Aaron Sorkin, whose new series “The Newsroom” starts on June 24th on HBO, delivered a commencement address Sunday at his alma mater Syracuse, from which he graduated with a degree in Musical Theater in 1983. Sorkin more than most writers should known his way around a rousing speech — he scripted some excellent ones for Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet on “The West Wing.” The full transcript of his remarks are online here, but here are a few highlights from the advice the screenwriter, producer, and playwright had to offer the class of 2012:
You don’t know anything yet.
“You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people,” Sorkin told the crowd in what could alternately serve as a summary of the main theme of “Girls.” “I was there. We all were there. You’re barely functional. There are some screw-ups headed your way. I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya. It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.”
Then again, you don’t necessary have to be any smarter when you’re older.
“You’ll meet a lot of people who, to put it simply, don’t know what they’re talking about. In 1970, a CBS executive famously said that there were four things that we would never, ever see on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person living in New York City and a man with a moustache. By 1980, every show on television was about a divorced Jew who lives in New York City and goes on a blind date with Tom Selleck.”
Don’t do drugs.
Sorkin has spoken openly about his crack addition before, notably in an interview with W Magazine in 2010. At Syracuse he reiterated how tied to his process cocaine became. “The problem with drugs is that they work, right up until the moment that they decimate your life. Try cocaine, and you’ll become addicted to it. Become addicted to cocaine, and you will either be dead, or you will wish you were dead, but it will only be one or the other. My big fear was that I wasn’t going to be able to write without it. There was no way I was going to be able to write without it. Last year I celebrated my 11-year anniversary of not using coke.”
You never know how you’ll get your start.
Noah Wyle ended up getting cast in Sorkin’s first film, “A Few Good Men,” because the actor originally cast in the role he took on dropped out to take the lead in a new Milos Forman film. “Two weeks later, the Milos Forman film was scrapped… I don’t know what the first actor is doing, and I can’t remember his name. Sometimes, just when you think you have the ball safely in the end zone, you’re back to delivering pizzas for Domino’s. Welcome to the NFL.”
He failed a freshman playwriting class.
It was early in the morning and far away and it was cold out, and “at one point, being quizzed on ‘Death of a Salesman,’ a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies. And I failed the class. I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing. And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer. I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D. I’m joking: it was pass/fail.”