Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The long back story of Aaron Sorkin, West Wing, Televisionwithoutpity and the "U.S. Poet Laureate" episode

Note added 10/16/2010: I originally wrote this post back in 2006. It remains the most read post on this blog, often linked to when someone writes about Aaron Sorkin’s relationship to the internet or to his fans. I’m happy it’s become a part of his permanent history. Although most of it remains in the tone originally written I have tried to clean it up and make it more understandable to anyone who has never come across Televisionwithoutpity.com especially before it was sold to Bravo.

Note: For a clearer version of events, you can also see the timeline I drew up.

I spent a lot of time on televisionwithoutpity.com. In fact I've been a member since July 2000. For those who didn’t know, TelevisionwithoutPity was a website created by people who wanted a place to write recaps about television (snarky recaps) and also host message boards. Its motto was “Spare the Snark and Spoil the Network.” It’s since been sold to Bravo and had greatly changed in tone, but back in 2000 it was the best website for television commentary and for those who wanted to communicate with watchers of ANY tv show out there. So I wanted to "preserve" for posterity a backstory to the TV show The West Wing and creator Aaron Sorkin's relationship to that website in the show's first three years. Televisionwithoutpity is usually abbreviated to TwoP by fans.

So if you're watched The West Wing in the third season there was an episode where Laura Dern plays...you guessed it, a U.S. Poet Laureate. The plot of this episode, which you can read a full recap here, is basically about the new U.S. Poet Laureate wants to use a special dinner in her honor to berate the fictional president about his stance on the landmine treaty. Toby, who has a crush on her, has to convince her *not* to make such an embarrassing statement (embarrassing for the president. I think he really oversells how "embarrassing" it would be to her).

It's not bad little episode. Certainly well acted. But then there's this little "B" plot which involved Josh Lyman, Donna Moss and a certain "fan" website.

Now you might have watched this episode and known nothing about Televisionwithoutpity (TwoP) and the somewhat fractious relationship it had with Aaron Sorkin. It's a bit like looking at a Goya painting and knowing nothing about his relationship to the Napoleonic War. You can appreciate the "art" without knowing the backstory.

But for those of you who want to know from someone who was posting around this funny little website back in 2000-01, here's where that "Lemonlymon.com" subplot comes from.

First Season, Sorkin as "Benjamin"

Back in the first season of West Wing, Aaron Sorkin and Rob Lowe used to post on the TwoP West Wing boards. Sorkin posted as "Benjamin" which is his middle name. I never actually saw the Rob Lowe's posts but other posters said he that Rob Lowe posted under the name "Sam Seaborn." Lowe didn’t post much. Just “thanked people, jokingly complained that we were too obsessed with his hair.”

As to the nature of Sorkin's posts...they were pretty friendly but not too frequent. Pretty much after “Benjamin” (Sorkin) posted, there would be a host of people asking "how do we know that's really Sorkin?" which is pretty usual for message boards. I always believed it was him because he did provide some spoiler information and occasionally added a little information about what he was thinking about particular scenes or plots. The only example of these explanations I remember distinctly is his response to a question I posed regarding "Someone's Going to the Emergency Room" where Toby confronts a bunch of WTO-type protesters. I was upset because Toby (née Sorkin) through the guise of “fiction” promotes the fallacy that "free trade stops wars." A bullshit theory. It’s completely false and a pat answer to anyone who had issues with corporate-directed trade treaties. Among everything else that is wrong with it, the assertion that nations that trade together are less likely to go to war simply isn't true. We trade a lot with both China and Saudi Arabia and our relations are still quite fraught.

On the TwoP boards I took Sorkin to task for promoting that view and he added that there was originally supposed to another line in the episode where the cop guarding Toby makes a point about how the WTO doesn't have the power to enforce child-labor laws. The line was filmed but Sorkin said it was cut because the episode has to fill only so many minutes and even seconds and can't go over that. (That's kind of how he put it..."one of the problems of working in TV is that you have only 42 minutes and 13 seconds and can't go a second over that...")

In the first season of the West Wing Aaron Sorkin was on the boards fairly regularly. Of course it was a "new" show back then, he was probably happy to talk to fans (and such intelligent ones). I don't want to overestimate the number of times he came on the boards...if he posted a total of 15 times that would surprise me. It was probably closer to 10 times.

Rick Cleveland and The Emmys

So here's where the problem starts. In September 2000 West Wing, and Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland in particular, won an Emmy for writing the season one episode "In Excelsis Deo" where a dead homeless vet had a coat of Toby's. The episode is co-credited to writer Rick Cleveland (who's best known now for his work on Six Feet Under. Text: so he’s not a hack. Remember this later when I mention Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). At the Emmys Sorkin takes the mike and basically hogs it. Cleveland didn't even get to speak.

Days before the Emmy ceremony, people connected to the show said, Mr. Cleveland sent Mr. Sorkin an e- mail message saying that, if they won, he would like to say a brief word in honor of his father because the episode was autobiographical. Mr. Cleveland's father, a Korean War veteran, had spent the last years of his life as an alcoholic living in flophouses. Mr. Cleveland had lost touch with his father when he was 13. After his father's death, Mr. Cleveland had found that his father had numerous war decorations and sought to bury him in Arlington National Cemetery.

At the Emmy Awards, Mr. Cleveland was not given the opportunity to say a word by Mr. Sorkin. In fact, Mr. Sorkin conspicuously ignored him onstage. Mr. Sorkin said today that he forgot to thank Mr. Cleveland, just as he forgot to thank his wife.

