Emmys flashback: An oral history of Murphy Brown's 'Birth 101'

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Candice Bergen as Murphy Brown in “Birth 101,” the Season 4 finale of Murphy Brown. (Photo: CBS)

If you need a poster child for how an episode of television can alternately entertain, educate, and enrage, look no further than Murphy Brown’s fourth season finale, “Birth 101.” Premiering 25 years ago, the episode capped a storyline that had actually begun in the previous season’s finale, when the titular FYI newswoman, played by Candice Bergen, discovered she was pregnant after a brief tryst with her ex-husband (Robin Thomas). Season 4 opened with the 42-year-old Murphy deciding to keep the baby, and — in an early example of serialized sitcom storytelling — the story of her pregnancy was told over the subsequent 26-episode run, culminating in the birth of Avery Brown on May 18, 1992, which also happened to be Murphy Brown creator Diane English’s birthday.

Little did Avery, or for that matter English herself, suspect that they were about to receive an entirely unwelcome birthday present. On May 19, the day after the finale aired, then-Vice President Dan Quayle took the stage at the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco and delivered a family values-centric campaign speech that called out the show, and the character, by name. “It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional women, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” That verbal volley launched a storm of controversy that followed the show all through the summer and up to its Season 5 premiere, which blurred the line between reality and fiction by having Murphy directly address Quayle’s comments in the world of the show.

Although “Birth 101” became a controversial episode in the political world, within the television industry there was no question which side the majority of individuals were on. Already a much-honored show — with three consecutive Emmy nominations, and one prior win for Outstanding Comedy Series — Murphy Brown’s fourth season received nine nominations at the 1992 Emmy Awards. And “Birth 101” specifically secured nods, and eventual wins, for Bergen and the episode’s director, Barnet Kellman, who had directed every episode for the show’s first three seasons, and returned to helm the Season 4 finale. Meanwhile, the show itself received its second statue for Outstanding Comedy Series, a victory that functioned as a direct refutation of Quayle’s criticisms.

On the 25th anniversary of those Emmy victories, we spoke with the four primary creative forces behind “Birth 101” about the process of bringing the episode, and Avery Brown, into the world, and what it was like having their TV family suddenly placed under a public microscope.

The Winners
Diane English (Creator/Executive Producer)
Won: Outstanding Comedy Series
Nominated: Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series

Candice Bergen (Murphy Brown)
Won: Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

Korby Siamis (Writer/Consulting Producer)
Won: Outstanding Comedy Series
Nominated: Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series

Barnet Kellman (Director)
Won: Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series

Planned Parenthood
Like any couple thinking about starting a family, the Murphy Brown creative team didn’t make the decision to add a new baby to their brood lightly. Since the show’s first season in 1989, the character of Murphy Brown stood almost alone on the television sitcom landscape as a professional woman happily committed to her career rather than a man or a child, thus endearing her to millions of women who had made a similar choice in their own lives. Her pregnancy, combined with her decision to keep the baby, stood to radically change the premise of the show. But both English and Bergen — who had her own daughter relatively late in life at age 39 — felt it was a risk that the series, and the character, needed to take.

Diane English: We came up with the idea [of the pregnancy] to give Murphy the biggest challenge that she had ever really faced. She had faced down a lot of difficult interviews and work situations, and she was tough as nails, but she couldn’t even keep a plant alive, nor a pet! She didn’t have a boyfriend, and she was married for less time than Hanukkah. So that’s what we decided to do, and Candice thought it was a really good idea. That gave us a big arc for the whole fourth season, which was something we had not done before.

Korby Siamis: It provided a nice overlay for the season, because not every episode was about [her pregnancy], but it impacted every episode. I had been pregnant and had my first child the season before that, so it was very personal to get to use things that I had gone through and apply them to Murphy. The Lamaze class experience gave us a story about what it felt like to be pregnant [Episode 23: “He-Ho, He-Ho, It’s Off to Lamaze We Go”].

