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The Strange, Forgotten History of ‘Murphy Brown’

The last Morning Jolt of the week has concerns about the White House’s proposal on immigration reform, a preview of the Koch Seminar Network winter meeting in California, but also a lighter note about the return of a 1990s sitcom…

The Strange, Forgotten History of ‘Murphy Brown’

They’re bringing back the old CBS sitcom Murphy Brown.

It’s worth recalling that for the first few seasons, the show was, for its time, pretty funny and not liberal agitprop. It was a classic workplace sitcom with some pretty talented performers and some instantly recognizable characters: the neurotic, stressed executive producer Miles; the stuffy, slightly-stuck-up anchor Jim; the insecure, competitive Frank, and the bimbo-esque Corky. Almost every week, Murphy would have some new wildly dysfunctional secretary, guaranteed to be fired within a few days. When out of the workplace, Murphy was bedeviled by her philosophical and unmotivated house painter Eldin (played Robert Pastorelli, the pride of Edison, New Jersey). Yes, the dirty little secret was that this was an ensemble show, where Candice Bergen’s role as Murphy was to respond acerbically to the wackiness of the characters around her, the last sane woman in an insane world.

Sure, by being set in Washington and in the news business, the show was always nominally political, but it was usually an offhand joke about “Strom Thurmond” or the Supreme Court or something. As the Onion’s AV Club observed, “The way the writers just drop in names like “Pat Buchanan” and “Bella Abzug” (and for that matter, “Barry Manilow”) as automatic laugh-getters, regardless of the context, resembles nothing so much as a Johnny Carson monologue on an off night.” But it became primarily defined and remembered by the events of the 1992 presidential campaign.

After a few seasons, the creators felt the need to shake things up a bit and decided Murphy Brown would become pregnant after sleeping her ex-husband, an underground radical who had no interest in becoming a father. Then in May 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle gave his infamous speech that included a reference to the show. This is the section that referred to the character:

However, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus, and the use of social sanctions. Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failure to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this.

It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

Nothing in Quayle’s first paragraph is wrong. But in the second paragraph, the vice president didn’t quite describe the character’s situation and perspective right. While the ex-husband character should have been a better man, the storyline made clear he was not likely to ever become more responsible or less selfish. In some ways, the Murphy Brown character was making a radically conservative choice both for the time and for implied moral lesson. In a circumstance where a significant percentage of “intelligent, highly paid, professional women” would have an abortion, Murphy Brown chose life.

With Quayle’s speech, the show now had an enemy, one that it and the rest of Hollywood and the media lashed at relentlessly and with relish. Quayle’s speech was written into the season premiere in the fall. Everyone who already thought Quayle was a bumbling fool laughed and contended he couldn’t tell fiction from reality and was somehow attacking single mothers.

But something strange happened after the controversy passed. After about a season, the character of the baby, Avery… more or less disappeared, with Murphy beginning scenes with a quick mention that Avery was with “the nanny” or “the sitter” or other circumstances off-screen. The show’s producers realized they didn’t want to turn the show into a working-mom family sitcom; the workplace comedy was their bread and butter. It was something of a strange vindication for Quayle; whether or not the fictional character Murphy Brown was ready for the responsibilities of parenthood, her writers and her audience were not.

Of course, in real life, you can’t hand-wave away a baby. And as time passed, Dan Quayle’s perspective changed from some laughable nonsense to… a much more widely-accepted truth. In 1993, The Atlantic shocked readers with a cover declaring, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

According to a growing body of social-scientific evidence, children in families disrupted by divorce and out-of-wedlock birth do worse than children in intact families on several measures of well-being. Children in single-parent families are six times as likely to be poor. They are also likely to stay poor longer. Twenty-two percent of children in one-parent families will experience poverty during childhood for seven years or more, as compared with only two percent of children in two parent families. A 1988 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that children in single-parent families are two to three times as likely as children in two-parent families to have emotional and behavioral problems. They are also more likely to drop out of high school, to get pregnant as teenagers, to abuse drugs, and to be in trouble with the law. Compared with children in intact families, children from disrupted families are at a much higher risk for physical or sexual abuse.

None of this is contending that single parents are bad – the vast majority are heroic, and doing the best that they can in difficult circumstances. It’s just that parenting, like so many other actions in life, is easier when you have a partner.

Ironically, actress Candice Bergen relished the mockery of Quayle but… didn’t really disagree with his point. By 2012, Bergen declared, “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless. But his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.”

Politics actually made Murphy Brown a worse, less funny, less enjoyable show; it will be interesting to see how political the new version is.


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