But in an article for the Writers Guild magazine after the Emmy awards, Mr. Cleveland discussed the Emmys and chided Mr. Sorkin. "You might not remember me from that night," Mr. Cleveland wrote. "I was the guy wearing the little wire- framed glasses, standing directly behind Aaron Sorkin. I had a dumbfounded smirk on my face, and I imagine I must have looked like a member of Sorkin's security detail. When he was done speaking, he kind of ushered me offstage with him, and, dumbly, I followed."

Mr. Cleveland termed the Emmy episode "somewhat humiliating." Mr. Cleveland is now a writer on the HBO series "Six Feet Under."

Such churlish behavior didn't go unnoticed on the TwoP boards. We commented on it. During a period when there were news reports about non-Sorkin West Wing writers getting stiffed of their pay raises some TwoP posters, such as mjforty took Sorkin, as the Executive Producer, personally to task for the situation of his other writers.

"I'm extremely disappointed in the producers of this show. And I think that Aaron Sorkin is getting off a little too lightly here." -- mjforty posted.

Sorkin posted a reply which I have posted here thanks to ww_renaissance. You can now read for yourself the full text of Aaron Sorkin's exchange with Rick Cleveland on Twop. She has more on her site. All typos are in the original.

mijorty[sic], You got it wrong. It's understandable, but you got it wrong. On most TV staffs, stories are pitched, broken and outlined by a group, then assigned to the various writers on the staff, then polished by the show runner. That's not the way it works here. I write the scripts with the enormous help of a staff that provides research and kicks ideas around with me as well. It's like a new play being written every week. They work really hard and do a great job and they're all going to write their own scripts one day, so by way of a gratuity, I give them each a Story by credit on a rotating basis. That credit comes with money.

That said, they're paid as if they were writing scripts (and some of them have producer titles as well--simply based on what they were getting at their last job.) We're under a tremendous budget crunch here. I know it seems, with the success of the show, like we should have all the money in the world, but it doesn't work like that. People were let go in all departments; grips, gaffers, props, hair and make-up, set dressing, post-production ... And the cases of a few writers (whom I'm very fond of) their contracts called for them to get bumps which would have been very difficult to justify given their job descriptions. Their contracts also give us the option to not pick up their option, which Tommy, John and I didn't want to do given their loyal service to the show and our personal friendships with them. So we asked them if they'd be willing to stay on at their current salaries, supplemented by the money they'd get from story credits. In no way a violation of the Writers' Guild contract, in spirit or otherwise. John, I assure you, would never do that.

The two who left are both gainfully employed on other shows. In fact there was a bidding war over their services. Those who stayed seem very happy they did.

All of this was explained by any number of people to Bernie Weinraub at the New York Times. Bernie Weinraub, it would seem, is very casual about the truth.

Finally, on a vain and selfish note: In the first season, I was doing both The West Wing and Sports Night at the same time and I wanted to try seeing if The West Wing could run like a normal TV show. I gave a staffer named Rick Cleveland a script assignment. He wrote a script called "A White House Christmas" wherein the First Lady's cat trips a Secret Service alarm. I can't much else except mention was made of a business card found in an old coat of Toby's that he'd donated to Good Will. I threw out Rick's script and wrote "In Excelces Deo." Because Rick had worked for months on his, I gave him, rather than a Story by credit, a co-written by credit and put his name ahead of mine. For my script, he received a Humanitas nomination, an Emmy Award and a Writers' Guild Award. Every Emmy nominee gets a letter from Don Mischer, the producer of the telecast, very clearly saying that only one person is allowed to speak when accepting. After that person is done, the orchestra will play you off. Rick could'ce done the St. Crispin's Day speech that night for I cared. It wasn't my call.

This, too, was explained to Bernie.

At the end of the first season, Rick was fired. Not by me and for economic reasons. It was by John Wells and it was for lack of performance. He was then hired by Gideon's Crossing, where he was fired by Paul Attanassio for the same reason. - Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin
June 26, 2001

Classy, eh? (you can read the full response from Cleveland about Sorkin’s post on TwoP and Sorkin’s apology at the bottom of this post or on ww_renaissance.)

Now I just have to say, I hate Mickey Kaus of Slate. Especially since he uses the line of reasoning "How weird is it that a big celebrity macher like Sorkin bothers to defend himself (and attack others) on what is basically a fan site?" It's not “basically” a fan site nor was it only devoted to West Wing. And Sorkin posted before this incident as I explained. But Kaus seems to think that Aaron Sorkin was demeaning himself by dwelling with us posters, something you might notice is a theme of the LemonLymon plot. But I’m including this link because Kaus does have a fairly decent rundown of the event and some of its meaning at that time. But the basic point is that Sorkin thought he could comment on the internet where no one was looking. I think you can see the beginnings of his curmudgeonly attitude about the internet starting right here. So to everyone: Sorkin loved the internet before he figured out it was a printing press and not a telephone with conference calling abilities (with a mute button).

So long story short, "Benjamin" née Sorkin comes onto the TwoP boards and basically disses Cleveland's writing ability. He implied that he had to throw out most of Cleveland's script because it was horrible ("he had a subplot about a cat" as if you can imagine was the subtext), and that he "gave" Cleveland co-writing credit only out of some kind of goodness of his heart. Hmmm, wonder what would happen if Rick Cleveland found out he felt that way?

Also the issue of writing credits didn’t come out of nowhere. Up to about season 4 nearly all the scripts were credited either solely or partially to Sorkin. I think by season 2 there was already some grumbling that Sorkin was both a control freak and an egotist who refused to acknowledge the work the other writers contributed. All the writing genius had to be his, even if, like most shows, it’s collaboration (also read the comments below, supposedly from a “tv writer.”)

