Murphy Brown wasn’t looking for controversy, until Dan Quayle involved it in one

Murphy Brown wasn’t looking for controversy, until Dan Quayle involved it in one

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This is the final of eight installments to focus on “controversial episodes.”

Murphy Brown,“You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” (season five, episodes one and two; originally aired 9/21/1992)

In which the vice president of the United States picked a fight with a fictional character—and the fictional character fought back

Todd VanDerWerff: Somewhere in the middle of “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato,” the fifth-season première of Murphy Brown, Murphy says that her new baby—who will eventually be named Avery, after Murphy’s mother—is just a baby, not a political statement. And that’s true for the fictional character, a news anchor currently being assailed by the vice president of the United States, but it’s not really true for the entity that is Murphy Brown, a sitcom that got dragged into being part of the political dialogue in 1992. Avery Brown really is just a baby to Murphy, but to the rest of the world, he became part of a really strange and strained fight over the definition of “family values.” This fight marked much of the ’90s and 2000s, before finally receding just a bit.

It’s not as if Murphy Brown was uninterested in being part of that political dialogue. The show was very much aiming to be a part of the talk about politics and culture in the U.S., and as a mainstay of the Nielsen Top 10 at the time—it would finish fourth for the 1992-93 season and reached its apex of third in the season before, when Murphy was pregnant—it had the rare platform to do so. Indeed, that instant-response quality it had going for it was the very thing that makes the show a bit creaky to watch today. I was alive in 1992, so I get all of the references to things discussed in this episode, but they’re no longer all that funny because the jokes don’t go beyond the mere mention of the reference to something deeper.

I came out of “You Say Potatoe” feeling a little bit of sympathy—just a smidge—for Dan Quayle, the man who picked a fight with a fictional character.

Let me back up here. Murphy Brown was one of my mom’s favorite television shows for its first four seasons, to the degree that I remember when the birth episode aired and my mom quoted one of the jokes to me the next morning. (I was rarely allowed to watch, and that’s probably for the best. When I was that age and as sheltered as I was, Candice Bergen’s portrayal of Murphy probably would have broken me.) Yet, once Quayle launched into his ill-considered attack against the show—for, uh, trying to suggest fathers weren’t necessary or something—she stopped. So far as I know, she didn’t even watch this episode, and I know she didn’t watch much past it. In my head, I like to think she noticed that with the departure of creator Diane English at the end of the fourth season, the writing quality had slipped. But I know what really happened was that Quayle’s speech turned Murphy Brown into part of a seemingly endless culture war.

To me, now, looking back on the early ’90s, I remember a lot of fear. I remember being petrified that Bill Clinton’s election meant the United States would lose favor with God. I remember being scared of growing up and being subject to all manner of temptations I hadn’t been before. And I remember feeling like I was standing on one side of a dividing line, watching as the other side cavalierly dismissed the good, old-fashioned Christian principles our nation had been built on. Murphy Brown and Murphy Brown were on the other side of that line, and though I distinctly remember finding Quayle’s statements largely stupid at the time—even as an 11-year-old—I still felt as if a sitcom I had watched my mother enjoy had firmly decamped on the other side of the line.

That’s the thing I didn’t realize at the time: There are plenty of shows that court controversy—I just covered one, Cagney & Lacey, in my most recent 100 Episodes article, though that show went looking for controversy because it knew the ratings would follow—but there are even more that are made controversial because someone speaks up and says, “I don’t agree with the way this program views the world, and therefore, I wish it would stop.” I don’t think Quayle literally wanted Murphy Brown to go off the air; I think he just wished there was a world where it didn’t exist to begin with. What Quayle was ultimately bemoaning—the idea of a world where white male hegemony was no longer so secure—was inevitable. The culture wars largely receded because that hegemony began cracking up, and though it’s not as if whatever era we’re living in now is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. As someone who is now comfortably on Murphy’s side of the line, I’d rather live here than in whatever world Quayle was describing, a world filled with the fear and suspicion of my childhood.

But I still sympathize with Quayle when this episode ends and those potatoes roll around outside his house. The thing about Murphy Brown, particularly after English left, is that it’s not an exceptionally good show. The punchlines are all so obviously punchlines that they lose some of their, well, punch, and the writing relies so heavily on the 1992 references that I’m left looking for anything else that’s there. What’s more, the end of this episode—in which the FYI team talks about how families come in all shapes and sizes—is painfully akin to an informational video that a guidance counselor might show her charges when she just wanted to have a day off. What I’m most impressed with here is the character of Murphy, who’s unapologetically mean and angry and frustrated with her wee son, and the show celebrates her for it. Could you get a woman like this—over 40, in particular—on the air today? It would be a much tougher row to hoe.

