'West Wing' overseer prefers the focus be political

Aaron Sorkin is looking for a Tootsie Roll. He’s midway through a telephone interview with a reporter, and for a moment at least, his mind isn’t completely focused on the question at hand. It’s not that he’s being rude or even that he’s disinterested in the conversation.

“I’m just famished,” he says.

Sorkin doesn’t have to go far to find his sweets. As he’ll later tell the reporter, he has an entire drawer in his office devoted to satisfying all his junk food craving.

“It’s filled with probably 60 or 70 microwavable containers of spaghetti and meatballs,” he says. “There’s Good & Plenty, Tootsie Rolls, all that stuff.”

This revelation — that Sorkin clearly craves carbs — is about as personal as “The West Wing” creator is willing to get these days. His much publicized arrest last year on drug charges has convinced him that the less potential viewers know about Sorkin the man the better.

“Anytime I wrote anything this past year about drugs, it suddenly became the character unzipping themselves, and me stepping out and talking,” he says. “When people watch what I write, I want them watching what I write. I don’t want them thinking about me at the same time.”

Still, it’s hard to watch a Sorkin-penned episode of anything and not think about the scribe just a little bit.

No other television show on American television today has a linguistic style so closely associated with one man: the rapid-fire wordplay, the whirling crosstalk among characters, the soaring oratory that sometimes accompanies conversations about totally banal subject matters.

For Sorkin, each script is like a small opera, complete with “an allegro, an aria, an adante and a finale ultimo. I like all these things, but I don’t know how to write music. So this is what I do.”

Perhaps because of his background as a playwright, Sorkin approaches running “West Wing” in a different way than most exec producers. Terms like “character development,” for example, have no meaning to him.

“I think I know what ‘character development’ means, but I don’t really,” he says. “I’m interested in intention and obstacle. I don’t like to tell an audience who a character is; I want to show an audience what a character wants.”

Sorkin says it all boils down to two things: intention and obstacle. “If somebody wants something, and they want it badly, and we want it for them, and there’s an obstacle in their way and that obstacle is formidable, but they surmount it — that’s a story.

“We’ve traveled. We’ve gone from A to L. Once I know what that is, I can have fun musically with the language.”

Some writers might sound pretentious describing their work in such elaborate terms. Sorkin, however, offers up his theory on writing as matter of factly as a mechanic describing a broken carburetor — and with just as much genuine humility.

NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker hasn’t known Sorkin as long as many other NBC and Warner Bros. TV execs, though he’s quickly been impressed with the man who supplies the Peacock with its most upscale hour.

‘Irreplaceable member’

“He’s without question one of the most important people either onscreen or offscreen out of our entire lineup,” Zucker says. “He’s got a unique vision in his head and fingers that won’t quit on the typewriter. He’s the one irreplaceable member of ‘The West Wing.'”

Sorkin might reject the effusiveness of Zucker’s praise, but he probably wouldn’t argue about how much the show reflects his input. While he can’t say enough positive things about his writing staff, Sorkin makes clear his intentions to continue overseeing every line of dialogue on the show.

“I don’t know how to write a different way,” he says. “To me, writing is something you do alone. I didn’t create the show to be a corporation that will live and be run by others. I created ‘The West Wing’ because I wanted to write ‘The West Wing.'”

What of the stress and strain that comes with writing so many episodes per year?

“Not writing ‘The West Wing’ is worse than writing ‘The West Wing,'” he says, simply.

While Sorkin clearly puts his heart and soul into every episode of the show, he’s amused at critics on the right who believe “The West Wing” serves as a liberal bully pulpit for his political views. It simply isn’t so, he proclaims, and he’s got the story to prove it.

Teenage crush

“When I was 11 years old, I liked a girl in my class named Jenny Lavin,” Sorkin begins. “She was volunteering after school at the local McGovern headquarters, and I thought it would be a good idea if I did, too.

“One Saturday, they put us all in a couple of buses and they took us over to White Plains because the Nixon campaign motorcade was coming through. We were going to be holding up signs that said ‘McGovern for President.’

“So I was holding up one of these signs when a 143-year-old woman came up from behind me, grabbed the sign, whacked me over the head with it, threw it on the ground and stomped all over it.” Sorkin pauses for just a second, allowing the mental image to sink in.

“The only political agenda we have on ‘The West Wing is the slim possibility that woman might be alive — and I’m driving her out of her mind,” he says, the smile on his face evident even over the telephone.

“Even that gives way to a love for storytelling,” Sorkin continues. “We’re not trying to convince you of anything. We’re telling the same stories as ‘ER’ and ‘NYPD Blue.’

“It’s intention and obstacle,” Sorkin sums up. “It’s cowboys and Indians. It’s heroes trying to do something good.”

The TV biz

Show that first got you hooked on dramas: “I realize ‘MASH’ is regarded as a comedy but it got me hooked on dramas.”

Most compelling characters on today’s dramas: “This isn’t a drama either but it doesn’t matter. Doris Roberts’ character on ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ manages to gently sidestep cliche as an incredibly nuanced overbearing mother. Watch the episode where Robert wants to join the FBI.”

Best place to launch an innovative and realistic drama: “I’m not really sure. The inability to use adult language on broadcast TV is hampering to be sure. Mostly what I envy about cable are the 13 episodes instead of 22 and the lack of a neccesity for commercials. I don’t think the media has done a good enough job distinguishing for the public the difference between cable and regular TV.”

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