Helping to Make TV Safe for Smart People
by Jay S. Jacobs
The fall of 1998 was a tough time for television comedy. The networks tried to come up with a plan for post-Seinfeld TV, but the best they seemed to be able to come up with were tired retreads like Jesse, Two of a Kind and Maggie Winters. But shining like a diamond in the empty mine of a new comedy schedule was one true pedigree. Sports Night was a smart and funny look behind the scenes at a cable sports newscast. Created and almost completely written by playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President) the writing was clever, complex and different than anything else on TV. Running on Tuesday nights at 9:30 on ABC, Sports Night quickly got a rabid critical and cult following.
Peter Krause, who stars in the show as sportscaster Casey McCall, sat down with us to discuss Sports Night‘s triumphant first year and also let us know a little about what to expect in the future.
I’m from Philadelphia, and I know you’re from Minnesota, so I guess my first question would have to be, can we have Randall Cunningham back, please?
Yeah, we had a good season last year. It’s funny, one of my best friends from grad school is from Philly. And all throughout the year I was riding him about how Randall Cunningham finally came into his own with the Vikings. He emailed me back when the Vikings lost the NFC Championship game to Atlanta.
I sort of hoped he’d win. I’ve always been a fan, and I figured, since we stunk so much, Randall might as well win.
He just needs to throw some longer passes and not underthrow Randy Moss so much. He’ll be fine next year.
When did you know you had to become an actor?
I came to it late, actually. It was when I was in college. I started college Pre-Med. That lasted about half a semester. I did find I used to spend all my time with my nose in the books. So, I dropped that line of study and took up the Russian language and continued my study of English literature. Then, midway through my sophomore year, I did my second play. I had done one play in high school, but then I hurt my back pole-vaulting. To meet a girl. Met the girl, took her to the prom, but I didn’t like the part I got in the play. It didn’t really attract me. But then in college, this first play I did – Paul Sill’s Story Theater, was a great experience. The director of that play asked me to do Harold Pinter’s The Dumbwaiter immediately following that play. After that, I went on to do Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine and David Mamet’s American Buffalo in college. Lots of great plays. So, it was when I was a sophomore in college that I really started to get into it. Immediately following college, I got into NYU’s MFA acting program.
It says in your artist bio that you first met Aaron Sorkin while bartending at The Palace Theatre. Did you ever imagine you’d be working together on TV?
I think he did, originally. But, uh…, but I didn’t. I got that job through Camryn Manheim, who’s on The Practice. We went to NYU together and she got me the job. I met Aaron and he was working on this play about guys in the Marines. He asked me if I’d do a reading of it. It was in the early stages, when he was developing the play. He was going to do a reading in his apartment and then at the West Side Playhouse. He gave me the script and I left it in the changing room, thinking to myself that this guy spent too much time in the sandbox as a kid, playing with little plastic army men. And that it would never amount to anything. But then, years later, A Few Good Men was on Broadway and I was just getting out of grad school. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, and then I met up with him again and we’re quite happy to be working together on Sports Night.
I have to admit for the first few months of Sports Night, I was trying to figure out how I had seen you before and then it hit me that it was from Cybill. How did you get involved with that show?
Well, when I first moved out here in 1990, I did a series with Carol Burnett called Carol & Company. Then in between that and Cybill, I did a bunch of series that only lasted for like eight or nine episodes. The Great Defender. If Not for You with Hank Azaria and Elizabeth McGovern. When If Not for You was cancelled, Les Moonves, who had been in Warner Brothers when I did The Great Defender, liked me a lot, so they set up this meeting with the people over at Cybill. They were casting a new character, her son-in-law. So, it was really Les Moonves and the people over at Cybill that made that happen. I spent about two years there, and DeeDee Pfeiffer and I left the show to pursue other things.
It also said in your bio that you were on Seinfeld, but I honestly can’t remember you on that show. Which episode was that?
I did an episode called ‘The Limo,’ where I played a neo-Nazi.
Right! That was you!
I looked very different in that episode, I was wearing a trench coat, wielding a gun. But it was a lot of fun, those guys are really great to work with. I really enjoyed working with Jerry and Jason Alexander. We spent most of our time in the limousine on the stage with those two guys. Had a lot of laughs.