Who knows what the real truth is...but I definitely recall that TwoP co-founder Wing Chun came on the WW boards and posted that its not *Sorkin's* decision to dole out writing credits on a whim. The Writer's Guild (which I believe is the correct union) has very strict rules about assigning writing credits and no one should take Aaron Sorkin at his word that he just "gives" co-writing credits by way of a “gratuity” to staff writers. It’s in union contracts so if someone is co-credited it means something very specific.

Anyway Rick Cleveland (who only posts twice) comes on the board as himself (His user name was "Rick Cleveland") and basically defends his co-credit on writing "In Excelsis Deo." He specifically said the bit about the homeless-vet-with-coat story actually happened to his dad. So it was more than just a subplot with a cat he contributed. The story was actually his, with whatever Aaron Sorkin polished and added.

Around this time the New York Post gets wind of Sorkin's posting on what they call a "West Wing fan board" and how he was dissing writer Rick Cleveland. The Post published a little bit article about it. (This was long-held confirmation for some that Benjamin was indeed Sorkin because he confirmed it for the Post).

I will say that the Post and the few subsequent media outlets that commented on this incident really took the line that Sorkin was "demeaning" himself by posting insults on a fan board about one of his writers which why I see Donna's/C.J. reactions to Josh's fumblings on the Lemonlymon board as an insult. Because it’s essentially the New York Post's line of reasoning "Why is writer Aaron Sorkin hanging out on a fan site [read: hoi polloi] insulting his writers?" If you want another good example of that attitude check out deborah's review of a long-ago Talk magazine article about this entire incident.

In any case I feel the C.J./Josh scene is probably a mini-recreation of what happened to Sorkin when the New York Post revealed his postings. Both Sorkin and Cleveland show up on the boards one more time to patch things up. Sorkin says he's sorry, says Six Feet Under is a great show. Cleveland accepts his apology. Sorkin also says basically what C.J. says to Josh: that they're not "allowing" him to post anymore and they're monitoring his computer so he won't be on anymore.

That Really Bad 3rd Season of West Wing

Time passes. The third season happens. Here's where everyone's free to differ but I really think the third season is where the "fans" (or just the TwoP posters) lost some of the love for the show. Recall that 9/11 happened, Sorkin got busted for drug use and also got a divorce. So it wasn't a great transition from seasons 2 to 3. Also season 3 started off with that excretable episode "Isaac and Ishmael" which deborah the TwoP recapper really hated (it’s not like she was the only one). The other thing I remember about that time period is this is where the "anti-female sexism" threads really took off. I think there was at least five incarnations of the thread because the board moderators had to keep locking them they got so heated. So anyway, I'm just laying the groundwork that the relationship between the TwoP recappers and even many of the posters had changed greatly from the happy worship of seasons 1 & 2 to season 3. TwoP posters and also deborah the recapper were a lot more critical of the show Sorkin was putting out.

So one day out of the blue Aaron Sorkin (again as “Benjamin”) pops back on the TwoP boards. He makes a joke that they are changing his computer and so the locks are temporarily off but they will be back on in a "few hours." He basically spends the post thanking people who are happy with his work and saying to those who don't like it "well there are other things on TV to watch." He specifically says of deborah "She doesn't seem to like the show very much so I don't know why she watches." (Which Wing Chun, a Twop founder, pipes up saying "she watches because we pay her to do so," and deborah agrees saying..."if I wasn't being paid to recap...")

I think Sorkin posts about twice in this reappearance. The last post saying:
I and everyone else here are, honestly, thrilled that there are these fan sites where strangers get together and talk about the show and like the show/don't like the show (I’d prefer if you liked the show) but you ought to disabuse yourselves of the notion that what we do is debate a point and then declare a winner. We're just telling our little stories and doing our lame jokes. And hoping you'll keep tuning in.
Those of you who have watched the episode can probably recognize the sentiment expressed is pretty much what he had Laura Dern's character (who was the U.S. Poet Laureate) say about her own poetry! But there's a few things really wrong with having that character say such a sentiment and for Sorkin himself to say it. Consider that Sorkin is talking politics on his show and using real world examples. His characters aren't having discussions about nothing. Fiction matters. Rightly or wrongly people learn from fictional TV shows. (And I say this as someone who invested $60,000 to earn a master’s degree studying The Daily Show). This is why some of us posters felt strongly about how he treated real world subjects, such as muslims and the Middle East. It's the very reason cultural critics talk about TV shows and movies that deal with real problems. Because people learn about the world from what is reflected in TV, even moreso about obscure or slightly known political events. (How much does the average person really know about the landmine treaty -- a real issue but badly disguised-- discussed in the episode.) But when Sorkin later put that line into the mouth of a character... Well I think Shack's recap from TwoP made the case of what's really wrong than I can:
I want to give this whole episode an F based just on Tabatha's speech. The fact that I don't, I guess, is proof that I'm still willing to give Aaron Sorkin more leeway than I am others. I remember Sorkin making that comment about artists before, and it took putting it into the mouth of somebody who was supposed to be America's most influential poet before I realized how awful and wrong it is. A person who cares only about captivating his audience isn't an artist at all -- he's an entertainer. The truth is the foundation of every artist's work. An artist captivates his audience in the way he interprets the truth, even as he bends our perceptions of it to include impossible, supernatural elements, even as he sets it to music, even as he turns it inside out, paints it with the perspectives all out of kilter, and covers it in elephant poo -- even as he denies that there is even such a thing as truth. All the dead artists in the world are collectively spinning in their graves at the suggestion that, like Sorkin, they were all just telling their "little stories." Those little stories, and paintings, and plays, and symphonies, and poems, and yes, television shows have shaped every single culture on this planet, and in some cases, are all we have left of them. If Sorkin is afraid to be a part of that because he's afraid of getting it wrong, or afraid that people won't understand, or if he's just afraid to -- oh, I don't know -- grow a pair and take his critical lumps just like every other artist and learn from it, then fine. We lose a talented mind with an interesting view of the truth, and he loses the right to call himself an artist. But I will not just sit here and say nothing as he tries to drag the rest of the art world down with him. Hundreds of artists throughout the world and across time have been censored, imprisoned, exiled, and executed, and it wasn't because they were simply trying to "captivate" people. It happens because, to put it in Sorkinese, sometimes an artist stands up, too. And they accept the consequences when their perceptions of the truth get them in trouble because they were wrong, or more frequently, because they were right. And finally, nothing an artist produces is as captivating as the way he shows us his truth. Nothing.

