July 16, 2012
Guest: Aaron Sorkin
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Aaron Sorkin, is the creator and writer of the new HBO series "The Newsroom," set at a fictional cable news network. Sorkin has been known for his verbal fireworks ever since he wrote Jack Nicholson's famous line you can't handle the truth in "A Few Good Men."
Probably a lot of people who have worked in the White House over the years wish they could speak with the eloquence and rapid-fire wit of Sorkin's characters on the series "The West Wing," which he also created.
Sorkin won an Oscar for his screenplay for "The Social Network," a fictionalized portrayal of the founders of Facebook. He co-wrote the film adaptation of the film "Moneyball." Sorkin's new series, "The Newsroom," stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor who gives up his straight-down-the-middle approach for a more hard-hitting show that will, as his producer says, speak truth to stupid.
"The Newsroom" is set in the recent past and draws on real news events, but the characters are fictional. In this scene, during the 2010 midterm election campaigns, Will McAvoy interviews two leaders of the fictional group The Riley County Tea Party Express. We've edited out a couple of cutaways within the scene for clarity.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
JEFF DANIELS: (As Will McAvoy) You describe the Tea Party as a grassroots movement, right?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Absolutely. We have no central control, no traditional power structure, and that is something that seems to confound the media.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) I'm sorry?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) That's what confounds the media. It's what the media doesn't get. We are not being run by a George Soros-type figure. We are we the people.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Where does your funding come from?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) What little funding we have comes from private citizens who mail in $5, $10, $1, whatever they can spare.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) OK, have either of you ever heard the name David Koch?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) I'm sorry?
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) David Koch.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) No.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Have you ever heard the name Charles Koch?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) No.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Have you ever heard the name Koch Industries?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Are you talking about Coca-Cola?
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) K-O-C-H. Have either of you heard of Koch Industries?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) No.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) I think that very soon you will. Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in the country, bigger than Coca-Cola, and the Koch brothers' personal wealth of $50 billion is exceeded only by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and they could buy and sell George Soros 10 times over. They own dozens of companies and industries, including oil and gas, refining and chemicals, minerals, fertilizer, forestry polymers and fibers and ranching.
(As McAvoy) You two both attended the Texas Defending the American Dream Summit over the July 4th week?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) Yes.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) That summit was paid for entirely by Americans for Prosperity, AFP, which has two founders, David and Charles Koch. In the last six months, they've bankrolled Tea Party candidates in excess of $40 million. Cheryl(ph), Mike(ph), are the Koch brothers average Americans whose voices are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests? I'm confounded.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, welcome to FRESH AIR.
AARON SORKIN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: I've got to say I'm really enjoying the show. It's, like, so much fun to me to watch a series where there's drama about booking guests and conducting interviews.
GROSS: So what about you? Why did you want to, like, set a show in a newsroom?
SORKIN: I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that's usually looked at cynically, the way journalism is now, you can get something fun out of it.
GROSS: Why do you like writing idealistically? Another example of that would be "The West Wing."
SORKIN: Sure. It suits my style. I like writing about heroes that they don't wear capes or disguises. It's aspirational. You feel like, gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world. Why can't that be the real world?
You know, in this case, throughout the series, really, the metaphor of Don Quixote is used, a metaphor, all kinds of lost imaginary cities are used. The name of the company is Atlantis. They talk about Camelot. They talk about Brigadoon. And the show was meant to be a fantasy set against very real and oftentimes very serious events.
GROSS: So in this interview that you and I are doing right now, I get to ask the questions, you get to give the answers. In the interview clip that we just heard from "The Newsroom," you got to write the questions and the answers.
SORKIN: That's the great part about being a writer: You get to decide what everybody says.
GROSS: Yeah, so tell me how you wrote that interview.
SORKIN: What I did with that interview, which is what I do with every interview like that on the show - first of all, I just want to make it clear, real people don't make cameos on the show. They only appear when they're in news footage. And, you know, we'll roll tape of plenty of real interviews and real statements.
When I'm making up a person in order to represent people, for instance those two people in that clip, they're from the Riley County Tea Party Express, which is fictional. But what I do is I look at a ton of interviews with Tea Party people that were conducted, and I try to as fairly as I can take their answers to questions.