Barnet Kellman: Diane always knew where she was going with the season, and she would see what she thought had to happen to this woman. Don’t forget she was following a very clear playbook, which was her personal experience as a woman of her generation. She felt a tremendous obligation to tell the truth about the experience of a highly-professional, highly-motivated, highly-intelligent, highly-ambitious woman in middle age. So we were telling Diane’s truth, and Candice’s as well, because Candice had a young child during this period of time. Waiting as long as she did to have her one and only child [made her] an incredibly devoted and hands-on mother. She wasn’t raising her daughter by herself, but her husband, Louis [Malle], had a very active film career in France, while Candice had an active television and film career in L.A. So they were pretty far apart, and she took on a lot of responsibility.

Siamis: Diane and I definitely went back and forth about the gender of Murphy’s baby. Ultimately I thought that a girl was the obvious choice, and that a boy would throw her. We gave her what we felt was the more challenging gender for the character. [The baby’s sex was revealed in Episode 10, “Inside Murphy Brown.”]

English: Being a new mom was going to be challenging enough, and to have all the boy stuff going on put another layer onto it that we thought would be really interesting. She always assumed she was having a girl because she was such a feminist, and it was kind of a shock that it was a boy. That gave us a lot of good material for the season.

Candice Bergen: I remember that Diane and I went horseback riding in Griffith Park to discuss certain plot lines, and she told me that she thought it should be a boy and that he should be named Avery after her mother. I thought it was brilliant. And of course, the actor who played Murphy’s son later on was a wonderful actor. [Haley Joel Osment played Avery in the show’s final season.]

Siamis: We weren’t sure how people would react to the morality of her being pregnant as a single woman, and there wasn’t much criticism [about that]. But working women and single women who weren’t going to have children felt a little betrayed that this strong career woman had to have a child to be complete. I felt bad about that.

Bergen: We knew we were walking into a minefield, and, of course, we did! We wanted to present her dilemma and represent both sides; not anything as sharp as pro life [vs. pro choice], but to present both choices. The right was always so quick to attack us, and I don’t think they ever gave us credit for Murphy making the favored choice, which was to have the baby. I think it was good; the pregnancy and then Murphy having a child, which every show dreads frankly, because it’s very hard to accommodate a child in a comedy show.

Kellman: Candi and I both had little kids at the time, and we talked about parenting those first few years on a daily basis. I remember coming to work one day, and there had been news of some tragedy about a child being killed. Candi and I talked about how when you have a young child, you literally feel so vulnerable, because if that ever happened to you, you can’t imagine how you would go on. We were ambitious, professional people who had lived quite a long time before having a kid, so this was a new feeling that we were kind of discovering.

Murphy Brown creator Diane English in 2017. (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images)

English: I had no children, so I had to rely on Korby and Candice for their expertise in terms of their experience in the hospital and actually giving birth. One thing that I was really adamant about was that it was not going to be a sitcom birth. We really wanted her to be sweaty and angry, which in a comedy normally you wouldn’t see. Wacky was never our thing, so we really concentrated that final episode — which was called “Birth 101” because it was our 101st episode — in the hospital.

Siamis: Diane and I talked out the story, and then I took a pass and she took a pass and we had our final draft. It was the easiest thing I’ve every written. The writing staff added some great lines, and we had to make some cuts because we were always too long, but it did not change that much from the first draft that she and I did.

English: We came up with this great device of Frank making a documentary to show Murphy’s child later in life. That gave us the opportunity to have all our characters talk about their experience during her experience. Warren Beatty’s Reds was the inspiration for that; he had put real people who participated in the Russian Revolution on camera. A lot of people do it now, but that’s not really something you’d seen before.

Kellman: I didn’t intend to stay with any TV show, but I had done the pilot for Murphy Brown, and it was truly one of the greatest creative experiences I ever had. So I stayed with the show on the most provisional basis for the next three years because the scripts I was reading on a weekly basis were better than the movie scripts I was reading. Finally, I found a film project that I liked and took off the fourth season to make the movie Straight Talk with Dolly Parton and James Woods. But Diane always wanted me to come back and do “Birth 101,” which was a great honor and privilege, and spoke volumes to the trust she placed in me.

