How To Write for The West Wing
The most important night of the year for the television industry is just around the corner. No, I'm not talking about the season premier of Everybody Loves Raymond. In fact, I don't think that the series premier of Everybody Loves Raymond could possibly be any further from what I'm talking about. You'd have to be some sort of dumbass to confuse what I'm talking about with the season premier of Everybody Loves Raymond, and I'm sorry, but my schedule is far too hectic to squeeze in time for dumbasses. Besides, the series premier isn't for another couple months. So if that's what you thought I was talking about, I'm going to have to ask you to leave now. Now, for the rest of you who aren't on some sort of insane love quest to try to get Ray Romano to answer the love letters you sent him written in puppy blood, I was in fact referring to the Emmys. The nominations are in, and the 55th Annual Emmy Awards are just around the corner. Once again, critically acclaimed The West Wing is nominated for Outstanding Drama Series.
With enough Emmys under its belt to build a home for a family of four, does The West Wing have what it takes to snag that coveted golden statuette one more time? The odds are good. But as bright as the show's past may be, its future is dubiously hazy. Writer and creator Aaron Sorkin is leaving for greener, more psychedelic mushroom-filled pastures. While the show certainly has a fine cast, there can be no doubt that it has been Sorkin's snappy and often moving writing that has given the show it's winning direction. Without him, all is lost. Indeed, the television industry as a whole is worse off. But their loss can be your gain! The West Wing only needs one thing to retain its title as the best / most difficult to understand political show on television - a new writer with absolutely no ambition of creating any sort of original content in his or her entire career, ever. They need someone who can put all hopes of being recognized as a unique and creative artist aside and settle for the oodles upon oodles of money involved in being a professional hack whose only actual contribution to the show involves plugging a few variables into Sorkin's award-winning formula. Think you have what it takes? Follow these steps and find out!
Turn to the left and start running
The cast is all dressed up after a night of saving kittens and protecting the rainforest by strapping themselves to trees.
Unless this is a very special episode, you should probably assume that the various West Wing characters are going about business as normal. Now, the Bartlett administration has something of a tendency to lean to the left, in the sense that the Stalin administration had something of a tendency to kill its own citizens. Let's face it - an administration with Martin Sheen as its leader is going to put the "liberal" in "Jesus Christ Almighty, these people are liberal." So when you're starting your Emmy-winning West Wing script, be sure to ask yourself, "what would a bunch of liberals in the West Wing be doing right now?" Then have the characters engaging in those activities. E.g.:
Scene: the hall outside the main offices
Leo McGarry: "Sam, I'm going to need you to get on top of the Mid-East situation today." (He places a folder on SAM's desk, then picks up a puppy and kisses it on the top of its head.)
Sam Seaborn: (Takes a drag from his joint) "Alright."
C.J. Cregg: (Hugging a tree which is in the middle of the hall for some reason) "Leo, I'll need to speak with the President."
Sam: "What you need to do is hit this shit." (Passes the joint to C.J.)
Leo: "The President can't be disturbed this morning. He's finishing up his Grateful Dead mix tape."
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Repetition.
The cast is all dressed up after a night of saving kittens and protecting the rainforest by strapping themselves to trees.
You might be wondering, "Gee, I don't know anything about politics. Do I really have what it takes to write for The West Wing?" The answer is shut up. You don't need to know politics to write for The West Wing. You need to sound like you know politics. And that is accomplished by stringing together a meaningless bunch of buzzwords and having them repeated by two or more characters. The audience will assume that this is an important issue that they just don't have the mental capacity to comprehend. The more it is repeated, the more people will be impressed by just how important and completely incomprehensible it is. If you have the phrase of the week repeated while walking down a hallway, it will seem so important and so overwhelmingly complex that people will write to their congressmen to congratulate them for being so supremely intelligent that they can deal with such crucial issues on a daily basis. Note that at no point do you actually have to explain what your mystery phrase actually means. If you ever get into a situation where you can't go any further without actually saying what the hell it is that you're talking about, have an extra appear and say that someone is waiting. E.g.:
Scene: A hallway
Toby Zeigler: (Walking down the hallway at a brisk pace alongside JOSH LYMAN) I just got the latest Philbert Report on Liberia.
Josh Lyman: "The Philbert Report on Liberia? What does it say?"
(SAM enters from a conference room and joins up with TOBY and JOSH)
Sam: "I like whores."
Josh: "Toby just got the latest Philbert Report on Liberia."
Sam: "The what?"
Toby: "The Philbert Report on Liberia."
Sam: "The what report on where?"
Toby: "The Philbert Report on Liberia."
Sam: "The Philbert Report on Liberia? What does it say?"
(A WHITE HOUSE STAFF MEMBER approaches TOBY.)
White House Staff Member: "Toby, the senator is waiting in your office."
Toby: "We'll talk later." (He turns and walks in the opposite direction.)
You see? Didn't that sound important, yet plausible? Just who is this Philbert? Why is he doing the reporting? When was the last Philbert Report? What does he have to say about Liberia? Does he have anything to say about any other countries? How long can Josh and Sam live without knowing? If the answer is "at least to the end of the episode," then you're home free!
