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TV’s Best Talker: Aaron Sorkin on The Newsroom, Sorkinism, and Sounding Smart

On June 24, HBO will air the debut of The Newsroom, the first cable series from Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning creator of The West Wing and writer of The Social Network. The show is not just a return to television but a series about television — in particular, television news and its squandered powers.

As we watch, the anchorman at its center, Will McAvoy (Jeff ­Daniels), has a kind of political awakening, shedding his status as “the Jay Leno of news anchors” and reinventing himself as an iconoclastic, Network-style truth-teller, and discovering that, like most great Sorkin characters, he has an awful lot to say—about the shortcomings of journalism, about the inanities of political discourse on both the left and the right, and about the compromises that can make television so ­infuriating. The man who puts the words into Will’s mouth has some thoughts on those matters as well.

People like me are going to be tempted to say that, following Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, this show is part three of your trilogy about the making of TV.

There’s something about live television that I find very exciting and romantic—I’m gonna use the word “romantic” a lot. But you’d be closer to the truth to say it’s a quartet, with The West Wing, that lives in that place of wish fulfillment, what Will calls “a mission to civilize.” And it keeps failing miserably—he keeps slipping on banana peels.

I write this kind of character a lot, beginning with the first play and the first movie I wrote, A Few Good Men, the Tom Cruise character, or Andrew Shepherd in The American President, or, in a lot of episodes, Bartlet in The West Wing and, to an extent, Charlie Wilson in Charlie Wilson’s War. I’m writing about not the difference between good and bad but the difference between good and great. You take a guy who’s a perfectly nice guy. He’s doing fine. He’s not breaking any laws. And he covets the fact that people like him, and he’s popular. He covets the fact that he doesn’t have a lot of enemies. And you make him have to risk that by reaching higher.

When Will goes from being blandly neutral about everything to making his own opinions clear, it’s a transformation that viewers of cable news will certainly ­recognize. But those guys sometimes become grandiose blowhards.

Of course. But there’s a bigger problem that I’m worried about first. And this all has to come with the caveat that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Come on.

No, I mean it. All of my training and experience and education has been in playwriting. I have no political sophistication or media sophistication, so if I was talking to Howard Kurtz or you, you could easily dismantle whatever argument I’m going to make. It is a layman’s amateur argument. Oftentimes, I write about people who are smarter than I am and know more than I do, and I am able to do that simply by being tutored almost phonetically, sometimes. I’m used to it. I grew up surrounded by people who are smarter than I am, and I like the sound of intelligence. I can imitate that sound, but it’s not organic. It’s not intelligence. It’s my phonetic ability to imitate the sound of intelligence.

So what’s the bigger problem, then?

The thing that I worry about more is the media’s bias toward fairness. Nobody uses the word lie anymore. Suddenly, everything is “a difference of opinion.” If the entire House Republican caucus were to walk onto the floor one day and say “The Earth is flat,” the headline on the New York Times the next day would read “Democrats and Republicans Can’t Agree on Shape of Earth.” I don’t believe the truth always lies in the middle. I don’t believe there are two sides to every argument. I think the facts are the center. And watching the news abandon the facts in favor of “fairness” is what’s troubling to me.

And, I want to make it clear, I’m not a political activist. I’ve met political activists, and they’re for real. I’ve never marched anyplace or done anything that takes more effort than writing a check in terms of activism. Honestly, I’m a storyteller. I’m just as happy doing this as writing Sports Night or The Social Network or anything else. I don’t have a political agenda. I’m not trying to change your mind or teach you anything. I’m not able to teach you anything.

But back to my point. It seems very important that if someone on the right in the news screws up in a really bad way, that the media find someone on the left who screwed up in some kind of way so that we can have a “One From Column A, One From Column B” kind of situation. And that if there are five from Column A, there can’t be only three from Column B, because then they’ll be accused of liberal bias.

In one episode of Newsroom, we hear Will say, “I’m a registered Republican—I only seem liberal because I believe that hurricanes are caused by high ­barometric pressure and not by gay marriage.” So—

Your question is “Are hurricanes caused by high barometric pressure or low barometric pressure?” The answer is both. Hurricanes are caused when a high-pressure system surrounds a low-pressure system. That wasn’t your question, though. Your question is, why is Will a Republican?

No. My question is, if he really is a ­Republican with moderate-to-liberal beliefs, when did you become interested in science fiction?

