'Murphy Brown' interview
On May 18 — exactly 52 weeks after American learned that Murphy Brown was pregnant — the waiting will be over. Having endured what her creator; Diane English, calls ”the longest labor” (and what obstetrical science would surely confirm as the longest pregnancy) in recent TV history, Murphy Brown will have a son, and Murphy Brown will end its fourth season the way it began — as the most talked-about comedy on television.
It wasn’t always so. When, in 1988, CBS announced plans for a high-concept sitcom from the makers of My Sister Sam about a 40ish TV reporter with a wacky painter in her townhouse and the Betty Ford Center on her résumeé, the idea seemed gimmicky and unpromising. But early hunches on Murphy Brown did not account for the acute character development and the deft, dead-on comedy writing that English brought to the show, or for the talents of a comic ensemble that has grown into one of the funniest and most unpredictable in prime time.
English recruited her all-stars from various quarters: Candice Bergen, who had taken three years off to have and raise her daughter, Chloe, read the pilot script on a plane and barely waited until the landing gear droppped to pursue the title role: Broadway veteran Charles Kimbrough was hired to play FYI‘s spring-wound, rigid elder statesman, Jim Dial; and Grant Shaud jumped from a small movie roles (he can be spotted schmoozing with Charlie Sheen in Wall Street) into the part of the neurotic producer Miles Silverberg, the boy genius with a closetful of Pepto-Bismol and what Murphy calls ”legs shorter than a dachshund’s.” Before her stint as beauty-queen-turned-barely-intrepid-reporter Corky Sherwood-Forrest, Faith Ford starred in the series The Popcorn Kid, killed after five weeks. Joe Regalbuto (Murphy’s colleague, pal, and competitor Frank Fontana) and Pat Corley (the prescient, curmudgeonly pubkeeper, Phil) were TV veterans who’d never had their comic talents showcased in a hit series. And Robert Pastorelli was virtually unknown to audiences before appearing as housepainter, muralist, and recent millionaire Eldin Bernecky.
Four years later, those performers have become household faces, and the show has become a multiple Emmy winner and top five hit. At an age when other sitcoms often tire, Murphy Brown has kept itself fresh by poking fun at an inexhaustible supply of newsmaking topics (including, this season, the Hill-Thomas hearings and the infidelities of politicians) and by taking chances with its characters: Murphy’s pregnancy, Corky’s wobbly marriage, and Miles’ erotic dream about a male coworker made for some of this season’s smartest, funniest episodes. Next season Murphy will face working motherhood — a prospect that will, at best, broaden and enrich the show’s comic possibilities. At worst…well, even its creators shudder at the thought of a blandly domesticated Murphy. No way they’ll let that happen.
When the cast of Murphy Brown joined English, executive producer Joe Shukovsky (her husband), and producers Steve Peterman, Gary Dontzig, and Tom Palmer, and writers Michael Patrick King and Peter Tolan to talk to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, the mood ranged from fatigue (mostly on the part of the writers) to festivity. As they assembled at a large Warner Bros. round table after the weekly Monday-morning read-through, the actors were in high, prankish spirits. Grant Shaud got things off to an auspicious start by spilling a soda, and then everyone began to talk…about the ecstasy of having a hit, the agony of writing a joke, and of course, what to name the baby.
EW: Is this a professional or a casual set? Lots of laughs, I imagine…
Ford: Welll, someone looking from the outside may not think it’s so professional. Our rehearsal process is a bit bizarre.
Bergen: Diane just told this new director a few weeks ago, ”You know, they play around a lot, and you have to let them do that — it’s part of their process,” and I was thinking, ”Oh, is that it? We have a process? Or is it just that we like to screw around a lot?” It certainly is vital to me.
Ford: Somehow, it gets done.
Bergen: It’s not a show you can phone in. The writing is so meticulous — every comma, every semicolon is worked on…not a preposition gets ad-libbed. The show is demanding and it’s fast, and it’s a lot to learn in five days, but that’s the pace we like. It’s hard to see we’re working so hard because we do screw around.