Part of the charm of The West Wing is the way that it mixes wit with serious political drama. No one expects you to be witty on a weekly basis. If you can't manage to come up with anything funny to say, just have one character deliver a quick line that the other characters can repeat throughout the episode until it eventually becomes funny. This will work best if the line includes a phrase that everybody knows, yet no one would ever actually use in day-to-day speech. E.g.:
Scene: Josh Lyman's office
Josh: "Donna, hold all my calls for the next hour... are you alright?"
Donna Moss: (Looking up from the massive hatchet wound in her stomach) "I'm fine."
Josh: "You sure?"
Donna: "Yeah! I'm sound as a pound."
Josh: "You're sound as a pound?"
Donna: "If I was any sounder, a pound wouldn't look very sound at all in comparison."
(Sam sticks his head into Josh's office for no conceivable reason.)
Sam: "What's going on?"
Josh: "Donna's sound as a pound."
Sam: (To DONNA) "Are you, in fact, sound as a pound?"
Donna: "I am."
Sam: "You are?"
Donna: "Sound as a pound."
Sam: "Well that's good, isn't it?"
Donna: "It is. The pound is very sound. Or at least, I'd have to imagine that it was when the saying first or - or - originated..." (She passes out from blood loss.)
Sam: (To JOSH) "Have you heard anything about the latest Philbert Report on Liberia?"
The look of love
Feel the longing! Experience the meaning!
The characters on The West Wing are real people, and real people, I'm told, have emotions. As the show's writer, you will need to write in scenes that display some of these emotions. Fortunately, the most common emotion is "patriotically stoic," so you get off easy, there. However, each of the main characters should have at least one episode per season where they get to completely spazz out, thus winning an Emmy. For instance, Aaron Sorkin had President Bartlett curse God in Latin. That sort of thing is tough to do, but remember, it's just one episode per season. The rest of the time, you can fill your emotion quota entirely though sexual tension. This may sound complicated, but remember, it's just sexual tension. You don't have to worry about romance, relationship, dates, marriages, or even any actual sex. All you need to do is write in pregnant pauses where any two random characters stare into each other's eyes in a longing and/or meaningful fashion. Any two will do. E.g.:
Scene: C.J. Cregg's office. C.J. enters, pulling DANNY CONCANNON in behind her.
C.J.: "Alright, start talking. What have you heard?"
Danny: "C.J., I don't know anything more than what you tell me. That's the way it works."
(C.J. and DANNY stare into each other's eyes longingly. LEO enters.)
Leo: "Am I interrupting something?"
C.J.: "I was just asking Danny what he's heard about the Philbert Report on Liberia."
Leo: "So, Danny, what have you heard?"
Danny: "Only what I've been told."
(LEO and DANNY stare into each other's eyes meaningfully. JOSH enters.)
Josh: "Donna's fine."
Leo: "Is she now?"
Josh: "She is. She's sound as a pound."
Danny: "Well that's good, isn't it?"
C.J.: "You don't talk to him. You talk to me."
Josh: "It is good, actually. The pound is very sound. Or at least, it was when the saying originated."
(C.J. and Josh stare into each other's eyes longingly and meaningfully in a ratio of 3:1.)
Leo: "I'm going to go get drunk. I'm a recovering alcoholic, you know."
(Everyone stares into each other's eyes either longingly or meaningfully, decided by coin toss. A WHITE HOUSE STAFF MEMBER ENTERS.)
White House Staff Member: "Uh, Mr. Lyman? Donna bled to death."
Special interests for special people
Look how seriously they're lit. That means they're passionate about government.
If you're going to stretch you episode out to a full hour without actually discussing any serious political issues, you'll need to pad it out. The best way to accomplish this is by introducing some whiny special interest group. Anything will do. Black Rabbis of America, the Gay Policeman Union, Women United Against the Black Rabbis of America, anything will do. Don't bother explaining how some minor group with four members and a pet squirrel mascot could manage to get a meeting with one of the President's top aides, or with the President himself. That doesn't matter. What does matter is that every special interest group in the world is thoroughly convinced that their cause is the only important issue affecting mankind. It doesn't matter if the rest of the episode is dedicated to terrorists who managed to sneak a massive nuclear weapon into Washington, your special interest group has to be convinced that their problems come first. In addition, you can complicate matters, thus buying yourself some extra wiggle room, if the special interest group also has a firm belief that runs contrary to what that sort of group would be expected to believe. For instance, if you introduce a Jewish Rights group, perhaps they refuse to back the administration with their millions of media dollars unless the U.S. pulls out of the Middle East altogether because they think Arabs are super keen. Furthermore, the representative of your chosen group should fall into one of two categories. Either he or she should be attractive, and thus should be a love interest for whichever staff member he or she meets with, or he or she should have some sort of massive personal defect. E.g.:
Scene: Toby Zeigler's office. TOBY enters to find RENALDO GONZALES, a Hispanic midget with no legs, scales on his head, and a raging case of oral herpes.
