On May 18 — exactly 52 weeks after American learned that Murphy Brown was pregnant — the waiting will be over. Having endured what her creator; Diane English, calls ”the longest labor” (and what obstetrical science would surely confirm as the longest pregnancy) in recent TV history, Murphy Brown will have a son, and Murphy Brown will end its fourth season the way it began — as the most talked-about comedy on television.
It wasn’t always so. When, in 1988, CBS announced plans for a high-concept sitcom from the makers of My Sister Sam about a 40ish TV reporter with a wacky painter in her townhouse and the Betty Ford Center on her résumeé, the idea seemed gimmicky and unpromising. But early hunches on Murphy Brown did not account for the acute character development and the deft, dead-on comedy writing that English brought to the show, or for the talents of a comic ensemble that has grown into one of the funniest and most unpredictable in prime time.
English recruited her all-stars from various quarters: Candice Bergen, who had taken three years off to have and raise her daughter, Chloe, read the pilot script on a plane and barely waited until the landing gear droppped to pursue the title role: Broadway veteran Charles Kimbrough was hired to play FYI’s spring-wound, rigid elder statesman, Jim Dial; and Grant Shaud jumped from a small movie roles (he can be spotted schmoozing with Charlie Sheen in Wall Street) into the part of the neurotic producer Miles Silverberg, the boy genius with a closetful of Pepto-Bismol and what Murphy calls ”legs shorter than a dachshund’s.” Before her stint as beauty-queen-turned-barely-intrepid-reporter Corky Sherwood-Forrest, Faith Ford starred in the series The Popcorn Kid, killed after five weeks. Joe Regalbuto (Murphy’s colleague, pal, and competitor Frank Fontana) and Pat Corley (the prescient, curmudgeonly pubkeeper, Phil) were TV veterans who’d never had their comic talents showcased in a hit series. And Robert Pastorelli was virtually unknown to audiences before appearing as housepainter, muralist, and recent millionaire Eldin Bernecky.
Four years later, those performers have become household faces, and the show has become a multiple Emmy winner and top five hit. At an age when other sitcoms often tire, Murphy Brown has kept itself fresh by poking fun at an inexhaustible supply of newsmaking topics (including, this season, the Hill-Thomas hearings and the infidelities of politicians) and by taking chances with its characters: Murphy’s pregnancy, Corky’s wobbly marriage, and Miles’ erotic dream about a male coworker made for some of this season’s smartest, funniest episodes. Next season Murphy will face working motherhood — a prospect that will, at best, broaden and enrich the show’s comic possibilities. At worst…well, even its creators shudder at the thought of a blandly domesticated Murphy. No way they’ll let that happen.
When the cast of Murphy Brown joined English, executive producer Joe Shukovsky (her husband), and producers Steve Peterman, Gary Dontzig, and Tom Palmer, and writers Michael Patrick King and Peter Tolan to talk to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, the mood ranged from fatigue (mostly on the part of the writers) to festivity. As they assembled at a large Warner Bros. round table after the weekly Monday-morning read-through, the actors were in high, prankish spirits. Grant Shaud got things off to an auspicious start by spilling a soda, and then everyone began to talk…about the ecstasy of having a hit, the agony of writing a joke, and of course, what to name the baby.