It’s the little things that make the West Wing the best

Richard Schiff, who played Toby in the West Wing, reveals, in this massively comprehensive group interview about the show, just how particular Aaron Sorkin is about actors in his shows sticking exactly to the script. And why.

“I had been used to improvising and even in the audition I was feeling free to rearrange Aaron’s words a little bit, as lovely as they were. I didn’t find out until after I got the part how furious Aaron was at me for doing that. They said, “He was livid. He did everything in his power not to jump down your throat!” I came to realise that Aaron was writing in meter and the rhythm of the language is very important.”

I like that what Toby was for Bartlett in the show was what Sorkin was to Schiff, who plays Toby, in real life.

Like in this walk and talk (broken down comprehensively in this article).

This revelation about Sorkin’s obsession with meter makes one of my favourite little scenes in the West Wing pretty meta. Turns out it’s possibly based in fact too. From the script of Season 4, Episode 13.

“Toby is reading a piece of paper and laughs to himself.

BARTLET
[to Toby] What’s going on?

TOBY
The Chief Justice– wrote a dissenting opinion in Sea Northern v. Arizona,
saying that an association between asbestos and a higher risk of cancer in later
life was insufficient to merit relief.

BARTLET
So what?

TOBY
He… [chuckles] I don’t know how to say this. He wrote it in meter.

BARTLET
A meter?

TOBY
He wrote a dissenting opinion in what I am almost certain is trochiac tetrometer.
Will?

WILL
It is.

BARTLET
What are you talking about?

TOBY
He starts in the fourth graph.

Toby walks up to the podium and hands the paper to Bartlet.

BARTLET
“Fear of cancer from asbestos, fuzzy science manifestos.”

TOBY
A guy just faxed this to Will.

BARTLET
Which one’s Will?

Toby points to Will standing in the back of the room.

TOBY
He is.

Will raises his hand.

TOBY
It’s a loud syllable followed by a soft syllable, which is a trochaic foot,
then there’s four per comma, which is tetrameter.”

Writing/speaking in meter is kind of a running gag in the West Wing. It was there in Season 2, episode 5, as well…

Ainsley Hayes: Mr. Tribbey? I’d like to do well on this, my first assignment. Any advice you could give me that might point me the way of success would be, by me, appreciated.
Lionel Tribbey: Well, not speaking in iambic pentameter might be a step in the right direction.

Sorkin is apparently as fascinated with the rhythm of language as his characters.

He’s big on what words can do together.

“TOBY
You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.

SACHS
Yes.

TOBY
Food is cheaper, clothes are cheaper, steel is cheaper, cars are cheaper, phone service
is cheaper. You feel me building a rhythm here? That’s ‘cause I’m a speechwriter and I
know how to make a point.

SACHS
Toby…

TOBY
It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there?

SACHS
Yes.

TOBY
It’s called the science of listener attention. We did repetition, we did floating opposites
and now you end with the one that’s not like the others. Ready? Free trade stops wars. And
that’s it. Free trade stops wars! And we figure out a way to fix the rest! One world, one
peace. I’m sure I’ve seen that on a sign somewhere.

SACHS
God, Toby… Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone around here with communication skills
who could go in there and tell them that?”

And then there’s this bit in season 4, episode 1…

MALLORY
Nice job on the speech.

SAM
What makes you think I wrote it?

MALLORY
“We did not seek nor did we provoke…” “We did not expect nor did we invite…”

SAM
A little thing called cadence.

It’s the little things.

Sorkin: One great TV show five times

I like Aaron Sorkin. We watched Newsroom season 1 on our recent holiday. I’m pretty sure I like it better than West Wing – just because it excites my inner sanctimonious journalist. I posted the first one of these Sorkinism videos a while back. But check this out.

Sorkin’s self plagiarism

This doesn’t really kill the magic for me. I stopped for a moment and pondered how I felt, but it’s not like he ripped off a speech from a movie and claimed it as his own… (unlike Anthony Albanese – an Australian politician who ripped off Sorkin).

Nor is he simply reusing the same footage over and over again – ala Michael Bay…

But some of the lines are oddly specific.

Six questions that make you a better writer

George Orwell was a good writer. I’ve shared six of his tips for writing before. Here are six questions he says you should ask of every sentence you produce…

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

This is from this feature – writing tips from six greats.
I also love these 11 tips from Elmore Leonard.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
Which can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. A prologue in a novel is back-story, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.
3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
Said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
For example, thick paragraphs of prose.
11. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

And I love this quote… it reminds me of Jed Bartlett’s “next ten words” debate speech in the West Wing…


“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
– Earnest Hemingway after he was told that Faulkner said he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.”

Salt: a book

I planned to do a lot of reading this week. And I failed. We watched too much West Wing – it’s as intellectually stimulating as reading.

I did however manage to almost finish one of the cleverest books I’ve read for a long time. It’s all about salt. It’s fascinating. I will no doubt blog a lot about salt in the next two weeks as I think back through the interesting bits.

Salt is the bedrock of civilisation.

You should read this book.

Working Families

So, K-Rudd isn’t actually to blame for coming up with the phrase… because the West Wing did it. Back in season 2. I wonder if politicians feel the pressure to outdo the West Wing. Like South Park and the Simpsons…

SAM
[reading] “We want a real tax cut for working families to help them pay for higher
education and housing, while our opponents want to help the rich pay for bigger swimming
pools and faster private jets. [pause] No, I don’t think so.

