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Sports Night aired from September 1998 until May 2000 on ABC.
A snappy workplace sitcom set behind the scenes at a late-night sports program.
Sports Night was the flagship sportscast of the Continental Sports Channel (CSC), a fictional New York cable network. The two young, egotistical anchors were Dan ( Josh Charles), a good-time kind of guy and loyal friend and his buddy Casey ( Peter Krause) a single dad coming off a nasty divorce.
Behind the cameras were: Dana ( Felicity Hoffman), their dedicated but overworked producer, who was always pushing them to do their best; Isaac ( Robert Guillaume), the demanding boss who alternated between laying down the law to his staff and fighting off interfering network bigwigs; Jeremy ( Joshua Malina), the nervous, eyeglass-wearing researcher with an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and Natalie ( Sabrina Lloyd), the eager young associate producer who was constantly in on the run (boss to Natalie: "Sit"). Kim, Elliott and Chris ( Kayla Blake, Greg Baker, Timothy Davis Reed.) were among the more frequently seen technicians on the set.
Episodes revolved around the pursuit of stories in the highly competitive world of sports journalism, often testing everyone's ethics and the personal lives of the enthusiastic staff.
In the spring of 1999 Issac suffered a stroke ( actor Robert Guillaume had suffered a "slight stroke" in real life), left the office for awhile , but then returned. During much of the following season he delt with its aftermath. Also in the 1999-2000 season Dana broke up with her fiance and began dating Casey. As the series came to a close CSC was in financial trouble, and it looked as if the show might move to the West Coast-or close down entirely.
A Review from The New York Times
TELEVISION REVIEW/NEW SEASON; Goings-On Behind the Television Anchors' Smiles
By CARYN JAMES
Published: September 21, 1998
We seem minutes away from an all-''Dateline'' channel, and show-business gossip is a growth industry; no wonder two of the season's most likable sitcoms are set behind the scenes of fictional quasi-news programs and take a shrewd look at television itself. The sharply written ''Sports Night'' (beginning tomorrow) and the goofy ''Brian Benben Show'' (which has its premiere tonight) have radically different styles, but share a media-savvy attitude. The freshness of their comic approaches can be measured by how far they have come from ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show,'' still the godmother of all sitcoms that find humor in an associate producer's job.
A comedy laced with sincerity, ''Sports Night'' is about a cable show by that name, resembling ESPN's ''Sports Center,'' but it works perfectly well for viewers who can't tell a Met from a Yankee (trust me).
The hosts of the fictional ''Sports Night'' are Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause), who in the first episode is newly divorced and worn down by too many stories about millionaire athletes getting into bar brawls. ''I've turned into a P.R. man for punks and thugs,'' Casey says, as the show deftly brings sports into more general terrain. These actors are smooth, but so far their characters are less vivid than those of the staff around them and less bracing than the traces of cynicism in the air.
Isaac (Robert Guillaume), their executive producer, says he's close to firing everyone because Casey's slump is hurting the show.
''But you won't because we're all family here and I'm just like a daughter to you,'' says Dana (Felicity Huffman), the show's brisk producer, with an acknowledgment that they have inherited the Mary Richards and Lou Grant roles.
''No, this is a television show here and you're very much like an employee to me,'' Isaac says. That is partly true, but it is also the kind of smoke screen Lou would have created. The entire staff protects Casey (and next week Dan) from the network suits, today's equivalent of bad guys in black hats.
The series is acted with razorlike timing. In the first episode's funniest, snappiest scene, Dana interviews Jeremy (Joshua Malina), an endearingly insecure sports geek, for a job as a researcher.
And the attention to crisp dialogue sets this show apart from most others. ''Sports Night'' was created by, and the first two episodes written by, Aaron Sorkin, with a swift rhythm to its language, and even a staccato echo of his play and screenplay for ''A Few God Men.''
Yet at times Mr. Sorkin spells out clumsily what real people would never say. ''I love producing 'Sports Night,' '' Dana tells Casey. ''I live from 11 to midnight and the rush is so huge I don't come down till 3 o'clock in the morning.''
In the second episode, Dan is asked to apologize on the air for saying in a magazine interview that marijuana should be legal. That leads to a speech and a slightly mawkish ending. What saves this immensely appealing series from its own preachy impulses is that we can always feel its awkwardly phrased ''rush'' of energy.
An Article from Entertainment Weekly
A Laugh Riot
The debate reigns among sitcoms such as ''The Drew Carey Show'' and ''The Simpsons''
By Joe Flint
It's the TV-industry equivalent of viagra. A couple of hits of it can make even the weakest specimen more potent, and the thinking goes leave unsuspecting entertainment seekers like you positively limp with merriment. That's right, we're talking about the laugh track. And, according to some, it's not just the networks that are addicted to it. ''People watching TV are so conditioned to hearing laughs that when shows are tested without them, they don't do well,'' says The Drew Carey Show executive producer Bruce Helford. ''American audiences need a laugh track to be told it's okay to laugh out loud.''
There are those who beg to differ who believe the general public is smart enough to discern humor without any artificial prompting. Radical, yes, but clinical evidence does exist! Believe it or not, fans of laugh-track-free shows like The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, Dream On, The Wonder Years, and that so-called comedy Ally McBeal will vouch for spontaneous bursts of uncued snickering.
