight Show monologue that he had finally decided on his next career move: "I am going to join the cast of Murphy Brown and become a surrogate father to that kid." The New York Times front page featuring a photo of Murphy and baby still has pride of place on English's office wall.
In its initial news report on the kerfuffle, the Los Angeles Times noted, "Told of Quayle's comments, a senior Bush campaign official replied only: 'Oh, dear.'" Governor Bill Clinton's camp moved quickly to take advantage of the incident, with press secretary Dee Dee Myers declaring that "the world is a much more complicated place than Dan Quayle wants to believe. He should watch a few episodes before he decides to pop off."
Although English must have known the series was making a striking statement at a time of cultural retrenchment, she recalls being stunned by the massive public response to Murphy's private (not to mention completely fictional) decision. "Seeing Dan Quayle doing a tour of the aftermath of the L.A. riots and basically blaming it on me, saying, 'That show, that character — that's why we are up in flames!' I remember sitting in front of the television watching that, thinking, I'm just trying to make a show ."
CBS News president Howard Stringer advised English to make a single statement. It was a powerful one: "If the vice president thinks it's disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child and if he believes that a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then he'd better make sure abortion remains safe and legal."
At that very moment, the Supreme Court was deciding Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a pivotal case that upheld the core of Roe v. Wade but also opened the door for states to pass new restrictions on abortion.
Instead of letting the Murphy Brown controversy subside, Quayle decided to crank it up. At a visit to a junior high school in post-riot South L.A. later that week, Quayle lectured Latino and black students about having children out of wedlock. "What would you prefer," a 14-year-old girl in attendance asked a reporter, "a single mom, or a dad who gets drunk and beats your mom?"
After the event, Quayle elaborated on his issues with Murphy Brown, dragging the whole entertainment industry into the battle: "My complaint is that Hollywood thinks it's cute to glamorize illegitimacy," he said. "Hollywood just doesn't get it."
Hollywood fired back. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of Designing Women, bristled at Quayle's suggestion that "people who are in charge of these television shows aren't really America," with its echoes of Senator Joseph McCarthy's un-American witch hunt.
"It's sort of to be expected he'd comment on this fantasy character as a way of solving a real problem…. Next [the Bush administration] will be blaming [TV doctor] Doogie Howser, M.D., for the lack of a health care program in this country."
During the presidential-election summer of 1992, the term cultural elite spread through America's public conversation like wildfire. It was a vague but evocative phrase for the kind of liberalism propagated by Hollywood and the mainstream media and on college campuses on the coasts, a set of permissive and relativistic attitudes that conservatives feared was eroding the traditional values of the heartland.
As Quayle's approval ratings spiraled downward, he dug a deeper trench in June, when he made a speech at the Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis's Hoosier Dome.
In between denunciations of abortion, sex education and homosexuality, he positioned the presidential contest as a moral battle between the cultural elite and family values. Cultural elitists lurked in "newsrooms, sitcom studios and faculty lounges," Quayle claimed. "I wear their scorn as a badge of honor."
That same month, Quayle used the "cultural elites" trope to energize the anti-abortion movement, telling the members of the National Right to Life Committee, "I know it can be discouraging playing David to the Goliath of the dominant cultural elite. In Hollywood and elsewhere, your opponents have a lot of money, a lot of glamour, a lot of influence.
"But we have the power of ideas, the power of our convictions, the power of our beliefs." Young people in the hall carried posters with the words: Murphy Brown does not speak for us… but Dan Quayle does.
The media happily amped up the war of words with articles such as "Is Hollywood Ruining America?" Time featured Candice Bergen on its "Hollywood & Politics" cover, with the headline "Murphy Brown for President." Meanwhile, Newsweek created an issue devoted to "The Cultural Elite," formulating a Top 100 list that included Oprah, Madonna and Dan Quayle.
Looking back, English now admits it was a "very scary" time. Photographers were camped outside her house, and a steady stream of threats came through to her office. "I had constant anonymous phone calls on our office answering machine saying, 'We want to kill you.'" Metal detectors had to be installed to protect the live audience for Murphy Brown, and Bergen was given a full-time security detail.
The American Family Association's Reverend Donald Wildmon called for a boycott of the series and its sponsors by "Americans who are tired of having their values ridiculed." There was even speculation that Bergen might lose her lucrative contract as spokeswoman for Sprint. In the end, the boycott never happened, and Bergen stayed on Sprint's books for another six years.
Three months after the childbirth episode aired, Murphy Brown triumphantly picked up three Emmys — for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy and Outstanding Directing.
In Bergen's acceptance speech, she thanked the vice president and the show's writers "for their words and for spelling them correctly" — a barb slung at Quayle for his embarrassing misspelling of the word potato at a kids' spelling bee. (Not only did he add a superfluous e at the end but he also corrected a child who'd spelled it right.)