EW: Who is the annoying, superserious person in the cast, the one who isn’t a ball of fun? Every show has one.
Shaud: No, Charlie tried to be that.
Ford: But we broke him.
Shaud: Like a stallion.
Kimbrough: Yes, I’m a broken man.
Bergen: It took us 2.5 years. He was ramrod. It drove him nuts. It’s very understandable, though. I mean, he has this very mature, professional attitude, and we would screw around and screw around and screw around.
Kimbrough: Oh, yeah, I was a bit crazy at first.
Bergen: A bit?! Kimbrough: TV was a big change for me.
Bergen: I mean, Charlie was starring in Sondheim musicals. He is this incredibly cultivated, refined, talented man.
Shaud: Was, not is.
Bergen: And then he goes out and buys a condo in the Valley. So this has been a big jump for Charlie.
Kimbrough: Frankly, to be honest, I hadn’t worked for two years before Murphy Brown. It’s a nice illusion now to think of all of us as terribly successful and talented people at the top of our profession, but that’s hindsight. I had to pray for a job like this. It was going to get me over this bumpy patch in my middle years, a conveyor belt to this West Coast life. I would run to work! The first couple of years, I was here ever day 15 minutes early. Everyone though I was so disciplined. No! I had nothing else to do.
EW: How do actors get through tapings without breaking up constantly?
Kimbrough: Ask me, young man!
Bergen: Yes, now that he’s a broken man!
Kimbrough: I used to be able to get through it without laughing, and now I can’t.
EW: Murphy Brown is already considered by many to be a classic in the tradition of Barney Miller, Taxi, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Even though you’re still on the air, do you feel that?
Bergen: Let Diane answer, ’cause she’s the creator.
English: At the risk of sounding arrogant, we felt that way early on.
Bergen: From the pilot.
English: That we were about to embark on something that was very clearly everyone’s best efforts from the outset. [But] a lot of people said we were the kind of show that would never make it to the top 10.
(Shaud throws a bottle top across the room at one of the producers.)
English: (studiously looking the other way) You see, I’m trying to ignore this. We did make it to the top 10 — but we knew we would. That sounds really arrogant. Classic? By the end of the first season, yeah.
Corley: If you recall, I told you (looking at English and Bergen) at one of the first meetings we had that we had a hit. I still think the pilots is the example against which every new comedy is judged. Candice’s singing with Bobby is absolutely one of the most screamingly funny things I’ve seen in my life.
EW: Candice, people think it’s easy to sing badly. I know you make it look easy.
Bergen: Let me tell you…it’s not!
Kimbrough: I was afraid to use the word ”hit,” but from the time I first read it…I thought it was a wonderful show that very few people would watch.
Bergen: I was so confident because I didn’t know. Everyone would say, ”You don’t understand the odds of a pilot actually making the air, then being sold, and then being a success” — the odds are so infinitesimal.
Peterman: This was one of those shows you really wanted to get involved with.
Bergen: The first read-through — it was dinner at Diane and Joel’s house, before we even did the pilot — was extraordinary. The level of enthusiasm was so high.
English: My walls are still cracked!
EW: From the start, the critics, even CBS execs, wondered if Candice Bergen could do comedy.
Bergen: (looking stricken and horrified) I hope they only said that before the show started.
EW: Now, with Candice winning a couple of Emmys and Golden Globes, it’s obviously not an issue.
Shaud: That was from people who didn’t do their homework. All you had to do was watch Saturday Night Live a couple of times, or rent Starting Over.
Bergen: (dryly) Exactly!
EW: And at the beginning of this season, the same people who said Candice couldn’t do comedy also said the baby would wreck the show.
Bergen: CBS goes with what Diane wants, but [this time] they were trembly, I think. A lot of people felt the baby would torpedo the show, and all it did was put us in the top five. I always thought it was a great idea.
