“The West Wing” debuted 20 years ago in the fall of 1999 when Bill Clinton was in office, and the Aaron Sorkin-created political drama ran for seven seasons, through the Bush administration. Looking back now, Sorkin says the storylines that seemed like a big deal at the time seem “so quaint” in 2019.
“We know we’re living in unnerving times — especially this past week has been really incredible,” Sorkin said Friday at opening night of New York PaleyFest, regarding recent events in Donald Trump’s presidency.
At PaleyFest, Sorkin handpicked the Season 2 finale to be screened before his sit-down conversation. A major storyline of the episode, titled “Two Cathedrals,” revolves around Martin Sheen’s character, the president of the United States, who is hiding the fact that he has multiple sclerosis. Sorkin watched the episode from the control room, before coming out on stage.
“I thought, watching the past couple of minutes, he’s saying, ‘I may have committed a crime so you need to investigate fully’ about what now feels like a relatively minor crime. He had a disease that affects the central nervous system and didn’t tell the voters about it. It seemed like a really big deal when I wrote it.”
But back when “The West Wing” first debuted, Sorkin thought the show wouldn’t work because politics were rarely seen on TV. “Shows about politics never work on television,” he said.
Sorkin reminded the room at the Paley Center for Media in Midtown Manhattan that network television didn’t take big swings in the late 1990s, and avoided any topic that could be seen as controversial. “This was a show where we were going to use words like ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ and we were going to talk about ideas, and people were going to feel uncomfortable with some of those ideas.”
When an audience member thanked Sorkin for teaching civics through his show, Sorkin said that civics should still be taught in school because it helps created more informed citizens who end up being “better voters,” without which, he said, politics “descend into the tribalism that we have right now.”
And when another audience member noted that rather than better voters, “we need better candidates and need to eliminate the two-party system,” Sorkin agreed, but said he believes “better voters get us better candidates.
“I think, in a democracy, how can it not ultimately be the responsibility of the voters? We’re right to point to all the people we’re pointing at right now in Washington saying, ‘This is so un-American, what’s going on,’ but when are voters going to bear some responsibility? Every four years, there’s this incredible opportunity, because most people don’t have time to do much more than to get through their day and get food on the table and take care of their kids, but every four years, we have the opportunity to hear a great debate and make great progress.”
Speaking to distractions by competitive politicians, he added, “We never hear the great debate. It’s ‘Hillary’s emails!’ It’s wasted every time, and that is so frustrating.”
Even in less contentious times in the late ’90s, Sorkin knew that he was creating idealistic characters, compared to real-life politicians. “Why not a show showing our leaders as confident as the doctors and nurses on hospital shows?” he recalled thinking at the time he created the show. “That was the intention behind ’The West Wing.’ It was always a bit of wish-fulfillment. … People have asked what would ‘The West Wing’ be like today? I like to think it would be exactly the same. I write very romantically and idealistically, but I feel romantic and idealistic about American institutions and Americans.”
He continued, “There was an off-screen character on ‘The West Wing,’ which was the American voter, who was always treated with respect.”
Here are a few more things Aaron Sorkin said about “The West Wing” at PaleyFest:
“The West Wing” was an accident
When Sorkin first started to think about “The West Wing,” he had never done TV and had no intention of working in that medium; he felt most comfortable as a playwright. (His series “Sports Night” premiered in 1998, before “The West Wing,” but Sorkin was approached to create “The West Wing” prior; the other drama just got off the ground first.) His agents asked him to meet with John Wells, who was known for “ER” and “China Beach.” The day before the meeting, Akiva Goldsman, who had not yet won the Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” came over to Sorkin’s home. The two were chatting over a cigarette, and looking at a poster of his 1995 film “The American President” in Sorkin’s office basement, when Goldman told Sorkin that he should create a project about senior staff at the White House. The next day when Sorkin met Wells, expecting a casual sit-down, he showed up and was surprised that Wells had brought along network executives and a ton of agents from CAA. Wells asked Sorkin what idea he wanted to pitch and Sorkin did not come prepared with any ideas because he never planned to do television. With his conversation with Goldsman on his mind, he blurted out, “I want to do a show about senior staff at the White House.” Sorkin says he then freaked out because he didn’t know how to write a pilot, and he expected he would never write more than a pilot because he didn’t anticipate the show to get picked up to series.
The rise of the Internet helped “The West Wing” get the green light
When the show tested in focus groups, it tested extremely well in households with an income over $75,000 and with at least one college graduate, but most importantly, the show performed well in households that had internet. This was in 1999, and Sorkin says it was very important for “dot com” companies to have a place to advertise, so when the show tested well in households with internet access, that’s why, he said, the show got picked up.
Aaron Sorkin thought Rob Lowe would never work on television
“Rob Lowe was going to throw the ensemble out of whack,” Sorkin recalled thinking when the actor came in to test for the show, because “he was a movie star.” After he came in, Sorkin says there was no way they weren’t going to cast him.
The cast wasn’t sure if the show would be a success
Janel Moloney did not quit her waitress job until Season 2. “Donna was a waitress on Sunset Blvd. all through Season 1,” Sorkin shared.
The monologue scene in “Two Cathedrals” was one of Sorkin’s favorite scenes to write
When Sheen was yelling and cursing at God in the infamous monologue scene in “Two Cathedrals,” Sorkin said he had a trick to get some choice words past the network. “If you want to get things past Standards and Practices, write it in Latin,” Sorkin laughed. “We said some words that you cannot say.”
Summer reruns were the original Netflix
In 2019, many shows give credit to Netflix for finding new viewers. Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there was a different type of catch-up model that pre-dated binging on a sreamer. “I’m very thankful for something that no longer exists: summer reruns,” Sorkin said. “It used to be that you do 22 episodes per year and they rerun them during the summer. People starting catching up in the summer. That’s when we become a hit — the summer after our first season.” Nowadays, “The West Wing” is enjoying the real Netflix effect. “There’s a new generation watching it right now. They think it’s on the air right now,” Sorkin joked.
Aaron Sorkin suffers from writer’s block
“Writer’s block is my default position,” Sorkin said. His trick to solve it? Driving around in his car and listening to music. “I’d get in my car and drive around and listen to music, and try to start an argument with myself. That’s how it usually starts,” he said. “The president of NBC sent me a messenger package, and it was a a headset. The note said, ‘I saw you in your car at a red light, and you look insane. Please always wear this headset.’”
Even Aaron Sorkin is impressed by Allison Janney’s never-ending winning streak
Speaking of “The West Wing’s” Emmy love, Sorkin said, “The cast was all nominated and they would take turns winning — except for Allison who won everything. And still does.”