ABC, alas, chose not to believe, and that decision led to some fireworks over one of its new fall entries, Sports Night a comedy about an ESPN SportsCenter-like show. Imagine Television and Disney's Touchstone Television, producers of the sitcom, wanted to film the show without a live audience or laugh track, which go hand in hand (tracks are used in postproduction to smooth out or enhance live laughs; M*A*S*H is a very rare example of a sitcom that used a track only). Given a choice, network suits insisted it be shot with an audience. ABC's senior VP of comedy programming, Carolyn Ginsburg Carlson, admits there were ''emotional and difficult'' arguments on both sides, but ABC won out. While Ginsburg Carlson and ABC appreciated the producers' concerns about making ''the show feel forced,'' they ultimately felt the laugh track was valid: ''If done right,'' she says, ''it can be wonderful.''
Sports Night exec producer Aaron Sorkin, now resigned to ABC's ultimatum, explains his original reservations: ''Once you do shoot in front of a live audience, you have no choice but to use the laugh track. Oftentimes [enhancing the laughs] is the right thing to do. Sometimes you do need a cymbal crash. Other times, it alienates me.''
Probably because it's nearly always a cymbal crash, with canned laughs boosting fresh ones to fever pitch. Remember the scene in Annie Hall where Tony Roberts' character asks his sound engineer for a ''medium-size chuckle'' after a particularly bad joke? Does a medium-size chuckle even exist anymore? ''Laugh tracks have become much more obtrusive,'' concedes Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television. But, he adds, ''the TV industry has made a science of this...it'll be around for a long time.''
Nevertheless, detractors are becoming more vocal. ''It's morally wrong,'' says Everybody Loves Raymond exec producer Philip Rosenthal. Laugh tracks ''are overused, and it makes the TV viewer look like they don't have a brain in their head.'' Rosenthal's solution is to use them sparingly: ''The majority of the time [on Raymond], the laughs viewers hear come from the live audience; tracks are only used for 'pickups,''' occasional scenes reshot after the audience has left.
Pumping up the volume wasn't always the goal. The original laugh-track machine, designed by sound engineer Charlie Douglas in the 1950s, was conceived as a tool for softening and evening out the laughs of a live audience commonly referred to in the biz as ''sweetening.'' The guys who operate the machines--known simply as the laugh men often turned down the volume of the audience so the gags could be heard at home. Not anymore: These days, sweetening nearly always means hammering the joke home. Says one veteran laugh man (since there are only a handful, they prefer anonymity), ''I'll turn to the producers and say, 'Why does it have to be so loud?' and they'll say, 'It helps the scene.' They pay the bills, so I do it.'' (A bizarre footnote: Laugh tracks are recycled from old shows at a rate that would satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency. John Peaslee, an exec producer for the defunct Something So Right, says some sitcoms ''still use laughs from I Love Lucy.'')
While it's obvious that canned laughs are here to stay, network execs will grudgingly acknowledge that the volume is getting out of hand. ''Laugh tracks need to be used judiciously,'' says Gene Stein, CBS' senior vice president of comedy series development, the rare exec who understands restraint. ''It makes a show less funny when you've oversweetened it.'' If that's the case, who's mostly to blame for undermining the comedy? ''It's often the writers who try to make the jokes funnier by adding excessive laughs,'' says one laugh man. ''I have to try to tail it back.''
As for those writers confident of their material or, at least, of viewers' intelligence they must still contend with a let's-leave-nothing-to-chance network. Yet Sports Night's Sorkin is determined to fight the good fight and promises he will not insert a track ''where the audience didn't laugh. And not every joke [will] elicit a belly laugh.'' Heck, we'd settle for a medium-size chuckle.
A Review from Entertainment Weekly
Published on December 4, 1998
Good 'Sports' At-the-top-of-their-game actors and bouncy dialogue make Sports Night the most pulse-quickening show since ER.
--By Ken Tucker
Given its creator and its concept, Sports Night should have been a foul ball, a bogey, a fumble. Executive producer Aaron Sorkin comes from the movies (he wrote A Few Good Men and The American President), and you know how rarely film guys understand the differences between the two media: Even Steven Spielberg goofed it up when he did Amazing Stories in the '80s, and just look at the trouble Barry (Get Shorty) Sonnenfeld is currently having with his faltering Fantasy Island. Furthermore, Sports Night's concept -- a behind-the-scenes look at a jock newscast a la ESPN's SportsCenter -- was a golden opportunity to stink up prime time with the sort of smug, smirky, life-drainingly ironic talking heads who've outlasted their naughty-boy novelty status on ESPN. (My hunch is that the real reason the paragon of this style, Keith Olbermann, weaseled out of his MSNBC contract to return to a sports gig was not so much his guilt over exploiting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal but rather that he'd come to realize that even in this softest of hard-news environments, he'd never get away with being as smug/smirky/ironic as he was when narrating hockey highlight reels.)
But against all odds, Sports Night is a home run, a hole in one, a touchdown -- at once the most consistently funny, intelligent, and emotional of any new-season series. Sorkin (who writes the majority of the show's scripts) and regular director Thomas Schlamme have accomplished this not by making their characters noble TV journalists but by showing us what goes on under the skins of people who are smug/smirky/ironic -- which is to say, folks who are smart, vulnerable, and a wee bit self-hating.