English: We went through this whole period — we all discussed the baby at length, the writers, Candice and I, Joel and I…
Peterman: We also had a Magic 8 Ball.
English: ”Should she be pregnant?” ”Ask Again Later.” We heard a lot of people say she’ll lose her edge if she is pregnant. I think we’ve proved them wrong. Now they’re saying that Murphy with an actual baby won’t be the same Murphy. But we’re just taking the female W.C. Fields and giving her a child. She’ll be a reporter with a child. Why not challenge a woman in her 40s? I think she’s going to reinvent motherhood in a very unconventional way. We’re never going to make this a family show or a couch comedy.
Dontzig: She’s going to drop the baby out the window on the second episode.
Ford: Yes, the ”Postpartum Blues” episode.
Peterman: Known as the ”Dingo Ate My Baby” episode.
English: It was also a great opportunity for all [the male cast members]. In addition to their roles, they’re going to be called on to do things like baby-sitting. And there’s been balance. Not every episode has been about her being pregnant.
EW: Have names for Murphy’s baby been bandied about?
English: We haven’t even though of that!
English: Maybe the baby doesn’t have a name for a while.
EW: Will Murphy breast-feed? Will she bring the baby to the office? Will she face day-care dilemmas?
English: It’s all party of being a working mother. It’s going to be interesting.
Pastorelli: Eldin is going to breast-feed the baby.
EW: Tell us about the work that goes into writing.
Ford: We can screw around because we don’t have to worry about the scripts. Actors are not meant to write or direct; they are meant to act. We don’t have that pressure to do more than act.
Bergen: You do have the security of the words. We would have these guest writers sometimes and [we’d] say, ”I’m having a hard, cold panic, what the f— are we going to do this week?” and you don’t have fun that week, and you feel hung out to dry. No one likes the feeling of pushing words.
Regalbuto: When Diane is here, even if we’re in trouble that week, you know they’re going to make it better. It may not be choice on Monday, but…
Ford:…We know it’s going to be.
Peterman: It remains incredibly hard to write. We all know the process based on how horrible we look during a given week.
English: It takes us an average, I’d say, 30 minutes, and hour, on sometimes one joke. We’ve spent two hours on a single joke. It is a long, arduous process.
King: We’ll sometimes spend 20 minutes on a joke we know we won’t use.
English: That room gets so — the bad food delivered cold, the bad lighting, and by 10 p.m. the energy level is so far down. We have to play around to get the energy up. We just need to laugh until we all vomit. Or stuff we know CBS will never let us use, but sometimes the kernel is there and we say, ”How can we clean it up and use it?”
Peterman: Like penis-vagina penis-vagina penis-vagina!
Bergen: We usually have 22 [episodes], and CBS upped us to 26 this year. We also have a relatively small staff of writers, but they are able to do the work of 12 men! I mean, we watch Cheers (nose in the air, snippily) They sit in this bar, they toss olives at each other, they toss off these lines…and on other shows the writers say the show writes itself. We’re not that way.
Ford: (upbeat) I went to a Cheers taping once! (Room laughs.)
Bergen: And on this show, we all have fairly common political and social concerns and we get to express them. It’s not only a success in terms of quality and ratings, but also [in terms of] ideology. We feel great when the Thanksgiving homeless [episode] and the environment show have an effect. There are enough writers and producers who don’t care about anything other than getting their show into the top 10. We always have a point of view even when we don’t have a political message. We get to bash Democrats and Republicans alike, and I don’t know another show that does that.
EW: Are you all surprised that the political swipes at both parties in your scripts don’t offend more viewers?
English: They do. But they come back. That’s the strange thing.
Ford: I happen to know that half the state of Louisiana no longer watches my show. My mother teaches in a Catholic school [in Pineville], and she reminds me of that. In the beginning of the first episode, they just all turned it off. The aristocratic section watches.
Regalbuto: Where is that section? (Tolan mutters something, and the back of the room breaks out in laughter.)
