We invited Diane English, director, screenwriter and producer best known for Murphy Brown, to lunch at In The Groove where we chatted about everything from her career to her love for Chanel.
Name, Age, where do you live?
Diane English, I turned 70 this year, Los Angeles New York and occasionally Martha’s Vineyard.
What did you do for your birthday?
I was in New York getting ready for Murphy Brown, which included the big upfronts at Carnegie Hall. The next day I gave myself a really nice dinner party at the Lamb’s Club and invited all my New York friends. And my mom!
Give us an overview of your career.
I got a degree in secondary education from Buffalo State, so I taught English for a year back in the 70s. The truth is I really wanted to be a journalist. I saw myself working for the New York Times. It was that era where as a woman, everyone told you to have a good fallback position. Everyone told me to be a teacher because you’ll get your summers off. I knew I wasn’t cut out for it. I worked for a year, saved money and moved to New York.
I got a job in public television as a secretary for Jac Venza, who ran Theater in America and all those great PBS shows. It was a great experience. I moved into a different division at PBS called Television Laboratory, and they were about to make their first movie for TV. It was an adaptation of an Ursula LeGuin novel called The Lathe of Heaven. They hired an LA screenwriter, they were a month away from shooting, and they didn’t have a script they liked. They asked me to give notes on it so I took it home and rewrote it! It was easier just to do it than to write the notes. They liked what I wrote and they hired me to do the whole thing. The movie aired and did so well that I got a Writers Guild Award nomination and an agent. The agent told me I had to move to LA. I loved New York but I was married at the time and my husband was very excited to move. We moved out to LA with this crazy idea that we would start a production company, and we did. Right away we started working. I wrote a bunch of television movies.
CBS liked my work and approached me about writing a half-hour show. The show I developed was about a really glamorous prosecutor named Janet Fox with blond hair and long nails and I just thought there was something funny about a woman like that working in the homicide unit. That became Foley Square which is very dear to my heart. It went fourteen episodes.
I had a deal with Warner Bros that was expiring. They said, “You have three weeks to come up with a show.” I had the idea of a show for a woman who was a journalist on a major stage so I pitched it to them, they said great. We took it to CBS. I wrote the pilot, turned it in the day before writers went on strike for nine months. It was good timing because CBS had to decide if they were going to shoot it. They felt that the script was in good enough shape and decided to go forward with it. Because of the strike, they couldn’t touch a word of it. So the pilot we shot was my first draft, and I won an Emmy for it. It was a good reminder to follow your instincts because if we’d gone through the standard procedure, I would’ve second-guessed myself.
Where did the name come from?
There was an actor we used who had Murphy as their first name, and I liked it. And then I wanted a simple last name. I had to turn the script in and didn’t have a title so I just typed Murphy Brown on it.
When did Candice join the cast?
There was this big search for this part, and I saw Candice’s name on the list. She had just had a baby a few years before and she wanted to follow her husband around Europe as he made films. She was ready to go back to work and got a new agent and they pitched her. I thought, “WOW. She looks like that person.” I remembered how funny she was on SNL and that she got an Oscar nomination for her comedic role in Starting Over. All the powers that be said “no, she’s an ice princess.” I convinced them to let me go meet her.
She has her own story about this. She put off reading the script until she was on a plane and had absolutely nothing to do. When she finally read it she thought she was too late and made a call from the plane! They set up a meeting, I flew out to see her, and we clicked right away. We sat on the floor of her apartment and I read the other parts, she read Murphy. She was it.
I still had the task of convincing the studios she was right. They made her audition! She’s Candice Bergen and they made her audition! This is kind of a famous story. She auditioned for the head of the network who was kind of a jerk. They made us wait outside for 45 minutes. By the time we got in there, she had dry mouth and was questioning why she was there. It was a bad audition. When they were filing us out, I turned around and told him why she had to be Murphy. And he said, “Okay, but can I tell her?” So we walked out into the hallway, he stuck out his hand, and said “Congratulations, Murphy.”
She seems hilarious.
She is hilarious!
Do you have a Bergen bag?
I don’t have one! But she texted me this morning and said, “I’m so damn bored I might have to start painting those bags again.”
How many seasons did it run?
It ran 10 seasons and would’ve gone longer, but we decided that was enough.
Murphy Brown is one of the most iconic TV shows of all time. Why did you decide now was the time to bring it back?