And so, most episodes of Sports Night commence with coanchors Casey McCall (Peter Krause) and Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) doing their on-air smart-aleck shtick (after one clip, Casey says, ''That's an incredibly embarrassing moment for any professional athlete, so when we come back, we're going to show it to you a couple of more times''). But the show also cuts into the control room, where producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) and a crackerjack crew, including her associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) and researcher Jeremy (Joshua Malina), are working furiously, feeding facts and trivia into the anchors' earphones. Eleven years ago, James Brooks' Broadcast News, with Holly Hunter and William Hurt, made the controlled frenzy of live TV a revelation; Sports Night builds on that, giving its pace an adrenaline rush unlike any other sitcom.
It's easy to believe that Casey and Dan are longtime buddies; they finish each other's sentences and share the Guy Philosophy -- i.e., joke about whatever's really bothering you. What gives Sports Night its real fizz, however, is that the women are also permitted this sort of tough, blunt posture. The not-so-secret heart of the show is that the recently divorced Casey and always-single Dana, friends since college, are at the same time attracted to each other and terrified of the intensity of that attraction, and so, like all good late-'90s neurotics, have opted to do nothing about it.
The result is a smoldering romantic subtext that periodically sets their workplace ablaze. The best instance of this occurred in the Oct. 13 episode, in which Casey tried to bad-mouth Dana's boyfriend, and flirt a little, for no good reason. Dana called him on it, angrily: ''Every time your life starts to spin out of control, you come after me.... It is not fair.... Knock it off.''
In lighter moments, Casey and Dana play badinage badminton, swatting zingers back and forth with an ease that might remind you of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. All the key performances are first-rate, with special kudos to Huffman, Malina (the latter also so good last season on The Larry Sanders Show), and Benson's Robert Guillaume, who grounds the show with his tremendously shrewd, low-key performance as the executive producer.
Some have criticized Sports Night for tending to end episodes with emotional speeches -- about drug use or hunting or the fragility of life, for Pete's sake. You know this is Sorkin flexing the melodrama muscle he developed in his movies (remember Jack Nicholson's ''You can't handle the truth'' tirade in A Few Good Men?), and yes, it does put a crimp in Sports Night's action. But all Sorkin is doing is catching the current post-irony wave: He knows that at this point, we'd rather hear good overwritten scripts than bad underwritten ones. If only for giving glib sportscasters both hearts and souls, Sorkin deserves better ratings than his show gets, and a laugh track that includes the occasional sob as well as giggles. A-
An Article from The New York Times
TELEVISION / RADIO; Left Cold by the Charms of the Latest Dramedy
By JEFF MACGREGOR
Published: February 7, 1999
I HAVE always been suspicious of third-party praise. In my youth I developed the habit of caution when it came to anything that arrived in our house too highly thought of by others, especially by strangers. This, I realize now, was largely the result of my grandmother's cooking.
When I was a little shaver I lived for a few years in a big, quiet Ohio house with my recently widowed grandmother. Both of us being red-haired, single and unemployed back then (I was 4), we had plenty of time to dote on each other. For me this meant sharing with Grandma whatever I managed to snare or step on or dig up in the backyard. She accepted every papery snakeskin or smooth gray stone, every handful of tadpoles, with the same dignified ''thank you'' and an admirably straight face.
For her part, my grandmother cooked and cooked. Food and love were synonymous. Trouble was, Grandma being quite a nut for the movies, many of her recipes came from the Hollywood fanzines of the time. Thus was I always sitting down to meals (concocted, no doubt, by publicists) that had first appeared as pictorial filler in the star-struck pages of Photoplay, Modern Screen or TV Guide. Sadly, Dorothy Provine's Can't-Miss Waldorf Salad or Sal Mineo's Never-Fail Swiss Fondue often did, rarely turning out as promised. ''I must have left something out,'' Grandma would say as we grimly spooned our way through a glutinous bowl of Claude Rains's Five-Alarm Chili or sawed through another panel of Donna Reed's Onion Pot Roast Francaise. It was like living in hell's test kitchen. Still hungry, scraping another failed casserole into the trash, Grandma was likely to turn to me with a look of utter, earnest bewilderment and say: ''I don't understand it. Audrey Meadows absolutely swears by this dish whenever she entertains.'' It made her sad to think she was letting me -- or Audrey Meadows -- down.
Hence my adult skepticism regarding the kind of undercorroborated endorsements that come streaming out of Hollywood to this day.
The latest and most colorful of which surround ABC's new prime-time comedy ''Sports Night.'' It is this season's critical darling, a chance to gush and bubble for television reviewers everywhere. It gets the Golden Local Double-Thumps-Up or the National Platinum Five-Star A-Plus in everything from The Denver Post to Elle to The New Yorker. It is a mild disappointment only in the Nielsen ratings, where it finished a lukewarm 53d the last week of January. For all the laudatory newspaper and magazine copy filed about ''Sports Night'' since last fall, an actual viewing audience doesn't seem to have caught the fever yet.