Ford: What was that? What??
Tolan: Say it out loud? No, thanks. I get enough mail already. I said the aristocratic section of Louisiana is near the Denny’s. We have this expression in writers’ room — ”Imagine my pain.” All the letters start out that way.
English: You can’t imagine what [viewers] write about.
Regalbuto: How about the goat letter?
English: We wrote this line that said Murphy’s lawn was such a mess and had so much garbage on it that it looked like a goat exploded. The next week, I’m not kidding, we got this serious letter from a group of goat herders, a very impassioned letter, saying goats don’t eat garbage and they get a bad rap, with 20 to 30 signatures. And I was watching the show and I was very upset, and you can imagine my pain! We have a collection of them at this point — short people, goats…We always say this in unison when we’re about to read one of those: You can imagine my pain!
EW: One topic you’ve stayed away from is the possibility of an interoffice romance. Sam got together with Diane and changed Cheers. Mary Tyler Moore went on a date with Mr. Grant. How about Murphy and Miles?
English: Just about every man in the office has been infatuated with her, but I dunno. Too soon, maybe.
EW: After four years on the air?
English: Still too soon.
Shaud: They’re waiting for me to reach puberty! (Room laughs.)
English: The character has just had this 30th birthday, and he still has [his girlfriend] Audrey.
EW: How about Frank?
Kimbrough: Frank hasn’t had a date for a while!
Regalbuto: And his thing for Kathleen Sullivan is old.
EW: Who is most like his or her character?
Ford: Oh, please don’t ask that one!
EW: Okay, then — who is the least like his character? Who really acts? Charles, you can’t be that pompous.
Ford: I think Charlie is the least like his character. Just look at him. When we found out he was this very eccentric person, we were all shocked.
Regalbuto: (laughing) But Jim is eccentric.
Ford: We originally though Charlie was a lot like Jim Dial, but as we’ve gotten to know him, he’s let his hair down.
Bergen: But not really until the second or third year.
EW: Among your guest stars, who were the joys to work with and who wasn’t that funny, no matter what you tried?
English: They blow us away, some of them. Connie Chung came in with jet lag and nailed two scenes.
Bergen: Harry Smith was great.
EW: Okay, so who was tough?
Regalbuto: Oh, sure, you expect us to tell you that?
Bergen: You realistically expect us to tell you that?
Palmer: I’ll tell you: Rose Kennedy, and we had to cut her out. (raucous laughter)
Shaud: Okay, seriously, tell him about the Irving R. Levine School of Drama.
English: Oh, Irving! Ir-ving! We had to teach him a little about punching up his joke, but he’ charming.
Shaud: He had natural rhythm.
Bergen: Diane, did you say he was German?!
(The room breaks up. Shaud lobs a bottle top at Bergen and hits her cheek. She recoils, doubling over in laughter.)
Shaud: How many times do I throw something at her and never come close…and…now…I hit her…in front of a journalist. Forget this ever happened.
EW: What about the non-journalist guest stars? Aretha Franklin and Colleen Dewhurst were favorites. Do many stars want in at this point?
English: We have a few.
Pastorelli: Larry Storch wants to be on. (Room laughs.) No, I’m serious. I take a class with a him — he’s great.
Ford: Uh, who is Larry Storch? (Room laughs.) No, I’m serious. I take a class with him — he’s great.
Bergen: Everything was before her time. She was born four years ago.
English: It was so great to watch Candice with Aretha — the look on Candice’s face. The expression was so real, every time Aretha opened her mouth, and we kept the crew very small. It was like this private concert for us. She’s always been my favorite singer. We used her song [”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”] on the pilot and we always use her music.
Regalbuto: It was like that first episode with Colleen. We were all trying to act so, well, good. The jokes were all going in the toilet. We tried so hard to be on good behavior.
EW: Although you’ve often skewered public figures on your show, you’ve really never gone after them as guests. Since you’ve used so many newcasters as guest stars, why not have some actual headline makers on the show?