Yet, what I’m left with—and where my sympathy for Quayle comes from—is that comedy is traditionally best when it punches up, the powerless sniping at the powerful. In 1992, Quayle was very much powerful; in 2013, he’s a punchline to a joke nobody’s telling anymore. The forces Quayle represents are still very much active in society, but the Murphy Browns of the world increasingly seem like they’ve won. What was a blow on behalf of the downtrodden in 1992 now sort of feels like pushing a kid’s face down in the mud.

Am I entirely off base here? Did you guys think the end of this episode went a little too far?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’m older than Todd; I actually remember when Murphy Brown seemed like the kind of show that intelligent people, by which I include myself and whomever I happened to be sharing a couch with that week, might turn to out of desperation, just because the supporting cast was fairly fine-tuned and the show itself was about something other than a family with cute kids. It showed some promise in its first season, but it was running on fumes by the time these episodes aired. 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. What separates it from most of the other shows we’ve discussed these past several weeks is how it happened to jump on board the “controversy” train. It was a combination of calculation, accident, and dumb luck. In the time-honored tradition of fading sitcoms struggling to stay alive, the writers decided to get Murphy pregnant; the decision that she’d be a single mother was probably dictated by the fact that a married Murphy Brown would have demanded changing the accepted outlines of the character far more than saddling her with a baby would have. Then Dan Quayle, trying to find a way to connect with a pop-culture-crazed nation, plugged the magic phrase “Murphy Brown” into one of his speeches full of talking points about “family values.” This happened after the show’s season finale, and Murphy Brown had the whole summer to plan for how it was going to cash in.

I don’t know that I feel sorry for Quayle, but considering how much time the writers had to prepare their response, I’m struck by how little wit they bring to the table. Mostly what they deliver is smugness and overkill, with a little sanctimony thrown in. As to the overkill: The most interesting thing about Dan Quayle is that he was one of those very rare figures in American politics who was introduced to the general public as a punchline, and who never, ever transcended that. After he became vice president, many pundits confidently predicted that, once people got used to him, they’d see that he was worthy of his office and would come to accept him as a plausible contender for the presidency after George Bush had completed his second term. Bob Woodward and David Broder even wrote a seven-part Washington Post series, which was later published as a book, in which they basically painted Quayle as a decent if not-too-bright guy who had plenty of smart people surrounding him and who would probably do fine when the inevitable happened and he became leader of the free world. But it just didn’t take; Americans could not get past Quayle’s earnest goofiness and deer-in-the-headlights expressions. 

He did his babbling about Murphy Brown the same week as Johnny Carson’s final episodes of The Tonight Show, and Carson devoted his final monologues to thanking Quayle for giving him something so rich to go out on. That summer, Comedy Central used the clip of Quayle complaining about the show in commercials for its mock coverage of the Republican National Convention. I remember seeing that clip again and again during commercial breaks on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and thinking that every time I saw it, Quayle looked a little sadder and more embarrassed, as if he could barely believe that this was what he’d come to. By the time Murphy Brown got its licks in, the joke had been worn to the stub. (And the show couldn’t resist throwing in the reference to Quayle’s misspelling of “potato,” even though it couldn’t, in good conscience, even bring it up without acknowledging in the show itself that that joke was far past its sell-by date.) But such was the state of pop culture at the time that the show had to address it, whether it had anything to say about it or not. To do otherwise would have been like Jay Leno not asking Hugh Grant what the hell he was doing trawling for hookers.

Ryan McGee: Before re-watching these episodes, I remembered watching Murphy Brown and enjoying it. Now, I’m wondering if I just liked the act of watching the show, which is something I could probably say about a lot of programming I consumed in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s kind of like how certain music from those eras actually holds up, and a lot of it seems like an unholy byproduct of its time. Basically, my parents always watched Murphy Brown, so I always watched Murphy Brown, and while I remember knowing the season-five première would be a big deal, I wasn’t thinking too much about the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to this particular cultural moment.

That leads me to the absolute strangest thing about this episode: the overt lack of in-show network involvement in the Quayle/Brown controversy. Maybe I’m just older now. Maybe I’ve just watched too many episodes of The Newsroom. Or maybe we as a television-watching culture just know a lot more about how the sausage is made to have Brown’s return to the anchor desk feel remotely earned. The majority of the controversy sits off frame, with only a brief Q&A involving Miles Silverberg and the press serving as onscreen pressure. No one above Miles’ position seems to care at all about the situation, neither interested in firing Murphy or even exploiting her for ratings’ power. Perhaps a realistic approach to this situation is too much to expect, but to pivot off Phil’s point: There’s so much missed opportunity here that it’s slightly staggering. The ideas are there, but they’re half-formed or feature edges so sanded down that they barely draw blood. Bringing in real-life families to provide examples of the families that Quayle omits from existence is semi-exploitative, but it would have been effective if we had not simply seen them, but actually heard them.