You’ve answered the question I thought you were asking, which is, why is he a Republican? There are several reasons, but the biggest is: I haven’t seen this guy on TV.

Or anywhere, lately.

For the last year or so, but really since Obama got elected, I’ve found the most interesting op-ed political writing to be from Republicans who are looking at the extreme right and saying, “Those guys aren’t with us. I don’t know what happened here, but they’ve kind of co-opted our brand name. But these aren’t Republican values.” Guys like David Frum, Mark McKinnon, Andrew Sullivan. Even George Will. I hadn’t seen that guy on television. There’s CNN, which tries very, very hard either to not be anything or to be both things. And then, of course, there’s Fox and there’s MSNBC, on either side.

[The waitress appears.]

Waitress: Our soup today is New ­England–style clam chowder. And a tuna burger is also available.

A tuna burger? That’s a phony hamburger.

Waitress: It’s really very nice!

You can’t just smash anything into a patty shape and call it a burger, a turkey burger, a tofu burger, a tuna burger.

Waitress: Um, do you need some time?

Do you know what you want?

I just want you to continue this burger analogy. Can you mash what you want Republicans to be into a Will burger?

I can, and I will. [The waitress promises to return shortly.] You know—I’m going to answer your question—but I eat the same food I ate in college, which you can’t do. But people who have tried to get me to eat healthy talk to me the way I talked to my 11-year-old daughter when she was 3, and I would try to get her to eat vegetables by shaping them into something else. The answer to your question is: Yes. If Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing was the Democrat that Democrats would love to see, I think that Will McAvoy is the Republican that Democrats would love to see.

With both of those characters, you seem to be exploring the problem of whether an intellectual can also be a leader. Is that a kind of dramatically animating question for you?

It really is. Right before this, I had Hardball on in the background. They were talking about how even though Obama polled well in the exit polling against Romney in the Wisconsin recall election, he did lose ground among white men. So there was a discussion about the problem that white men see Obama as too professorial, not gritty enough, not rugged enough, not what they want to see in a president. For me, that’s a divide that I feel like I’ve been watching my whole life. The Democratic Party has been feminized by the Republican Party—if you’re smart, that means you’re a wimp.

Will’s take is that liberals don’t know how to win and conservatives are wrong and often ignorant. The left will like that version of fairness more than the right will.

All I can say is this: First of all, my biggest concern always is, was it a good story, well told? I’m not thinking about the politics at all. But I don’t want to make the same mistake that I accuse the media of making, which is that they all better be equal accusations on all sides, that fairness is somehow a virtue in art. It’s not. Fairness and balance don’t have anything to do with art. This isn’t journalism, and it doesn’t have to live by those rules. It’s meant to have a subjective point of view and an authorial voice.

Will the news events on the show always be real?

The news events will always be real. To make the place seem real, you want to see shards of a news broadcast, you want to see them in rundown meetings, you want to see them doing the job, getting the news. With Sports Night, it was fairly easy to make up fake news that sounded real. All you had to do was say, “And now, the Jets injury report: So-and-so has a torn ACL,” and you’d cut away. With real news, it wasn’t gonna be that easy. So the idea to set the show in the recent past happened out of necessity. But then it became a kind of creative gift. For one thing, the audience knows more than the characters do, which is kind of fun. And it gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were, which is always nice. But—let’s be really clear about this—no character on the show is based, even a little bit, on anyone from real life. Okay? Anyone. Jeff Daniels is not playing Keith Olbermann. Will bears no resemblance to Keith Olbermann.

I’m glad you brought Olbermann up.

I’d really like to put that away. Any similarities you might be able to find are purely coincidental. Keith wasn’t on my mind at all.

There’s a line in the first episode arguing that newsmen can make a difference if they’re willing to be a bit more subjective.

“Murrow was the end of McCarthy, Cronkite was the end of Vietnam.”

But one reason those two things had such impact was that in both cases it was a break from the norm.

It was rare. And they were, as most anchors, incredibly trusted. We had a different relationship with the media then.

So can you make that impact if you broadcast your opinions on a regular basis?

I don’t know. The real theme of the show is Don Quixote, which you hear about in every episode. And not just Don Quixote—I’m very proud of this: There isn’t an episode in which there isn’t a reference to a musical—Man of La Mancha and Camelot and Brigadoon. The idea is that they are on a noble but futile quest—they’ve decided that that has honor, and they’re gonna do it.