And then what I'll do is I'll have Will ask the follow-up that was never - that I thought was never asked. In the episode a week ago, which is the episode where that scene took place, in Episode 3, Sam Waterston's character tells us that the idea is that Will is a fantastic prosecutor and that they're going to harness that strength and that the studio is going to become a courtroom and that he's going to treat guests like they're witnesses on a stand. And I like that because I like writing courtroom drama.
GROSS: Right. So I know you know Keith Olbermann and that "Sports Night" was inspired by the show Olbermann used to co-anchor, "SportsCenter," and a lot of people assume that he's one of the inspirations for your new show, which you've denied. You also know Lawrence O'Donnell because he used to be a consultant, right, on "The West Wing," and he anchors a show on MSNBC.
So how much time did you spend at MSNBC in doing the research for your new series?
SORKIN: I've met Keith Olbermann. I don't know Keith Olbermann. We've met twice. He - once "Sports Night" was on the air, I got a call from him asking if he could visit the set, and that was the first time I met him. And the second time I met him was when he was really gracious. He allowed me to hang out at MSNBC when he was the host of "Countdown" for a couple of days.
And I just spent time being a fly on the wall, mostly speaking with junior staffers because I knew - or I wanted there to be, I didn't know much about the show at the time, but I wanted there to be a sort of upstairs-downstairs feel and focus on some of the younger people.
I do know Lawrence. I worked with Lawrence for several years on "The West Wing," where he was on the writing staff, and he made some fantastic contributions. If, you know, if you have a favorite moment of "The West Wing," chances are Lawrence was involved with it.
GROSS: So what did you learn from spending about two days at "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" that you were able to use in the show?
SORKIN: Nothing, but that is where I got the idea for the show.
SORKIN: No, I mean it. I was in the procrastinating stage. You know, all I knew was that I wanted to do a show set in a newsroom. I didn't know anything more than that. And my big worry was making up the news, writing fictional news, that it was just going to take us too far away from reality.
And I didn't want to have to make up news events, make up an earthquake someplace, make up an assassination attempt, make up a stock market crash, that kind of thing. I did want it to be set against real news events.
But I was sitting at "Countdown," and I was on my second day there, kind of despairing because I was about to give up on the idea, but while I was thinking that, I was staring at a monitor. And the monitor was showing - I don't know if you remember the spill cam, it was an underwater camera attached to BP Deepwater Horizon that could show you 24 hours the oil spilling out of there. And this was day 55 of the oil spill.
And I was sitting there staring at it, and that's when I got the idea that I could set the show in the recent past. Now, originally all that was was something that solved the problem that I was having: Here's how you don't make up the news, set the show in the recent past.
But then it's sort of a gift that kept giving because you have the fun of the audience knowing more than the characters do. In the pilot episode, for instance, when they get the news about two-thirds of the way through that there's been this explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and nobody quite knows what's going on, the audience wants to shout at the screen: This is a real story, take this seriously, I know what the end of this is going to be.
I know that this device, the dramatic device of setting the show in the recent past, has bothered some people, particularly people in the news, who think that I'm leveraging hindsight into a way to make my characters smarter. That - again, that wasn't the idea.
GROSS: And smarter than their newsroom because like in the BP oil spill, it takes your characters like 15 minutes to figure out things that I think took a lot longer in real life.
SORKIN: Yeah, in real life, it took two - in real life it took two days for everyone to understand that this was an environmental disaster and not a search-and-rescue mission. And I'm glad you brought that up because I - my intention in the pilot was not to say gee, if only real news people were as smart as my guys...
GROSS: Exactly, right.
SORKIN: ...they would have figured this out in 15 minutes. There was a remarkable coincidence that happened to one of my fictional characters that didn't happen to anyone else. One of our characters, a brand new guy, had a college roommate who was an engineer for BP and a sister who worked for Halliburton, both of whom were willing to whistle-blow within five minutes of each other. I shine a pretty...
GROSS: To which I can only say: What are the odds?
SORKIN: What are the odds indeed, but I shine a pretty big light on that. When you're writing, and you want to use something that is unlikely, OK, the way to do that is to fly in the teeth of its unlikeliness, OK, to not try to get away with it but to shine a light on it.
