Like any good journalist, former newsprint foot soldier Ryan Murphy is filled with curiosity and the drive to tell a good story.
From asking the iconic “Nip/Tuck” question “Tell me what don’t you like about yourself?” to exploring his own story about becoming a parent through a surrogate in the comedy “The New Normal,” Murphy knows how to make a TV series personal to his viewers.
Not surprisingly, the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has selected Murphy as the recipient of the 2012 International Emmy Founders Award, which recognizes an individual who has made an impact on the television industry and crosses cultural boundaries.
“Working with Ryan makes you feel seen,” says “New Normal” co-producer Ali Adler, who also worked with him on “Glee.” “Not just in a collaborative way, but in using the world’s unseen — gays, multiracial, disabled — he speaks to people that aren’t always spoken to, and in doing so, touches a nation of people not touched before. ”
Murphy has strong views and isn’t afraid to put them front and center in his work. He has tackled bullying in “Glee,” bigotry in “The New Normal” and the Holocaust in “American Horror Story.”
“People like Ryan have opened minds and shaped culture,” Adler says. “He believes strongly and acts on his beliefs.”
Murphy attended Catholic school in his hometown of Indianapolis and draws heavily on his personal life – including a stint on Indiana University’s “Singing Hoosiers” show choir — and his work as a journalist for publications including the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times and Entertainment Weekly. He left journalism after selling his first script to Steven Spielberg in the late 1990s.
Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, says she knows a lot of writers who are happy sitting in front of their laptops just writing. But not Murphy.
“It’s a solitary process they enjoy,” Walden says. “That is the opposite of Ryan. He likes to talk to people, he listens (to their stories).”
One of Murphy’s gifts, says Walden, is his ability to tap into the zeitgeist through his love of pop culture, classic entertainment and music, which gives him a broad storytelling palette.
His producing partner Dante Di Loreto calls Murphy one of the most “energetic, inquisitive people I know,” fascinated by a number of topics and blessed with an encyclopedic memory.
“He’s inspired by complex, layered storytelling that makes for challenging shows to produce,” Di Loreto says. “He follows his heart and always knows where he wants to steer the ship, so there’s never a doubt that he has a firm hand on the tiller.”
With “Glee” in particular, Di Loreto says he never knows where the series may go episode to episode, whether an aqua ballet or a deaf choir, but there is always a firm handle on the season arc.
Veteran writer Adler says she had been conditioned through two decades in television to work a certain way in terms of storytelling. Murphy changed that.
“He has a unique lens on life,’ Adler says. “The way my instincts are to tell a story, he will flip on its end and look underneath, above and slant it to be different. The network system leads you into a tunnel, and Ryan says the world is at our disposal. Let’s go down a path that isn’t traditional. What’s exciting is how flexible we can be in the episodes while going on the season-long character journeys.”
Murphy has been a lightening rod of controversy, both among viewers and critics. He has been lauded and attacked for his provocative shows.
“There’s an unmistakable willingness in his signature work to go to extremes and push TV to its limit that dates back to ‘Nip/Tuck’ and even ‘Popular,’ ” says TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush. “I’ve held the opinion, especially since ‘Glee,’ that TV is a much better and more interesting place for having Ryan Murphy playing in whatever sandbox suits him at the moment.”
Politically incorrect | Murphy: No boundary left uncrossed | Sundry genres tingle shingle