One of the great things about Sports Night, is that unlike most TV comedies, it does not assume the audience is stupid. Do you think that could be a problem in the long run, that Sports Night could be too smart for the average viewer?
I think in the beginning, it was a problem for people to figure out what it was. By comparing it with other television product that they’ve seen, I don’t think there’s been anything out there lately that they can compare it to, and say, oh, this is like that show. I think in the long run it’s going to work to our advantage, because I think the TV viewers are starved for shows like Sports Night. We’ve done episodes about racism in college sports. About personal vanity. And then kooky things like people being afraid of fish. It is a very intelligent show, and I think in the long run it’s going to help us. In the beginning, I don’t want to say it hurt us, but I think the viewers couldn’t quite figure out what the show was. Over time, with more sampling, more people will be drawn to it. We’ve already been a huge critical success. We’ve got a great cult audience. And we’re shooting for more popular success, and I think that will come in the second or third years.
In truth, the show has very little to do with sports. Do you worry that some people, particularly women, may not give the show a chance because of the name?
I think that has been the case. That’s a case of people judging a book by its cover. Looking at the title and assuming that the show is just about sports. It’s clearly not. It’s about personal relationships and neuroses. But Aaron has also been really smart in terms of some of the sports he’s chosen to do episodes about. We did an episode about mountain climbing. That was a metaphor for trying to achieve great things in your life. Like trying to ascend that mountain. We did an episode featuring cricket, too. It’s not purely American sports that we deal with. A lot of times, we’ll use a sports story to underscore what’s going on with somebody in the show. There was a great episode called ‘The Sword of Orion’ in which the character Jeremy (Joshua Malina) finds out that his father has been having an affair for twenty-five years or something like that while they were married. And there was the metaphor of this ship that gets lost at sea, sort of tied into his parents’ relationship getting lost. What happened? Where did that ship go? It’s a mystery to him how that happened. Again, it’s not baseball, basketball, football all the time. Here he’s using a sailing race as a backdrop for a personal story. This show uses sports as a metaphor for life, which I think is really smart on his part. And now, they’re putting Dharma & Greg in front of us, to try and draw more female viewers because apparently that show does really well across the board. Lots of female viewers. ABC’s been treating us really well. They kept us at our same timeslot, so the viewers that got hooked on us last year know where to find us. And they gave us a great lead in with Dharma & Greg.
The cast (and creator) of Sports Night have strong theater backgrounds. Probably because of that, the show has a much different vibe than the usual sit-com rhythm of setup-punchline-setup-punchline. How do you think the theatrical backgrounds help the show?
The theatrical background that we all share helps us in our working process. We only have two days rehearsal, then we film for three days. The scripts for Sports Night are about twelve pages longer on average than any other half-hour show that’s been on television. So, we’ve got to pick up our cues, as if you’re doing a play on stage. We’re all talking a little bit faster than most half-hour shows. And we’ve worked really hard to eliminate the laugh track. There still is a laugh track, but it’s been diminished quite a bit. You probably don’t even notice it anymore. But that’s something the network wanted. They feel like it was the touch of familiarity for the television audiences. Things like that. It’s been a battle, but it hasn’t been a battle full of animosity. Both sides have understood what the other has tried to do. ABC and Imagine and Disney/Touchstone have been really supportive with Aaron, Tommy Schlamme, the director, and the cast. To try achieving the best show possible. Each side understands creative and business concerns. So, it’s been a pretty happy battle with a laugh track.
I know Felicity Huffman has done a lot of work with David Mamet. I even liked her in her old series Golden Years. In fact, the show feels a lot like half-hour Mamet plays without the cursing. What is it like working with her?
Felicity and I get along great on stage. She and Josh Charles are my two favorite people to have scenes with. And most of my scenes are scenes with them. In my personal life, Felicity is the bane of my existence. We were down in Florida for some interviews down there. She somehow got a key to my hotel room. I was out golfing. And I came back and discovered all my underwear and socks twirling from the ceiling fans. My shoes were in the freezer. There was a basket of fruit, the contents of which had been emptied into the bathtub — which was full of water along with all of my toiletries floating around in there. She hung all my clothes out on my balcony. So, all the people down at the pool must have looked up wondering what the hell’s going on there? She gives me a lot of grief. But we enjoy each other very much. Felicity’s great.