As you see, Laura Dern's final speech to Toby is a much-improved version of Sorkin's final post, there's Artic Radar which doesn't have to be Twop-centered necessarily but it probably about the total sum of Sorkin's relationship with his fans. It feels like it was written in the aftermath of U.S. Poet or his comments on the boards and the episode is Sorkin throwing his hands up saying "I can't deal with you guys, you're crazy." In "Artic Radar" there is a subplot where a White House temp worker wears a Star Trek pin. I'll quote from deborah's recap here:

Suddenly Josh hears Janice's voice saying, "I'm not obsessed, you know." Josh: "I'm sorry?" Janice: "I'm not obsessed. I'm just a fan and I care."

Josh asks her name again. She tells him. He comes into her cubicle and sits down next to her desk.

He says, "I'm a fan. I'm a sports fan, I'm a music fan and I'm a Star Trek fan. All of them. But here's what I don't do -- tell me if any of this sounds familiar: 'Let's list our ten favorite episodes. Let's list our least favorite episodes. Let's list our favorite galaxies. Let's make a chart to see how often our favourite galaxies appear in our favourite episodes. What Romulan would you most like to see coupled with a Cardassian and why? Let's spend a weekend talking about Romulans falling in love with Cardassians and then let's do it again.'"

Janice listens to all this with a slightly hurt look on her face. Josh lays down the law: "That's not being a fan. That's having a fetish. And I don't have a problem with that, except you can't bring your hobbies in to work, okay?"

So according to Sorkin all his crazy Twop fans are "fetists." Yet this is a man who wrote an entire show that was about a show where people that do nothing but talk about sports. Not play sports themselves, mind you. Talk about them.

Anyway that's the long history. Sorkin left in the fifth season, the show moves one. FYI, I don't think Sorkin's a *bad* guy (2010 perspective, now I think he’s an ass) but I do think he at least had a bit of an ego about himself and his show after winning so much praise in the first and second seasons (just read the recap to Two Cathedrals and see how much deborah used to love his work) and it must have been very hard to walk into your favorite place expecting nothing but praise and now getting criticism. Especially when you're a drug addict who was still in denial at the time. This is just the nature of online communications and I imagine if you're going to produce creative work, let alone TV shows, you have to reach some kind of internal peace about dealing with criticism specifically online criticism. As Shack said "grow a pair and take [your] critical lumps just like every other artist and learn from it."

Sorkin did return to TwoP only one other time that I know of. Around the time of John Spencer's funeral he posted something kind about fans and that he would read some TwoP posts at the funeral. (He did it through an assistant's account, but it was indeed him.) As a final note, although there never was any confirmation, many of us at TwoP thought that the discussion about feminism in "Night Five" was also a direct rebuttal to the "Anti-woman Sexism" threads on TwoP. I've forgotten about the timing of it, but there was some way to connect the discussion on the boards, Sorkin's appearences + the Rick Cleveland episode and see it as a written rebuke to our discussions about the show. (Later the threads got even more heated after the show, but that's to be expected). Of course TwoP wasn't the only critics making the connections between "Sexism + Aaron Sorkin" on the West Wing at the time so it didn't have to be about TwoP specifically. Collectively these episodes do remind me of the movie "Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back" where their characters go across the country beating up people to wrote pissy message boards posts about them. This probably a good reason WHY people who write TV shows shouldn't come to TV message boards if they can't distance themselves from it (both the good and the bad).

UPDATE: I've essentially created a different version of these events, expanded a bit you might say, with a timeline. In the meantime I want to quote mjforty's post in the U.S. Poet thread because her memory is good and she was around during that period as well.


This is my problem with the lemonlyman.com plotline. It misrepresents what happened and actually makes Josh (Sorkin) look better than he should. There were two separate Sorkin blow-ups on these boards. The first one where he came in and attacked Rick Cleveland and the second one where he came in and attacked deborah and other posters. It was after "Night Five" aired and there was a lot of intense discussion about the sexual harrassment storyline. It had been an ongoing complaint with some posters and we even had a thread dedicated to what some perceived as the subtle sexism on the show. Sorkin had responded to some of these complaints before he stopped posting (after the Rick Cleveland episode) and a lot of what you saw in "Night Five" was similar to our discussion. This was also the episode that had Toby declaring "They'll like us when we win." which also brought about a lot of complaints about what some perceived as Sorkin's inability to grasp the Muslim/Middle East problems. So, yeah, we were having a lively discussion and there was definitely a good portion of people who strongly disagreed with the way sexual harrassment in the workplace and the nuances of solving the problems in the Middle East had been handled.

Enter benjamin. His post, had it been posted by any other poster, would have probably gotten him banned. It suggested that one poster should probably walk away from his computer/t.v. set and get outside more. It told deborah there were hundreds of other things to do at 9:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night and perhaps she consider doing them. It took to task people who couldn't see why he was not sexist. (For the record: no one was calling Sorkin sexist, just that there were some problems with the way certain situations and certain female characters were written).