“Birth 101” director Barnet Kellman in 2017. (Photo: Tasia Wells/Getty Images)

English: We didn’t think about [hiring a female director]. It wasn’t a very discussed issue at that time. Barnet did the pilot, and “Birth 101” was going to be my last episode, so it seemed fitting. He was a big part of our family, so it seemed right to have him come and do this very pivotal episode, which he really wanted to do. If we were doing this all over again, we would absolutely try to have as many women directors as possible. There’s certainly a lot more in the talent pool than there were then.

The Birthing Room
These days it’s common for shows to shoot pivotal episodes in secrecy, lest any spoilers leak out ahead of the premiere. That wasn’t the case with “Birth 101,” which was shot like an ordinary episode of Murphy Brown before a live studio audience one evening in the early spring of 1992. English’s looming departure, combined with Avery Brown’s arrival, made for an atmosphere suffused with anticipation and also a touch of sadness. By the end of the taping, the show’s future would look very, very different.

Siamis: The day before my son was born, Diane gave me a baby shower at her house and my water started leaking. Nobody there knew, because I didn’t even know! I didn’t know enough to know what was going on until the next day. So we decided that Murphy’s water would break on air live, and that’s how the episode started.

Murphy’s water breaks during a live airing of FYI in “Birth 101.” (Photo: CBS via Getty Images)

Kellman: I knew the tempo of a live TV set, and FYI was supposed to be a live TV show, so I had worked really hard to integrate that [during the first three seasons]. I bent a lot of rules to hire actual video camera operators as actors, so they were actually operating the video cameras. Every now and then, I would grab an actor and teach them how to do it, and then they became recurring characters. Let me put it this way: We did not ask carefully about union jurisdictions on any of this stuff! But that was extremely important in the opening scene of “Birth 101,” because Murphy’s water breaks live on air during a show, and I wanted the whole production of the show to be going on. Ritch Brinkley, the gigantic cameraman with the beard, was an extra that I had brought on as a cameraman. We threw him a line and liked his look, and over the course of those first three seasons, Diane started developing the idea that he had a crush on Murphy. It became a running joke that pays off when he tells her he wants to deliver her baby and goes, “I’ll need the toolbox from my truck!”

English: One of my favorite scenes that we ever did is when all the characters are in the birthing room, and Jim Dial [Charles Kimbrough] says, “She’s going to blow!” He’s looking at this monitor and sees she’s going to have this huge contraction. And then Murphy just grabs Miles [Grant Shaud] and Frank [Joe Regalbuto] by the neck. Candice did not hold back, and that was the great thing about her as an actress is that she relished those moments. Being one of the world’s most beautiful women, she didn’t need to be that funny, but she loved the ability to do that physical humor and she threw herself into it.

Kellman: I had started the “Punch & Judy” routine from the pilot, with people literally hitting and grabbing each other. It was the kind of physical comedy and low comedy that I loved in the midst of everything else, and it’s part of the brother and sister aspect of working together. The fundamental conceit [of the episode] is that Murphy thinks there’s nothing to this, and she’s got it all figured out. Then all of a sudden her body goes crazy! It starts with everybody hitting Miles and builds to Murphy grabbing Miles and Frank, who can’t possibly understand what she’s going through.

Bergen: I’m just glad that I didn’t give anyone a concussion! We would always do blocking, but in the moment it gets much fuller. They were always ready. I’m glad that Diane made room for those big sort of bawdy moments, like when Murphy thinks she’s giving birth in the hall and Miles dives underneath to catch the baby. I remember there was sort of a heightened energy on the shoot night. There was an excitement about introducing this huge arrival into the show, so it was somewhat more electric than usual.