The characters of Casey and Dan seem very different in many ways, Dan is much more impulsive and outgoing while Casey is more introspective and worried of people’s reactions. Why do you think the characters work so well together?
I think that they kind of lucked out with Josh and I. We have a natural chemistry and became real fast friends. And now, being in the off-season, we do a lot together. Their chemistry is real good, I think, because it shows a pretty standard guy relationship. But then it also shows two guys who talk to each other very sensitively about their problems. I don’t mean that in a soft, feminine way, but you know they’re guys who are able to speak honestly about problems they are having. With each other. And their predicaments are… they’re offset. Casey’s this guy who’s married, or was married. Hasn’t really gotten over his former wife, Lisa. Has a son. So, he’s further along in life. I think Casey masks a lot of his problems in kind of a bravado and tends to be rather impulsive in his own way. In terms of the things he does in his life. Especially concerning Dana. And then has to move pretty quick to try to fix those things. Meanwhile, Dan is a little younger and single. Doing his thing. So, they really kind of cover each other’s back. They’re very much each other’s wingman.
I was very pleasantly surprised by what a good actor Robert Guillaume is. He never really had a chance to stretch out in Benson. Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his health problems. How is he doing?
He’s doing great. I just saw him on Monday. And every time I see him, he looks better and seems in better spirits. He’s definitely a fighter and is deeply committed to coming back to the show and working as much as possible.
Lots of sit-coms do run into problems when they act on long-ignored passions in main characters. So far, the show has juggled the Casey-Dana relationship very deftly, but how do you think they’ll avoid the Sam & Diane, Ross & Rachel syndrome?
Well, I’m not sure exactly where Aaron is going to take that story. But I anticipate a very strong move. I think we’re going to shake up the series next year. I don’t think this is going to be a continuation of storylines from last year. We’re going to assume that time has taken place. We’ve been away from the show for a while. We’re coming back and things have happened. I would think that perhaps next year, for an entire season, Casey and Dana really won’t have any involvement whatsoever. It might be some giant rift or something like that which pushes them apart, but they still remain friends. Something I enjoyed last year, which I hope continues, is the acidic banter that happened between Casey and Dana. Then you’d also see this deep friendship. That when they really needed each other, they were there. I think that playing up the romantic aspect at the end of last season was really interesting. I don’t think anything could be consummated. I don’t think we could pay it off. That’s something you’ve got to make the audience wait for. That’s what they want. But they’ve also known each other for a long time, so you have to think, gosh, wouldn’t it have happened by now? I think next year we may see things shaken up a little bit. Casey and Dana might be at odds with each other. But they’ll still be good friends. We’ll see where the subsequent seasons take us.
One great thing about the show is that it very much is about the workplace and has people doing real jobs. In fact, I can only remember one scene in the entire season that took place outside of the CSC building, when Casey and Dana went on a double date. Please tell me they aren’t going to open up the show, because that really fits the show and situation.
Our bread and butter has certainly been… in the beginning of every show you’re kind of flying along. You’re drawn into this world while we’re doing a sports broadcast. At the end, you’re kind of drawn out. So, it’s like you fly into the world and fly back out. You just get a glimpse of this life there. The place, the studio is certainly our bread and butter, and I think that will stay intact. There has been talk of us going to New York next year a couple of times and shooting some stuff. Josh and I sat down with Aaron and we discussed the concern of… we don’t want it to look like Sports Night In New York. We’ve got to try and seamlessly make it work with what we were doing last year. And with the show. If, for instance, there is a way of getting on top of a building in New York that would look like the top of the CSC building, or something like that. A place where Dan and Casey go to take a break. Have a chat or something like that. So, we’re going to be going to New York, hopefully, next year and filming some stuff there on location. I think that we may go out of the studio a little more this year than we did last, but not much.
How much of yourself is in the character of Casey, and in what ways is he different from you?
