behind the scenes

How Murphy Brown Faked Its Sarah Huckabee Sanders Cameo

Sarah Huckabee Sanders in Murphy Brown, sort of. Photo: CBS

When I ask Diane English, the creator and showrunner of Murphy Brown, how she’s doing, the first word she uses is “harried.”

It’s Tuesday morning and English is mired in the usual multitasking of a showrunner: overseeing post-production on a recently filmed episode, while simultaneously prepping for the taping of a future installment in which Jim Dial (Charles Kimbrough), one-time FYI anchor, receives a lifetime achievement award. (She calls it a “particularly huge” episode that involves “a big ballroom scene and lots of fancy costumes,” as well as some major guest stars: Bette Midler, John Larroquette, and Katie Couric.)

English also has to find time to do press interviews like this one, in which she discusses Thursday night’s “I (Don’t) Heart Huckabee” and its surprise “cameo” from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. In addition to explaining how Murphy Brown faked its showdown between Murphy and Sanders (“We dedicated one of our writer’s assistants to pulling every press conference”), she also talks about getting political on network TV, her legal tussle with disgraced CBS chief Les Moonves, and what to expect in next week’s #MeToo-themed episode.

In this week’s episode, obviously the big set piece is Murphy sneaking into the press room and confronting Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Was there a conversation in the writers’ room about whether she should assume a false identity? It’s funny, but she’s definitely violating some journalistic ethics.
Yeah, the character debates it. She tries to get in through regular channels and can’t do it. In the end, comedy wins, so we went with a disguise.

You had a stand-in for Sanders on set, but you also incorporated actual news footage to give the sense that she’s really there. What was involved in putting all of that all together?
Well, we did that once before in the first iteration. Murphy had been banned from every White House, and it was the original George Bush [presidency]. When he was in the White House, we did incorporate real news footage from a press conference with a voice double and a body double.

So you’ve done this before.
Yeah, and we had fun doing it, so we decided to do it again. We dedicated one of our writer’s assistants to pulling every press conference with Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We found five of them where she was wearing the same dress and her hair was the same, so we had a lot of choices for facial expressions and words. That took several weeks. Then you purchase the footage that you want and edit it into the show. We hired a voice double, auditioned body doubles, and our wardrobe people had to make the dress as close as possible. It took a village.

How do you audition body doubles?
They come into the casting agent’s office, they go on tape, and they do a 360-degree slow turn. We picked somebody who looked like her size and her height, and had shoulder-length hair.

You’re mentioning Sarah Huckabee Sanders by name, and obviously you talk about Trump by name too. But there are other instances when you don’t, like using Wolf Network instead of Fox News, and naming a character in an upcoming episode “Ed Shannon” instead of Steve Bannon. Why do you have to change certain names and not others?
If we had called him Steve Bannon, we’d have to get Steve Bannon onto the show and make him into an actor. That’s the obvious reason why we couldn’t use his name — we were just creating a character who was very much a composite of him and Alex Jones. With the Wolf Network, it just gives us more leeway because people are litigious and we can’t really use the Fox logo. We thought we could certainly have more fun with a fictional version, rather than having the legal department at CBS and Warner Bros breathing down our neck the whole time.

In the first few episodes, you make no bones about being a partisan show. On a mainstream broadcast network like CBS, have you gotten any notes to tone it down?
They have not said boo to us so far, which is surprising, frankly. We definitely have a point of view and they knew what they were getting. We weren’t going to provide any kind of false equivalency if the other side was fanatical. This is the reason we came back, so that we could give a voice to, I guess you would call it the resistance. Whoever’s in the White House has the bully pulpit, so we’re the antidote to that.

I think maybe because Stephen Colbert’s show was in the toilet before Trump was elected, and then he went full-throttle on the administration and he became number one, they might have looked at that and said, “Well, it’s not such a bad thing.” The Democrats aren’t really pristine. Down the line, they take some heat from us, too.

How does this compare with your experience in the original run? Did the network ever say anything to you about Dan Quayle and things like that, or were they also hands off?
Totally hands off.

When we spoke last week, you mentioned that you’re moving the #MeToo episode up in the schedule, so it will air next week. Can you give me a general sense of the storyline for that episode?
It’s called, “Murphy Too.” It’s so in the zeitgeist now. I was listening to Dr. Ford’s testimony, as most of the country was, and it’s very eerie how close we came to that. Murphy was young, we’ll just put it that way. Lots of parallels there. That’s why we’re moving it up, we don’t want to miss our opportunity.

You wrote that, I assume, well before Dr. Ford’s allegations came out?
Oh yeah, that was written months ago.

Obviously there’s been a #MeToo crisis at CBS recently with Les Moonves. Did that affect what you could do with the episode?
No, not at all. We were asked whether the network asked us to shelve it or modify it, and, once again, totally hands off. Not even the suggestion of it.

There’s a very powerful scene in it, surrounded by some very funny stuff that comes out of a sexual-harassment seminar and the confusion that a lot of people have about what’s appropriate now and what isn’t. It comes from a generational point of view and whether you’re single, whether you’re married, whether you’re gay, straight, old, young. We take all those points of view and incorporate them into the script.

I’m in my mid-40s, and a lot of women that I’ve spoken to about these issues are in their 50s, which isn’t that much older. But there’s a big difference in perspective.
Yeah, totally. We have some very young millennial writers on staff and there’s a big difference between them and us baby boomers, you know? We put it all in the script. We all learned a lot from each other. By the way, we filmed that episode, ironically, on the day that the studio had scheduled our sexual harassment seminar. So, we started the morning with the seminar, just as happens in the show.

I’m sure you saw the piece that Designing Women creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason wrote about the harassment she faced at CBS. Murphy Brown aired around the same era and featured one of the strongest female characters on the network. Did you have any experiences where you felt like you were being shot down?
No, not at all. That really came as a total surprise. No, I never had anything even come close to that.

What do you think accounts for the difference?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask her. I don’t really know because it’s not my experience and I also wasn’t aware of her experience. It’s not like it was out there anywhere. I did have to sue the network and Les years ago over a breach of contract, and we didn’t speak for a long time after that. I had left the network, essentially, and went on to do other things. But I never had any experience of anybody there trying to thwart my career in any way.

What was the breach of contract about?
There was a deal in place that was not made by Les, that was made by the previous administration at CBS before he came in, and it was a very, very rich deal. He came in and he took a look at it and went, “Mmm, I don’t think so.” That was our interpretation of it. It went on for a few years with lawyers’ letters back and forth, and we weren’t getting anywhere. So, ultimately we had to file a suit and it got settled.

To your satisfaction?

I’m sure you’re consumed with the current season, but have you given any thought about what a season two might look like? What might you do if there’s a blue wave in the midterm elections?
We’re not really thinking about it. We’re just trying to keep our heads above water here. The climate might change, but I think we’re going to have this guy in the White House until 2020.

We have a whole list of things that we didn’t get to for these 13 [episodes] that we’d like to explore if we’re fortunate enough to get another 13.

Is one of the things on your list an episode about, say, a Supreme Court appointment?
Yes, certainly we’ll have to see how that goes. We just can’t do anything about it in this week’s episode or next, until we see what happens on Friday. Then we’ll find a way to fit it in.

How Murphy Brown Faked That Sarah Huckabee Sanders Cameo