‘Murphy Brown’: By and For News Junkies : Television: The comedy series reflects the world of TV news pretty closely. In fact, the show’s most absurd premises are lifted from actual events.
The line between news and entertainment is ever blurring--especially the line between news and that very funny CBS comedy series “Murphy Brown.”
“Murphy Brown” (which airs at 9 p.m. Mondays on Channels 2 and 8) does revolve around a network news program, after all--a weekly TV magazine titled “FYI,” whose superstar co-anchor (Candice Bergen) has self doubts despite being a talented, respected journalist and the center of her show’s universe.
Yet unlike “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which was set in a local TV newsroom but rarely mirrored real events, many “Murphy Brown” stories are founded in the unreal world of TV news reality.
“Murphy Brown” isn’t “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In fact, “Murphy Brown” creator Diane English has seen only eight episodes of that brilliant CBS classic of the 1970s. “I was never home on Saturday nights,” she said.
Nor does “Murphy Brown” attempt to be as cosmic as “Network” or “Broadcast News.” What it does do is a first-class job of spoofing.
In its production offices at Warner Bros., news freaks lurk.
Said English, who is co-executive producer with her husband, Joel Shukovsky: “My husband and I only watch the news. We’re always tuned to either CNN or news radio stations because we’re just so fascinated with how people get their news.”
It shows. Not only that, but specific instances of newscast strangeness increasingly surface in the second-season hyperbole of “Murphy Brown.”
There was, for example, the episode rerun last week in which a brash kid journalist gained access to Murphy’s confidential memo criticizing elements of “FYI.” That echoed a now-famous incident in which the leaking of a confidential Bryant Gumbel memo blasting Willard Scott and other of his colleagues on NBC’s “Today” proved a huge embarrassment to the network and its top-rated morning show.
Another “Murphy Brown” episode found Murphy getting a temporary new co-anchor--a vacuous pretty boy who didn’t know the Middle East from Middle America--to substitute for her regular partner Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), who was on assignment in Libya.
When it came time for the inevitable live satellite hookup between the replacement and Dial reporting from the field, the pretty boy couldn’t handle it and was reduced to inane babbling.
The inspiration for the dopey replacement’s lines came from, of all people, Sam Donaldson.
“We watched the first episode of ‘PrimeTime Live’ (starring Donaldson and Diane Sawyer on ABC),” English said, “and pretty much lifted Donaldson’s dialogue verbatim and gave it to the fluffy anchorman on our show.”
TV’s news-and-information programs are themselves often so bizarre that there’s little “Murphy Brown” could do to top the absurdity of the real thing. Here is a field where life and sitcom inevitably merge, with the former sometimes seeming to copy the latter.
“Here’s something we didn’t lift,” said English, referring to an episode in which “FYI” airhead Corky Sherwood (Faith Ford) was the surprise winner of a journalism award, which she accepted by giving a speech praising Murphy: “You’re like an old oak tree, spreading your gnarled branches, giving life to the new shoots underneath.”
That came before the blubbery “Today” segment in which that “old oak tree” Jane Pauley announced she was leaving the show, and her successor, Deborah Norville (who happens to look like Corky), went on and on in emotionally lauding the woman she was supplanting.
“In essence it was the same speech as Corky’s,” English said. Then she paused. “To see Deborah Norville crying buckets . . . she seemed sincere, but . . . I don’t know.”
An even better example of life following in the footsteps of a sitcom is a recent “Geraldo” episode that found Geraldo Rivera using his body to shield one of his guests--an anonymous former mobster--when the man’s disguising makeup appeared to melt under the hot lights.
English said that the “Geraldo” incident occurred well after the writing of tonight’s “Murphy Brown,” in which a nervous defense-industry whistle blower, promised anonymity for his interview with Murphy, is inadvertently unmasked on TV by bumbling non-union and supervisory personnel filling in for striking technicians. The episode was written by producers Steven Peterman and Gary Dontzig.
“We’re going to blur your face with those little dot things and do something with the microphone that makes you sound like a Munchkin,” Mr. X is assured by “FYI” producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud) before going on camera with Murphy.
Like a spreading ink blot, however, the electronic field begins creeping across the screen until it also covers Murphy’s face, and then only her face, as the informant continues to spill his guts emotionally on national TV, unaware that his face is fully exposed. It’s hilarious.
Although the primary intent of “Murphy Brown” is comedy, this episode touches on a legitimate issue: potential flaws in the various devices--ranging from disguises to face-covering electronic fields--used to protect news sources who demand anonymity in exchange for appearing on TV.
English researched tonight’s episode by calling “60 Minutes” and asking how it would have handled the electronic-dots crisis that victimizes Murphy and her guest. “I had (executive producer) Don Hewitt, Mike Wallace and a line producer on the phone talking about this script,” she said. “It was pretty funny.”
Wallace suggested that English “send Murphy to jail to defend the First Amendment.” Hence, a coming episode finds Murphy jailed for refusing to reveal a news source. Unfortunately, the glorious martyrdom she envisions for herself doesn’t happen, for instead of doing hard time inside a cell, she spends a month in a bungalow at a relatively soft women’s correctional facility called Nestlebrook.
Also in the works, said English, is a possible one-episode “relationship” pairing Murphy and Jerry Gold, a somewhat nasty tabloid show host introduced recently on “Murphy Brown.” English was inspired by a People magazine profile of one of America’s most famous married couples: Connie Chung, the star of CBS’ “Saturday Night With Connie Chung,” and Maury Povich, who snidely fronts the syndicated tabloid series “A Current Affair.”
English is baffled by them. “It’s always fascinated me that Maury Povich and Connie Chung (who once appeared as herself on ‘Murphy Brown’) would be married,” she said. “He does stuff that’s so exploitative and she’s mainstream. What do they talk about at night?”
“Murphy Brown,” if they’re smart.