That’s an interesting question. I think that he’s similar to me in that he’s very serious-minded. At the same time, there’s a real boyish quality about him. The guy that didn’t want to grow up. But he’s got a son and he’s very responsible about that. And there’s this specter of his former relationship with his wife that I think haunts him. That’s something that’s not necessarily in the text, but something that I sat down with Aaron and we talked about. There are moments I just try and carry that with me a little bit, when I’m doing episodes of the show. There’s a loneliness, I think, about Casey at this point in his life. Because he spends so much time with Dana. That’s part of it.
Like you just mentioned, your character’s ex-wife, Lisa, is mentioned quite a few times, but hasn’t been shown. Will she be on the show eventually, or do you think she’ll become one of those classic unseen characters like Vera and Bob Sakamato?
We just had a meeting about that, and we discussed the pros and cons of adding her to the show. That’s a very important bit of casting, because once you establish that person and we wanted to bring her back, if she’s busy doing something else, that causes problems. There’s some value to a character that’s not seen, like Maris in Frasier. But I think in this show, it would be valuable to see her at some point, and to see Casey struggle with the possibility of getting back together with her. What that does to Dana and the people around him, who see that she’s really the wrong person for him.
In their infinite wisdom, the networks counter-programmed your show with Will & Grace, which was the only other acclaimed comedy of the fall season. That really hurt both shows. Does it ever make you wonder how a quality show like yours could have a smaller following than an obviously inferior show like Veronica’s Closet?
I think that every show on television has its place. I think Married with Children or, I don’t know, The Nanny… some people want to go home, turn on the TV and be able to iron their clothes or grab a sandwich. Come out and catch a joke and not have to follow the story. Our show requires you to pay a lot more attention than most shows on TV. Maybe any show. Because the scripts, the stories are like these houses of cards. If you miss a piece, you’re not going to quite catch the whole story. The storytelling is really strong on the show. It doesn’t bother me that we’re not doing as well. Because I believe that over time we will. I believe it’s something that you have to acquire a taste for. We tackle subject matter that some hour shows don’t.
Aaron Sorkin wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes of last season. He plans to write all of the new season as well, plus his new Presidential drama The West Wing. Do you think he might be stretching himself a little too thin?
I certainly worry about that. I probably don’t worry about it as much as Aaron does, though. He said himself that he doesn’t quite know what he’s going to do. But, to give a show a specific artistic voice, it’s important for one person to sort of be leading the charge. This year for Aaron might become about learning how to incorporate other writers, so that he doesn’t spread himself too thin. He comes from a playwriting, film-writing background. Which doesn’t involve a group of writers in a room. I think his process has been going into a room by himself. Putting the nose to the grindstone and doing the work. So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens this year with those two shows. I think that it’s incredibly time intensive and I know that he’s trying to use these months in the summer to kind of get a head start. On both shows. He reassured me by saying that Sports Night is his true love. Right now, West Wing is his mistress. So, we’ll see what happens.
What misconceptions would you like to clear up?
Gosh, I can’t really think of any. I mean, I think the biggest thing would be that it’s not just about sports. And, it’s not a show just for guys. I also think last year, towards the end of the year, we dealt a lot with relationships. I don’t think that’s going to become any sort of template for the future either. I think that everybody on the show wants to try and take the show in as many directions as possible. To keep the audience on its toes. Not to deliver the same thing every week. That’s something that most television shows try to do. I think that Cheers did that really well. They found a way of doing different episodes each week, but the audience knew that every week they were going to come back and get a serving of the same good comedy. The same characters doing very similar things, but different clever episodes. I think for us, you’re going to see characters doing wildly different things on different episodes. There are some weeks that are very dramatic, others are comedic, and you also see characters grow on our show and not just do the same thing over and over and over again. That’s something that we’ve talked about in the coming year that we want to see characters move in some different directions. Later on, some new personality traits with everybody. New characters and new directions.
What do you know for sure?
I’ve done several TV shows before this. I know for sure that television series like this one may only come across once in a career.
Thanks for doing the interview; I really love the show.
Thanks, I’m trying to think if there’s anything else… I want to mention about Felicity that she also makes fun of my clothes constantly. She’s, oh, God, she’s… No, we get along famously. She’s great. But she likes to give me a hard time.
Copyright © 1999 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 2, 1999.