The show's premise is simple enough. We're behind the scenes at a late-night sports-highlight show just like ESPN's ''Sportscenter.'' For 30 minutes minus commercials, we wend our way from production office to control room and back again, auditing the snappy badinage of smart, confused, ambitious people who all have better jobs than we do. It is a language-driven show, one of the few on the air, and even though not much happens or seems to be at stake in any given episode, all the characters involved know their way around the pointy end of a joke and have the wits to discard a throwaway line before it goes off in their hands.
The offbeat visualization of the show has been widely noted by television writers as well. With long tracking shots that follow characters around the set or the accelerated intercutting of stranger-than-average camera angles, the show's breakneck verbal pace is matched and then furthered by what we see. The director Thomas Schlamme (a veteran of the late, lamented ''Larry Sanders Show'') has quite successfully borrowed and applied techniques first used in film and television drama.
The ensemble cast is as good as the big-city critics and small-town media mahatmas say it is. The leads -- Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman and Robert Guillaume, playing the show's co-anchors, producer and executive producer, respectively -- are all fine actors and often manage to disguise the fact that there's less here than meets the eye or ear. Therein lies the problem with the show and the mountain of praise that my colleagues have heaped on it since before it had its premiere.
Much has been said and made of the program's split personality (for which the onerous neologism ''dramedy'' has once again been dusted off and trotted out), but even the most glowing reviews of ''Sports Night'' acknowledge its bad appetite for the clanking, anti-comic monologues that pop up like noisy clockwork week after week. These sermonizing non sequiturs are gussied up to read as moral complication and seem to be the specialty/Achilles' heel of the show's creator and head writer, Aaron Sorkin. Mr. Sorkin, who made his bones in the legitimate theater and feature-film business with ''A Few Good Men'' (a play and movie that could just as easily be called ''One Good Scene''), has lately been embraced by television analysts as nothing short of the second coming of Preston Sturges.
Don't get me wrong. Mr. Sorkin's ear for the syncopated patter of the workplace wisecrack is excellent. I'm not sure what that serves, though, in the context of the show. Missing from the complex rhythms of his wordplay is a discernible point of view. And a heart. Is this a show about the post-modern crises of modern character? Is it a satire meant to subvert our devotion to big sports or big media? Or is it just another half-hour of reconfigured comedy television in a more stylish package?
If this show is as ''pulse-quickening'' as Entertainment Weekly says it is, why does it seem so airless, so contrived? Perhaps the lack of oxygen creates vascular discomfort. There is something clinical about this show, as if different theatrical elements were being combined in a laboratory to judge their interaction. With the exception of Mr. Guil laume's character, everyone rattles off quips as if they were being paid by the word. Worse yet, they all sound the same, have the same mordant sense of humor. And nothing seems to be at risk in any given episode. Not even the characters' feelings. The central conflict of the show, the unfulfilled romantic attraction between Casey and Dana (Mr. Krause and Ms. Huffman), is canned heat at best. It is a structural need only, an ancient architectural chestnut of the sitcom form. It would make perfect sense for them to be together, except that Mr. Sorkin needs to keep them apart or there would be nothing to write about at all.
Critics have been generous in not mentioning any of this. Choosing instead to debate the merits of the show's on-again, off-again laugh track, no one has put much thought into whether or not the show is even very funny. ''It does make me laugh out loud, but silently, to myself, inside my head,'' says one magazine writer in a spectacular display of cutesy illogic.
Even in a good year, pro forma television criticism can be a pretty dismal business. More preview these days than review, most print critics watch two episodes and read a show's press kit before cranking out 500 cranky words the day before it has its premiere. It is a volume industry in which the product is compared only with itself. Like a U.S.D.A. sausage inspector, one is only rarely called upon to judge actual excellence; most of the time you're simply trying to prevent a mass outbreak of gastrointestinal distress. The swift cancellation of UPN's ''Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer'' proves, though, that such hygienic safeguards can and must be made to work.
This also explains much of the hype surrounding ''Sports Night''; for critics, it is a glass half full in a dry season. But even television writers are human. Perhaps Mr. Sorkin has unwittingly built a show that is not just critic-proof but is, in fact, critic-driven and plays on the comic fantasies of the average editorial drone. What corporate newsroom employee doesn't want to see himself or herself as a witty defender of the intellect? As a smooth, unflappable professional, ever ready with a sly wisecrack and a seductive smile? A sort of James Bond with a notebook and a No. 2 pencil, graceful as Nijinsky and smart as a wagonload of monkeys, even under the long, black shadow of another looming deadline. The many recurring references to the classic newsroom movie ''His Girl Friday'' in the reviews are a dead giveaway; critics want more than anything to see themselves in this show.
Overheated and undercooked, missing a few key ingredients, ''Sports Night'' is another entry in the series of small disappointments and mysterious little failures my grandmother taught me long ago to expect from Hollywood.
An Article from the SF Chronicle
Malina Gets Into the Swing of `Sports Night'
But critically acclaimed show may need a ratings boost to survive second season
Sylvia Rubin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 1999
Joshua Malina owes his career, even his marriage, to writer Aaron Sorkin, but Sorkin owes Malina his life.
At a bowling party, Sorkin took a bite out of a burger, went to roll the ball and suddenly began gasping for breath. ``We thought he was doing shtick,'' Malina says. ``Until he fell to the floor. I did the Heimlich on him. It's remarkably simple, really. I did crack a couple of his ribs, though.''