Could you make the case, looking at your shows, that the higher the stakes have been, the more successful the ­series? I mean, when it was all about the fate of the free world, the result was a show that changed TV drama in the late nineties. When it was only about making a TV comedy show, the result was Studio 60.

If you want to make that case, the evidence backs you up. But there are a lot of other factors that played into the success or failure of those shows. With Studio 60, I simply didn’t write it well enough.

Did you feel that at the time?

Yeah. A baseball player or a golfer can tell you that the moment they hit the ball, they know what’s going to happen with it, just from the way it feels. And I would know, while I was writing the script, that I was fouling it off, that I was not getting solid wood on it, as a baseball player would say. I spent that whole season trying to improve my swing. When you’re writing this kind of show, it’s unforgiving. There’s just a much narrower margin of error than if you’re starting off with a dead body and ending up with the person who did it. If you’re going to be as high-handed with your premise and conceit as I am with these shows, you have to write it really well. And I didn’t with ­Studio 60. I didn’t, frankly, with Sports Night either.

Really? A lot of Sports Night fans would disagree with you.

It’s a little bit like looking at my high-school-yearbook picture. There’s a lot of the writing that was annoying, and I know I could do it better today.

My daughter has been asking for a while to watch Sports Night. And I haven’t let her, not because there’s anything inappropriate in it but because I didn’t want her to be bored by it, which I thought she might be. We have a great time watching other shows. We’re both crazy about The Office and Modern Family. And I just had this huge fear that she was going to watch Sports Night and it wasn’t going to live up to The Office or Modern Family.

Chances are, it would be more successful today than when it was first on. But it was my first television show. I never really regarded it as a failure. It ran for two years, and as a playwright I feel, God, you run for two years, you’re a giant hit!

But the higher the stakes are in any storytelling, the better off you are. And I understand the criticism of Studio 60 that the stakes aren’t high in a world where the goal is putting on a funny show every Friday night. But I even think that, given that premise, if I’d written it better, I could’ve gotten on base.

So, to extend your baseball analogy, was The West Wing your home run?

Solid double.

Really? Just halfway home?

A solid double’s good! Listen, I love series television for many reasons, but the one downside is, if I’m writing a movie or a play and I’m not writing well, I call the studio or the producer and say, “It’s gonna be late. I’ve run into trouble, you’ll have to wait another month or two.” You can’t do that when you’re writing a television series. You have to write when you’re not writing well. I wrote 88 ­episodes of The West Wing. One of them is going to be your 88th best. And I’m not good enough for my 88th best to be very good.

I so want to know which episode that is!

I’m not going to tell you.

But do you know?

Yeah.

Do you have any regret about not having been able to stay with the show for the last three years of its run?

Yes. Sure.

I’m not asking you to assess what the show became after you left.

I’m unable to, and I’ll tell you why. Less than an hour after the press release went out toward the end of season four [announcing] that Tommy Schlamme, our principal director, and I would be leaving the show, Larry David called me. I’d only met him a couple of times, we’d shaken hands. Larry had left Seinfeld early. And he called me and said, “You can never watch the show again. Either it’s going to be great, and you’re going to be miserable, or it’s going to be less than great, and you’re going to be miserable. But either way, you’re going to be miserable.” I thanked him for his advice, but I thought, you know, Larry’s kind of professionally miserable. So, the day before the season-five premiere aired, a copy was messengered to me. I stuck the tape in, and I did not get even 60 seconds into it before I had to shut it off. Not because it was great, not because it was less than great, but because it was like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend. Other than those 60 seconds, which I can’t even really recall, I’ve never seen seasons five through seven. I missed it terribly when I left. But it was the right thing to do.

The point when you left The West Wing was the moment when the action in TV drama sort of shifted away from the networks. Do you keep up with cable?

I didn’t keep up as much as most people do. And then, once I knew that I was going to be writing a new TV series, I purposely stopped watching hour-long dramas, ­because I’m so easily influenced.

Are you competitive?

I’m made to feel inferior. When I’m writing a movie, I do the same thing—I tend to stop watching movies. I feel like, Damn it, that was good, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing, I’m not writing anything like that!

I’m aware of what Game of Thrones is. I’ve been watching Girls and Veep from the beginning. And I think all these shows are great, and I think The Newsroom is nothing like them. I’m like a kid whose parents have just moved, and it’s your first day at a new school, and you’re certain that you’re wearing something that makes you look like you’ve got a sign around your neck saying, I’M THE NEW KID AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING—that’s how I feel with a new TV show. That there’s something glaringly wrong about it.