For instance in the pilot, we shine a light on that coincidence. Will, Jeff Daniels' character, says: You're telling me you got not one but two sources to roll over on their employer within five minutes of each other? John Gallagher's character Jim says: I know, I just got lucky. And Will says: How often do you get this lucky? John Gallagher's Jim says: This is my first time.
In other words, it's - we admit that it's unlikely coincidence. That is not a moment that's there to show up other news organizations for not getting there for another 48 hours. They didn't get to have that fictional coincidence on their show.
GROSS: They didn't have you writing reality.
SORKIN: Exactly right. They didn't have me writing the other part. They - just like, you know, whether it's George Bush or Barack Obama, they don't have it as easy as Barlet did on "The West Wing" because I get to write what everybody else does, too. You know, I get to write what Congress does, and I get to write how the press reacts.
I'm aware that I get to control everything that happens in my universe, in my fictional universe, and in real life, people don't get to control anything that happens.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Sorkin, and his new show is "The Newsroom" on HBO Sunday nights. Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Sorkin, and he created and writes the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which is set at a cable news show. He also created and wrote the first few seasons of "The West Wing." He wrote the movie "The Social Network" and the movie "Moneyball."
So I want to play another scene from "The Newsroom," and here's, like, the backstory to the scene. The backstory is that at a New Year's Eve office party at the newsroom - and I was thinking boy, what are the odds of this, that everybody's, like, in formal attire in the actual newsroom on New Year's Eve, they really want to spend New Year's Eve with all of their colleagues?
SORKIN: I know, I love writing workplace families, and one theme that I think that you can find in a lot of things that I've written is that it's OK to be alone in a big city if you can find family at work. So in my very idealized work, the boss, Will McAvoy, throws a New Year's Eve party in the studio, and people come and have a great time.
GROSS: OK, so it's at this New Year's Eve party at the office, and he's been flirting with a woman who he doesn't know who turns out to be a feature writer for a gossip magazine called "TMI." And she is writing what is called a takedown piece, a piece in which you take down a celebrity by revealing, you know, embarrassing things about them.
And McAvoy has given her a lecture about why this work she does is reprehensible and, you know, an example of things that are really wrong with the media. And the encounter ends with her throwing her glass of wine or champagne in his face.
And so this ends up in the New York Post gossip column, Page 6. And in this scene, the cable channel's vice president for news, Charlie Skinner, played by Sam Waterston, calls in the anchor, Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, and the vice president for news starts reading the anchor what's been printed about him in the New York Post.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
SAM WATERSTON: (As Charlie Skinner) ACN's newly minted liberal bloviater made a scene at a private New Year's Eve party at which our spies caught the re-engineered lefty firebrand making a drunken pass at "TMI" reporter Nina Howard.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Whoa, Nellie.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) But the Tea Party foe got a face full of bubbly instead of what he was looking for. McAvoy was wearing a $4,000 custom-made tuxedo and a dumb look on his face.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) There are a couple of factual errors from that story.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Please let there be more than a couple.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) First of all, I'm a registered Republican; I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage. Second, I wasn't making a pass at her; I was rejecting a pass from her while trying to talk her out of doing what they call at "TMI" a takedown piece of one of the desperate housewives of New Jersey.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Real housewives.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Who gives us (beep)?
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Definitely not me.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) And the tuxedo is off the rack.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Did you grope her?
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) No, I gently touched her to block her as she was coming in for a kiss. I blocked her. I was the victim of an unwanted sexual advance. But more important, I was fighting the good fight.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Why were you fighting any fight?
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) I was trying to get her to not write the takedown piece.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Why?
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Why?
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) Yeah.
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) I'll tell you why: Because I'm on a mission to civilize.
WATERSTON: (As Skinner) How's it going so far?
DANIELS: (As McAvoy) Progress is slow, but I'm in it for the long haul.
GROSS: OK, so that's a scene from "The Newsroom." My guest Aaron Sorkin writes the series, and he created this new HBO series. So the really funny line in there about how - you say it about the global warming line. Will you repeat it us? You know it by heart.
SORKIN: I'm a registered Republican; I only seem liberal because I believe hurricanes are caused by high barometric pressure and not gay marriage.