Murphy endures labor while her painter/Lamaze coach, Eldin ( Robert Pastorelli), looks on in “Birth 101.” (Photo: CBS via Getty Images)

Siamis: People were just howling. It was so fun to watch. The more they laugh, the more we had to cut out of an episode because we had to get to time, but that’s the excitement of a live audience. And we had a cast that played off the live audience so well. One of my favorite jokes that I’ve ever written is, “Oh God, my body’s making milk. It’s like one day discovering you can get bacon out of your elbow.” I thought about that when I was first nursing my son, and it became a line in the episode. I think we had to use the third take, because the laugh for that joke went on for so long!

Kellman: For the last scene [with the baby], Murphy started out holding a doll in her hand. At a certain point, I probably faked that something went wrong in order to create a huddle with all the cameramen that would block the audience’s view. Then we brought out a real baby, and it’s a real surprise for the audience. But don’t forget, we only had the baby for less than 15 minutes. And there were undoubtedly two babies in case one of them went south on us.

Bergen: We looked at the baby as a live grenade; I think anybody that works with babies does that. We took it down several notches, because we didn’t want to startle it. It’s harder to be funny around a baby, because you’re editing yourself all the time, and also waiting for the baby to explode. But this baby was very good.

English: The babies were twins, and the first baby made it into the final version. The first baby was so calm, so we never had to use the second baby. It was very emotional for everybody. The audience was really loving the episode, and when it was time for the baby to be put into Murphy’s arms, we asked the audience to be extremely quiet and the baby totally cooperated. It was probably just gas, but it looked like the baby smiled at a certain point when Candice started singing “Natural Woman.”

Siamis: It’s funny because before the episode, Candice said to me, “You got to give me some pointers because I had a C-section.” I told her, “Well, Candice, I had a C-section too, so we’re in trouble here!” But she didn’t need pointers, and she came up with the ending of singing “Natural Woman” to the baby. The baby squeaked at all the right times, and cooperated wonderfully. At the very last moment, she looks into the camera, and just talking about it now brings tears to my eyes. It was so emotional. That look that Candice gave was just… I’ve never seen anything like it. It was so moving.

Bergen: My only suggestion was that she sing “Natural Woman.” I think Diane was going to write something for Murphy to say when she’s holding the baby, and I think that was one of the few times I ever made a suggestion in terms of the writing. So I sang “Natural Woman,” which went back to the pilot episode. The first time I was too emotional, so I think we reshot that scene three times. Usually it was two.

Kellman: We shot that with a handheld film camera that was playing Frank’s video camera. When Candi starts singing, the baby starts to move and reach for her. You could just see Candi going, “I got a real baby here.” She was a mom, after all, and responded very instinctively. But also as an actress, she played the surprise of seeing the baby wake up. It’s a very real moment that we got on camera.

English: Candice was such a good mom. She knew how to hold a baby. Babies pick up those vibes, so she was really good with it. I think the baby felt really comfortable and safe. The audience was just weeping. Plus, I was standing behind the cameras, and it was my last episode, so it was emotional on many levels all the way around. After the shoot, Candice arranged to have a huge going-away party with a Mexican theme to it, because she loves Mexican food. She had a piano in there, and we sang show tunes. It went on for quite a long time!

The Morning After
Thanks to public missteps like the “potatoe” incident, Dan Quayle had been an easy target for jokes since he joined the George H.W. Bush ticket in 1988. And Murphy Brown took particular glee in cracking wise about the veep, regularly slipping gags at his expense into the show. Whether or not Quayle was watching the show, he almost certainly paid attention to those frequent slights. With expert timing, the vice president — who was gearing up for the 1992 campaign — waited until the day after “Birth 101” aired to go on the offensive. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the way that First Lady Barbara Bush attacked The Simpsons two years prior, but Quayle’s comments were more aggressive in their condemnation of what was first and foremost intended to be an entertaining, and fictional, television show.

Siamis: It’s funny, I pulled out the first draft of the “Birth 101” script just to look at it, and I had my handwritten notes in the margins. I had written a Dan Quayle joke that we cut out; it was about Pat Buchanan buying him a high chair or something like that. And in the margin next to this joke, I had written, “Will this still mean anything in May?” I guess I thought at the time that Dan Quayle would be forgotten.

