How close did “The West Wing” come to never existing?
According to Aaron Sorkin, “very close.”
Celebrating the tenth anniversary of the series’ final season, the creator and cast — including Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Janel Maloney, Dule Hill, Joshua Malina and Melissa Fitzgerald — joined iconic director and producer Thomas Schlamme at the ATX Festival’s reunion panel, “The West Wing Administration: 10 Years Later.” Alongside a consistent ribbing of Malina and many sincere thanks to the packed house in Austin, moderator (and one-time writer/producer of “The West Wing”) Lawrence O’Donnell steered the conversation to the series’ pilot — how it defined the series (with its groundbreaking “walk and talk” sequence) and how it almost never happened, thanks to events in 1998.
“I wrote ‘fade out’ on the pilot and a few minutes later — I mean it — a few minutes later, Monica Lewinsky happened,” Sorkin said. “We had to wait a little bit. We were okay sitting on this because we knew, ‘We can’t do this right now. People will giggle.'”
“There was also a change in management at NBC,” Sorkin continued. “The first group of people were kind of interested in it — and I don’t network bash — but, in the pilot, they literally wanted Josh to go out in a boat and help the human refugees.”
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“Like Rahm Emmanuel in a speedo,” Whitford said.
But even after the change in management, the pilot “did not test through the roof,” Sorkin said. “So, NBC was on the fence about putting it on the schedule.”
Sorkin then went on to explain how the production company, Warner Bros., “very smartly” figured out an innovative new way to save the show.
“They invented four new demographics [to help sell the series to NBC],” Sorkin said. “Households earning more than $75,000 a year, households with at least one college graduate, households where they subscribed to The New York Times and, finally — in 1999 — this was the most important one: households with internet access. That’s what got us on the air.”
The irony of the statement — considering Sorkin’s past negative comments regarding the internet — was glossed over in favor of the significance of the series itself. Whitford took a moment to say something he “would regret not saying” otherwise, reminding the audience, “No human being will ever write 22 episodes a year for four years ever again. That’s 11 feature films a year. It will never, ever happen again.”
“Aaron’s life is an unresolvable hell,” Whitford said. “He needs to write, but it’s agony.”
Among the 155 episodes shot and aired for the series, plenty of great moments came up. Below are a few highlights:
• Sorkin respects the pilot of “The West Wing,” but he admits it’s not the strongest episode of the series. “With any long-running series, the pilot is going to be the weakest,” Sorkin said.
But Schlamme disagreed. “That, as a pilot, is an incredible testament to all of us,” he said.
• The actors went on a nice run referencing ideas they pitched that somehow found their way into the series. Schiff pointed out how he first introduced the idea of Toby having a rubber ball in his office as “an homage to Steve McQueen in ‘The Great Escape.'” Whitford remembered flagging down Sorkin, as he drove around the studio lot in his golf cart, to mention how, “It does feel weird that I got shot recently.” The end result was “Noel,” the first episode to address Josh’s near-death since the storyline wrapped earlier in the season.
But the crowning jewel of them all was Schlamme remembering how “The Jackal” came to be.
“Allison, in her trailer, would sing ‘The Jackal,'” Schlamme said. “So we were wise enough to say, ‘Aaron, why don’t you listen to Allison Janney sing ‘The Jackal’? And the next week at the table read, ‘The Jackal’ was in the script.”
• Joshua Malina, as he always has, caught a ton of flack from his stagemates during the panel — not-so-gentle ribbing that is nonetheless in good fun. None, though, was more pointed — or hilarious — than Aaron Sorkin asking, “Why doesn’t Joshua Malina support the troops?”
“Josh hates veterans,” Fitzgerald responded, without missing a beat.
Moments earlier, the audience had watched a video promoting JusticeForVets.org, Fitzgerald’s organization supporting our nation’s veterans. Every member of “The West Wing” cast appeared in the video — including Martin Sheen and Allison Janney, who could not attend the panel — except for Malina.
Though the reason for his absence was that he was fully booked shooting “Scandal,” a fact the cast was well aware of, they weren’t about to miss a chance to mock their friend and colleague on the main stage.
• And, of course, Richard Schiff — without comment — went deep into character on stage, munching on a bucket of popcorn throughout the panel. He kindly shared it with those sitting next to him, which resulted in Whitford choking on kernals a few times while trying to speak. A more detailed account is below (click the Tweet for the full account).
— Ben Travers (@BenTTravers) June 11, 2016
The ATX Festival is taking place from June 9-12 in Austin, TX. Keep checking IndieWire throughout for continued coverage.