‘Murphy Brown’ Creator Diane English on Why She Hit Back at Trump’s Press-Bashing

Beat the Press
Spoiler Alert
David Giesbrecht / 2018

[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for Episode 10 of Murphy Brown, “Beat the Press.”]

Diane English’s revived Murphy Brown has not been shy about criticizing and poking fun at the current administration. And Thursday night’s episode (November 28) took on the president’s ginning up hatred against the press.

The show’s creator spoke with TV Insider about why she did a story about cable news reporter Frank Fontana (Joe Regalbuto) and Murphy’s (Candice Bergen) son Avery (Jake McDorman), now a freelance reporter, being beaten by Trump supporters.

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Candice Bergen still packs a punch as news-diva Murphy, even when the revival feels late to the game in an age of late-night political satire.

She also weighed in on why that violence led to the heretofore fearless Murphy Brown actually backing down on air while talking to a Republican because the beaten faces of people she loved flashed in front of her. Read on to see what English said below.

You’re doing some politically pointed storylines often laced with humor in the revived Murphy Brown, but this episode was nothing to laugh about. How did the story of Frank being bashed at a Trump rally come about?

Diane English: We came up with our stories last spring. The possibilities of what to write about form a long list. That fact that we are writing characters that are members of the press, we felt we had to talk about the hostility aimed at them. [The president’s] calling the press enemies of the people was really alarming and seemed a good fit for an episode.

And then we watched a journalist get body slammed in Montana. [Editor’s Note: In 2017, Republican congressman Greg Gianforte slammed and punched Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, was convicted of misdemeanor assault , then re-elected.] Recently, the president referenced and was complimentary about that incident. So we thought, “Maybe we should push this a little farther.”

Why did you make the decision not to just have Frank knocked down — as in the Montana incident — but seriously injured with broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, and an eye injury?

We thought that it would be too sitcom-y for him just to have a black eye when you see how fired-up some of these crowds get. We’ve watched a lot of footage of people at rallies who were right up against the press pen and screaming things in their faces. It’s a mob mentality. We thought, if this happens, it’s not going to be pretty, it’s not just going to be a shove.

Grant Shaud as Miles Silverberg, Joe Regalbuto as Frank Fontana, Tyne Daly as Phyllis, Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, and Faith Ford as Corky Sherwood (David Giesbrecht / 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment)

In the script, you have Trump dissing “Fibbing Frank Fontana,” and tweeting “Let Frank know what you think of him. Maybe a good body slam.” Has he really gone that far?

Yes. He said he likes a good body slam when he talked about [Gianforte] at a campaign rally. I don’t recall the exact words, but our words were pretty close. Our lawyers go through everything with a fine-tooth comb, so they wouldn’t have let us have somebody say that, as inflammatory as it is, unless it has already been said.

So unlike pure satire, you have to be careful about what words you put in the president’s mouth?

It has to be obvious satire. They apply different standards to [The Late Show with Stephen Colbert] and SNL than they would to a primetime broadcast show. They’re a little more careful with us.

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How important is the president’s hostility to the press to you as a TV creator? You have Murphy commenting that it’s the worst she’s ever seen in her long career.

It’s a big issue, and it’s kind of trickled into every episode. The press polls lower than the president, which is not easy to do. How did that happen? It’s because of the repetition over and over again that these people are dishonest. I grew up with Walter Cronkite being the most trusted man in America, and look at the complete reversal now. It’s how dictatorships start.

In the Thanksgiving episode about the ICE raid on a character’s undocumented parents, you clearly took an anti-Trump position. Some denounced the episode and vowed never to watch again. To that point, in the episode, after Murphy called Macron, Trudeau and Trump “two men and a baby,” a Murphy in the Morning crew member mutters “there goes our last Republican viewer.” Do you feel you’re just talking to your base and, by this point, there aren’t any Republicans watching?

I don’t think so. They’re not going to be our primary audience. There are certain people who will never watch the show, maybe tried it and said they’re never watching it again. And there are people who are more reasonable Republicans who find the humor in it. But it’s probably not must-see TV for them.

I’m not going to say I don’t care, but I never expected to create a big tent that everybody was going to come into. I felt if there was a reason to bring the show back it’s because of the climate we’re in, and I felt like I had something to say. Otherwise, why revive a show that ended 20 years ago? So, the fact that we’re about journalists and journalism is reason enough right now to do this show.

Ezra Knight as Luther Williams, Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown, and Faith Ford as Corky Sherwood (David Giesbrecht / 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Does that mean that you’d be satisfied if the show doesn’t come back because you got to say what you wanted to say?

I’m pretty sanguine about it. If we don’t come back, I think we all feel certainly satisfied that we made a very smart show, a beautifully acted show, a show that had something to say, that people talked about, and that we’re proud of. So, if it ended there, I don’t think there would be a lot of crocodile tears. But it’s just been a great joy and a privilege to be given these 13 episodes to do. We would look forward to doing more.

I just interviewed Jake McDorman and he was certainly very happy to be working on the show.

He’s just got everything and is a delightful human being, on top of it. I really think that Candice believes he’s her son now, because she’s very protective of him. They have a really funny relationship, and she invited him to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. We all adore him and those scenes between the two of them. Their chemistry was immediate, and it really comes through.

Jake McDorman as Avery Brown and Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown (David Giesbrecht/2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Is there any word yet about a second season?

No, no one’s discussed it with us. We are unusual in that we’re ending our series so early in the season, before Christmas, even. So, I don’t think that they’re going to announce anything because they would risk other shows waiting for a pickup to be badgering about why they weren’t getting picked up now. We have a feeling we’re going to be waiting until the spring, but we’ll see.

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One of my favorite episodes was when Bette Midler returned as Murphy’s once worst-ever secretary. It was pure fun. If the show does return, would it be more of a mix of episodes both comical and political?

Yeah, absolutely. We have another two in the four that we’ve got left like that. We were very aware that we should definitely mix it up a little bit and take our foot off the gas of politics in some of these episodes. And we all love it when the whole group is together. For instance, the episode that we’re shooting now is the 100th anniversary of Phil’s Bar. It’s in the finale [and] that’s a lot of fun. So it’s a nice balance, I think.

Murphy Brown, Thursdays, 9:30/8:30c, CBS