Murdoch Mysteries: writers Lori Spring and Robert Rotenberg discuss “Murdoch Schmurdoch”

Spoiler alert! Do not continue reading until you have watched the latest episode of Murdoch Mysteries, “Murdoch Schmurdoch”!

As I wrote in my preview, “Murdoch Schmurdoch” is a bit of a departure for Murdoch Mysteries. Yes, there was a crime—the death of a theatre owner—which meant Dr. Ogden, Brackenreid, Higgins and Murdoch were all involved. But viewers were given an in-depth peek into the life of Det. Watts (Daniel Maslany) as it was revealed he’s actually Jewish. I found that insight to be highly enjoyable, as was the performance of Sayer Roberts as the legendary Al Jolson.

But, it turns out an early draft of the script had Crabtree discovering his Jewish roots. I chatted with longtime Murdoch Mysteries writer Lori Spring and Toronto-based criminal lawyer and mystery writer Robert Rotenberg—who co-wrote the episode with Spring—to discuss “Murdoch Schmurdoch.”

How were you and Robert teamed up to write this episode in the first place?
Lori Spring: I had gone into Shaftesbury with Bobby to pitch a series based on one of his unpublished novels. They knew that Bobby and I were trying to work together and they teamed me up with him. We went into the writer’s room together. Bobby is an experienced novelist and less experienced screenwriter so it was somewhat of a mentoring situation.

Robert Rotenberg: I’ve really wanted to get into TV screenwriting for years. I was talking to Christina [Jennings] and she mentioned her good friend Lori Spring. Lori Spring and I went to summer camp together when we were 15 years old! Lori and I got together. I came up with the idea of Al Jolson coming to Toronto when he was 18, they loved the idea and asked me to co-write with Lori which was the best thing that could have happened. I kind of went to screenwriting school for two months with Lori. It was incredible.

How did the main storyline, regarding anti-Semitism, break?
LS: The starting point was actually that Bobby had pitched Al Jolson as a historical guest character. He would have been around 19 years of age at that time. Then there was the general idea that he would have been in Toronto doing a performance. We had also sent some research notes because, at that time, there was a large influx of Eastern European Jews to Toronto in the late 19th century and earlier 20th century. By 1906, there were a number of Jews that were trying to initiate Yiddish theatres in the city. That became something that we wanted to work with. And Al Jolson was Jewish. So those were two threads that established themselves early on. Then we had the idea that one of the characters would find out that he was Jewish and Pete was really enthused about the idea of Watts discovering that about himself, so that became the B-story.

RR: One day, we were driving to the set and I turned to her and said, ‘I think we have too many characters.’ We walked in and said, ‘We’ve taken two characters and turned them into one.’ We had the producer and a director and it just became too complicated. It was much easier to make it one character, Levine. And we had an M.C. but decided to just let Levine do the introductions on-stage.

It really ended up being a Watts-centric episode and I loved that.
LS: Yes, and that was the intention.

RR: That was really fun. The original idea was that it would be Crabtree because they’re still kind of vague about his background. I loved the idea of someone hearing a tune and realizing that they’ve heard something from their childhood and putting it together. Then, they suggested it be Watts, which was a perfect fit.

That’s a lot of responsibility for you two. You shaped this character’s backstory.
LS: His tone has been established. Having worked on this show for so many years, the characters have sort of formed themselves and their backstories get filled in more and more every season. It’s not as if in the beginning of the show, William’s backstory was clear to everybody. It kind of fills itself in with every season. Watts is a latecomer to the season and it’s been a really interesting process.

Al Jolson really did visit Toronto and performed at The Royal Alexandra Theatre, but later than in your timeline.
LS: That’s right, he did. Well, I did the episode with Lucy Maud Montgomery and played fast and loose with that one too. [Laughs.]

I always love the little details and there were a couple in this episode. The Flatiron Building cutout was fun, and so was having Al Jolson turn around to show him just beginning to put on the blackface that would become his schtick.
LS: We really talked a lot about how to handle that. When he was the age he would have been in 1906 that was when Al Jolson started to do blackface, but we didn’t want to go heavy on the blackface because it’s pretty loaded. It wasn’t loaded back then. It was viewed quite differently back then and Al Jolson wasn’t the greatest guy in the world but was well thought of by black performers because he was very progressive in his racial politics.

RR: Historically, blackface was considered a very liberal at that time, which is completely opposite to what we think now. There were a lot of black performers at the time and it was considered as honouring them.

