November 14 will mark 26 years since the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown hit the airwaves. The series, which ran for 10 seasons and won 18 Emmy Awards (including a record-breaking five Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series wins for star Candice Bergen), also happened to be at the forefront of a political firestorm in its heyday. A show about a 40-something single mother and career woman (!) touched such a nerve that the Vice President of the United States singled out the show as an example of the decay of family values in America.
During a campaign speech on May 19, 1992, then-VP Dan Quayle stated, “Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”
Never mind that we now live in an era where Vice Presidents are pretty supportive of fictional career women (see: Joe Biden and his number one admirer, Leslie Knope, on Parks and Recreation), but one where single parents have been pretty well-represented on television over the past two decades, without much of a fuss about their “lifestyle choice.” (After all, no one really threw up any road blocks about the dad on Full House). If anything, if Murphy Brown were on the air today, it would likely spark a hundred “Can women have it all?” online thinkpieces instead.
But in 1992, Quayle’s comments about the character of Murphy Brown, and her decision to raise a child alone during the show’s fourth season, sparked a nationwide debate. The series was smack dab in the middle of the discussion, and its writers got in on the conversation, too. During the Season 5 premiere — which picked up after the birth of her son Avery — Murphy Brown responded to Quayle’s remarks. At one point Bergen’s character exclaims, “I’m glamorizing single motherhood? What planet is he on? I agonized over that decision.” The fictional TV anchor also addresses the issue on the air, telling viewers, “Perhaps it’s time for the Vice President to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes. And ultimately, what really defines a family is caring and love.” The episode, which aired on September 21, 1992, and was mockingly titled “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” to address Quayle, pulled in an estimated 70 million viewers.
Eventually, Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle made peace, even if “family values” debates still rage today. Right around the time “You Say Potatoe, I Say Potato” aired, Quayle sent a letter and stuffed elephant to the fictional baby Avery. The show’s executive producers Gary Dontzig and Steven Peterman told Entertainment Weekly that even though they were upset with Quayle for condemning the show, it opened a door for them to openly discuss an important issue. Ten years later, Bergen herself called Quayle’s speech “perfectly “intelligent” and revealed that she agreed with his stance on the idea that fathers are not dispensable.
In the 20-plus years since that landmark episode, Quayle’s comments and his footnote as a pop culture punchline still conjure up strong feelings and varying opinions. In 2002, a Washington Post op-ed declared, “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms,” and in 2013, the A.V. Club’s TV writers discussed the impact the episode had on them as viewers now, and then.
While Murphy Brown was hardly the first show to explore non-nuclear families, or the first to cause a stir when it came to tackling hot button issues, it was a seminal moment in watching what happens when television and politics collide.