English: We had done a Dan Quayle joke every episode. It was a mandate in our writers’ room to do a Dan Quayle joke, and obviously it got right under his skin. This was such a big cultural event that Murphy Brown had had a baby, and the nation watched this episode. He did not apparently see it, but he seized on it as a way of speaking about what he perceived to be the crumbling of Western civilization when single women are choosing to have children out of wedlock.

Bergen: I saw the front page of the New York Times, and Murphy was holding the baby above the fold. Then it all started and really didn’t stop until the election. Quayle was fairly savvy; there were just op-ed pieces and little news pieces that ran along with the campaign. And then the Clinton campaign adopted family values as a campaign platform, so it was like, “Really?” I was just overwhelmed by the amount of attention. People started calling me and saying, “Aren’t you going to make a comment?” And I said, “Nope. I am staying out of this one.” And I never did make a comment about it.

English: We were inundated with phone calls from every news outlet wanting a reaction. Dan Rather wanted me to open the evening news with him, and 60 Minutes wanted to invite Dan Quayle and myself on to debate each other. It was insane. I got very concerned about being put in the middle of what was a very contentious election year. So I called [former CBS president] Howard Stringer and said, “What should I do?” He said, “Well, why don’t you just make one statement, we’ll put it out over the wire, and then don’t say anything else. Don’t get drawn into this because it’s not going to be good for you.” That’s what we did. As soon as I put the statement out that seemed to catch fire, and then we just let everybody else jump into the debate and stepped back.

Kellman: It was unbelievably strange to suddenly be national news, and to see all of this reality blurring. The strange thing is that was part of the premise of the show; Diane’s a big news junkie and a serious political thinker, and she was always critiquing it in a gentle way, saying that news and entertainment should not be blurred. Then Dan Quayle blurred the whole thing by taking sitcom critique and making it into news. It was just a surreal moment for all of us.

Former Vice President Dan Quayle on the campaign trail in 1992. (Photo: Scott A. Miller/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News)

Siamis: I’ll tell you a theory I’m ready to die for: Here’s a guy whose feelings got hurt, and he saw a way to get even. To me, it’s that simple. It’s not a big political thing; we’re all kindergartners inside. I’m so glad it was then and not now; it would be very different with Facebook and Twitter.

English: The whole summer that followed was a lot of outcry from people who were trying to redefine what a family is, and how that particular Republican platform seemed very exclusive instead of inclusive. The debate became much bigger than single mothers. It was a perfect storm of a societal and cultural conversation just intersecting with a television show.

Kellman: Diane really had her finger on the moment. Dan Quayle was right there to play along, and yes, of course, the industry was ready to applaud her and stand together on this. No question about it. It definitely put the wind behind our sails.

Bergen: To take on top comedy writers is fairly suicidal. And, it became such a media firestorm that when the show came back in September, it started at No. 2 or No. 1, and we held there for a while. So we really have him to thank, and I’ve never met Dan Quayle!

English: He was pointing at the L.A. riots and decaying morals, and he used Murphy as an example. He chose her not just as a revenge ploy, but also because it would have hit home for a lot of people who all had watched that episode. But it backfired, and they lost the election.

Emmy Night, 1992
The Murphy Brown team had already been staples at the Emmy Awards for three years running, with the show winning Outstanding Comedy Series for its sophomore season and Bergen taking home the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series statue in 1989 and 1990. But the Dan Quayle-instigated controversy gave the show fresh awards life, and both Bergen and English used their time at the podium to address the vice president. Bergen started her speech by saying, “I’d like to thank the vice president,” before getting in a dig by crediting her writers for writing great words, “and spelling them correctly.” English was even more direct, saying, “I would also like to thank in particular 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… As Murphy herself said: ‘I couldn’t possibly do a worse job raising my kid alone than the Reagans did with theirs.”