Cultural Convergence

The West Wing is the best television show ever made. Without question. The Godfather trilogy is the best movie trilogy ever made. Also without question. So when one references the other… you sit up and pay attention…

TOBY
So we’ve got to do it for him. We’ll keep it away from this office but we’ve got to get real
now. Leo, Ann Stark’s a war time consigliere. That’s why she was bumped up.

LEO
I’m a wartime consigliere too, Toby. I was just hoping it’d be peace time a little longer.

I’ve posted a lot about the West Wing in the last couple of days. I’ve been watching a lot of it. It’s just as good third time round. We’re up to season 2 already.

The best news, is that the scripts from every episode are up online. Here.

I’ve been toying with some lengthier posts on the intersection of faith and politics in the West Wing – but I suspect that only really interests me. It really is the seminal political text of this generation.

Separated at birth…

This probably isn’t the most flattering thing I’ll ever write about my father.

But, in watching the West Wing again I am further struck by the often eery similarities both in distinguishing features and facial expressions between dad and Toby Ziegler. There are lots of things that aren’t similar. But sometimes it’s just scary.

I’m just saying…

Toby’s Mac

Macs are cool. I don’t have mine yet, but already I know this.

I’m playing with Robyn’s now. And I like it. But this belief has been reinforced by a day watching the West Wing (starting from Series 1) – one of the perks of sickness.

I had never noticed this before. But Sam and Toby both write their speeches on Macs. How cool is that.

For all of those people thinking that this title was a reference to Christian music – you were wrong.

Next ten words

Over at the newly revitalised Sydney Anglicans website there’s an article on an upcoming Sydney media campaign promoting Christianity. The article points out that Dominic Steele – author of the popular “Introducing God” material is nonplussed about the campaign. He likes the catchy slogan – “Jesus: All about life” but wonders what the “next ten words” are that come after the slogan.

It’s a useful question to ask anybody who’s coming up with catchy, pithy slogans – and it comes from my favourite show of all time – the West Wing. Working out your one liner is actually the second step – having substance behind it is the first – a lesson we didn’t really see in action in the recent Queensland election.

Here’s a clip from a debate in a presidential campaign.

There’s a great repository of West Wing quotes – including this one – here.

Moderator: Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is the centerpiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?
Gov. Ritchie: You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason – the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.
Moderator: Mr. President, your rebuttal.
Bartlet: There it is. That’s the ten word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.

Stripped Wire

Robyn and I started watching “The Wire” last week. This doesn’t mean watching cables outside, but a highly recommended TV series labeled by some as the best thing since the West Wing. That may be true. There’s even a university course dedicated to dissecting it. But three episodes in, it hasn’t really gripped me. It’s hard for me to put a finger on just one thing. There’s a lot of swearing. I’m not really all that sensitive to swearing – Robyn is though. I don’t like watching television my wife isn’t comfortable with. It makes me uncomfortable in turn. The dialogue is certainly pacy. Which is nice. That was part of the West Wing’s charm. It has compelling characters. Which is another box ticked.

A lot of the discomfort I think I’m feeling is to do with the scenery. Half the scenes with the villains are set in Strip Clubs. I confess I don’t see why this is necessary. It’s hackneyed. The Sopranos already did it. Suddenly the strip club is essential for gangster office chic. Is that what it’s like in real life? Should we be more concerned about K-Rudd’s notorious visit to Scores? Was he really getting down and dirty with the seedy underbelly?

There’s a long, well documented association of organised crime and the flesh trade, and by association the drug trade. And The Wire is certainly pushing for the “gritty reality” crime drama merit badge. That’s the vibe they’re going for. So I can understand the move from a screenwriting standpoint. It doesn’t make as much sense from a commercial standpoint. The “cult hit” nomenclature is an oxymoronic attempt to sell more DVDs. It means “non mainstream success” or “salvageable bomb”. Nobody sets out to make a cult classic.

You’ve got to wonder if steering clear of material that is likely to make husbands uncomfortable to watch the show with their wives is part of the recipe for commercial success. I know I’d feel more comfortable watching without the gratuitous nudity. I’m not sure if this is just because I’m a Christian or if non-Christians feel the same awkwardness. Obviously my moral compass has a lot to do with my Christianity. But this just seems like a case of bad commercial sense. The people who get kicks out of all the gratuitous nudity are unlikely to switch off because of its absence. It’s almost a lack of confidence in their product.

You’ve got to wonder what strip clubs are thinking of this premium exposure. Does it help or hinder their cause to be portrayed as the ubiquitous criminal hangout? Even in 21, the Kevin Spacey card counting flick the team of college card counters made a Vegas strip joint their “out of casino” headquarters.

Obama meets Bartlett

A while back I suggested that Obama was the closest thing to Matt Santos (West Wing President number 2) running in this campaign.

Here Obama meets Bartlett in an interesting fact meets fiction interview with West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. 
Obama is creating a great degree of angst in some Christian circles because of his stance on abortion – I’m not going to enter that debate here. I just think his other policies (and there are many) are better than McCain’s – and Palin just plain (nice anagram use there…) scares me. Obama’s oratory skills are still enough for me to tip my ineligible vote in his direction.