One more thing about “unusual families,” that phrase essentially defines the relationships of the core cast of nearly every show we now celebrate here at The A.V. Club. “Families bonded by circumstances rather than blood” is such a staple of modern television that acknowledging its presence often feels redundant. As such, it struck me as really strange how only Frank Fontana actually shows up at Murphy’s house in the initial days after she gives birth. Her co-workers respect her, and certainly socialized with her at Phil’s bar throughout the show’s run. But it’s fascinating, and perhaps more realistic, to see how people that work together don’t have to spend every waking moment with one another. Murphy jokes about how people in the office “forgot” to give her gifts after Avery’s birth, but she didn’t view the workplace as her true home. It was simply the place, up until the birth of her child, that she was her best self. I understand why more shows now make their characters involved in every facet of each other’s lives at all hours of every day. But there’s something to be said as well for social segmentation in which different groups fill different needs. I’m not sure Murphy Brown’s approach is better, but it does feel more closely connected with my own experiences in this regard.

Donna Bowman: Thank you, readers, for prompting me to watch this two-parter. I mean that sincerely. I have never laid eyes on Murphy Brown before this moment, but being in graduate school at the time of the controversy, I knew all about it. And that’s what’s so fundamentally weird and trippy about cultural moments like the one captured here. They live on forever as answers to trivia quizzes, but rarely are they revisited as they were originally presented. We all know them, and yet there’s no reason to go back and experience them again.

It might be easier to experience this show again without the controversy that made it immortal. Because for most of the running time, I was thinking about little but how stilted the show was. There’s almost no life in Candice Bergen, who delivers her reams of dialogue like a weary vaudevillian one step ahead of the hook. And given her centrality, the many talented supporting players seem wasted on the fringes, forced to talk about nothing but her, care about nothing but her. How exactly was this show a hit? And given its name-dropping tactlessness (Paul Tsongas! Hilarious!), why exactly did Quayle, his speechwriters, the whole right-wing culture-warrior industry, find it threatening enough to lob potshots at it? But that’s always the way: Yesterday’s society-destroying bugaboo is today’s soggy milquetoast.

The one time these episodes come alive is in the pile-of-news-reports montage. Veteran TV director (and erstwhile fictional orthodontist) Peter Bonerz stages it like a vintage movie, barely stopping short of fake headlines spinning toward the camera—but all the front pages and evening news clips are real. It’s a bracing and acerbic bit of commentary about the intrinsic hyperbole Quayle knowingly launched and the media gleefully amplified. I wish Murphy Brown had made one snide joke and moved on, rather than adding to the deluge of moralistic finger-wagging occurring on both sides of the family-values aisle.

Genevieve Koski: It’s interesting to hear you tell that story about your mom, Todd, because Murphy Brown was also one of my mom’s favorite shows. She not only let me watch “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” with her, I’m pretty sure it may have been the defining episode of the show for her, combined with the previous season’s finale. I distinctly remember having both recorded on VHS in our house, and I have a vague memory of my mom lending the tape to my second-grade teacher (which is kind of weird, in hindsight). These episodes clearly meant a lot to her.

In case it’s not obvious, my mom had me out of wedlock and raised me as a single mother while working in a male-dominated field. I think it’s safe to say she was about as impressed with Dan Quayle’s comments as Murphy was, and that she identified with the families highlighted in Murphy’s news segment responding to the controversy. Being that I was only 9 when this happened, it was all kind of lost on me at the time, but revisiting this episode now, at roughly the age my mom was when she had me, it definitely strikes a chord—one that helped drown out the shows loud early-’90s-sitcom-ness. Watching this episode again was a distinctly odd experience, one of recognizing rhythms that have a deep-set familiarity—I was remembering lines of dialogue seconds before they happened, despite not having seen or thought of this episode in two decades—while also seeming jarringly out of step with the television-viewing experience I’ve grown accustomed to. Both the show’s style and the controversy around this episode seem woefully out of date by modern standards, to say nothing of its of-the-day political and social references. But it’s worth remembering that, calculated as it may seem and as accidental as the controversy was, Murphy’s situation was unique in the sitcom landscape at the time (and pretty much still is), and to people who were in a similar situation, seeing that—and seeing her respond—was very meaningful indeed.

Erik Adams: Leave it to Frank Fontana, the levelheaded Murray Slaughter to FYI’s WJM, to provide Murphy Brown, the character, with advice Murphy Brown, the show, should’ve followed: “It’s just Dan Quayle—forget about it.” But as the number of now-moldy allusions in the script for “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” indicates, this wasn’t a show that was in the business of forgetting little political slip-ups, even if its creative staff seemed certain that Quayle was set to shuffle out of the public consciousness a few months into this fifth season. And so it grabbed onto its sudden and unexpected notoriety like a dog with a chew toy (or, as the Murphy Brown writers would have it, Spuds MacKenzie and a Bud Light) and shook and shook and shook for 30 minutes, until the only genuine substance that’s left in the joke is its defense of single parenthood—for which the show has given itself so little room, Murphy is forced to make her case directly to the camera. That’s the advantage of basing a sitcom around a TV newsmagazine, but it’s also a crutch that undermines what little Murphy Brown has to say after it buries the vice president in 1,000 pounds of potatoes.