When posters came to the defense of the people Sorkin went after, he backed down, apologizing. He had never really embraced the adage of "think twice, post once." But the fact is, that first post was actually kind of nasty, in parts. So, I guess, if you're going to call someone a muu-muu wearing, chain-smoking dictator, perhaps you should portray your alter-ego as something other than a hapless fool who didn't really understand the crazy bee-hive he had wandered into. That's the part the bugs me about that storyline, how Josh/Sorkin appears to be a passive victim, when in reality, Sorkin was as responsible for the craziness that rained down upon him as anyone else.

I didn't mind him poking fun at the posters. The truth is, we all do step over the line into obsessive/crazy/anal about minutae and it's mockworthy behavior when we do. But deborah was always very respectful of Sorkin and gave him a lot of leeway when he posted, letting him break rules that no one else could so that we could have the benefit of his posts. So it made me angry when he attacked her for, as far as I could see, the fact that she wasn't gushing over the mediocrity that was Season 3.

And, as far as I know, deborah has never publically commented on how she was portrayed in that episode. She didn't recap that episode and she didn't comment on the episode when it aired. What she said to Professor Frink in the privacy of her own home, I can only guess.

UPDATE II: 8/1/07, this is one of my most popular posts and I wanted to add that, at the time I wrote it I really thought Aaron Sorkin might have learned something about not writing personal grudges into his scripts. I thought maybe he had learned to "think twice, write once," especially about something that would one day be sold on DVDs.

Boy was I wrong! In Aaron Sorkin's follow up show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, I don't think I've ever seen a network television series—not just a line or a character or even one subplot on a episode—but an entire series, more dedicated to settling personal scores.

Televisionwithoutpity has a pretty funny breakdown of all the characters on Studio 60 and who they are in real life to Sorkin. The website's recaps also spell out pretty effectively which part of Sorkin's personal history is his writing in which episode.

However I was surprised that Sorkin even seemed to dredge up the old tiff with Rick Cleveland by having a character called "Ricky Tahoe" (See Cleveland is a city and Tahoe is a city...isn't Aaron clever?) who happens to be a hack writer who isn't as talented as his boss, the Aaron Sorkin-stand in, Matt Albie.

In anycase what little I wrote about Studio 60 is here and here.

UPDATE: 11/29/07 Thanks to ww_renaissance you can now read for yourself the full text of Aaron Sorkin's exchange with Rick Cleveland on Twop. She has more on her site.

Post #1

mijorty, You got it wrong. It's understandable, but you got it wrong. On most TV staffs, stories are pitched, broken and outlined by a group, then assigned to the various writers on the staff, then polished by the show runner. That's not the way it works here. I write the scripts with the enormous help of a staff that provides research and kicks ideas around with me as well. It's like a new play being written every week. They work really hard and do a great job and they're all going to write their own scripts one day, so by way of a gratuity, I give them each a Story by credit on a rotating basis. That credit comes with money.

That said, they're paid as if they were writing scripts (and some of them have producer titles as well--simply based on what they were getting at their last job.) We're under a tremendous budget crunch here. I know it seems, with the success of the show, like we should have all the money in the world, but it doesn't work like that. People were let go in all departments; grips, gaffers, props, hair and make-up, set dressing, post-production ... And the cases of a few writers (whom I'm very fond of) their contracts called for them to get bumps which would have been very difficult to justify given their job descriptions. Their contracts also give us the option to not pick up their option, which Tommy, John and I didn't want to do given their loyal service to the show and our personal friendships with them. So we asked them if they'd be willing to stay on at their current salaries, supplemented by the money they'd get from story credits. In no way a violation of the Writers' Guild contract, in spirit or otherwise. John, I assure you, would never do that.

The two who left are both gainfully employed on other shows. In fact there was a bidding war over their services. Those who stayed seem very happy they did.

All of this was explained by any number of people to Bernie Weinraub at the New York Times. Bernie Weinraub, it would seem, is very casual about the truth.

Finally, on a vain and selfish note: In the first season, I was doing both The West Wing and Sports Night at the same time and I wanted to try seeing if The West Wing could run like a normal TV show. I gave a staffer named Rick Cleveland a script assignment. He wrote a script called "A White House Christmas" wherein the First Lady's cat trips a Secret Service alarm. I can't much else except mention was made of a business card found in an old coat of Toby's that he'd donated to Good Will. I threw out Rick's script and wrote "In Excelces Deo." Because Rick had worked for months on his, I gave him, rather than a Story by credit, a co-written by credit and put his name ahead of mine. For my script, he received a Humanitas nomination, an Emmy Award and a Writers' Guild Award. Every Emmy nominee gets a letter from Don Mischer, the producer of the telecast, very clearly saying that only one person is allowed to speak when accepting. After that person is done, the orchestra will play you off. Rick could'ce done the St. Crispin's Day speech that night for I cared. It wasn't my call.

This, too, was explained to Bernie.