You wrote a very sweet storyline for John Brackenreid, having him fall in love with Charlotte. He’s such a blank canvas.
LS: [Laughs.] And to write scenes like that, you really start to fill in the colours. It’s fun to pretend you’re a 16-year-old boy in 1906 Toronto!

What did you think of “Murdoch Schmurdoch”? Let me know in the comments below!

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.




16 thoughts on “Murdoch Mysteries: writers Lori Spring and Robert Rotenberg discuss “Murdoch Schmurdoch””

  1. It was a really good episode, but there was a mistake made in one of the early scenes. The owner of the theatre, who is the murder victim, is sitting at a desk with a poster announcing Al Jolson as the performer. Al Jolson’s name in English is followed by his name in Hebrew letters, but the Hebrew is reversed. Hebrew goes right to left, and the words are spelled out left to right in English. At the bottom of the poster in Hebrew only are the words “Yiddish Theatre of Toronto”, but those words are also spelled backwards.

    1. Looks like they worked hard to get the Hebrew. Unfortunately software used couldn’t right to left justify. We caught that also.

  2. I love Murdoch Mystery and this was a great way to get to know Watts a bit better. He is a great addition to the cast.
    Well done.

  3. Wasn’t Higgins also noted to be Jewish? I remember Crabtree mentioning Higgins being Jewish after going undercover as a bartender at a sports club. (Rowing or tennis.) That’s what made the bar regulars suddenly have Higgins removed in favor of Crabtree.

    1. I don’t remember Higgins ever being a bartender. In the Mark Twain episode Higgins was undercover as a new man in town trying to join the club. George was the new bartender trying to get info on club members. At the end of the episode Henry told George he had been blackballed from the club because the members found out he had been stealing. I don’t remember anything about Henry being Jewish.

  4. Love Murdoch Mysteries right from the start. Love finding out the real history. Enjoyed finding out a bit more about watts. Love his addition. Still love George. And of course Julia and murdoch.

  5. What a nice episode involving the Jewish population. I am not Jewish but have many friends that are, so much of the information that was imparted to Watts struck a chord. Very well written, but what else can come from the writers. They are superb. Wonderful show.

  6. I liked the episode but didn’t love it. I liked that Watts discovered something about himself, and Higgins is a better police officer than he once was, and even John discovering love for the first time. But as character’s, even with these new developments, they just don’t appeal to me. I didn’t love it, because I didn’t learn anything NEW about the central character’s; William, Julia, George or Brackenreid.

  7. I really enjoyed the episode. I miss George’s humor and would like to see more of him. I really like Watts character as well.. can’t wait for next episode well done series

  8. I thought the episode was fabulous, I can not count how many times I have replayed it, lol
    I only watch 3 shows here in the US and I do not care if I miss an episode. BUT I would never miss a Murdoch Mystery episode. The story lines, writers, set design and Actors are the best bar none.
    I am so glad I can get CBC :-)

  9. I am proud to be a film and TV writer. Honored to share writers rooms with some of the sharpest minds in the game. But let me say clearly, this is NOT okay. And by “this” I mean the way Blackface was handled in this episode. I mean the way the writers defended its usage with historical inaccuracy and astounding cultural disrespect. I mean the way the writer of this article failed to take them to task for it.

    We cannot and should not accept the flippant usage of a weighty, complicated and painful subject matter such as this by cramming it into the end of an episode and addressing it with a “wink-and-smile” (or a wink and a furrowed brow). Even in fiction, writers bear the responsibility of representing truth – and to say this practice was considered “honouring” by a large population of black entertainers in this era is false. The damage the promoting of this notion does to our community and our industry at large is substantial.

    Many who shrug their shoulders over this upset and say “it’s a small scene” or that we’re being overly sensitive fail to understand how decades of degradation and misrepresentation makes one rightfully so. No one is asking for anyone to sidestep difficult subject matters like Blackface, but to strip them of truth and substance for the sake of an easy episode out is absolutely irresponsible.

    We may not be the audience this series is aiming for, but we see you, we see the way you see us and this kind of handling of our lives, our history and our pain is NOT okay.

    1. Thanks for your comment about this episode. I’m very sensitive to this topic, as were the writers of this episode. I don’t believe anyone was being flippant about the topic of blackface. I certainly wasn’t. I was fascinated to dig into Al Jolson’s history, his performances and his relationship with black performers of the time. Murdoch Mysteries has never shied away from showing what was happening in Canada in the early 1900s through the Suffragette Movement, persecution of new immigrants or the awful treatment of First Nations peoples. This episode was no different. I don’t feel it celebrated blackface or applauded racism. I stand by the questions I asked of the writers and the story they told of North America at this time period.

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