It’s a big difference writing for cable rather than network television.

There are no language restrictions. That’s not something that I tend to take advantage of a lot. There are certainly moments throughout the series—

Will curses effectively.

I like that the full range of language is available to me. I’m not Mamet, I’m not ­David Milch. I’m saying this admiringly—these guys are able to compose concertos out of just saying “motherfucker.” My jaw is on the floor at how good they are at that. On The West Wing, which is a show that got a lot of its juice from showing the president as a human person, it would have been nice if, once in a while, he had gotten to say, “What the fuck are you doing?!”—something we never hear a president say.

But that’s not the big advantage. It’s the other ones. Television tends to have a very passive relationship with its audience. Television is something you have on to keep you company. It’s something you’ll have on while you’re flipping through a magazine, cooking dinner, talking on the phone, putting the kids to bed. The stuff that I write doesn’t ­really work well as background music. You want people to watch it the way they’d watch a movie or a play. HBO’s audience is already conditioned to watch things that way.

And there are no commercial breaks, so you’re not, every eight minutes, building to a sort of phony climax. Fewer episodes per season, so you’re able to do a better job on each episode. There’s another advantage that nobody ever talks about. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. And it’s end credits. Why are end credits a big deal? Because no matter what you write, the last moment is meant to resonate. And with HBO or any of the premium cable channels, it does. You have music playing, you have end credits rolling, the audience has a moment to sit there and just kind of feel the way the storytellers are hoping you’ll feel. On network TV, the last line of the episode can be, “Mrs. Landingham’s dead.” And then we cut immediately to a Nokia commercial. And so I always felt like the episode was getting punched in the face right at the end.

Finally: All ten episodes will be completely finished before the first one airs. And what’s good about that is, you’re in the middle of a season, and you start hearing from everyone from your neighbor to your mother to critics, people who write about television. And you find yourself starting to write to change their minds. You can’t do that here—you’re all in. There can’t be any changes based on what anybody thinks.

Two years ago, you said that one of the frustrating aspects of Studio 60 was that people would do critiques of the show literally every week, in real time. But since then, that has exponentially increased.

I love that. That people are writing about TV and talking about TV, bad or good, gets it out of the background-music realm. So while my first choice would be that they’re saying good things, my second choice would be that they’re saying bad things, as opposed to nothing at all. But the healthy thing to do, just as a quality-of-life issue, is to leave it to others to discuss.

You’re not suddenly going to start tweeting.

It’s funny you mention that. I was asked to start tweeting as part of the ramp-up to the show.

As many show creators now do.

Yes. And I’m not. I just don’t think I can do anything in 140 characters.

At the time of The Social Network, you kind of went on the record against social media. Do you still feel that way?

I’m very optimistic. You see at campaign events—on both sides, Republican and Democrat—a lot of young people. You see the way that social media affects the outcome of campaigns. The Arab Spring happened because of social media. OWS—the engine behind that was young people.

If I can quote you to yourself—

Please. There’s nothing I like more.

At one point in The Newsroom, Charlie says to Will, “You’re older than you think. Don’t learn that the hard way.” Where did that come from?

It’s interesting that you’d mention that. It’s not a line I would have written ten years ago. For some reason, I’ve always thought of myself as just having graduated from college a few years ago. And I turned 50 last June. Life is shorter than you think, and time ­really speeds up when you have a kid. It goes into crazy overdrive. My daughter went to a bat mitzvah two Saturdays ago. And wore makeup. I just couldn’t get over it. And worse yet, she looked really pretty. Really pretty.

I’m very happy with what I’ve done with my life. I’m just having one of those “It’s later than you think” moments. I don’t have a bucket list that I’m checking off. I’m not feeling like, damn, I haven’t driven to the top of Mount Washington yet. And I’m sure whatever it is I’m feeling isn’t unique, which is, time’s a bitch when you take it for granted.

Are you still working on The Comeback, the John Edwards project based on the Andrew Young book?

I think I’ve found a construction for it that will make it small, that will really raise the temperature. I love courtroom drama. Chances are, what I’m going to do is, ­Andrew Young, the prosecution’s chief witness, was called up to Washington by the prosecutors so that they could kick the tires. They were deciding whether to indict Edwards or not, they knew that Young was going to be the star witness, and they knew that he was a problematic witness. So they put him through an all-day-long mock cross-­examination in the basement of some federal building. That seems to me to be a really cool place to set the story—in that basement, on that day.