Toby: "I was expecting senator Swoondocket."
Renaldo: "I told that aide to tell you I was the senator because I knew you wouldn't come otherwise."
Toby: "What makes you say that?"
Renaldo: "The word on the Hill is that Toby Zeigler doesn't make time for Buddhists."
Toby: "Are you a Buddhist?"
Renaldo: "Can't you tell by looking at me?"
Renaldo: "Hello? I've disavowed all material possessions, here! Hello? Look at me, I've gained inner peace."
Toby: "And mouth herpes."
Renaldo: "And mouth herpes, yes."
Toby: "So what can I do for you?"
Renaldo: "They say you've seen the latest Philbert Report on Liberia."
Toby: "Who told you that?"
Renaldo: "That's not important. What is important is the action that you plan on taking. You should know that you won't have the support of Hispanic Midget Buddhists for Jesus."
Toby: "Why not?"
Renaldo: "Because we know that you're planning to withdraw troops, and none of those troops are Hispanic Buddhist midgets."
Toby: "I'm fairly sure that there are no Hispanic Buddhist midgets in the United States military."
Renaldo: "Stop trying to Jew me, Jew. Enlist some, send them to Liberia, then bring them home, or none of those boys will leave. You and I both know that you can't afford to fly them all back here without HIMBUJ funding."
Toby: "You're an a-hole."
Renaldo: "Hello? I have mouth herpes!"
(They stare longingly into each other's eyes.)
A blast from the past
Come on, you know you'd vote for him, even if he is a dirty hippie.
The show may be about the senior members of the President's staff, but eventually you will have to bring in the President himself. There is no more daunting task an aspiring writer can face than having to write dialogue for the President of the United States of America. Jed Bartlett is a respected statesman, truly worthy of his post. You have to give him lines befitting the dignity, honor, and ultimate responsibility of his position. The best way to do this is by having him deliver some sort of speech about our founding fathers that doesn't relate to the topic of the episode in any way whatsoever, yet somehow puts everything in perspective. The Bartlett family has been in America since 1502 and every member of the family has been close personal friends with a President. Because of this, or possibly because he himself is a President, Bartlett knows absolutely everything any statesman has ever done in the history of the nation. You don't need to go digging through the Library of Congress for some obscure fact about John Adams, just make something up. Try to make it something minor, yet meaningful. Remember, the founding fathers were completely perfect human beings with superhuman powers, and everything they did had deep symbolic meaning. You don't need to make up some war that George Washington managed to avert by giving a demonstration of his laser beam eyes. Keep it simple, but make it special. E.g.:
Scene: The Oval Office. LEO, C.J., JOSH, SAM, and TOBY enter. PRESIDENT BARTLETT rises from his desk.
Leo: "Good evening, Mr. President."
Bartlett: "Good evening, everyone. I just finished my mix tape. I expect you all to listen to it and give me your honest opinion."
Toby: "It will have to wait, Mr. President. We've been up to our necks in the latest Philbert Report on Liberia all day. You have to make a decision."
(TOBY and LEO stare into each other's eyes meaningfully.)
Sam: "You can't ask for a better match than me and prostitutes."
C.J.: "Mr. President, I think Danny Concannon knows something he's not telling us. I believe we have to ask him to step down as senior White House correspondent."
Josh: "Donna is dead and my carpet has a big stain on it. She wasn't quite as sound as she let on. Certainly nowhere near as sound as a pound."
Bartlett: "You know, Thomas Jefferson played the violin. Whenever things got too hectic, he would take a break, go off to a field, and just play until he found the patience and the wisdom to make the right decision to run the fledgling nation hesitantly referred to as America. Then one day a man arrived from France, an emissary of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. He carried with him a letter authorizing the sale of the Louisiana Territory for an outrageous sum. Jefferson knew that land would be an incredible boon to his country, but the price was too much to pay. It would deplete far too much of the treasury, and the floundering experiment called America would never be able to recover. So Jefferson asked Napoleon's emissary to accompany him out to the field. They sat down in the soft grass, and without saying a word, Jefferson began to play." (He opens a cabinet and removes an old violin.) "And on his violin - this violin - he played the entire collective works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When he had finished, the Frenchman was so moved by the beauty of the music that he had died of starvation, so Jefferson took out a pen, and changed the number on the letter to something a lot more manageable, then sent a letter of agreement to Napoleon."
(There is a moment of silence and possibly staring.)
Leo: "Good night, Mr. President."
(LEO turns and walks out of the office, followed by the rest of the staff. BARTLETT simply nods, with a thin smile on his face.)
Fade to black
And that's it! Your award-winning episode of The West Wing is complete. You see, all you have to do is follow this easy formula, and all of the riches and prestige of working for one of the most respected shows on television can be yours. People will admire and fear your superior intellect and mastery of the our country's political landscape, and who know? Maybe people will start giving you longing and meaningful looks. Well, probably not both, but almost definitely one or the other.