Warner Brothers had observed the success of the return of Will and Grace. I was working on a pilot for CBS about speechwriters, kind of inspired by the Pod Save America guys. They said, “okay, okay but what about bringing Murphy Brown back?” I wasn’t thinking it was a great idea. We had a great legacy, and I didn’t want to ruin it. I mentioned it to Candice, and she said “Oh no that’s not a good idea.” But then we had this election and the headlines kept getting worse and worse. Lawrence O’Donnell said to me, “What would Murphy Brown do?” And I thought, “hmm, what should she do?” All of these shows were coming back and I thought we were the only one that really had a reason to come back.
What was it like being a female showrunner of one of the most successful shows of the time? Was it unusual?
Was it hard? I can imagine it was a guys world.
It wasn’t hard. I found a lot of support among the guys, and I was treated like any other show runner from my crew. I know the opposite situation exists, it just wasn’t my experience.
Is there parity with women and men?
Certainly not. And not in the showrunner category.
How has making a TV show changed since the last time you were making Murphy Brown?
It was easier this time! Because we weren’t figuring it out. We didn’t have a level of anxiety that you have at the beginning of the show.
Did you know where you were going at the end of the season?
We had a framework of where we wanted to go. But we didn’t want to get too specific because it was important to be able to take advantage of the news. We did an episode where Frank Fontana gets attacked at a Trump rally. The right attacked us for it because that had never happened, but it just happened the other night.
It’s rare to see an older woman carrying a show on primetime TV. Why are executives so reluctant to green light projects starring older women? Has this gotten any better with the rise of streaming and the influx of programming?
A 72-year-old star? The sole star of a big network comedy with a 70-year-old showrunner? That’s insane. The advertising model is based on an 18-49 demo, for reasons that are completely outdated. The demographics of our show is 25-54. And I don’t know why Nielsen considers that secondary to 18-49. We’re the ones with the money! I don’t think we’re going to see many more shows with 70-year-old leads. They’re still pushing to add younger characters. That’s just the way of the world.
What is your creative process like?
I start to think about the characters – how they changed, how they didn’t change. Why are they coming back together? It’s like a puzzle. And then adding new characters, which is necessary to refresh it. There’s Murphy’s son. Is Frank married now? Does he have kids? So I think about all that. Then I pull out my vacuum cleaner and clean my entire house because I can’t sit down to start. There’s that blank screen, and it’s just torturing you. Then you start.
My process is telling myself I’m just going to write three pages today. And I’m not going to stop in a place that’s hard to get back into it. I’m ending on a joke I like because otherwise, I’m going to be vacuuming again tomorrow.
You mentioned cleaning your closets now that the show’s over – have you found that you’re feeling compelled to just get rid of your stuff?
I was talking to Nancy Meyers about this, we’re both super-organized. When I finish a project, and I’ve been away for six months, I come back to my house and it drives me nuts! I see that this needs to be repainted, and that needs fixing, and why do I still have that sweater?
Have you Marie Kondo’d?
Yes! I didn’t touch everything but I did thank items for their service.
What about TV shows? Or podcasts you’re loving? What about books?
I just finished Rachel Maddow’s Bag Man, which is amazing. So relevant! She tells this story in the most amazing way. And I never miss an episode of “Pod Save America.” I love those guys.
I recently discovered a Netflix show called 7 Days Out, which is amazing. I went directly to the Chanel episode.
I’m reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, and I just got Dreyer’s English. I’m so excited about it. It’s about grammar and writing and it doesn’t sound like a good read but it’s a sensation.
Culturally, aging is viewed as this sad thing. In reality, I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t feel bad or sad. I feel better than ever. What’s the key to changing the conversation about aging?
I think you just have to live your life. Look at what we’re doing! You have to get out there and prove you’re not dead after 50. It’s really not the same anymore. I think about my grandmother who was in her 60s when I was a teen. And she had blue hair and the tiny glasses because that’s what you were supposed to be as a little old lady.
I remember back then feeling all this solidarity with Murphy Brown, this working woman.
So often, women come up to me and tell me that Murphy Brown helped. I get that all the time, and it is so satisfying. Hopefully this time it’s “okay, you’re 72. You’re not dead. You’re still out there kicking ass.”
Do you like fashion?
Oh yes. Let me tell you a little bit about me and Chanel. I became aware of the brand when Karl Lagerfeld took over, and I finally had some money. I used to walk by the store in Beverly Hills, too scared to go in. I finally went in and bought two jackets and a skirt. It was a paycheck. I still have them, So I wore head to toe Chanel for every Friday taping. I thought it was such a good vibe.
If you could have one superpower what would it be?
I’m going to create a superpower – the ability to instantly lose 15 pounds.
If you had a warning label what would it say?
Dangerous when crossed.