I’m sure you’ve been following the campaign. A few months ago, I was watching one of those eight-way Republican debates and I thought, I wonder which of these guys Aaron Sorkin would most like to write?

If I wrote Newt Gingrich, I would be accused of creating a completely unrealistic Republican straw man. On this show, there’s a mock debate. They’re trying to land one of the debates, and just as they have a utopian vision for what the news could be, they have a utopian vision for what a debate could be that’s better than the sort of joint press conference we get with no follow-up questions in which the candidates are allowed to get away with saying whatever they want. They have a different idea. So they are showing this new debate format to representatives from the RNC, and our guys are up there with sweatshirts that say mr. gingrich, ms. bachmann, that kind of thing, giving answers to questions based on all the research they’ve done. And if it weren’t for those sweatshirts, people would say I was creating Republican bogeymen. I guess, for me, the most interesting person to write would have been Jon Huntsman.

Ideologically, he is closest to Will.

Right. He is.

And look where it got him.

Did you ever read Mad magazine as a kid? Do you remember the feature called “Scenes We’d Like To See”? I always loved that. So: Romney had a gay foreign-policy spokesperson who resigned. And the tweet or the post from the family-values guy who was really upset that Romney had a gay spokesperson was, “Romney has just said to the family-values community, ‘Drop dead.’ ” What would have happened if Romney had said, “I’m not telling the family-values community to drop dead. I’m telling homophobes to drop dead”? Where would he be? First of all, it’s the right thing to do, let’s agree on that. But second of all, wouldn’t independents have flocked to him? Wouldn’t he own the news cycle? Wouldn’t it be good for him to do that? Who’s going to argue with him? Who on Fox News is going to say, “This man has betrayed everything conservatives believe in by denouncing homophobia”? As soon as I saw that tweet, I thought, I know exactly what the next line of dialogue should be!

Have you ever felt like you wanted to be a sideline coach for Obama?

There have been times when I have wished that I could make a rhetorical suggestion. For instance, you need the wealthiest people to pay higher taxes. Why not frame it as a patriotic sacrifice? Why not say that for generations now, it has been mostly the sons and daughters of working-class families who have fought our wars for us, with many of them paying the ultimate sacrifice? This is a national emergency now, because of what happened in 2008, and we’re going to call on a different group of Americans to make a patriotic sacrifice. We need you, for a certain amount of time, to pay an additional 4 percentage points, to simply go back to the Clinton tax rates. It’s not going to hurt, and we’re all going to appreciate it. Why not sell it that way? I would have suggested that, but there would have been nineteen people in the room smarter than I am. I don’t believe for a second that nobody thought of that—I just believe I’m not smart enough to figure out the reason it wouldn’t work.

Is this show your chance to say those things?

No. This is not a ventriloquist act. The characters are not empty vessels with which to deliver something from me. They’re characters. We shoot our show on Stage 7 at Sunset Gower. They also shot The Monkees there, and The Gong Show—and The Bridge on the River Kwai and Death of a Salesman. We’re doing the exact same thing that The Monkees was doing. It’s just an hour of storytelling.

Have you ever wanted to create a show with a woman at the center? You have some strong female characters, but your protagonists are always men.

The answer to your question is, sure.

Are you as comfortable writing women as men?

I tend not to think about it that much. Listen, would it be okay if we went up to my room so I can smoke a cigarette?

Absolutely! That way we get to do an Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk.

What are the ethics on this? Am I allowed to pay for lunch?

No.

Am I allowed to split the lunch with you?

I’ve got it, but thanks for offering!

New York makes an appearance in the show, by the way.

Really?

I’m serious about the Don Quixote story. It’s not just a couple of jokes at the beginning. Man of La Mancha was the first play I ever saw—I was 5 years old, and I remember it vividly. It had a huge impact on me. I’ve got a little windmill on my desk. Don ­Quixote’s a big deal to me. He just reminds me of my father a lot. In the best way.

And in Don Quixote, instead of bringing him down with swords, they just hold mirrors up, so he can see what a fool he is in his stupid helmet and rusty armor, and that ­really sends him into a hospital bed. And in Will’s case, it’s a profile in New York Magazine, a cover story called ­“The Greater Fool.” He reads all these blind quotes from people in the business talking about how ridiculous he is and takes the wrong combination of self-medication and winds up in the hospital.