And yet I’m still inclined toward Genevieve’s charitable view of this episode, because as much as history has rendered Dan Quayle the loser in this fight, there’s still plenty in this world working against parents who’ve made the same choice as Murphy. (There’s even more working against women who’ve made a different choice, but the readers didn’t pick that Maude two-parter, so this isn’t the place for that discussion.) Subject-wise, the other pick from this Roundtable cycle that “You Say Potatoe” has the most in common with is “Lucy Is Enceinte,” but in tone and what it ultimately meant to the series as a whole, this is Murphy Brown’s “Puppy Episode.” Like that Ellen installment, this is an episode of television that’s fully aware of the shit it’s going to stir (and the shit that was stirred even before it made it to air). And because of that, it allows past and future controversies to swallow the story whole, to the extent that there’s only a few remaining scraps of the very real, very human sentiment that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile. It may have been ill equipped to do so, and its methods may tip into sanctimoniousness, but Murphy Brown still took this opportunity to represent for the under-represented—and for that it deserves at least a tip of our collective caps.

Now I never want to watch an episode of Murphy Brown again. 

Stray observations:

For Christ’s sake Murphy: Aretha Franklin may have grown up in Detroit, but she never recorded for any of the labels run by Berry Gordy—so if you’re searching the dial for some Motown you’re not searching for “Aretha or Smokey.” You’re searching for Smokey. That’s as bad as telling a kid to spell “potato” with an “e.” [EA]

There’s one thing I do give the show, and Quayle, points for, and that’s the fact that he doesn’t make a self-mocking cameo as himself, to show that it’s all in good fun. That’s what Sarah Palin did on SNL during what passed for her season of semi-legitimacy. (Of course, by the time the news got out that Palin’s teenage daughter was unmarried and pregnant, things had shifted enough that Republicans were prepared to make a virtue of the fact that, hey, father shmather, at least she was having the kid!) The fact that Quayle isn’t in the show himself doesn’t turn these episodes into satire, but it does at least make it seem as if Murphy Brown, and Quayle, really believed in the opposing sides they were taking. [PDN]

Why the hell was the vice president of the United States even talking about “family values”? The simple answer is that he and the president were running for re-election, and the economy was in a sinkhole, and members of his own party were angry about the president’s breaking of his “no new taxes” pledge, and both Bush and Quayle were widely perceived as upper-class twits who had no understanding of or sympathy for the average working stiff’s problems. So, having no reasons they could offer for why people should vote for them, and with the Cold War over, they were reduced to trying to get voters stirred up by reminding them of all the things they were against that the voters didn’t like, and they ended up basically running against TV. This effort culminated in one of the most notoriously self-immolating national conventions of the TV age, the one where Pat Buchanan called for a “culture war” on behalf of God-fearing white people who would rather be watching Leave It To Beaver than Twin Peaks. [PDN]

The 1992 Republican war on snotty TV really began with President Bush’s State Of The Union address, in which he implored Americans to “be more like the Waltons” and “less like the Simpsons.” Happily, America only had to wait a few days for The Simpsons’ official response to this, which took up a fraction of the time that Murphy Brown’s season première took, and, I think, was the decisive champion. [PDN]

I forgot how much I love seeing two-story sets in multi-camera comedies. Having that second level in Murphy’s living room always allowed for plenty of room in which to stage scenes. There’s something about the height that really drives home the theatrical roots of this type of production. [RM]

While I lament the lack of network interference above, there was a later storyline involving Miles standing up to network interference over a story involving tobacco. The Insider, it was not, but I still have to give props to the show there since I’m penalizing them here. [RM] 

While probably unintentional, the shooting of the potato drop was semi-sinister, almost as if dropped in from a staged reenactment in Rescue 911. [RM]

Like Todd, I grew up in a pre-millennial-dispensationalist family that regarded the secular media as both symptom and cause of the impending Rapture. Remember when NBC aired Jesus Of Nazareth in 1977? Our church participated in a promotional campaign to get people to watch. During the scene where people are wading into the Jordan and getting bowls of water poured on their heads by John The Baptist, my mother gasped in horror: “I thought the Southern Baptist Convention had approved this!” I have no doubt that my subsequent career as a decidedly liberal theologian can be traced to that scandalous glimpse of non-immersive baptism. [DB]

I so wish Murphy Brown had gotten to be relatively stylish on her first day back on the air, rather than being draped in a giant shiny purple tent. [DB]