GROSS: OK, so that's very funny. Do you feel like - you know, I was looking forward to hearing if you can say that kind of thing off the cuff in real life like your characters.
GROSS: Like, can you talk like that off the top of your head?
SORKIN: No, I really can't.
GROSS: Are you ever a good quipper in real life?
SORKIN: I'm really not. I'm shy. I have a bit of a stammer. I tend to say - when I want to say the right thing, I say the wrong thing. And so I've learned not to say much at all. And it's one of the reasons I enjoy writing. I can...
GROSS: Wow, I'm just going to stop you. I didn't think I'd ever hear you say I've learned to not say much at all. Your characters are so talkative. They're so verbal. They're so flamboyantly verbal. I mean, these are people who, like, love to use words and use it really well. And usually they're in professions where it would be believable that they would be good speakers because they're a lawyer or a media person or president of the United States or one of his top aides or, you know, founder of a major social networking site.
But how did you start writing that way? How did you start writing in not a naturalistic way but in a hyper-verbal way?
SORKIN: My parents started taking me to see plays when I was very young. And oftentimes I was too young to understand what the play was about, like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" when I was nine years old, that kind of thing. But I loved the sound of dialogue. It sounded like music to me, and I wanted to imitate that sound.
As a result, my Achilles' heel is story. I'm not as good at constructing story as I'd like to be. But I love the sound of dialogue. And to me, what the words sound like is as important as what they mean.
GROSS: So if your dialogue aspires to music, what does it aspire to - I mean, is there a certain music you have in your head? You mentioned Edward Albee, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Are there certain kinds of actual music or certain writers which to you are the, you know, pinnacle of what you're trying to achieve?
SORKIN: You know, I've been influenced by so many writers, contemporary writers and the writers of the classics, just the fact that the dialogue has to sound like something, whether it's Mamet or Pinter or all the way in the other direction Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. I like writing things that are fun to say.
GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned Mamet. I think of you as being connected, as similar and opposite at the same time, that you both love language, you both like to use it musically.
GROSS: Mamet tends to use language in a very oblique way, people talking around what they really mean, whereas you tend to use it in a very, you know, idealistic, meaningful way where people actually almost make speeches about what they believe.
SORKIN: Yeah, Mamet is one of the masters of creating a conversation between two people who have difficulty communicating. You know, he can take five words and create a concerto out of it between two people. The characters that I write tend to be the opposite. They're hyper-communicative. They seldom have trouble saying exactly what's on their mind.
Every once in a while, they do, and those are kind of delicious moments. When you see these people who are hyper-articulate not be able to speak, you just leave the camera on them silently, not being able to come up with the words for it. And a moment like that can have an even greater impact than a two-page speech.
GROSS: Do you audition actors, do you think, differently than other people do because they have to have an ear for the specific music of your writing?
SORKIN: I do. For one thing, I read with them, as opposed to normally if - when an actor is auditioning, the casting director has, you know, an assistant in there reading opposite them. First of all, I can push them and sort of show them the speed that it's supposed to go at, like I'm a pace car, and I can also hear better for myself whether they're just intuitively and naturally getting the language.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin will be back in the second half of the show. His new series, "The Newsroom," is on HBO. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Aaron Sorkin. He's the creator and writer of the new HBO series "The Newsroom," starring Jeff Daniels as the anchor of a cable news show. Sorkin's screenplay for "The Social Network" won an Oscar. He also wrote the screenplay for "A Few Good Men" and co-wrote "Moneyball." He created the series "The West Wing" and wrote most of the shows in the first four seasons. "The West Wing" was about a fictional president and his staff. It lasted for seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006, and won 26 Emmys.
A lot of the dialogue in "The West Wing" became known as the walk and talk, where two or more of the characters would be talking to each other, exchanging strategy or whatever, as they walked through the hall. And, you know, in reality a lot of this dialogue would probably be, a lot of these conversations would probably be held behind closed doors, as opposed to...
GROSS: ...in the hallway. So how did the walk and talk come into being?
SORKIN: I'll tell you exactly how. First of all, I don't write a lot of action. My first movie was "A Few Good Men," which was based on my first play. And there's a scene in the movie where Tom Cruise is in his car, he pulls his car over to the side, to the curb because he wants to hop out and buy a copy of Sports Illustrated at a newsstand. He does. He hops out. He buys the copy of Sports Illustrated at the newsstand. He gets back in his car and he drives off. That is my action scene. That's as close as I've come to writing an action scene.