Are addiction and recovery something you’ve got in your back pocket for an upcoming season? Or are you writing about addicts in your own way already, because so many of your central characters are adrenaline junkies?

Well, as an actual drug addict, I can tell you that that’s something different than being an adrenaline junkie or a workaholic. I wrote a little bit about addiction on The West Wing, a bit about addiction on Studio 60. I may do it again. But first of all, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was writing auto­biographically. I don’t want people thinking about me when they’re watching—Oh, I wonder if that happened to him, or He’s writing about himself, it’s not really about the character.

What do you think it means when someone calls a piece of writing “Sorkinesque” or “signature Aaron Sorkin”?

[Laughing] I know that sometimes it’s a compliment and sometimes it’s not. I can’t write like someone else. I can only write the way I write. I guess that’s all I’ll say.

It’s ironic, because when I started out writing, I was trying to imitate everybody else’s writing. But pretty early on, as early as A Few Good Men the play, not even the movie, people in the cast just joked around, trying to imitate the style, and then I’d find that critics who’d write about the play—the words snappy and crackling would be used a lot. And as time has gone on and I’ve written more, it’s just followed me around.

Have you ever had a hard time imagining what certain characters would sound like?

You know, when I sat down to start writing The Social Network, I was aware that I was writing about younger characters than I had written before. And I was kind of choking on, I’ve gotta make them talk like 19-year-olds. I tried about a page and a half of that, and it was horrible. I can’t write like someone else. What’s going to distinguish the characters isn’t what they sound like. And it’s okay—with this kind of writing, you don’t want to tell the audience who the character is, you want to show the audience what the character wants.

It’s interesting to me how often your work keeps intersecting with reality, with real-world stories, because you keep saying it’s not what you want to be doing.

I know. I’ve been saying I want to get out of the nonfiction business for a long time, because your hands are tied when you’re doing nonfiction. And—just when I think I’m out … But good things keep coming along. And there’s something exhilarating about it to me. Something exhilarating about taking nonfiction and making it something other than journalism.

Are you still working on the Broadway musical Houdini?

Yes! We wrap The Newsroom Tuesday night, but I’m going to stay here Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for work sessions with Stephen Schwartz, the composer. Houdini, by the way, is not going to be a biography. It’ll be Hugh Jackman as Houdini—and it’s very much about this wild, epic struggle he had with these women who called themselves spiritualists. They packed people into theaters partly because they were wearing diaphanous gowns. But they would hold ­séances—they did all these things where they could communicate with the dead—and they drove Harry out of his mind, and Harry would delight in exposing their act in his act. In fact, there’s always been a rumor in magic circles that one of these spiritualists had Houdini killed and that’s why he died. He died of a burst appendix. But as long as there’s a rumor, we’ve got ourselves a musical!

You also just decided to take on the adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to be writing about him. But Steve Jobs led a very dramatic and complicated life, with very dramatic results. And as flawed as he is, I think one of the reasons we’re so drawn to him is that he built things. And nowadays especially, Americans are kind of being told that their future is in service. We’re not going to be building cars, or railroads, or buildings, or rocket ships. And here comes Steve Jobs, an inventor like Thomas Edison, who invented things that we really like. I think if you juxtapose that with the complicated, oftentimes very dark life that he led, there’s gonna be a story in there. Now it’s my job to find it.

While I was prepping this interview, I wished that I’d had at hand the 500-page-plus-four-DVD paperback equivalent of The Portable Aaron Sorkin. What would go in there? An episode of The West Wing? The Social Network?

First of all, my first play, which was A Few Good Men. Most people know the movie, but the play was good. I had another play a few years ago which I really liked, The ­Farnsworth Invention. A bunch of West Wing episodes, a bunch of Sports Night episodes, a bunch of Studio 60 episodes. And certainly The Newsroom. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve done than this.

And if we change the title The Portable Aaron Sorkin to The Complete Aaron Sorkin, covering everything until you die, what percentage of the book is still blank?

I hope most of it. It was always meant as a compliment, but twice now, someone has said to me, “This is going to be the first line of your obituary.” It happened during The West Wing, and it happened after The Social Network. I hope the first line of my obituary hasn’t been written yet.

Would you like to write it now? I promise we’ll try not to run it for a really long time.

I hope whatever it is, it contains the words in his sleep.


* This conversation was condensed and edited from two interviews conducted this spring.

This story appeared in the July 21, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine