On Thursday, March 24, 2011, the Writers Guild Foundation’s Writers on Writing series presented an evening with Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award winner Diane English at the WGAW’s Los Angeles headquarters, moderated by Los Angeles Times television critic and novelist Mary McNamara.
After both women were introduced by WGF Executive Director Angela Kirgo, McNamara began by asking English when she first realized that she was a writer. English revealed that when she was in the second grade she wrote a story about losing a tooth that prompted her teacher to tell her parents that their daughter had a talent for writing. English continued to write throughout her school years (in high school she penned a parody of Nathanial Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables that was almost as long as the book itself) as “an escape from a difficult childhood. It was just a way of coping.”
Encouraged to become a teacher, English majored in education at Buffalo State College, but also took some playwriting classes. When she told one of her mentors—a renowned Broadway director—that she intended to become a teacher, he told her “You can teach for a year, but then you’re coming to New York to write.” So after working for one year in an inner- city school in Buffalo, English sold her 1965 VW bug for $500 and used the money to finance a move to Manhattan. After spending nine months with no phone and little food, she landed an entry-level job at WNET, New York’s public television station. After working as a story editor on the station’s Theater in America program, she eventually became the Associate Director of WNET’s Television Laboratory, a program designed to develop experimental and alternative programming.
In 1980, WNET received a grant to produce PBS’s first made-for-television movie and screenwriter Roger Swaybill was hired to adapt Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel The Lathe of Heaven. The script went through a number of drafts, but several weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, it still wasn’t ready. The Lab’s director asked English to review the script and come up with some notes on how to fix it. Instead, English rewrote the entire screenplay. Her version was filmed, to great ratings and acclaim and a WGA Award nomination (for Anthology Drama – Adapted). On the advice of her agent, English then moved to Los Angeles, where she wrote nine television movies in three years, three of which made it to air.
In the mid-1980s, CBS asked English to develop a situation comedy about a beautiful young assistant district attorney dealing with tough cases in the New York City courts. The idea had come from a network executive who had just served on the jury for a grisly murder case that was prosecuted by a glamorous ADA. Although English had no interest in half-hour situation comedy, she agreed to investigate the possibilities and spent three weeks being shown around the Manhattan District Attorney’s office by a young ADA named Rudolph Giulliani. Realizing that there was indeed plenty of potential in the situation, she accepted the assignment.
The CBS executives were so pleased with English’s pilot script for Foley Square that they immediately ordered a series and thus gave English her first experience as a showrunner (under the tutelage of experienced sitcom vets Saul Turtletaub and Bernie Ornstein, who, English reports, taught her everything about running a three-camera show from getting the scripts ready on time to editing the episodes to warming up the studio audience). Although the show only ran for fourteen episodes, English loved the entire experience and fell in love with three-camera comedy, which she found to be an ideal mix of theater and film. When asked by CBS to take over another sitcom called My Sister Sam after the pilot proved to be disappointing, she jumped at the chance.
McNamara then asked English to describe how she came to create the landmark show for which she is best remembered: Murphy Brown. English responded by saying that “every now and then the universe will just drop something into your brain as a gift.” She went on to tell the audience how she was stuck in traffic on the 101 freeway one morning, listening to the radio, when the idea for Murphy Brown “just dropped into my head.” By the time she got to her office, she had the whole show, including most of the characters, worked out. “I don’t know where that came from.” The following Saturday, English sat down with a yellow pad and spent a lot of time refining her characters and thinking about the relationships between them, since she knew that most of the show’s stories would come out of those relationships (English felt that, as with all situation comedies, the “situation” itself would wear thin pretty quickly, so she wanted to have very strong character and connections to back it up). She also decided that she wanted the show to include a healthy dose of political satire and to focus on “personal stories played out against a world stage.”
English presented the idea to CBS. The network’s executives liked the idea, but were worried that English wouldn’t be able to make Murphy—who English envisioned as “Mike Wallace in a dress”—sympathetic enough to attract audiences on a weekly basis. English thought that she could and made a deal with the executives: if they would let her write the first draft her way, she would then rewrite it to their specifications if they didn’t like the results. As luck would have it, the WGA went on strike right after English turned in her first draft, which meant it could not be rewritten for the duration. Since pilot season was already under way, CBS was faced with a decision – it could either abandon the script or shoot it as is. It decided to go ahead. As history has shown, English’s vision of the show worked: the show was a big hit and ran for ten very successful seasons.