SORKIN: And because there's very little of visual interest in what I write, visual interest has to be created. And it was created by Thomas Schlamme, my partner on "The West Wing," the principal director of "The West Wing," the guy who came up with the look for "The West Wing," and it happened right off the bat in the pilot episode. What I had written was a series of scenes in different rooms in the White House all involving John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, the chief of staff. And Tommy came to me about two days before shooting began and said listen, I want to walk you through something because I'd like to try doing this in one, as it's called, in one continuous shot using a Steadicam. That Leo - John Spencer - can go from this room into this room, do this thing here, stop at Josh's office, walk through the corridor, come down here, do this here, and finally we sneak a peek at the Oval Office and we walk through here. And Tommy choreographed the whole thing and that was the day the walk and talk was born.
GROSS: And so it became like an institution of the show. That's probably the wrong word, institution. The hallmark of the show.
SORKIN: Not. It...
GROSS: Trademark. Signature of the show. How's that?
SORKIN: It did. And again, and it was born because Tommy felt the need and he was 100 percent right that, you know, television, film, it is a visual medium. And you've got to create some kind of visual interest. And it's entertainment for your eyes.
GROSS: So there was a really funny parody of the walk and talk on "30 Rock" and you were in this scene.
SORKIN: Yeah. That's right.
GROSS: So I want to play the scene. So let me give the setup.
GROSS: So Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, has just found out that the show she writes for is going to be put on hiatus. So she's applying for a writing position on a TV singing competition called "The Sing-Off" hosted by Nick Lachey...
SORKIN: Nick Lachey.
GROSS: ...who became famous as a member of the boy band 98 Degrees. So while she's in the waiting room waiting for this job interview, she's shocked to see you, Aaron Sorkin, waiting too. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "30 ROCK")
TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Do I know you?
SORKIN: (as himself) You know my work. Walk with me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SORKIN: (as himself) I'm Aaron Sorkin, "The West Wing," "A Few Good Men," "The Social Network."
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) "Studio 60?"
SORKIN: (as himself) Shut up. Do you know Nick Lachey? I hear he doesn't even let you sit in the meeting. He just screams at you to see how you react.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) But you're not really applying for this job, are you?
SORKIN: (as himself) Of course, I am. You got to take work where you can find it, especially now. Our craft is dying while people are playing "Angry Birds" and poking each other on Facebook. What is poking anyway? Why won't anyone do it to me? I'm cool.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) So it's really that bad out there. I mean you're Aaron Sorkin. Speaking of "Angry Birds," do you know how to beat 11-4? It's just a red guy and a green guy.
SORKIN: (as himself) The key is to not use the green guy as a boomerang.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Did we just go in a circle?
SORKIN: (as himself) Listen lady - a gender I write extremely well if the story calls for it. This is serious. We make horse buggies. The first Model T just rolled into town.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) We're dinosaurs.
SORKIN: (as himself) We don't need to metaphors. That's bad writing. Not that it matters.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mr. Sorkin, Mr. Lachey will see you now.
SORKIN: (as himself) Mr. Lachey, huge fan. Huge fan. I have all your albums.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
GROSS: That's so funny.
SORKIN: Yes. Well, it was a lot of fun to do. It's a great crew over there.
GROSS: Did you write any of that yourself? Did you have any input?
SORKIN: Absolutely not. That script was written by Robert Carlock, who is great. I also had a chance to 0 I've played the jerk version of myself a couple of times and I got to do it on "Entourage" too.
GROSS: So there's a line in there where she's giving all your credits and she says "Studio 60" and you say shut up.
SORKIN: Yeah. That's actually the only tweak that I made because I thought that Robert Carlock, who wrote the script, was trying to be a little too respectful of me. So I just pitched the line to Tina who then went over to Robert and everybody there laughed, so Tina came back and said yeah, let's do that.
GROSS: OK. And for people who don't get the joke, you had a show that premiered the same season that "30 Rock" did called "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." And like "30 Rock" it was a behind the scene show about a sketch comedy show, kind of like "Saturday Night Live." But yours was a drama and hers, you know, was a comedy. And a lot of people thought that hers was not going to make it and yours would but it ended up being the other way around. What did you expect when you found out that there was another show doing a different take on the same kind of theme?
