January 01, 2001

Interview with Aaron Sorkin

Comedy Central.com

Interview with Aaron Sorkin
Creator and Executive Producer of "Sports Night" and "The West Wing"

How did you come to create "Sports Night"? What was your original inspiration?
I lived for about two years in the Four Seasons Hotel here in Los Angeles. I'm from New York; I was out here writing the screenplay to "The American President," and I was spending most of my time alone in a hotel room. I would work very late into the night, actually very early into the morning, and to keep me company I would have the television set on in my room, always tuned to ESPN. In the mornings, when I was going to bed, around 5 or 6 AM, ESPN would play the previous night's "SportsCenter" in a loop about four times in a row. I just loved the show, loved the people on the show, and I'd watch all four in a row as I was falling asleep. That was when I began thinking, "Gee, I'd like to write something that takes place behind the scenes at a national cable sports news show."

Is "Sports Night" a comedy or a drama?
"Is it a comedy or a drama?" That's generally not a question I try and answer for myself before I'm going to write something. The example I would use is, if you're driving in your car and you're listening to a rock 'n' roll station on the radio and a song comes on, and in the song you hear elements of jazz and folk and you hear strings in there ... it's not necessary to answer the question, "Is this jazz, is this folk, or is this rock?" before you decide to listen to it and like it or not. I think that Larry Gelbart with "M*A*S*H" showed us that if you just respect the reality of the situation, you can have a series that's both funny and emotional, not just in the same episode, but oftentimes in the same scene. So it was both.

What is your background? Had you worked in television before?
No, I'd never worked in television. I'd written a play, "A Few Good Men," that opened on Broadway when I was 28 in 1989, and I came to Hollywood to make a movie, then did two other movies, "Malice" and "The American President." "Sports Night" was my first television show, "The West Wing" was the second.

Did you grow up watching a lot of sitcoms?
I grew up watching all of the sitcoms. But it turns out I can't really write them. What I write is something else.

Were you a sports fan (or a sports show fan) before "Sports Night"?
No, I wasn't a big sports fan growing up. You know, I knew a little, just enough to get by in conversation. It was really ESPN's "SportsCenter" that turned me into a sports fan. But it wasn't so much sports that hooked me, it was that watching the show, you kind of think, "Gee, that would be a fun place to work. I'd make good friends, I'd meet my girlfriend there, this seems hip, this seems fun." So as a writer, that's kind of your cue to say, "Maybe I'd like to make up my own world behind the scenes there."

You've now created a critically acclaimed show which was cancelled ("Sports Night") and one of the best and most popular shows on television ("The West Wing").
The two experiences are actually more similar than you might think. "Sports Night" was an incredibly rewarding experience. We would have liked to have made more, but we made forty-five episodes that we're incredibly proud of, so I'm happy that Comedy Central is going to be showing them now. I got to work with people that I loved, and we had a great time. Maybe because, you know, I have a playwright's mindset, and plays close, and, you know, "A Few Good Men" was a hit on Broadway and ran six months less than "Sports Night" did. So, I don't feel burned at all by "Sports Night." It was really a gratifying experience. Yes, it's better to be a top-ten show and have a network that's fully behind you, yes, that's a lot better. But I wouldn't change the "Sports Night" experience for anything.

What did you learn from making "Sports Night?" What would you do differently? Did any of these lessons rub off onto "The West Wing?"
You know, writing a TV series is, in a lot of ways, very different from writing a movie or a play. When I'm writing a play or a movie, I take two years to do it. When I'm done, we make it, take a curtain call, there's milk and cookies, you take a little while, and when you think of something, you write a new thing. And with series television, there's an episode that's got a script that has to be written; you're writing every day; and as soon as you turn in the script, you feel happy for about a minute, and then you realize all that means is that you haven't started the next one yet. And you have no ideas for the next one. It was nice to be able to start with half-hour before going to hour.

Can you talk about writing a half-hour format show ("Sports Night") versus an hour format show ("The West Wing")? Sometimes "Sports Night" seems to beg to be a full hour long.
Other than one being twice as long as the other, which isn't insignificant... well, at first I felt limited, because I tend to write very long anyway, and you know, the first drafts of the things that I've written have been much longer than even what's made it onto the screen, which has been pretty long, and I thought, "My God, a half-hour show is twenty-one-and-a-half minutes long. I can't set my margins in twenty-one-and-a-half minutes. How can I possibly tell a story in twenty-one-and-a-half minutes?