The incident, which happened 10 years ago, is not something Malina likes to talk about. ``Even having Heimliched him, on the karma scale, I still owe him.''
Sorkin gave Malina his start in the theater a decade ago and cast him last season in ABC's ``Sports Night,'' a much-praised show that received three Emmy nominations its first season as it struggled to find an audience.
The half-hour dramedy, a behind-the-scenes look at a nightly cable sports news show, starts its second season at 9:30 tonight on KGO (Channel 7). The show takes on some of the burning issues in sports, such as the bad behavior of athletes, as well as the messiness of office romances, with sharp dialogue, interesting characters and only a partial laugh track.
Malina plays nerdy research analyst Jeremy Goodwin, who starts an office romance with ``Sports Night'' producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd).
This season Goodwin's been promoted to asso ciate producer and stud. His character will have two women in his life.
Malina says he's shocked. ``I'm in touch with my inner stud, and I'm realistic about my outer stud,'' he says. According to ABC, Goodwin will be ``hotly pursued'' by a former girlfriend.
``He will?'' asks Malina, who has already shot five episodes of the new season. ``If anyone's in hot pursuit of me, I've yet to notice it.''
He should be used to last-minute Sorkin surprises by now. The writer, who is also at the helm of the NBC drama ``The West Wing,'' flies by the seat of his pants. ``Aaron works up to the deadline, constantly rewriting,'' Malina says. ``Fortunately, one thing I'm really good at is memorizing dia-- logue really quickly.''
The two go back a long time. They went to neighboring high schools in suburban New York and met through Malina's cousins.
Malina went on to Yale to study drama, Sorkin went on to write the play ``A Few Good Men.'' When Malina moved to New York to start his career, he looked up his old friend.
``I was a kid, 23. To my shock, he asked me to audition for his play,'' he says. ``This was my ultimate fantasy, to be on Broadway.''
Malina, 34, has appeared in the movies ``The American President,'' ``Malice'' and ``A Few Good Men,'' all Sorkin projects.
In ``Sports Night,'' his character saves the day when the show's producer, Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman), is at a loss. She's a tough boss who answers to managing editor Isaac Jaffee (Robert Guillaume), the glue that holds the newsroom together.
Guillaume suffered a stroke in January. He appeared on the recent Emmy awards show using a cane and speaking slowly but clearly. He will be back on ``Sports Night'' this season, and the effects of his condition will be written into the show.
Romance and ratings are some of the themes for this season as Huffman's character gets closer to ``Sports Night'' co-anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause). Josh Charles plays co-anchor Dan Rydell.
Sorkin acknowledges the series' real-life ratings plight when he brings in a ratings expert played by Huffman's real-life husband, William H. Macy (``Fargo'').
Malina hopes that his character gets to show off his nasty side, too. ``I'd like to see Jeremy deal with a romantic breakup badly, have him not be so nice, show some of his flaws,'' Malina says.
But who knows if the show will last? It ranked 62nd in its first season. ``The ratings really didn't warrant a second season,'' Malina says. ``The question now is, how far into the second season are mediocre ratings going to carry us?''
TAKING IT EASY ON HIATUS
The show's quality could suffer if the frenetic Sorkin burns himself out. ``Aaron is cranking out great scripts, he's energized and happy,'' Malina says, ``but he looks tired.''
One job is more than enough for Malina. During his hiatus, he stayed home with his wife, Melissa, a costume designer, and their baby, Isabel, now 20 months.
``I didn't work a single day. Not one meeting, not one audition,'' Malina says. ``I went to the playground twice a day, the beach, the parks, and I did all the cooking. It was maybe the happiest block of time in my life I can remember.''
He and his wife met through actor Timothy Busfield (``thirtysomething'') after Busfield was cast in ``A Few Good Men'' on Broadway. Busfield's wife introduced Malina to her sister, Melissa.
``I shudder to think of what my life would have been like if I'd never met Aaron,'' Malina says.
An Article from ESPN
Keeping it real on 'Sports Night'
By Jeff Merron
Published on November 12, 2002
"Sports Night," a series depicting what goes on behind the scenes of "Sports Night," a show that looks a lot like "SportsCenter," first aired on ABC on Sept. 22, 1998. It got rave reviews and picked up a couple of Emmy Awards, but never moved beyond the middle of the pack in the ratings. The 45th, and final, episode aired on May 16, 2000.
It says a lot when you can put an entire series on six DVDs.
Aaron Sorkin, who created the show and wrote much of the series, says he aimed for realism, even spending some time at the ESPN campus in Bristol. But he also, obviously, was attempting to produce a funny and compelling series that would be wildly popular.
Recently, the complete run of "Sports Night" came out in a six-disc box set. If every episode of "SportsCenter" were released in a DVD set, the box would be the size of an 18-wheeler. So that's one difference. Any others?
THE BIG PICTURE
In Reel Life: "Sports Night" is a "SportsCenter" competitor.
In Real Life: Sorkin got the idea for the series from watching "SportsCenter" in order to wind down after a day of writing a screenplay. "You are the origin [of the series]," Sorkin told Keith Olbermann in an Esquire interview. "I sat in this hotel room for 13 months writing 'The American President.' To keep me company, I would have 'SportsCenter' on. I'd watch the Big Show four times in a row, and I thought it was the best-written show on television. It turned me into a big-time sports fan." Sorkin first thought of writing a book with themes and plots similar to "Sports Night," and then a movie. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories." Finally, he realized a TV series would be the ideal vehicle.