SORKIN: I didn't think that the two shows were anything alike. I didn't think anything more about it than when "The West Wing" and "Spin City" were on the air at the same time or "ER" and "Scrubs."
SORKIN: I thought that - and still do think that - "30 Rock" is great, but a completely different show than "Studio 60" and "30 Rock" deserves all the success that it has had.
GROSS: So we've just heard you're very good at playing yourself. You used to play other people as well. You started off as an actor before you became a writer. Is that what you really wanted to do when you were growing up was to act?
SORKIN: I think saying that I started off as an actor might be misleading. There was...
GROSS: Should I say you started off trying to act?
SORKIN: I didn't even give it much of a try. When I was very little all I wanted to be was an actor and I acted in all the school plays and I was the head of the drama club and I acted in community theater. And then when I went to college, I auditioned for a conservatory program at Syracuse University and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in, of all things, musical theater. But I realized pretty early on that when everyone around me was learning how to act, for some reason what I was learning was what a play was. And I again, very early on, loved writing dialogue. I just loved writing it. And so when I came to New York it was to be a playwright.
GROSS: So you got your BA in musical theater. You loved musicals...
SORKIN: BFA. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
GROSS: BFA. OK. OK.
SORKIN: I have absolutely no liberal arts background at all, and really, no, no higher education to speak of at all. Like I said, my four years of college was a conservatory training program in theater where we weren't allowed to take that many credits, that many academic credits.
GROSS: Do people expect that you will know the great books and actually you don't?
SORKIN: Yeah. I am often mistaken for somebody who knows something and I'm not. I create characters who know things. And I'm not just being self-deprecating. I think this is important. You know, the reaction to "The Newsroom" has been polarized. There are a number of television critics who did not enjoy themselves watching the first four episodes. There are a number of television critics who loved the first four episodes. And I think that the critics in the audience who are reacting as hostilely to the show as they are, part of the reason is they think that I'm showing off an intellect and an erudition that I don't have. And just to be very clear, I'm not pretending to have it. I know that I don't have it. I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other. I'm not one of them. The characters I create would have no use for me.
GROSS: So we've established that you love musicals...
GROSS: ...and that, just going back for a step, and that you have a degree in musical theater. Are you a good singer?
SORKIN: I am awesome in the shower. But that's...
SORKIN: I think I'm a good singer. I don't think anybody else would say that I am.
GROSS: So I know for while you did singing telegrams.
GROSS: What were the telegrams?
SORKIN: They were, I worked for a company called the Witty Ditty singing-telegram company and they would call you in the afternoon and say, you know, OK, I got a job for you. It's an anniversary. You're going to go to this fancy restaurant. Come here and get the lyrics. And it would just be set to the tune of, you know, of a famous song and you'd have to walk into a fancy restaurant holding a big thing of balloons and you're in a red-and-white-striped jacket with a straw boater and a kazoo. And, you know, you're thinking here's my parent's tuition money hard at work. And even the songs themselves, you know, they would change two words of the song. It would be like, (Singing) Rocky mountain high, happy Birthday.
SORKIN: It was remarkably uncreative. And I even remember thinking, you know, is it OK if I maybe rewrite some of the songs but I didn't want to insult the person who wrote the song.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Sorkin. And his new show is "The Newsroom" on HBO Sunday nights.
Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aaron Sorkin. And he's the creator and writer of the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which is set at a cable news show. And he also created and wrote "The West Wing" and wrote the movies "The Social Network," "Moneyball" and "A Few Good Men."
So you, I'm sure, learned a lot about playwriting and screenwriting from auditioning and from acting and seeing what worked and what didn't. Are there terrible lines that you had to read as an actor that made you think this doesn't work, I am learning what does not work?