At the end of the first season, Rick was fired. Not by me and for economic reasons. It was by John Wells and it was for lack of performance. He was then hired by Gideon's Crossing, where he was fired by Paul Attanassio for the same reason. - Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin
June 26, 2001

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Post #2

Hey, Gang. Rick Cleveland here. First off, for anyone who's interested, my draft of the script -- I wrote three -- is available in the WGA archive. I'm pretty sure anyone who stops by can read it -- if not I'd be glad to make it available. It's called "A White House Christmas." Benjamin got that much right. The "A" story is mine -- not just the idea -- all the way down to the name of the homeless Korean War veteran, Walter Huffnagel. Even Toby's visit to his brother, although I didn't make him retarded -- Aaron did. Other stuff is also mine -- the new millennium stuff in the teaser, as well as the stuff about CJ's secret service nickname -- which was my wife's idea, yes. Aaron's a great writer, and he did a great job rewriting the script -- but he didn't write it alone. And he didn't "give" me a Written by credit -- and what galled me on Emmy night wasn't that he didn't let me speak -- it was that he ignored me completely. For the record, the writing credit on the script was indeed arbitrated by the WGA -- they decided my work warranted a Co-Writer credit on the teleplay. Also, for the record, every script written the show's first year by staff members was automatically submitted for arbitration -- at the request of John Wells -- as a measure of protection for us -- to keep Aaron from poaching or cannibalizing scripts to the point where he wouldn't have to give credit where credit was/is due. As for being fired for lack of performance, that's also not true -- at least as far as I know. The fact that Aaron, John and Tommy submitted the script that I co-wrote for Emmy, Humanitas and WGA Award consideration validates my contribution to the show -- at least I'd like to think it does. Also, I didn't get fired off "Gideon's Crossing." In closing, I'm very proud to inform you all that I'm currently working on "Six Feet Under." It's a great show, you should check it out. - Rick Cleveland

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Rick Cleveland
July 6, 2001

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Post #3

Boy, I'd kinda like to end this. So Rick? If you're out there...?

I and everyone else appreciate the contribution you made to the episode. It was crucial. I was dead wrong to imply otherwise. I deeply regret not having thanked you that night. It was nothing more than nerves. As for your not being allowed to speak, I'm sorry about that too and I wish you'd been able to, but that wasn't my call, it was the decision of Don Mischer. I thanked those involved with the pilot (really not just the pilot, but the production of the series in general) because I wasn't just the co-writer of that episode, I was also the creator and executive producer of the series, and I had no way of knowing if we'd be back up there again that night.

You wrote what I felt was an unduly nasty piece in the Writers' Guild magazine, and after I read it, I called you and I apologized. I then made arrangements for you not only to speak when accepting the Writers' Guild Award, but for you to have the entire stage to yourself that night.

The whole unfortunate incident was dragged out once again when Bernie Weinraub wrote his piece in the New York Times. I reacted too quickly to what I felt was an egregiously unfair characterization of the way writers are treated on The West Wing. Further, I'm remarkably and stupidly naive about the internet, and never imagined my response to a poster would be picked up by Slate or anyone else. The episode we did together remains one of the proudest moments of this series and of my career. I enjoyed every day of the year we worked together.

Six Feet Under is a wonderful show, I'm sure you're proud of it. I wish you nothing less than what you deserve: Health, Happiness and another Emmy.

Aaron Sorkin

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin
July 8, 2001
[Sidenote, TwoP used to be called MightyBigTV]
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Post #4

Aaron,

Thank you for being such a mensch about putting what I hope will be a dignified end to this mess. The year I spent working with you on the show -- and on our episode -- remains one of the proudest experiences of my career as well. And just so you know, I never spoke with Weinraub or anyone else at the Times, nor would I have felt the need to. I hope you guys sweep the Emmy Awards once again this year. And best of luck with the third season...

Best wishes,
Rick C. - Rick Cleveland

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Rick Cleveland
July 8, 2001

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is mjforty. I just wanted to say, for the record, that Rob Lowe posted under the name "Sam Seaborn." And, no, he didn't post anything all that useful. He just thanked people, jokingly complained that we were too obsessed with his hair. He also seemed pretty excited about Season 3 and what was going to happen with his character. Which always made me think there were verbal promises made to him that never came about.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, however it irks me that you are mixing up your with you're, Sars would not be pleased, lol.

Anonymous said...

I'm a huge Sorkin-nut but I really enjoyed this discussion. It was enlightening and somehow revealed Sorkin, if not de-mystified him a little.

Sonia said...

Its really an interesting blog as the show is. I really love this show due to its storyline, cast & plot. If you wanna watch West Wing TV Show then come here and get it now. And from here you can also get other popular shows.

Goodlegs said...

I read your post and I just have to say... nothing.

At least that's what I ought to do. Just shake my head at the enormous disconnect viewers -- such as yourself -- have with the process by which the words come out of the mouths of the performers on your magic picture radios.

I don't blame you, really. How could you know? But as a television writer I just wish you guys would stop trying to constantly INFORM each other with what you don't know.

Writer's rooms are highly misunderstood places, often, even by network and studio executives. I'm sure that "mjforty" will attest that a writer's room is unique to every show and that the process by which an episode is built is never based in a black and white world of meritocracy. Not ever. I feel certain that "mjforty" has seen his name appear after the credit "WRITTEN BY" on episodes he did not pen all by himself, and I'm sure he's seen entire scenes in episodes where he's gone uncredited that he wrote verbatim. I also bet that if "mjforty" is honest, he will tell you that it has occurred on every show he's written for long after Sorkin.

How do I know that? Because it is a simple untold fact.

Yes, I've written for Sorkin. I've also written for three other prime time television shows. The writer's room is a place where writers share personal experiences and private intelligence from their real lives from which fictitious stories are often born. And so that all writers can feel safe to do so in all the rooms, the writer's room is commonly shrouded in loyal secrecy by tacit understanding.

That's really, really important so I'm gonna say it again. Writers maintain a "what's said in the room, stays in the room" posture so that they and other writers can feel safe to open up their veins and let your entertainment draw directly from their blood. If we didn't, you'd notice a lot of bizarrely unrealistic storytelling boring you into your sofas each night.

With that said, let me say this: "mjforty" has not yet CREATED a show. For this reason, "mjforty" does not get the ultimate decision as to what version of a script is shot. PERIOD. But with that lack of power he gets two awfully nice advantages: he gets to leave his unheralded, unloved pitches and personal testimony on the floor of that room, go home every night and say to himself silently "It's not MY show." That, and he is paid hand over fist like you would not believe -- then, and forever into the future.

For what it's worth.

(I know, right? Some people can complain about anything...)

NewsCat said...

Goodlegs I don't know if you will ever return to this post but your comment was almost completely incoherant. And for the record, mjforty is a woman and not a television writer.

Goodlegs said...

I misread that "mjforty" was Rick Cleveland's username for TWOP. Sorry for any confusion.

Other than that, my comment reads as it was intended.

NewsCat said...

Well that does clear up the point you are making. Basically until you create a show of your own, shut up you writers!

Goodlegs said...

No. Other than the mjforty error, my comment reads as it was intended.

Maybe don't surmise it for me. I can do my own writing.

NewsCat said...

Goodlegs have YOU started a blog? When you start your own blog you can summerize however the hell you want.

Goodlegs said...

Jesus you're dumb.

Carry on.

Arlo J. Wiley said...

I would just like to say that this is a very interesting post, that Goodlegs' comment is actually stupid even if he is a TV writer, and that "summarize" is the correct spelling ("surmise" is a totally different word, Mr. TV Writer).

Anonymous said...

I've recently been catching up on The West Wing after all these years (I know, right?) and just saw U.S. Poet Laureate last night, although I've been aware of the whole Sorkin - TWOP kerfluffle for years now (I've been lurking off and on at TWOP since it was MBTV).

Leaving the whole Sorkin vs Cleveland pettiness out of it, it was a great episode, very funny, and Sorkin was entirely accurate in his portrayal of Wing Chun, the mods and many of the posters. That place has always been a den of craziness, with arbitrary, petty, heavy-handed moderation. The posters who do last while being active on the site have to subscribe to whatever hive mentality that the owners and mods promote because as we all know, deviation from TWOP group-think most often results in immediate banning.

Not to state the obvious, but in all fairness, Sorkin also held out his own neuroses for public consumption too, soundly mocking himself for caring what a cult-like website thinks of him, and his inability to walk away from their commentary.

So yeah, essentially, I found it bitingly accurate, and very, very funny. And after all these years, TWOP is probably worse than it ever has been. Not sure how Bravo can stand by while their website is run in such a dictatorial manner, having their name attached to it. Ah well. The site has barely been worth visiting for several years now.

Anonymous said...

Goodlegs--dude, are you angry. Why are you taking a blog so personally? This isn't Entertainment Weekly, it's one person's opinion. Why do you care so much? If you dialed back the adolescent condescension and the formatting, you might actually make your point.

Anon at July 5--OH yeah. TWoP's side of this story was interesting to be sure, and Sorkin kind of punked himself (I can't stand thin-skinned public figures, drives me crazy), but you said it best with "hive mentality." The snarkier-than-thou self-congratulation (not for all shows, to be fair, but enough that it's repellant) combined with some really nasty moderators who encourage what amounts to personality cults--yuck.

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Tommie said...

Great post,

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The Kid In The Front Row said...

This is a very fascinating blogpost, I'd not seen it before! It's incredible how much time and effort you put in to a writer's posts on a forum (I don't mean that to sound like a swipe or a CJ-like-reaction, it's just not something I've seen before!)

Absolutely fascinating read though, thanks!

kaduzy said...

This explains so much. I read interviews with Sorkin after The Social Network came out where he expressed disdain for the internet but his reasons were left vague. Having never watched The West Wing or posted on TwoP, I don't have these points of reference to draw from but I did spend a couple of months trying to get through the fog of condescension on Studio 60 to see if there was a good show underneath it (there wasn't). The Social Network is the only thing he's done that I actually watched all the way through and enjoyed completely (The American President wasn't bad though) but his attitude doesn't seem to have changed much based on the opening scenes of that movie.

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Cherish the "Mom"ents said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cherish the "Mom"ents said...

Really interesting stuff here. As a late comer to "West Wing," but avid fan who has bathed in every episode, rinsed and repeated, I find the whole back-story so fascinating. I've never been a Laura Dern fan (just a personal thing that's lingered since "Jurassic Park" and " Wild at Heart"), but would grin and bear the episode because I loved the back story with Josh and the crazy blog people. I had no idea there was truth to the story and while it disappoints me to hear that Sorkin used the series as a platform to vent a personal vendetta, "Studio 60" was such an obvious retrospective on Sorkin from the early years through the debacle that ended his association with WW that I'm not surprised. I don't buy a lot of the comments about sexism, however. I think several of the episodes in Season 3 raised gender issues, but aside from CJ's embarrassing hypothetical challenge to WW II vets that I still have to fast forward through, I thought that "Women of Qumar" brought important arguments to light. Nancy's retort, "It's a big world, CJ. Everyone has guns and I'm doing the best that I can," followed by her somewhat defeatist posture as CJ pleaded after her, "They're beating the women, Nancy," was more of an explanation point on the complexity and sorrow of the entire situation. Juxtaposed against Josh's thinly veiled attempt to win over Amy Gardner who was magnificently played by Mary-Louise Parker and the "scary art" that adorned her offices appealed to me. Oh, and yes, I am a working mother of four children. Fortunately, I don't have much time to spend on these sites, but I found this one interesting enough to contribute to, so thanks to all for resurrecting a piece of history and contributing to the conversation.

As a post-script, I heard A.Sorkin has written a script for an HBO series (harkening back to several references on "Studio 60" concerning that network's penchant for good shows in the face of other "illiterate programming" being offered on "the big 3." I couldn't agree more and look forward to more Sorkin kvetching in prime time.

Steppy said...

Goodlegs seems to be the only one with his head on straight.

Anonymous said...

In reading through all of this, I find Sorkin to be pretty reasonable. That is, I find none of his reactions perplexing. The whole "learn to take his lumps" advice that some here gave him I do find perplexing. It almost suggests that the writer should never engage with a critic, or a critique. Just let us call it sexist, darn you. Our opinion is beyond question, while yours is obviously suspect. Every Male writer is sexist. He just is. No male writer has ever successfully escaped the inherent limitations that come from, you know, being Male your whole life. The trouble Sorkin gets into is that he writes the stuff himself. That leads to both uniquely well-executed vision and large blind spots, both of which can be solved by writing by committee. Pick your poison. Some other writing style may lead to less sexism, but I ask you: how many other fiction shows do we have to close from that even attempt to speak intelligently to politics, land mines, Islam, sexism, and the like. If you've found any, let me know. Otherwise Sorkin, whether it's SN, WW, S60, or NR, seems to be the only game in town.

Anonymous said...

And I'd add, being the only game in town is part of what leads to the elitism. So you want to set Sorkin straight? Make some show that's halfway decent that tackles half these issues half as thoroughly and, well, do better than all those halves or else Sorkin will be still feel pretty elite.

NewsCat said...

I don't reply much to this thread but I will this time. There are plenty of shows much more intelligent about their subject matter than I found The West Wing or (in 2012) The Newsroom. Yes, Sorkin name-drops many subjects, then has a character give a big speech about EXACTLY what he wants the viewer to think about this topic. He often gets both little and big details wrong about this subject. But is this "intelligent?" Is this even "entertainment?" If you want a program that shows why the author feels the way he does about a subject instead of just tells the audience, I highly recommend The Wire. As for the pointless argument that "I can't help but write sexism because I was born male," that's a bullshit argument. No feminist would ever make that argument. If someone chooses to willify encode their art with messages that put women at a lesser value than men, that's not because they were "born male." There are many shows written by men (in fact most of them are written by men) and I wouldn't claim they are all by default "sexist." What Sorkin does to his female characters is make them into strange creatures that his female viewers don't recognize as believable. They lack the humanistic qualities that he can fully invest in his male characters.

NewsCat said...

See my answer above for a response to "the only game in town." Sorkin isn't even the best show on *his network,* let alone at 10 pm on Sunday nights (that would be Breaking Bad).

Schmoker said...

The Newsroom is a goofy, haphazardly entertaining mess about issues that matter to me and which I rarely see tackled on television. But, you know, it's my goofily entertaining mess about issues that matter to me and which I rarely see tackled on television.

It's not genius. No. I'll give you that and more. I'll concede all that because I don't care if it is never great. It's tickling my funny bone enough that I don't care.

Every minute since he tried to fight a power bar enhanced Don in the first episode, I love every minute Charlie Skinner is onscreen.

And I love all the well refined lacerations of the crazy new far right. They are ridiculous only in their literacy and specificity, as bald face position taking is part and parcel in cable news.

He could be doing it a hell of a lot better, but he's at least doing it and being entertaining at it. And I sure don't want him to stop trying any time soon. I want to keep cranking out all the scripts he can.

Sometimes, be it movies or tv, he produces lightening in a bottle. Sometimes he's just entertaining as hell, but a bit all over the map. And sometimes, rarely, he's bad or biased, as everyone from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Milch has been before him.

Maybe he's a dick in real life, maybe not. I think no one would wish to be judged solely by a handful of internet postings w emade over things about which we were emotionally biased, namely our life's work.

But whether he's a dick or not is irrelevant, as he would be one of the many who created something we love. All that matters is that he deigned to walk amongst us for a while and show us he was just as human as we, with his own feet of clay, no different from ours.

And so of course we must hate him for it.

But at least he engaged truthfully, which I prefer. And he did so directly at a time when, as you all note, no one else took you seriously, not even the press who wrote about it.

He makes me laugh, so I keep watching. And while I know The Newsroom should be better, I still like it for what it actually is. Even the utter crap, which would be the internet stuff, is charming in it's naivete while at the same time being infuriating in it's presumptions.

Entertaining and infuriating? Where do I sign up?

It's not let him slide, but rather to let me slide. It's too give me the right to watch something fun and witty and articulate without feeling bad about the fact that it's reach exceeds it's grasp.

Would I rather be watching fucking Law & Order: SUV?

Yeah there are shows a lot better out there, but there aren't that many. And there are about zero shows out there trying to be what The Newsroom is.

They really are not succeeding, but I am not gonna hate them for it. Rather watch him swing and miss than not come to the plate, whether with this or anything else. Because even when he strikes out, which I don't think he's ever done entirely, he sure a lot of fun to watch swing wildly. I never feel cheated by his effort.

Anonymous said...

Newscat: Where are the shows that speak more intelligently to the array of topics Sorkin attempts to tackle? Saying Breaking Bad is better than Newsroom doesn't answer the question. How many political issues has Breaking Bad tackled and made various arguments about? No one said Sorkin writes better about Politics then Breaking Bad writes about ruthlessness. The point is if you want to watch a fiction show that is going to cover a myriad of political issues and attempt to make some sense of then, what choices are there?

Anonymous said...

On the sexist topic: OK, maybe a little flip on the topic. My point was that every male writer is sexist. Sexism doesn't alway manifest itself in offensive ways. You say Sotkin's does. Fine. My point remains that lots of people like Sorkin because his writing has a voice, a non watered down voice because he doesn't write by committee. If he wrote by committee less of his Sexism , and other blind spots, would come through. But so would less of the quality arguments he sometimes makes. No one else is making any quality arguments in TV, so again, until there is some show that can debate a topic as thoroughly as Sorkins shows, I say encourage the concept of debating and striving to be right about stuff, and when they're wrong, call them on it.