In Reel Life: Co-anchor Casey McCall (Peter Krause) has a special signal he gives to his son, to tell him that it's time to stop watching Dad on TV and go to bed.
In Real Life: "SportsCenter" anchor Chris McKendry says she doesn't have a special signal for anyone, but suspects that some of the other anchors do. "I do remember that when I was anchoring the Sunday Morning 'SportsCenter,' ['Sunday Sportsday'] my co-anchor, Jack Edwards, would sometimes make a reference to the Simsbury A's. He'd say something like, 'They're as sharp as the Simsbury A's.' That was for his son -- it was his son's Little League team."
In Reel Life: The "Sports Night" offices tend to be neat.
In Real Life: "Our cubes are messy," says McKendry. Charley Steiner, talking about the show a few years ago, said pretty much the same: "I don't see any of their tapes piled up on their desks like at our place."
In Reel Life: There's often a lot of tension and panic just before the show goes on the air.
In Real Life: "Sometimes it's like that," says ESPN's Gus Ramsey, who produced "SportsCenter" from 1994 to 1999. "Say, if we're broadcasting a game before the 11 o'clock 'SportsCenter,' and the game ends early, we might be rushed because we have to go on the air at 10:50 instead of 11. But it's not every day."
In Reel Life: There are four rundown meetings a day, starting at noon. The last one is at 10 p.m.
In Real Life: "That's overkill," says Ramsey. "For the 11 o'clock 'SportsCenter,' the first meeting of the day is at 3:30, then there's a later rundown meeting, around 7 p.m., for the coordinating producer, producer, and the people involved in building the scoreboard and graphics." At ESPN, the "talent" -- the anchors -- work in the same "pod," or four-cubicle setup, as the producers, and are pretty much discussing the show all day, hence making so many meetings unnecessary.
All smiles on the "SportsCenter" set.
In Reel Life: There's a lot of technical talk about segments being in the "10s" and "30s" (or "10 block") and so on.
In Real Life: Each "SportsCenter" has seven segments per hour (divided by six commercial breaks), and the "10s" and "20s" terminology was lifted right from "SportsCenter," says Ramsey. Now, though, segments are called the "A's," "B's," "C's," and so on. Ramsey gave an example of why this system is useful. "Say we have the Red Sox playing the Blue Jays, and we have the highlight on page B4 (of the script/rundown) and the score on B5. If the game's running late, we can easily communicate to everyone that we're moving B4 and B5 to another specific slot in the show. And if a show is shortened, it's easy to eliminate segments."
In Reel Life: There's a real bond between Dan and Casey that goes way beyond the snappy banter.
In Real Life: "The thing that 'Sports Night' has that's so true in real life is the relationship between the co-hosts, the two-man patrol in the middle of war," Olbermann told Esquire. "Dan [Patrick] and I used to have that bunker mentality."
In Reel Life: Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey have a huge office that has a great view of the New York skyline.
In Real Life: Hollywood fantasy, according to "SportsCenter" anchors present and past. "Kenny Mayne and I sit back-to-back in a cubicle like prairie dogs!" says McKendry, who adds that seniority is the key to getting your own office. And things don't look so good for the Bristol-based anchors at ESPN. "Dan Patrick and I had cubicles that overlooked the Otis Elevator Testing Shaft," Olbermann said. "And that is when we had windows!" [Note: visitors to Bristol may notice, close to the ESPN campus, a very tall tube that looks like a grain elevator. It's not. It's where the good folks at Otis literally test elevators. That's what Olbermann's talking about.]
In Reel Life: Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) is the young, very talented and hard-working producer of "Sports Night." She's constantly on the move, giving short instructions to people as she walks through the office.
In Real Life: "When I visited ESPN, I was very impressed with a particular producer who was juggling about a hundred things at once," explained Sorkin. "She was the inspiration for casting a woman in the role of producer of 'Sports Night.' "
But things aren't quite as hectic for "SportsCenter" producers as they are for Dana. "There are a lot of people who you have to talk to," says Ramsey, including the anchors, the people who cut tapes, the folks who do core panels and other graphics, and those in charge of "bumps" (the short "coming up next" segments) and "teases" (the show's opening sequence). "But you do have time to eat dinner and watch a game for a while."
In Reel Life: Before the show goes on the air, there's a general call for the "first team" to get to the studio.
In Real Life: Doesn't happen, says McKendry. "We know when we're on the air, and we don't need to be reminded when to get to the studio. The only page you'll hear comes about 10 minutes before the show: 'Six o'clock tapes are on their way down.' That's it." There's also no "first team" (or second or third, for that matter) at "SportsCenter."
In Reel Life: Before and after almost every show, people say to each other "Good show," meaning either, "Have a good show," or "We had a good show."
In Real Life: Says McKendry, "Before the show, the producers usually say something like, 'Have a good show,' and afterward everyone thanks each other."
Dana (middle) is the brains of the outfit on Sports Night.
In Reel Life: The main characters spend a lot of their time talking about relationships and personal stuff. The gang is very close, not only professionally but in what little personal lives they have.