SORKIN: Yeah. Both when I was studying acting I felt like there's just no way to make this line come out of my mouth and not seem ridiculous. So as a writer I'm always conscious of that. And I'm very active when I'm writing. I'm playing the part. I'm saying it all out loud. I'm playing all the parts. I'm jumping up and down and, you know, I want the lines to at minimum be speakable. But I also, you know, one of the lessons that I got in what works and what doesn't work, I was a bartender at Broadway theaters, you know, I tended bar in some bars as well but I was mostly bartending in Broadway theaters. I wrote "A Few Good Men" on cocktail napkins during the first act of "La Cage Aux Folles" and then came home and transposed it on a computer. But I would get to listen to plays every night without seeing them. Plays that closed in a week and plays that ran for two years and, you know, and I felt how an audience was responding to something and I thought that was a really good lesson.
GROSS: You've said that your characters often talk like lawyers. Aren't one of your parents and two of your sibling's lawyers?
SORKIN: Yeah. My father, for most of his career, he was an intellectual property expert, a lawyer at Time Warner. My brother was a criminal prosecutor before he moved into the private sector. And my sister was in the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corp before she started working in general litigation for the Justice Department.
GROSS: And does that connect with you wanting to write that way?
SORKIN: And my mother...
GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead about your mother?
SORKIN: I just wanted to mention, my mother taught public school in New York City her whole life. She gets a shout out too. Yes. You're asking me if that has...
SORKIN: Sure. I liked the sound of our dinner table growing up, I really did, where anybody who used one word when they could've used 10 just wasn't trying hard enough. And I really liked the sound of somebody saying, you know, yeah, but have you thought of it this way? But look at it that way. But what if this? And, you know, arguments would keep getting turned on their side. And like I said, I didn't really have the stuff to be able to participate. But I have a pretty good ear. And, in fact, you know, I think that this, I hope, serves as an example of my relationship to the intelligence of my fictional characters.
I'm Jewish, but have never had any religious training. I never went to Hebrew school. But in seventh grade, nearly every Saturday, I was going to a friend's bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah. And this was right around the time when I was developing my love of theater. And I would go to these bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs and think, damn, I really missed out. These are great.
You get to go up there, and you're wearing a costume and there's theatrics and there's singing and there's an audience, and I wish I had done this. And so finally, about six weeks before my 13th birthday, and my family, the boys just - none of us had any religious training. The boys would just have a nice party on their 13th birthday.
But about six weeks before my 13th birthday, I opened a local phone book and called a local rabbi and said, rabbi, I'm turning 13 in six weeks. I'd like you to teach me the Torah.
SORKIN: And he said, you know, kid, I can't teach you the Torah in six weeks. It takes years. I said no, no, no. That's OK. I don't need to really learn it. I have a pretty good ear. If you just say it into a tape recorder, I can learn it phonetically. And he pointed out that that was hardly the reason to get bar mitzvah-ed.
But my point is, I have experts, tutors around me who, kind of with an IV needle, inject me with the information that I need to find the point of conflict, to find the point of friction in a particular subject, whether it's the census on "The West Wing" or Arizona's immigration law on...
GROSS: No, we cannot drop the bar mitzvah thing yet, though.
GROSS: So you called a rabbi. He declined. You know, there were records of it available that you could've bought to learn the Haftorah, which is what the bar mitzvah boy has to sing. Did you have any kind of...
SORKIN: Oh, now you tell me.
GROSS: Now I tell you. Did you have any kind of makeshift bar mitzvah in which you got to perform?
SORKIN: We had a party, and I had learned to bless the bread, and I did that. Baruch ata Eloheinu melech ha'olam, hamotzi lechem min haaretz. I can still do it, even though I'm pretty sure the last time I blessed bread was on my 13th birthday. And I don't know what anything I just said means.
SORKIN: But any desire that I have to perform is now channeled through writing.
GROSS: My guest is Aaron Sorkin. He created and writes the new HBO series "The Newsroom." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Aaron Sorkin. He created the new HBO series "The Newsroom." He created the series "The West Wing" and "Sports Night," and he wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for the "Social Network," "Moneyball" and "A Few Good Men."
So a lot of our listeners probably know that there was a period when you were addicted to crack and cocaine. It was written up in the papers. You went through rehab a couple of times. And something that you've said about that that I thought was really interesting is that when you were in rehab, that there were sayings on the wall. And you said they were like fortune cookie sayings on the walls, and I'm not susceptible to those things, but I've never seen anything work as well.