I was also concerned about the limitations on language and content. In "Sports Night", the first thing that you have to do is sell the reality of it, that these really are people in New York, at a national cable tv sports show. There have been plenty of television shows about television shows - "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" is the best of them. The success or failure of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" did not depend on our actually believing that that's how the 6 o'clock news is done - that there are three people who work there. There's a weather guy, there's Murray, and there's Lou, you know. Nor did the success or failure of "Murphy Brown" depend on our thinking that there are five people doing "Sixty Minutes" every week and that they're meeting around a linoleum table by the elevator, near the lobby - it's a comedy set; that's how they have to do that show. The success or failure of "Sports Night" - because we weren't just going to be doing jokes on "Sports Night" - because it wasn't going to be vaudeville - depended on what we had to first sell .. this really is what we're saying it is - and then we can yuk it up all we want, and we can also do stories about Natalie being assaulted in the locker room, and Jeremy's father having an affair - you know that kind of sober story.

I guess my point is this: because of the particular nature of "Sports Night" there were writing chores you had to attend to before you could start writing the jokes, which took up more space. But I think the Comedy Central audience is going to see that from the beginning; we start out with ABC doing everything they can - and part of what people like about half hour television is that it is comforting, it feels the same. It can be on in your living room, your kitchen and you're not really paying attention, but the sound of it is soothing. The look of it is all the same; it's three walls and a door. There's no knocking on the doors; people say their lines and they cross and they go away.

"Sports Night" was not that - and ABC needed to convince people that it wasn't anything to be afraid of, that it was just like "The Drew Carey Show" and so stuck a laugh track on it... and the Comedy Central audience is going to see from that first episode that the laugh track gets dialed down and down and down until at the end of the first season, when I would barely "laugh" the show at all. Maybe three places tops, and only at times when six or seven people on the crew couldn't contain their laughter. And then at the second season, there's no laugh track at all. So we got permission to stop shooting it in front of an audience.

ABC wanted a sitcom flavor; they wanted to create a comedy block. You start yourself off with "Dharma and Greg," and it just wasn't going to fit in that peg. You know, the struggle was us saying, "Let us do what the show is and let it succeed or fail based on what it is, and not make it try to be something else."

Can you talk about Thomas Schlamme and his contribution as an Executive Producer and Director?
Tommy Schlamme's contribution is equal to mine. I don't want it to seem like he contributed 20% or something. It's absolutely equal to mine - on both "Sports Night" and "The West Wing".

There was a very well known, much awarded and justifiably awarded television director, probably the most well-known television director. ABC wanted him to direct the pilot and I met with him and clearly his instinct was also, "Well this is great, but it needs to be more like a sitcom. These two guys, these two anchors - one of them needs to be the neat guy, the other one needs to be the sloppy guy. One a gay guy, one a straight guy; one the fat guy, one the thin guy. It's got to be like that. And I said, "God, I don't know anything, I'm not in television. You're an incredible success and I'm sure you're right, but I'm not going to do that." And the network got very upset with me, that I had sent him packing.

The next day a meeting had been set up with Tommy, who I'd never met but whose work I knew. He'd directed a couple of features, he'd directed plenty of half hour television, but he was also one of the hands responsible for "The Larry Sanders Show" and the look and feel of "Larry Sanders," which I love - which everybody loves. But I was scared the day before by the network, and I didn't want to send Tommy packing, and this other director had really put this bug in my ear, so my first question to Tommy was, "Listen, Tommy, if you were to direct this pilot, it's an unusual half-hour, what touchstones, what comfort zones would you put in this show to make people feel like, hey this is just a regular half-hour, like other half-hours?" He replied, "None - I want to do the one that you wrote."

So not only was he hired right away but I fell in love with him right away. And right after he directed the pilot and the show was picked up, I asked him to stay on as an Executive Producer of the show, not only direct as many of the episodes as he could but also take over many if not most of the non-writing chores on the show. So that partnership was born. Tommy, in addition to really creating the look of both shows, does the heavy lifting as a producer, is the one working with all of the directors who come in when he's not directing, is the person talking to me about the script as soon as I turn it in. He was the one making design decisions, casting decisions, and he's in all the money meetings that I would not be in or would not be capable of contributing in. We've been working together ever since.

Last year was the overlap year, when we were doing "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" at the same time, and that was difficult to say the least. There was no way it would have been attemptable without Tommy, without my knowing that wherever I wasn't, Tommy was going to be there.

Can you talk about the cast?
It's a great cast. Felicity Huffman is one of those people I would hope to work with for the rest of my life. I'm nuts about her. I think we all felt incredibly lucky to be able to work with Robert Guillaume for two years. I think it scared the hell out of us when Robert had his stroke in the middle of the first season of the show. After six or eight weeks, he came back and did the season finale, and did the entire second season recovering from a severe stroke. This is a man who has been working as an actor for half a century, a wonderful, beautiful man and a fantastic actor, and we were all so lucky to work with him. Josh Malina is one of my oldest friends and has been in every single thing I've written ... "A Few Good Men" on Broadway, "Malice," "American President" ... I wrote the role of Jeremy in "Sports Night" for him. Sabrina Lloyd is a very sweet actress, Peter Krause and Josh Charles are great, wonderful cast. I miss them all.

