Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night: The Pilot
In 1998, Aaron Sorkin created Sports Night for ABC. It was his first venture into television. Over time this show has become a cult hit. For its rabid fans, it was almost the Arrested Development of the late 90's. And by that, I mean it was a show that critics loved but the network had no idea what to do with it. I really enjoyed Sports Night when it premiered. Until the following year when The West Wing premiered and that became my favorite show. I might have watched Sports Night once when it first came out on DVD but I am going to say I have not seen a frame of it for about 8 or 9 years, until last night. As some of our long time listeners will know, Josh and I gather with our wives once a week for what we call "TV Nite." Last night, I brought along Sports Night. Right now we are not watching a 30 minute show, so I brought it to watch the pilot. After watching the pilot, we would take a vote to see if we wanted to continue or not. Since we are watching Firefly and Battlestar Galactica, I figured a half hour show would fit in nicely. Also, it is the only Aaron Sorkin show that Josh has not seen. We pushed play and started to watch. I have to say I was thrilled to see Casey and Dan again. Natalie was just as adorable as I remembered (she was my sweet baby in 1998, and I have never understood how she didn't become a TV star.) That is when we heard it.
For those of you who have never seen the show, characters talk with the speech pattern akin to The West Wing, American President or Money Ball: fast, furious, funny and character based. This means there are not jokes. It is basically a David Mamet-esque speech pattern. So when Dan (Josh Charles) said something to his co-workers and we heard people laugh. I assumed it was laughter from the office on the show. But a few moments later when Dana (the wonderful Felicity Huffman) said a mere quip to Casey (Peter Krause) and we heard a little laugh. We realized the horrible truth . . . the show had a laugh track. Oh, TV in 90's, why would you use a laugh track? It wasn't even a full-blown laugh track. It was this half laugh like you were watching with 2 other people in the room. Later in the episode when someone fell out of a chair and it was actually funny, they didn't put the laugh in. Josh said immediately, "What you have here is a show where a network executive said, it's 30 minutes, that means it's a comedy so add a laugh track to let people know we think it's funny." To make matters worse, there is a scene in the pilot where a network executive tries to meddle with their show and the characters rips the guy a new one. I noticed they didn't put a laugh track there. I am sure a network executive didn't think that was funny. The show had humorous parts but not sitcom moments. It was character based very much like Modern Family has perfected now. Can you imagine how distracting it would be if they added a chuckle when Phil Dunphy said one of his bad jokes to his Claire?
In the end, we all agreed the show was good and we want to continue but the laugh track knocked us out of the world that Sorkin created. It was the most perfect example I have ever seen where a network just didn't get the product they were peddling. My guess is that they knew A Few Good Men did well at the box office so they gave money to the writer. That writer pitched a 30 minute show about an ESPN Sports Center Broadcast and they told their investors we bought a sitcom. So, they treated it and aired it like a sitcom whether Aaron wrote one or not. I have read on the internet that they slowly phase out the laugh track but the damage was done. I believe this show failed (and it shouldn't have) because of this concept. Sorkin took his next idea, The West Wing, to another network, NBC. Don't think that means that they got it right either because NBC would do the exact same thing to Sorkin when he created Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This premiered the same year as 30 Rock and 30 Rock was a sitcom but Studio 60 was more of a drama. They couldn't market it and couldn't understand it. So, it went away after one season. Aaron Sorkin is one of the greatest writers of our time. He has had 3 shows and 2 of them have not been able to find a place on broadcast network television. This summer he has a new show coming out called "Newsroom". Guess where it is playing? HBO. Wonder if the broadcast networks get it now? They may not have learned but it looks to me like Aaron has.
Check out this blog about mistakes in good shows where Sports Night makes the list.
Check out my Blog on The West Wing
Follow us on Facebook or twitter @redroompodcast
Subscribe to our Weekly Podcast on Television at iTunes