"Obviously, it's flattering," says Sorkin about the comparisons to Kelley. "But I don't know how David does what he does. I get the sense that he's very organized. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he does `Ally.' On Thursday and Friday, he does `The Practice.
"For me with just `Sports Night' last year, it was Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I'm worrying what I'm going to write. Thursday, I'm totally freaking out and yelling at people because I don't know what the show is going to be about. Then, on Friday, I finally start writing, and I work all weekend to get the scripts to the actors by late Sunday in time for their reading on Monday. And then it starts all over again with the worrying.
"With two shows this year, I don't know. I guess we'll make it up as we go along," he says.
A writer of plays
When Sorkin says stuff like that, you have to realize that he started out as an actor, graduating in 1983 with a degree in theater from Syracuse University. Sorkin has a way of bringing the drama with him and creating this self-deprecating, worried-man persona as he narrates the story of his journey from a childhood in Scarsdale, N.Y., to Hollywood.
The early days are all theater. Young Sorkin sneaking into Broadway shows with members of the audience as they return to their seats after intermission ("I've seen the second act of every Broadway show you can think of," he says). Sorkin supporting himself after college by working as a bartender in the theaters so he "could see all the first acts I missed." Sorkin writing "A Few Good Men" on cocktail napkins between serving drinks at the Palace Theatre during "La Cage Aux Folles." "Basically, all I ever learned in my life is what a play is. When I started writing movies -- the first of which was an adaptation of my play `A Few Good Men' -- I paced around my one-room apartment in New York. And you can only do that so long until desperation sets in. Then I said to myself, `Just write the play and know that the camera can push in close, that it can see everything.' "
Sorkin says he used the same formula for the screenplay of "The American President" a couple of years later, and what he came up with was a first draft 385 pages long, which he delivered to producer-director Rob Reiner in a shopping bag. A standard screenplay would be less than half that length.
As Sorkin tells it, "Rob said, `Aaron, I'll tell you what, why don't you come out here to California, and we'll put you up in this hotel, and you can kind of trim it down while living two blocks away from my office. And I can kind of keep an eye on you.'
"And that week or two turned into a year to write it and another year to shoot it," Sorkin explains. "And if your question is, why didn't I just get myself an apartment instead of staying in a hotel room, it's a perfectly good question. There's room service and they do your laundry and stuff for you. You get a little mint at night. I couldn't possibly give that up."
It was during those two years at the Four Seasons Hotel that the idea for "Sports Night" came to Sorkin, he says.
"I was working on the movie and living alone in the hotel room, and I would stop writing at about 6 in the morning. And, while I was trying to get to sleep as the sun was coming up, I would turn on ESPN. And I found that these anchors on `SportsCenter' just became my friends. I felt like this is a place I'd like to work. This is a place where I could meet my best friend. This is a place where I could meet my girlfriend."
The notion of workplace as family is central to the Sorkin vision. At the end of the pilot for "Sports Night," Casey McCall (Peter Krause) tells his co-anchor, Dan Rydell (Josh Charles), that he feels the people behind the scenes at the show are his "real family." It is especially poignant because McCall is going through a divorce and had been thinking about quitting the business.
When Sorkin is asked if he thinks viewers can still believe in the we-are-family workplace vision in the wake of such cynical sitcoms as "the Larry Sanders Show," which ridicule TV's backstage ego-madness, he says: "I hope so. I think that one of the reasons that we tune in to a television show is that it's a kind of a warm, comfortable place for us to be for a half-hour."
In that sense, his message is traditional. After all, workplace sitcoms dominated the airwaves in the 1970s, during what is considered the literate peak of the genre, with such series as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "M*A*S*H." But, like Kelley, Sorkin can make you believe again in old-fashioned values by commenting on them in a wise, postmodern way.