In Real Life: The "SportsCenter" staff, in Ramsey's experience, isn't this close in their personal lives. "Mostly because of volume," Ramsey explains. "We have so many people who work on a show, it's hard to know everybody and know everyone well.
"When I was doing the 11 o'clock with Dan and Keith, we were friendly, but we weren't hanging out together all time.
"A lot of the production assistants, though, live in the same apartment complexes and may hang out more together."
In Reel Life: Before the show, and during breaks, Dan and Casey are surrounded by what one web wag calls "fluffers" -- people who comb the co-anchors hair, brush their collars, and generally primp the two guys, who look perfect to begin with.
In Real Life: "We don't have 'fluffers,' " says McKendry. "The only time I had someone to help me like that (during a broadcast) was when I was covering the X Games, because it was so cold. We have makeup people, but it's done before the show."
In Reel Life: Dan and Casey need lots of help getting dressed for the show every night. They have a head wardrobe person who selects their outfits, and an assistant who delivers them.
In Real Life: "SportsCenter" anchors get dressed all by themselves, and choose what they wear each night. "We have a woman who helps us with our wardrobe," says McKendry, "but it's months in advance."
In Reel Life: Dan and Casey write their own scripts.
In Real Life: As do the "SportsCenter" anchors. "You either write it or you have nothing to say," says McKendry.
In Reel Life: Often, during breaks in the live "Sports Night" broadcast, the anchors leave the set. Other times, they work out personal problems on the set. Sometimes, they just banter.
In Real Life: "You can't leave the set because you're attached to it," says McKendry. "Your mike is connected. And in a two-minute commercial break, you don't go out and have a personal crisis, because you're focused on the work. During the two minutes, that's when you're getting your shot sheets (play-by-play rundowns) for the highlights coming up. Or changes to the show."
In Reel Life: The "Sports Night" production staff refers to commercial breaks as "c-breaks."
In Real Life: "We don't speak in code," says McKendry. "I've never heard that term before. We just say 'break.' "
INCIDENTS AND ACCIDENTS
In Reel Life: In the pilot episode, Casey says he's sick of reporting on the crimes committed by athletes.
In Real Life: Sorkin said this was inspired by the Latrell Sprewell choking incident. One of his friends said, "If we're not disgusted by this, we should at least give the appearance we're disgusted by it, if only for the sake of our children." Steiner said the pilot struck a chord. "I could relate to [it] because we have the same disgust as everyone else."
In Reel Life: In the pilot episode, Jeremy (Joshua Malina) comes in for an interview. He's grilled about what the Knicks must do to contend in the upcoming season, and is expected to respond with astonishing detail.
In Real Life: "That's spun from ESPN lore," says Ramsey, "about Al Jaffe, our guy in charge of hiring just about everyone. For the PAs (production assistants), the most talked-about part of the interview process is asking those type (trivia) questions. I came in as a producer, and before I met Al Jaffe, I spent two days cramming my mind full of stats and trivia. But as a producer, I didn't get any of those. I got questions about content and presentation."
We don't need no stinkin' fluffers!
In Reel Life: Dan and Casey have to anchor the 2 a.m. "West Coast Update." To kill time between shows, they play poker with the gang. (Episode 10, "Shoe Money Tonight")
In Real Life: Doesn't happen, Rich Eisen told the Washington Post.
In Reel Life: Romance is always in the air -- Dana and Casey, Jeremy and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), etc. Jeremy woos Natalie by setting up a candlelit dinner (with Chinese food) at her desk. (Episode 6, "The Head Coach, Dinner and the Morning Mail")
In Real Life: "I guarantee you there are people who work here who are going out together," Eisen told the Washington Post. "But they are not having candlelit picnics in the pods, like on the show."
In Reel Life: Dana plans to go to see "The Lion King" on Broadway. In a display of total idiocy and ignorance, she doesn't realize she needs to buy tickets way in advance for the most popular show on Broadway. Somehow, though, "Sports Night"'s head honcho, Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) miraculously comes up with tickets for that day's matinee. (Episode 9, "The Quality of Mercy at 29K")
In Real Life: Alert viewers may understand why Isaac/Guillaume might have a pair of the impossible-to-get ducats. He was the voice of Rafiki the Mandrill in the 1994 Disney movie, "The Lion King," and played the role again in 1998's "Lion King II: Simba's Pride."
If Dana had worked for Disney, she could have gotten the tickets herself. The corporation allows employees to internally purchase tickets for sold-out shows.
In Reel Life: Isaac has a stroke, and is away from work for a while, but eventually returns. (Episode 19, "Eli1s Coming")
In Real Life: Guillaume had a stroke and collapsed on the "Sports Night" set. His absence from the series, and his subsequent return and recovery, were built into the script. For example, on the show, Isaac is often frustrated about how hard it is to do simple things like walk across a room, and at one point he exercises on a treadmill.
"I figured that since I hadn't died, the only way for me to go was in the opposite direction," Guillaume told Time. "Still, some days are better than others. Just picking up my legs and moving across the room requires a tremendous amount of forethought and planning." He also told Time that using a treadmill was among his rehab exercises, and that he had to undergo speech therapy.
The "Sports Night" crew definitely had more backstage drama than "SportsCenter".