English: I didn’t think about my speech as much as I should have. You get swept up in the moment, and it’s a pretty heady moment. Plus, we had been through a whole summer of being pummeled. I said something about the Reagan family that I probably shouldn’t have. I was quoting a line from one of our episodes, and I think it really upset Mrs. Reagan. That would be a good do-over for me. I think we had already said whatever we were going to say in the episode, and then everybody else had their say all summer.

Bergen: A friend of mine had helped me write my acceptance speech, if I had to give one. The vice president I took care of at the beginning. I mostly wanted to acknowledge the writers of the show. I never got used to winning; I was always overwhelmed and just really beyond grateful to win. The response to Murphy was always so positive that it was just you tried to hang on to the train and not fall off, because you just got swept up in the energy and the success of the show.

Kellman: I was thrilled and shocked the first time I was nominated for the pilot. I had been nominated every year since then, so this was the fourth time, consecutively. For my first nomination [in 1989], I was sitting in the aisle, and right before your award comes up, a cameraman comes and kneels right in the aisle and puts a camera in your face. He asked me, “Are you Barnet Kellman?” I go “Yeah,” and so he frames the shot. Then they said, “The winner is Peter Baldwin,” and he ran away and never even said goodbye. That happened three years in a row! I was a pro by this point, so when they actually announced my name it was an amazing thing. I remember stammering my gratitude to Diane and Candice, and the whole gang. I left the political stuff to the other two.

Siamis: Both times we won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy, I was pregnant. I always apologized to people that we only wanted two kids, because it was like the lucky charm! The first time, it was like a dream. I grew up watching the Emmys, and here I was getting one. I was so focused on taking that in, that I almost couldn’t take it in. The second time, I was a bit more relaxed. I was there with my husband, my sister, and my brother-in-law, and it was great to share it with them.

Kellman: There’s nothing more gratifying than to get that kind of respect from the people all over the industry and at all levels in the industry. We touched a nerve and there’s nothing really better than that. My family was on the East Coast at that particular moment, so Candice was my date. Then, I got on a plane and went back to Chicago [to continue filming Straight Talk], and got kissed by Dolly Parton. So it was a hell of a weekend!

Siamis: The next day we were back on set doing the fifth season, and Steve Peterman and Gary Dontzig were the executive producers because Diane had left. Steve said, “It’s fantastic to win, but the next day you still have a show to put on. You’re back to the real world grind.” You have to put it in perspective. For example, the sixth season is one of my favorites, and we weren’t even nominated that year. So you put in perspective all the subjectiveness [of awards]. Even after that, you’re still like, “I’ve got an Emmy. I’ve got two!” It’s fun.

Candice Bergen in 2017 (Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Turner)

Growing Pains
Murphy Brown continued for six more seasons after “Birth 101,” during which time Avery grew up even as other cast members, and writers, came and went. In some ways, though, the episode was as much a series finale as the actual series finale, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which aired exactly six years later on May 18, 1998 and was once again written by English and directed by Kellman. For those making the series, as well as those watching at home, it was obvious that the show was never quite the same as it had been prior to Avery’s arrival. Even so, the image of Murphy singing “Natural Woman” to her baby remains, perhaps, the show’s most iconic moment, and “Birth 101” is forever enshrined in TV history because of the public debate it continues to inspire. Over the years, for example, various articles have argued the dubious premise that Dan Quayle had been right all along.

English: [Those articles] really angered me because people forgot that when Quayle made his speech, he called it just another lifestyle choice. He hadn’t watched the season, so he hadn’t seen the episode where she agonized over this choice, and the fact that the actual father had chosen not to be a part of the child’s life. She was left with the decision: Should I end this pregnancy or should I go forward? It was not just another lifestyle choice. It was a huge life decision involving many lives. There was no time when we ever portrayed fathers as not being important at all, but that’s the way it got twisted. Certainly Murphy felt that fathers were extremely important because she enlisted the aid of all the trusted males in her life to help her. Dan Quayle was right about what, you know? I wasn’t really sure; sometimes you just have to shut up, so I didn’t really respond.