English spent four years running Murphy Brown. Her final episode was the one in which the unmarried Murphy gave birth to a baby boy. When McNamara asked English about the famous controversy that was sparked by then-Vice President Dan Quayle’s critical comments about Murphy’s decision to become a single mother, English responded by calling the experience “overwhelming.” She recalled that baby episode aired on May 18, 1992, which also happened to be English’s birthday. She had a party celebrating both her day and the show and then went to bed feeling happy. When she awoke the next morning, she was besieged with requests to respond to Quayle’s remarks and found herself caught up in the maelstrom for the rest of that summer.
In the years following her departure from Murphy Brown, English created and produced a number of other shows, including Love and War, Ink, Double Rush, and Living in Captivity. After the cancellation of Captivity, English left television, primarily because of the wave of vertical integration that had overtaken the industry.
“Vertical integration is very, very bad for creative people,” she opined, explaining that prior to all of the mergers, the studios and networks were separate entities and the networks didn’t own the shows. If one network didn’t like a particular idea or the way a show creator wanted to approach a program, then the studio and the creator could shop the show to other networks and hopefully find a place more suitable for and nurturing of their concept. But now, since the studios own the networks and the networks own the shows, it has essentially become their way or the highway.
English said she also feels that the fact that all of media companies are now owned by big corporations that tend to want to homogenize everything (out of fear and caution), the networks have lost much of the creative daring they once had. She recalled that she and CBS had a number of strong disagreements about Murphy Brown – the network executives didn’t want Murphy to be forty (they wanted her to be thirty); they didn’t want her to be a recovering alcoholic (they thought her return from the Betty Ford Center in the pilot should be changed to a return from a spa where Murphy had gone because she was stressed out); they didn’t even want Candice Bergen (the executives suggested that Heather Locklear would make a good Murphy). English and the executives went around about these issues, but ultimately, because the executives respected English and her talents, they let her do it her way. “That would never happen today,” English said. “You don’t get your head any more.”
After leaving television, English moved on to the movies, developing and writing a remake of The Women. Compared to the relative immediacy of television, English said that she finds the long development process in features to be “grueling.” Due to various issues regarding casting and financing, it took almost fourteen years to get The Women made. English also directed the film, a job that she found to be hard, although nowhere near as difficult as running a three-camera show, which she feels is “the most difficult job in show business.”
English told the audience that she is currently writing an adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel Timbuktu, a drama about a homeless man and his dog (narrated by the dog) that she also plans to direct. English said she chose the dark, gritty project because she wanted to so something outside of her comfort zone and different from the comedy that she is known for, although she does plan to return to comedy afterwards.
When asked about the current state of filmed comedy, English said that she feels that because of the stripped-down nature of today’s situation comedy (she had twenty-four minutes to tell a story on Murphy Brown; the average length of a current sitcom is twenty minutes), television comedy has become primarily “joke, joke, joke. There’s no time for character beats anymore.” However, she still feels that most comedy on television is still funnier than that in features, which — since comedy is so dependent on audience reaction — she feels could benefit from utilizing the sitcom process of doing multiple run-throughs of the material in front of a room full of top-flight comedy writers to see what works, fix what doesn’t, and enhance the jokes before the script goes before the camera.
As the evening drew to a close, the audience was invited to ask questions, which prompted English to comment on a number of topics: sexism in the industry (which, English said, she has never encountered, although she knows that it exists); ageism (she feels that, while it probably is difficult for an older writer to find work on sitcoms, which tend to favor younger, “hipper” scribes, dramas are probably more welcoming towards older writers); her writing process (which she states always begins with her vacuuming her house – “a writer’s procrastination”); the origin of Murphy Brown’s revolving team of secretaries (which grew out of English’s experience with the secretarial union at Warner Brothers, which she described as a “pool of insane people.”); what she looks for when hiring a staff writer (someone that – because of the long hours the job demands — “I want to spend a lot of time together with;” that has a “unique voice;” and that exhibits “writerliness”); and the suspect accuracy of IMDb (“they have me listed as a production accountant”).
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