In Reel Life: Isaac is frustrated because he can't remember the lyrics to a show tune ("How Are Things in Glocca Morra" from "Finian's Rainbow"), saying that he has a comprehensive knowledge of musicals. (Episode 38, "Celebrities")
In Real Life: Most people, when they think of Guillaume, think of Benson, the character he played on "Soap" in the 1970s, then again in the long-running spinoff, "Benson." (In that role, he won several Emmy Awards.) But he's also been a star on the stage, scoring a 1977 Tony nomination for his portrayal of Nathan Detroit in "Guys and Dolls." He also starred in "Porgy and Bess," "Purlie" and "Phantom of the Opera."
In Reel Life: There's a critical error in the script. The "s" in "bulging disk" is missing. This could have resulted in an embarrassing on-air mishap, but it's caught in time. ("Eli's Coming")
In Real Life: Pulled right from the "SportsCenter" misplay book. During one broadcast, a TelePrompTer typo dropped the "s" in "disk." As a result, anchor Steve Levy did say, on the air, that a player was out of action with a "bulging dik." Olbermann, co-anchoring, "was crying he was laughing so hard," Rich Eisen told the L.A. Times.
In Reel Life: Isaac hires a "ratings expert," Sam Donovan (William H. Macy). Dana leads the "Sports Night" crew in hating him, even when he improves their ratings. (Episode 25, "When Something Wicked This Way Comes")
In Real Life: This is another stumper. These folks are TV pros, are third in their time slot, and they don't think they could use some help?
Ramsey explains that this is a very unrealistic reaction to someone who's there to help lift the ratings. "We have consultants. We scrutinize the ratings every day. We have a ratings research department to help us figure out what works and what doesn't work. Just in the last year, we've made a lot of changes, and that's driven by what the ratings people tell us.
"Some people are anti-change, but obviously if the ratings are down, something's wrong. A few years ago, we started putting music under our highlights. Some people didn't like that. Now, ["SportsCenter" and other ESPN shows] would seem strange without it."
In Reel Life: Michael Jordan is scheduled to do a five-minute live interview. He wants to promote his new cologne, "Jordan." The other sports news shows won't do it, because it's clearly promotional, but "Sports Night" will. (Episode 35, "The Sweet Smell Of Air")
In Real Life: "Certainly there are PR releases about athletes being available for interviews," says Ramsey. "For example, you might get a press release saying that Peyton Manning will be on the satellite and talking about his new video game. Someone like that, you do the interview."
In Reel Life: The company mistakenly includes in its press kit instructions to Jordan to keep the interview focused on cologne. The "Sports Night" crew wants to him to talk mostly about basketball and other topics. So they set up practice interviews to try to figure out how to do this.
In Real Life: With athletes who are promoting products, says Ramsey, "You throw them a bone and ask them a question about their video game, then move on to something else. Sometimes they won't do the interview unless you agree not to discuss a certain topic. But it's highly doubtful that Jordan wouldn't talk about basketball."
When all said and done, let the pros handle the sports news.
McKendry says the practice interview scenario is bogus. "I go over my talking points and the line of questioning I want to follow with one of the producers of the show, to make sure I'm covering all the ground. But we don't role play our interviews."
In Reel Life: Dana and Sam almost get together -- but Sam ends up skipping town. (Episode 37, "And The Crowd Goes Wild")
In Real Life: Macy and Huffman have been married since 1997. He hasn't skipped town on her.
In Reel Life: CSC (Continental Sports Channel) is purchased by a company called "Quo Vadimus." Despite the poor ratings of the show-within-a-show "Sports Night," the new owner decides to keep the show on the air. (Episode 45, "Quo Vadimus")
In Real Life: The last few episodes of "Sports Night," in which the characters weren't sure whether their show would stay on the air after CSC was put up for sale, mirrored, to a certain extent, the uncertainty of "Sports Night"'s fate late in its second season.
As it turned out, ABC wasn't as patient with the "real" "Sports Night," canceling the show. There was some talk about the series being picked up by a premium cable channel (Showtime or HBO), but it never panned out. The series is now rerun on Comedy Central. The episode schedule is here.
To watch clips of Sports Night go to https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=sports+night+tv+show
For more on Sports Night go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_Night
For ABC's Official Page of Sports Night go to https://web.archive.org/web/20000303165315/http://abc.go.com:80/primetime/sports_night/sn_home.html
For a Website dedicated to Sports Night go to http://www.sportsnight.net/index.html?http://www.sportsnight.net/about/index.html
For the Unofficial Sports Night go to https://web.archive.org/web/20040218015904/http://sportsnite.tripod.com:80/index.htm
For Tim's TV Showcase go to https://web.archive.org/web/20130406165841/http://www.timstvshowcase.com/spnight.html
For Quotes of the Moment from Sports Night go to https://web.archive.org/web/20020123105904/http://snquotes.virtualave.net:80/
To listen to an interview from Aaron Sorkin go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6E8e8xIZPY
For some reviews of Sports Night go to https://www.avclub.com/c/tv-review/sports-night
For some Sports Night-related interview videos at the Archive of American Television go to https://interviews.televisionacademy.com/shows/sports-night
� Date: Mon April 3, 2017 � Filesize: 73.5kb, 493.2kb � Dimensions: 806 x 1024 �
Keywords: The Cast of Sports Night (Links Updated 8/3/18)