Picking up the Outstanding Comedy Series award, English thanked "all the single parents out there who, either by choice or by necessity, are raising their kids alone. Don't let anybody tell you you're not a family."
The return of Murphy Brown was almost as eagerly awaited as the answer to Dallas's infamous "Who killed J.R.?" story line. Would Murphy keep her baby? Would she be a good mother? Would these fictional characters respond to the insults flung at them by real-world politicians? The answer to this last question was an emphatic yes .
To keep the details under wraps, the producers limited access to scripts and shot several versions of a few scenes. English, who had handed the show over to producers Gary Dontzig and Steven Peterman after moving on to other projects, says even she didn't know how they would handle Murphy's rebuttal.
In "You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato," Murphy returns to the office in a double-breasted suit, looking as sophisticated and unruffled as ever and bragging about having nailed a mob boss. Then her secretary starts wailing like a baby, and Murphy wakes up to her real nightmare — that is, life as a single mother coping with an inconsolable infant, Avery, named after her recently deceased mother.
When she visits the office briefly to cry on her colleagues' shoulders, Murphy gets little sympathy. Jim Dial tells her to look on the bright side: "In the old days, a woman bearing a child out of wedlock would've been stoned to death!" It is her dear friend Frank, always a model of soft modern masculinity and the product of a large family, who teaches Murphy how to comfort her own baby.
Murphy is just getting the hang of rocking Avery to sleep when a newscaster announces that Dan Quayle has called out Murphy Brown for her "poverty of values" and shows a real news clip.
At the FYI offices, her colleagues swap copies of actual newspapers touting "Murphygate." An enraged Murphy complains to Frank, "I agonized over this decision!" He reminds her that Quayle is a national joke, saying, "Tomorrow he's probably going to get his head stuck in his golf bag, and you'll be old news."
The final nail in the Quayle coffin comes when Murphy herself addresses the issues from her pulpit at FYI . Flanked by single-parent families, she somberly intones that, in these difficult times, we could hold Congress responsible, or an administration that's been in power for 12 years… "or we could blame me."
She chides Quayle for his narrow definition of family values and calls on him to realize that "families come in all shapes and sizes." The episode ends with an ever-mischievous Murphy dumping a truckload of potatoes on the vice president's lawn. Bush and Quayle lost the election to Clinton that fall.
English sent the new commander-in-chief a congratulatory telegram, telling him, "You're not really president until Murphy Brown does its first Bill Clinton joke." He responded by inviting her to the inauguration, saying, "All your fans helped get me elected."
And, of course, the Quayle controversy helped the series: Advertising Age estimated that ad prices went up more than 100 percent from the previous season, and the ratings soared. The birth episode lured 70 million viewers, and Murphy finished the season as the third-most-watched show of the year.
Murphy Brown was English's brainchild, but she was eager to move on. The show carried on in its creator's absence, but as ratings started to drop, English was invited back a few seasons later to consult.
"I think they were feeling the burden of trying to figure out how this baby thing worked," she recalls. "Women loved Murphy because she wasn't a mom, she wasn't a wife and all those traditional things. The trick was to keep her Murphy while she was being a mom. People loved her for what she started out as. They didn't want her to change."
Yet over the show's run, Murphy did change, facing one of her most daunting transformations in season 10. English had agreed to come back as showrunner for the final year, and found her creation had mutated into something she almost didn't recognize. "The comedy had gotten so broad — I wanted to bring it back to its roots a little bit, so we came up with: well, what if she got breast cancer?"
English and the writing staff spoke to cancer survivors, listening for the funny details amid the heartbreak. The show's infamous marijuana episode, in which straitlaced Jim procures pot for Murphy in a Washington, D.C., park and the whole FYI team tokes up, remains for English "a perfect example of how you could take such a serious subject and find humor and social commentary in it."
At the end of the show's run, Bergen called her time as Murphy "a great liberation for me — in the way it liberated people watching it. I loved playing a woman who didn't take [crap] from anybody. All of us hate the part of ourselves that forces us to do that. And even when we don't take it, our retorts are never the quality of Murphy's. We don't have an A-level team of writer- producers writing our rejoinders."
Just as Murphy became a polarizing symbolic figure in the culture wars, her creator became something of an icon in her own right, even appearing in a Hanes pantyhose ad campaign featuring career women.
TV showrunners and writers rarely achieved household recognition status back then, let alone female showrunners. Yet it would turn out that Murphy Brown and Diane English were just the beginning of a twin-threat transformation of the television status quo — a foretaste of a future in which unabashedly bold women took the lead on-screen and powerful women called the shots behind the scenes.
CBS announced in May that it was not renewing its Murphy Brown revival; episodes are available at CBS All Access.
From STEALING THE SHOW: How Women Are Revolutionizing Television by Joy Press. Copyright ©2018 by Joy Press. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, an imprint Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019
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