Aaron Sorkin's Crack About Television

By Lisa de Moraes
Saturday, July 22, 2006; C01

PASADENA, Calif., July 21 "Television is a terribly influential part of this country, and when things that are very mean-spirited and voyeuristic go on TV, I think it's bad crack in the schoolyard," Aaron Sorkin told a couple hundred thunderstruck critics at Summer TV Press Tour 2006 at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington.

[Dramatic pause.]

"Why did I use that word? -- everything was fine!" the much-ballyhooed writer asked rhetorically while critics in the section of the ballroom known as Power-Strip Village began madly throwing the quote up on their blogs.

Sorkin, you'll recall, was allowed to enter a drug-treatment program in lieu of serving time after his arrest in 2001 at the Burbank airport for possession of cocaine and hallucinogenic mushrooms -- aka Hollywood snacks.

Speaking of crack, Sorkin's comment acted like a drug on the critics, who were stumbling toward the end of their second week on the tour -- a sort of Bataan Death March With Scrambled Eggs.

Which is why Sorkin was just wasting his breath when, a few minutes later, he offered every critic in the room a hundred bucks if they would not use the quote in coverage of the Q&A session to promote his new NBC series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." The show is a wicked send-up of an "SNL"-esque late-night series on a network that smells a lot like NBC.

Critics' high did not end there: One astute reporter asked Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, who play Aaron Sorkin and his longtime professional partner, Tommy Schlamme, on "Studio 60," to comment on the fact that their characters bear more than passing resemblance to Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme.

"It's like bad Vicodin in a schoolyard," Perry responded.

Manic blogging.

Perry, you'll remember, also entered rehab in 2001 for what his reps then called "early stages of chemical dependency," or an addiction to Vicodin after wisdom-tooth problems and injuries from a watercraft accident.

And you thought creativity was dead in Hollywood.

"Great -- thanks! I'll follow that. I've never wished I had had a drug problem," Whitford cracked.

Manic blogging.

And, just when you thought it couldn't get any trippier, Sarah Paulson, whose Harriet Hayes character on the new show is based on "West Wing-er" Kristin Chenoweth, and Amanda Peet, whose Jordan McDeere is a thinly veiled portrait of ex-NBC exec Jamie "formerly McDermott" Tarses, told critics they're not basing their characters on any living person.

(Paulson said, "I'm not basing my character on any living person"; Peet contributed, "Me, neither -- next!" Peet also can be quoted as having contributed "Me, too!" when Perry, asked why he returned to series TV so quickly after "Friends," said it was because of how good Sorkin's writing was "and how bad 'The Whole Ten Yards' was.")

Sorkin jumped in and confirmed that Peet's character had sprung from Jamie Tarses, "of whom I'm a big fan" because when she was ABC programming chief she put on his "Sports Night." Tarses is a paid consultant on the series, Sorkin added.

But he said it would be a "red herring" to examine the show "like the cover of 'Abbey Road' to see what's real and what's being done in code."

Peet became chattier when recounting for critics -- by way of sucking up to Sorkin -- how she'd insisted her manager rush over a copy of the pilot script. Sorkin lapped it up.

Then, to demonstrate what a challenge it is for her to play a really smart woman on the series, she said after reading the pilot she wasn't sure she wanted to do it. So she asked her fiance, David Benioff -- the guy who wrote the screenplay for "Troy" -- to read it. She says he told her to "follow the writing" -- yes, that old cliche.

But, just in case you think she had the corner on Stupid Pills, Sorkin said he was confident NBC would not try to censor the show, which nicks the network repeatedly in the first episode, because when NBC and CBS were in a bidding war on the project, he made the network chiefs give the pilot script to their standards departments for notes. And, golly, each network reported back it would have no problem airing the pilot as is at 9 or 10 p.m.

Sorkin was notoriously taken off his biggest TV hit, NBC's "West Wing," after its fourth season; lateness of scripts, almost all of which he wrote, was cited as the cause in news reports.

Asked about it during the Q&A, Sorkin paraphrased David Mamet -- who is doing "The Unit" for CBS these days -- who recently said writing a play or a movie is like running a marathon, but doing a one-hour TV series is like "running until you die."

This time around, Sorkin says, he's been writing scripts since January, so he'll be "able to bank some scripts; hopefully, that will at least prolong a little bit of time before the wheels come off the wagon."

Manic blogging.

Sorkin said he always regretted that the lateness of "The West Wing" scripts meant the cast and director Schlamme did not get a chance to do their best with the material.

"It was like Excedrin and old-fashioned cloth diapers in the schoolyard," said Steven Weber, who plays the head of the network on "Studio 60."

"First of all, welcome to the panel, Steven," Sorkin said. Turning to critics, he added, "And, seriously, I'll give you each one hundred dollars if we can just get the crack quote out. It's just an expression; I didn't mean anything by it."

Manic blogging.

* * *

NBC Universal has cut a deal with NBC Universal to make Webisodes of the comedy series "Nobody's Watching" for the NBC Universal Web site after the pilot, which was made in 2005 for the now-defunct WB network but was not picked up, somehow got put up on YouTube (with which NBC Universal has since brokered an output deal) and was downloaded about 600,000 times, according to NBC Universal.

Isn't viral vertical integration wonderful?

If successful, NBC will take the scripts that are being developed and turn it into a series for NBC's prime time.

In a news release, NBC Entertainment chief Kevin Reilly said, "This comedy pilot has generated a life of its own, and we are intrigued by its potential to develop into a series." At Summer TV Press Tour 2006 Friday, Reilly swore NBC didn't put the failed pilot up on YouTube.

"I think this is just the first of many television shows to be rescued by the Internet," added Executive Producer Bill Lawrence, who also does NBC's "Scrubs" and who critics here are betting was the one who slapped this sucker on YouTube, once they'd ruled out Reilly.

"Nobody's Watching" is about two slackers from Ohio who think TV sitcoms bite and come to Hollywood and a network gives them the chance to create their own sitcom, which they think is "awesome!" The network records their every movement for a reality TV series.

Now about those downloads, which NBC put at 600,000 though the YouTube site shows about 400,000 views, not downloads, per segment over the four weeks it's been up. (The pilot appears on YouTube in three segments.)

For comparison's sake, since the Associated Press wrote earlier this week that Jaclyn Smith, who sells clothing at Kmart, is expanding into home furnishings, her Web site has jumped from about 10,000 hits a day to nearly 80,000.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company