On a Friday evening in late August, Bergen is basking in a standing ovation from an enthusiastic crowd at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Astoria, Queens, as CBS’ highly anticipated revival of hit comedy “Murphy Brown” is about to film the third episode of its 11th season.
It’s been 20 years since Bergen took regular bows in front of a sitcom studio audience. The star, who won five Emmys during the show’s 10-season original run, might have donned a more glamorous outfit for her pretaping introduction.
But Bergen is immersed in her TV alter ego, the hard-charging, fast-talking broadcast journalist with a love for Aretha Franklin and a knack for nailing big stories.
On this day, bringing Murphy Brown back to life means greeting the audience in a gray T-shirt, loud print stretchy pants that look a little overstretched and a mop of messy hair tucked into a disheveled ponytail. The first scene calls for Murphy to sleepily make her way down the staircase in her familiar Washington, D.C., townhouse set at 4 a.m. in order to get ready to co-anchor “Murphy in the Morning.”
As the warm-up comic introduces the veteran cast members — Faith Ford (Corky Sherwood), Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg), Joe Regalbuto (Frank Fontana) — the applause is strong, but the crowd hops to its feet when Bergen hits the stage in all of Murphy’s frumpy glory. Ford gives the actress’ shoulders a warm squeeze, and Bergen for a split second rests her cheek on Ford’s hand. With “Murphy Brown” creator-showrunner Diane English standing just off to the side, it is clear to all that these people are a family.
“It’s very emotional for me,” Bergen tells Variety in an interview days before the Aug. 24 taping. “In all of these first few weeks that we’ve been rehearsing and shooting, I’ve been trying to contain my emotions — but it’s just … floods,” she says, indicating tears streaming down her face.
English was also floored by the sight of the re-created sets and some original props, such as the barstools at Phil’s, the watering hole favored by Murphy and Co.
“It was just like stepping out of a time machine,” English says. “That show changed our lives, and it had been 20 years.”
The challenge English and Bergen face in reviving “Murphy Brown” for Warner Bros. Television is to make the show’s pugnacious wit relevant in a vastly different era.
The sitcom famously tackled political humor and public figures during its original 1988-1998 run. Vice President Dan Quayle gave the show the kind of publicity that money can’t buy in 1992 when he criticized its decision to have Murphy become a single mother.
That baby, now a strapping 25-year-old, has become a key character in the revival, which debuts on CBS on Sept. 27. Avery Brown (played by Jake McDorman) works for The Wolf network — English freely admits to exercising no subtlety in skewering Fox News — and holds down a morning time slot opposite his mother’s program.
Over the years, English has often been asked if she missed being able to comment on current events through the “Murphy Brown” lens. The answer was always no, until Nov. 9, 2016. The election of Donald Trump as president changed everything.
After the inauguration, when the depth of the resistance to Trump’s agenda became clear, English was finally receptive to one of the semiregular overtures from Warner Bros. about revisiting the show that won the Emmy Award for best comedy in 1990 and 1992. As ever, the goal is not to promote a political agenda but to release the hot air and skewer sacred cows on both sides of the spectrum.
English confesses that she initially battled her own doubts about whether she could pull off a show that adhered to the high standard of the original. Another hurdle is the need to introduce the series to those who haven’t had much opportunity to see the original in recent years. “Murphy Brown” has had limited circulation in syndication, in part because it was a modest performer in reruns, and because the music rights make it an expensive proposition.
“I was afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to write the show at all,” English says. “When I finally did force myself to sit down and do it — because the script was due — it just came out of me.”
Bergen has every confidence that English and the writing team she’s assembled has the right stuff.
“You would not believe how she went for it” on politically charged humor, Bergen enthuses. “This show is fearless. She’s sticking her head in the mouth of the lion and flossing. It’s just totally fearless.”
Murphy’s job change to a morning news program from anchoring the “60 Minutes”-esque primetime newsmagazine “FYI” is but one of myriad tweaks made for the new incarnation. She’ll be grappling with a whole new world of social media, partisan TV news coverage, a younger generation of TV executives with little reverence for journalism and the nation’s ever-increasing cultural and political divisions.
|Jake McDorman (right) joined the “Murphy Brown” ensemble as Murphy’s son, Avery, who inherited his mother’s politics but works for the competition.
Courtesy of CBS
“There’s so much technology that has come and changed our lives,” English says. “To take these characters and plunk them into this world is very rich.”
New elements for the revival include the staff of “Murphy in the Morning” — twentysomething social-media director Pat Patel, played by Nik Dodani, with guest actor Merle Dandridge (the breakout star of OWN’s “Greenleaf”) as the arrogant network boss Diana Macomber. Seasoned TV pro Tyne Daly has been recruited as the new barkeep of Phil’s; she plays Phyllis, sister of the character played by the late actor Pat Corley. Judging by the response at Kaufman Astoria Studios, Daly is a worthy successor with a slightly bawdy delivery of one-liners and bons mots.
Production of “Murphy Brown” has moved to Queens from the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank because its star now lives on the East Coast. Another criteria for Bergen and English was a much shorter episode order — 13 for Season 11, compared with 26 or 27 at the show’s mid-’90s peak. Bergen calls it “doable” and visibly shudders when English reminds her how many episodes they did back in the day.
“In the writers room at the beginning of every season we’d take a group picture on the first day of work,” English recalls. “And we’d take the same picture on the final day. It was like watching presidents age during their first term. It was pretty dramatic.”
“Murphy Brown” was a pioneering series in more ways than one in its heyday. English was the rare woman showrunner of a network TV series when “Murphy Brown” dawned on Nov. 14, 1988.
Throughout the original run, English sought to strike a gender balance among the writers in her room. This time around, she has taken care to make sure the room also includes younger writers and people of color, alongside six returning scribes who worked on the original.
The significance of her creation as a role model for women of a certain generation is not lost on English.
She marvels that former Yahoo leader Marissa Mayer told Bergen’s daughter, Chloe Malle, in an interview for Vogue that watching “Murphy Brown” as a kid “made her feel she could run a company.”
Episode 3 involves a character, played by the versatile David Costabile, who represents a far-right blend of Alex Jones and Steve Bannon. Murphy winds up giving him a verbal lashing in a way that only she can — and in the process she is made aware of the ubiquity of cellphone video capabilities.
During the Aug. 24 taping, Costabile’s character provoked boos from the studio audience. Episode director Don Scardino took a quick detour over to the bleacher seats and advised: “Don’t boo. Vote!”
English stood next to the video village monitors and watched Bergen and Costabile’s face-off unfold on the barstools at Phil’s. Murphy’s rapid-fire takedown sparked laughs and applause, and it was packed with of-the-moment references. English is bracing for — and probably eagerly awaiting — the response from the avid TV viewer in the Oval Office once America gets a good look at the new-model “Murphy Brown.”
“I fully expect the president to be tweeting at us,” English says.