English: Anita Hill, for example, is not an actress, and Oliver North, guesting on Wings, is not an actor. But the news people are — they are on camera, and they have to sometimes have this theatrical quality. You know you’re going to be safe.
EW: So will we never see real people?
English: It depends. Dr. Spock said he would love to appear. That might be fun to do…Dr. Spock!
EW: If you were not cast in your roles, do you see someone else out there who could play the part?
Shaud: We did this once, remember? We cast a movie of Murphy Brown
Ford: Yeah, we did.
Shaud: It was Peter Graves as Charlie.
Ford: Matthew Broderick as Grant.
Bergen: No, I think it was Al Pacino or Bob De Niro.
Ford: No, I think it was Broderick or Fischer Stevens.
Bergen: And for Bobby? There is no one to replace him!
Shaud: He’s already crossed over into movies anyway. [He appears on Folks! with Tom Selleck.]
Ford: No…Danny Aiello!
Pastorelli: Thanks, Faith. Great!
Ford: Joe Pesci or Robert Duvall. Jonathan Winters for Pat.
Bergen: Well, what about Faithy?
Ford: That’s easy: Meryl Streep.
Corley: It’s hard to find people with Faith’s comedic sense. Maybe Judy Holliday…
Ford: I always think Jimmy Stewart.
Bergen: For you, Faith?
Ford: Yeah, he’s my pat answer for everything: Who’s the sexiest man alive? Jimmy Stewart. Who should play you in a movie? Jimmy Stewart…
EW: And you, Candice?
Ford: Katharine Hepburn! (Room laughs.)
Shaud: Sean Young. (bigger laughs)
Ford: I can tell you who wants to play Candice: Farrah Fawcett and Diane Sawyer.
Bergen: I’m not saying anything.
Regalbuto: Actually, everyone who was up for the part of Frank has guest-starred on the show at some point, and these guys never like me and…gee…I never know why!
EW: Who’s the funniest cast member when the cameras aren’t rolling?
All: Bobby! Bobby! Bob!
Regalbuto: Bobby is very, very funny.
Pastorelli: I’m really very quiet.
Ford: Please! You? Quiet?
Bergen: That’s because nothing he would say could be printed in a family publications! He’s just playing shy.
Pastorelli: I save it all up for talk shows, you see.
Bergen: You know what he calls me? (cooing) ”My little Pap smear.” (Room breaks into laughter)
Pastorelli: Yeah, and you know what she calls me? (coos, and pauses for effect) ”My little scrotum!” (shrieks of horror all around)
Regalbuto: Oh, it’s deteriorating quickly.
EW: With Diane English and Joel Shukovsky leaving the show after this season to produce a new comedy for CBS, Love is Hell, some people are now wondering whether Murphy Brown will continue to thrive.
Peterman: Next question! (lots of laughs, followed by a long pause)
Peterman: We only think about it 20, 24 hours a day. It’s a real nerve-inducing experience. They had such a clear image of what this show should be from the beginning. We know we won’t be exactly the same.
Shaud: But you can’t go up to the bat thinking, ”I’m going to strike out.” That won’t be a quality at bat. You wouldn’t be in the majors very long.
Shukovsky: Diane and I want to see Murphy Brown continue and have a life of its own. We would like nothing more than to see it go on indefinitely.
English: If it can’t, then we really failed as execs. Look, I think it belongs to a lot of other people now. For a while it just did belong to me and to Candice, but these guys [the writers] are so much better in so many ways at this than I am. I said the other day I forgot how to write jokes.
Dontzig: Don’t listen to her. She’s having a nervous breakdown!
EW: Where do you see the characters is 10 year?
Bergen: I’d like to see them like they were in the M*A*S*H reunion. They were all in these boats, houses on lakes, the lakes were named after them, these big leisure boats. Like Gary Burghoff — Lake Burghoff. I like that idea.