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.
[to Toby] What’s going on?
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.
He… [chuckles] I don’t know how to say this. He wrote it in meter.
He wrote a dissenting opinion in what I am almost certain is trochiac tetrometer.
What are you talking about?
He starts in the fourth graph.
Toby walks up to the podium and hands the paper to Bartlet.
“Fear of cancer from asbestos, fuzzy science manifestos.”
A guy just faxed this to Will.
Which one’s Will?
Toby points to Will standing in the back of the room.
Will raises his hand.
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.
You want the benefits of free trade? Food is cheaper.
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.
It lowers prices, it raises income. You see what I did with ‘lowers’ and ‘raises’ there?
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.
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…
Nice job on the speech.
What makes you think I wrote it?
“We did not seek nor did we provoke…” “We did not expect nor did we invite…”
A little thing called cadence.
It’s the little things.