How did the specific actors influence their characters, and vice versa?
They didn't have anything to do with their characters. I don't quite work that way. I write the script, I listen at the table read for things, I talk to the director, an actor will come to me at rehearsal and ask to talk to me about this moment: "What does it mean?" Or, "It would help me out if I could say something like this." And I'll say yes or no. Unless the actor is a really good writer, in which case I would say, "Give me a week off and write the script yourself."

What informed your ability to create such strong female characters for "Sports Night"?
I'm the son of a strong woman, the brother of one, the husband of one. Three weeks ago, I became the father of one. I think that's probably the biggest reason why that would happen.

What happened when Robert Guillaume had his stroke?
When he had a stroke, Isaac had a stroke. You'll see in the second season that he had to walk with the use of a cane, his speech was slightly slurred - though not nearly as slurred as you might think, because he worked very, very hard, both in physical therapy and speech therapy. It was very important to him that he come back to work. It was a heroic effort coming back. You see in the second half of the episodes things that Tommy created on the set with these steadycam shots, where people were flying around the set - it had a lot of acreage to it, a lot of holes and hallways and newsrooms and stuff like that carved into the set. Yet we will find him [Isaac] sitting behind his desk, almost always.

What had you envisioned for the third season? Any juicy tidbits for the fans out there? What about Natalie and Jeremy? What about Casey and Dana? What about Isaac and the sale of the Network?
I had a lot of thoughts at the time, and now they all seem to have turned into "West Wing" ideas, somehow. I think we would have shown a lot more of New York; I think maybe some new characters would have been introduced.

From the credits, you seem to have written every episode. Was there a traditional "writing staff"? Please talk about the structure of your writing process.
I'm not so much a showrunner or a producer. I'm really a writer.

I like to write, that's what I signed up for. There's no reason to pay me unless I'm going to be writing; there's nothing else I can do. Basically, there was a staff, we batted around ideas together. If there was research that needed to get done, it got done. While I was writing a script, they were in the other room talking about next week's show, you know, "Let's get Aaron some ideas, some suggestions," so that as soon as the table read is over on Monday, I can go out of the room and say, "Okay, what are you guys thinking about for next week?" They'd pitch some ideas, I'd kind of pick one or two, and start talking about that. But mostly I'd just be lying on my couch in desperation.

When you look back on "Sports Night", which episode(s) are your favorites? Which characters are your favorites? Least favorites? Any bombs?
There really aren't any that I don't like. An episode called, "The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee," an episode called, "Eli's Coming." "Small Town" is a favorite of mine. A lot of episodes from the first season and I'm nuts about a bunch in the second season.

There was one episode - and only one episode - I wish I could get back. It was one early in the second season where Dana (Felicity Huffman) comes back from a restaurant without panties, without wearing underwear, and we're to get to the bottom of how that happened. It was a stupid and salacious story, the point of which was that people could get away with saying the word "panties" on television many times.

Why didn't you pursue any of the offers to revive "Sports Night"?
I pursued many of the offers - well, okay, I pursued one of the offers to revive "Sports Night" on HBO. A deal could not be made between ABC and HBO. The reason why I was interested in HBO was that I felt that HBO would give me a number of things that would be great - creative opportunities that we didn't have on a broadcast network. In other words, the full range of language and situations was going to be available to me on an episodic budget in which we could do a really good show. A network that already had a reputation for doing very good and innovative stuff, and that was getting the attention of critics and the public, and a thirteen episode season as opposed to a twenty-two episode season - in fact that would fit in nicely with the hiatus of West Wing. I would be minimizing the overlap time between the two shows and I would be doing as good a job as I possibly could on both of them. That situation did not exist at Showtime, it did not exist on TNT, it did not exist on The Animal Channel, any of the places that had said they wanted to do the show.

Then Showtime came along. They made a very generous financial offer for an additional two seasons of the show, an additional forty-four episodes. I had become less interested in the situation that Showtime was presenting in continuing the show, and said, "Well, the show's going to have to continue without me." and Showtime did not want to pursue it under those circumstances.

I was really very proud of the show, and it didn't trouble me so much that the show was never a popular hit. As I said, I liked the forty-five episodes that we did, and I didn't want it to go out in an undignified manner. I didn't want to be doing the show on The Cooking Channel; I just wanted it to live as it was.

How does it feel to have the show re-run on Comedy Central?
I LOVE it airing on Comedy Central. Comedy Central is absolutely where it belongs. And the irony is that it's going to be up against the number one show on television, Thursday nights at 10 PM; I enjoy that too.

Would you have any advice for a young writer looking to get into television?
Just keep writing. You know, write. Write for yourself. You should read everything, you should write for yourself, you should remember that particularly if you're going into film and television, you'll meet a lot of people along the way who are going to tell you the rules and the things you can't do. Those people who are telling you the rules don't know anything AT ALL, and you shouldn't under any circumstances listen to them.

Posted by Ryo at January 1, 2001 02:59 PM