Bergen: I know that “Birth 101” was many peoples’ favorite episode, and I love it very much myself. Not having Diane writing the show [in Season 5] was a big change. We continued to do very well, and had excellent writers, but she was the birth mother. We tried to keep the character intact, but to lose the voice of Diane was difficult.

Siamis: Back then, you couldn’t keep a staff together like you can now. People would only stay two years and then get huge development deals. When Diane left, I wasn’t quite ready to leave. I felt like I wasn’t the birth mother, but I was the adoptive mother. When a friend said, “Where’s your heart? Where do you want to be?” I replied, “I want to be on Murphy still.” So I did two more seasons, and then I retired to be a stay-at-home mom. [Siamis later came out of retirement to be a consulting producer on the hit ABC series The Middle, which is currently entering its final season.]

Kellman: Here Diane was riding a successful franchise with the successful premise of an ambitious, talented woman making it in a man’s world, and she had the courage to bet the farm and roll the dice on putting the character on the horns of a dilemma. Could a woman manage all of these things? At that point, people thought, “OK, the news says a woman can have a career. But can she have a career and a baby?” Nobody was confident about that answer, including Diane. The point was that this was territory that needed to be explored.

English: It’s a real risk when you change the molecular structure of something that’s working really well. Murphy was the ultimate single woman, and then to make her into a mom, there are all kinds of minefields you have to avoid. Then I left, and I left it to my brilliant writing staff, and it was a really tough thing to juggle. Because I never had children, I probably had an idea in my head of how she would be this unconventional mom, but everyone on the writing staff had just had babies, so I think there was a different mindset there. No doubt about it, it was tough, and I think a lot of our fans felt somewhat betrayed that she was a mom now. They had loved the fact that she had not adhered to any of the norms in society for what women are supposed to do. Our ratings really started to fall after that, too.

Then, for the series finale, we were pressed into doing it as an hourlong episode, and we were asked to load it up with as many guest stars as possible because we were a 10-year-old series and weren’t the No. 1-rated show anymore. I kind of resisted it; I felt like it should have been the usual format that people were used to, but we did it and we certainly pulled in the guest stars. We had Julia Roberts, we had George Clooney, and we finally got Mike Wallace to come on! Finales are notoriously difficult to write. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were writing the Seinfeld finale at the same time that I was writing mine. We would pass each other on the lot and shake our heads and go, “It’s really horrible.”

Bergen: The last season of the show, when Murphy had breast cancer, was very moving. Young women would come up to me saying they watched Murphy Brown with their moms, and clearly in some cases, they had lost their moms [to breast cancer]. It was clearly something that had been comforting them during the horrible process of that happening.

English: I think “Birth 101” is our most memorable episode. It’s probably one of, if not the best, episode we ever did. I don’t personally hear from single mothers about it, but there’s been so much written about it that I think it changed the perception of single moms. Certainly there was a lot of blowback from people who thought, “Oh, this is going to be a bad example to young girls.” But that wasn’t our audience. Our audience was not teenage girls, and Murphy was an established women in her early 40s with a big income and a big circle of helping friends. It was kind of a different situation.

Siamis: I always look at it like I was not in the first wave, but maybe the second wave of female writers. As a young girl growing up, you’d see credits on TV shows and it would be like, “Maybe I could do that.” If anything, Murphy Brown was an example of how women could create shows, write shows, star in shows, and be the central character of a show. Twenty-five years later it’s like, “Shouldn’t there be more of that?” The statistics of women in the Writers Guild and of women directors is not what it should be percentage-wise. Strong female character leads maybe isn’t where it should be, but at least we put this show out there to say, “You can strive for this.”

Bergen: Every now and then, someone also tells me, “I’m a journalist because of Murphy.” I never had a character like Murphy in my life, but I always felt that it would have been a wonderful influence and inspiration to have that kind of person who just threw herself into life and didn’t care what people thought. I think many women must have decided to try journalism and television journalism because of it.

The first season of Murphy Brown is available on DVD. Seasons 2-10 are currently unavailable on DVD or streaming services. 

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