SORKIN: Yeah. I was in rehab once in - just once, in 1995. And then I relapsed in 2001, and just passed my 11-year anniversary...
GROSS: Congratulations. That's big.
SORKIN: ...of being clean. Thanks very much. I went to rehab. I went voluntarily, but I sort of heard the footsteps behind me. I felt like there's going to be an intervention any minute, and I want to wipe the slate clean. That's the only reason why I went to rehab. I didn't think it was going to work. Nor did I really want it to work. You know, I wanted to keep getting high.
What I wanted was for everybody, for my friends, for my family, for the people I was working with to know that I've gone to rehab and that just the slate will be wiped clean and I'll come back and I'll just do a better job hiding being high this time, and I'll be able to fool everybody this time. They'll think I'm clean.
And, as you mentioned, I got to this place, and there are these, as I call them, fortune cookie sayings on the wall like one day at a time, and, of course, the 12 steps, and that kind of thing. I'm not susceptible to that kind of thing. I have a much narrower mind than I ought to. But it was just going to be 28 days of penance.
What I wanted to be was a, you know, a good patient. I didn't want to get in trouble. I didn't want to have to stay extra days. I was going to do whatever they told me to do and do it well so I got out in time. But maybe 10 or 11 days into it, I just really started liking it, and it was really working, and I was just getting it.
And by my 27th of my 28 days, I was saying to my counselor: Are you sure it's OK for me to go home? I can stay longer, if you want. And he told me to get out.
GROSS: But I'm kind of interested in, like, OK, so you don't believe in fortune cookie sayings. You're not susceptible to that stuff, but things like one day at a time took on a meaning for you. Did you learn anything as a writer about that, that things you might dismiss as being cliche, corny, a bromide can actually have meaning, have value?
SORKIN: Yeah. And I think that I - I think that that's present in so many things that I write, that I will - I mean, I write corny, you know? But I feel like if you can execute corny well enough, you can still strike a chord in people. You're taking a big swing at the ball. You're swinging for the fences. So if you miss, you're going to look bad missing, you know. And a lot of what I write about could be considered fortune-cookie wisdom.
GROSS: So, just one more question about addiction. The chief of staff on "The West Wing" was a recovering alcoholic, which he kept secret. But when the word got out, like, the president let him stay.
GROSS: Were you thinking of yourself when you wrote that plotline?
SORKIN: You know, Terry, I've never, in my life, written autobiographically. I wasn't thinking of myself. There was an episode of the show in the third season in which we saw, in flashback, Leo, John Spencer, relapsing - alcohol was his drug of choice - and I was able to draw on some experience. You know, I go to meetings, and when you're in rehab, you're not just in rehab with coke addicts. You're there with alcoholics and you're there with heroin addicts and you're there with meth addicts, and it's all the same.
Addiction is addiction is addiction. It's all the same. And, you know, I was able to use their description of hearing the clink of the ice go into the glass and just the feel of the bottle, and the way they would talk about pouring a drink, I completely understood, because I could be able to describe cooking up cocaine the same way. But I was able to draw on that. But I have never, in my life, written about myself.
GROSS: OK. Well, I regret that we're out of time. I'd love to talk more.
SORKIN: Me, too.
GROSS: But I want to, you know, congratulate you on the series getting renewed already.
SORKIN: Thanks very much.
GROSS: The series being "The Newsroom," the new HBO series. And just before we have to end, one more thing about "The Newsroom." There's a couple of scenes where after the Jeff Daniels character, the anchor of the news show, does an interview that's especially good, the producers in the control room applaud or they nearly have, like, tears in their eyes because it's so good.
And I wish I could tell you that my producers in the control room were applauding right now or that they had tears streaming down their cheeks. They kind of don't.
SORKIN: I'm looking in your control room right now, and they're beside - they can't control themselves. They're either happy - they're emotional of some kind. I can't hear what's happening, but I can see.
SORKIN: And they're extremely emotional.
GROSS: See, I think you're creating false expectations for me. I can't measure up.
SORKIN: No, no, no, no. I can't even describe what's happening here, nor can I take a picture of it because they make you turn your cell phone off when you're in the studio. But if you could see what was going on here, you'd be really proud.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
SORKIN: It's really good to talk to you, Terry.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin created and writes the new HBO series "The Newsroom." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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