The big surprise embedded in Thursday’s Murphy Brown premiere was an appearance by Hillary Clinton, who popped into the revived CBS sitcom to interview for a job as Murphy’s secretary. “For four years I was a secretary of a very large organization,” the former Secretary of State deadpanned during her brief job interview. When asked about her technical skills, she added: “I do have some experience with emails.”
Diane English, the creator of Murphy Brown, jumped on the phone today to talk about how Candice Bergen played a role in making Clinton’s cameo happen, how they kept it under wraps, and why Murphy Brown’s upcoming #MeToo episode will air sooner than anticipated.
How did you come up with the idea to have Hillary Clinton appear on the show? How did you convince Secretary Clinton to do it?
Well, it was actually Candice’s idea when I was first starting out to write the script. She said, “You know who would be a great secretary? Hillary Clinton.” And I thought, Oh, that’s a genius idea. Then we started a campaign. I have good friends who work very closely with her. I ran one of her PACs during the 2016 campaign. So we reached out and we sent her the script. It had to go through many hands. She really liked it, and then it was a matter of making it work in the schedule, which was the difficult part. So we did film it separate from the filming we did for our first episode, where we had a live audience. It was filmed actually two weeks later, in early August.
So you didn’t have a live audience for her cameo?
No, we had a closed set. Just the cast, the writers, and essential crew. I am shocked that it did not leak out. We did everything to prevent it, you know, I think because of our crew being so invested in keeping it a surprise. We never included the scene in any cuts that we sent out and certainly not any screeners. These days, everything leaks so I’m really still surprised.
You said that the script for that scene went through several hands. Do you mean on your side, Hillary Clinton’s side, or both?
On her side.
Were there jokes that you had to finesse or cut?
No, it was pretty much word for word. She really liked it. I wondered if she was going to go for the emails reference.
That’s what I was going to ask you.
Yeah, that’s who she is. She’s totally up for making fun of herself. So that was delightful that she didn’t ask for that to be removed.
What was it like having her on set?
Oh, it was fabulous. You know, she was so upbeat, knew her lines really well, was letter-perfect all the way through. And she was happy to pose for photographs with anybody who wanted one. Then, she was taking some pictures herself of the script, the elevators. She was just having a good time.
She’s by no means a stranger to scripted television, but how was she as an actress, in your estimation?
Well, she’s got great comic timing. We thought we were going to have to do a little more direction than we did, but she just nailed it.
Do you remember how many takes you had to do?
From different angles, to get all your coverage, I would say we did about four or five, maybe different set-ups and so on. You know, first takes are always a little wobbly, mostly from Candice’s side. [Laughs.] She didn’t have her lines as down cold as Hillary did. But it was fun. It was a typical number of takes, not any more or less.
You mentioned this was Candice’s idea. Did she have any role in scripting what Hillary would say?
No, not at all. She just threw out the idea and I ran with it.
When the episode aired last night, were you watching the reaction to see if people were surprised?
I had a whole bunch of people at my apartment who obviously did not know that was going to be there. It was gasps and applause and “how did you pull that off?” My best friend said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I said, “I couldn’t tell you.” Even the guy who cuts my hair — who occasionally does Hillary — was, like, shocked. “How did you not tell me this?” I said, “We couldn’t tell anybody. We couldn’t risk it.”
Murphy’s secretaries were a big part of the original show. I’m assuming this isn’t the only time we’ll see a secretary apply for a job. Will we see more high-profile cameos like Hillary Clinton in future episodes?
Yeah, we’re working on it. We call them “assistants” now, but in the first episode we wanted to call [her a] “secretary” because we wanted to do a Secretary of State reference. But in future episodes, we call them assistants and we have more of those crazy ones that she’s already having to fire. And we’re working on some high-profile people. We have a bunch of things in the works right now. But of course, I’m not going to tell you.
Of course not! To have the show debut and have Hillary Clinton’s cameo in an episode that aired after what unfolded on Capitol Hill yesterday — I’m sure you felt that as you were watching. Can you talk about that?
Well, we didn’t expect that to be our lead-in. We moved our #MeToo episode from airing in fourth place to airing now in third place, because it’s so strongly in the zeitgeist right now. Even more than ever because of the hearings, we felt like we wanted to take advantage of that.