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Wank Fest #1: Rick Cleveland and the making of In Excelsis Deo - ww_renaissance — LiveJournal
Wank Fest #1: Rick Cleveland and the making of In Excelsis Deo
Aaron Sorkin had this whole writing staff, you see, who weren't getting anything to do thanks to Sorkin's habit of supposedly writing the whole thing himself. So Sorkin gets really behind around Episode 8 because he's also still supposed to be writing Sports Night, and he lets them take the next episode, "Enemies". As it turns out, he totally hates it and then he promptly decides to keep an even closer eye on his writing staff.

Flash forward about a year, when Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland win an Emmy for writing this very episode, after Rick Cleveland has been let go by the show. Rick doesn't get to talk on stage, since Sorkin uses all the time. Rick published this piece in a trade magazine and then moves on to writing for "Six Feet Under".

At the beginning of the second season, Sorkin decides to bring the love online and begins hanging out at the West Wing forums at MightyBigTV.com, soon to become Television Without Pity. After some initial fracas with the moderator (Deborah) trying to teach Sorkin how to use a message board without annoying the fuck out of people, and after Sorkin proves that it's him by posting chunks of script the day before he airs them, Sorkin settles in to answering various questions about the show.

Shortly after that, the writing staff is involved with a different conflict with John Wells, who at the time is also running the Writer's Guild of America, because he wants them to not take a raise. A reporter at the New York Times writes a piece about the writing staff's woes and brings up the Emmy incident.

A bunch of TWoP posters ask him about it, including mjforty, who was on the West Wing boards pretty regularly. (If TWoP had BNFs, she was one of them.)

"mijorty, You got it wrong. It's understandable, but you got it wrong. On most TV staffs, stories are pitched, broken and outlined by a group, then assigned to the various writers on the staff, then polished by the show runner. That's not the way it works here. I write the scripts with the enormous help of a staff that provides research and kicks ideas around with me as well. It's like a new play being written every week. They work really hard and do a great job and they're all going to write their own scripts one day, so by way of a gratuity, I give them each a Story by credit on a rotating basis. That credit comes with money.

That said, they're paid as if they were writing scripts (and some of them have producer titles as well--simply based on what they were getting at their last job.) We're under a tremendous budget crunch here. I know it seems, with the success of the show, like we should have all the money in the world, but it doesn't work like that. People were let go in all departments; grips, gaffers, props, hair and make-up, set dressing, post-production ... And the cases of a few writers (whom I'm very fond of) their contracts called for them to get bumps which would have been very difficult to justify given their job descriptions. Their contracts also give us the option to not pick up their option, which Tommy, John and I didn't want to do given their loyal service to the show and our personal friendships with them. So we asked them if they'd be willing to stay on at their current salaries, supplemented by the money they'd get from story credits. In no way a violation of the Writers' Guild contract, in spirit or otherwise. John, I assure you, would never do that.

The two who left are both gainfully employed on other shows. In fact there was a bidding war over their services. Those who stayed seem very happy they did.

All of this was explained by any number of people to Bernie Weinraub at the New York Times. Bernie Weinraub, it would seem, is very casual about the truth.

Finally, on a vain and selfish note: In the first season, I was doing both The West Wing and Sports Night at the same time and I wanted to try seeing if The West Wing could run like a normal TV show. I gave a staffer named Rick Cleveland a script assignment. He wrote a script called "A White House Christmas" wherein the First Lady's cat trips a Secret Service alarm. I can't much else except mention was made of a business card found in an old coat of Toby's that he'd donated to Good Will. I threw out Rick's script and wrote "In Excelces Deo." Because Rick had worked for months on his, I gave him, rather than a Story by credit, a co-written by credit and put his name ahead of mine. For my script, he received a Humanitas nomination, an Emmy Award and a Writers' Guild Award. Every Emmy nominee gets a letter from Don Mischer, the producer of the telecast, very clearly saying that only one person is allowed to speak when accepting. After that person is done, the orchestra will play you off. Rick could'ce done the St. Crispin's Day speech that night for I cared. It wasn't my call.

This, too, was explained to Bernie.

At the end of the first season, Rick was fired. Not by me and for economic reasons. It was by John Wells and it was for lack of performance. He was then hired by Gideon's Crossing, where he was fired by Paul Attanassio for the same reason. - Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin
June 26, 2001

And then a bunch of media people got excited and reported on the wank.

Hey, Gang. Rick Cleveland here. First off, for anyone who's interested, my draft of the script -- I wrote three -- is available in the WGA archive. I'm pretty sure anyone who stops by can read it -- if not I'd be glad to make it available. It's called "A White House Christmas." Benjamin got that much right. The "A" story is mine -- not just the idea -- all the way down to the name of the homeless Korean War veteran, Walter Huffnagel. Even Toby's visit to his brother, although I didn't make him retarded -- Aaron did. Other stuff is also mine -- the new millennium stuff in the teaser, as well as the stuff about CJ's secret service nickname -- which was my wife's idea, yes. Aaron's a great writer, and he did a great job rewriting the script -- but he didn't write it alone. And he didn't "give" me a Written by credit -- and what galled me on Emmy night wasn't that he didn't let me speak -- it was that he ignored me completely. For the record, the writing credit on the script was indeed arbitrated by the WGA -- they decided my work warranted a Co-Writer credit on the teleplay. Also, for the record, every script written the show's first year by staff members was automatically submitted for arbitration -- at the request of John Wells -- as a measure of protection for us -- to keep Aaron from poaching or cannibalizing scripts to the point where he wouldn't have to give credit where credit was/is due. As for being fired for lack of performance, that's also not true -- at least as far as I know. The fact that Aaron, John and Tommy submitted the script that I co-wrote for Emmy, Humanitas and WGA Award consideration validates my contribution to the show -- at least I'd like to think it does. Also, I didn't get fired off "Gideon's Crossing." In closing, I'm very proud to inform you all that I'm currently working on "Six Feet Under." It's a great show, you should check it out. - Rick Cleveland

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Rick Cleveland
July 6, 2001

Boy, I'd kinda like to end this. So Rick? If you're out there...?

I and everyone else appreciate the contribution you made to the episode. It was crucial. I was dead wrong to imply otherwise. I deeply regret not having thanked you that night. It was nothing more than nerves. As for your not being allowed to speak, I'm sorry about that too and I wish you'd been able to, but that wasn't my call, it was the decision of Don Mischer. I thanked those involved with the pilot (really not just the pilot, but the production of the series in general) because I wasn't just the co-writer of that episode, I was also the creator and executive producer of the series, and I had no way of knowing if we'd be back up there again that night.

You wrote what I felt was an unduly nasty piece in the Writers' Guild magazine, and after I read it, I called you and I apologized. I then made arrangements for you not only to speak when accepting the Writers' Guild Award, but for you to have the entire stage to yourself that night.

The whole unfortunate incident was dragged out once again when Bernie Weinraub wrote his piece in the New York Times. I reacted too quickly to what I felt was an egregiously unfair characterization of the way writers are treated on The West Wing. Further, I'm remarkably and stupidly naive about the internet, and never imagined my response to a poster would be picked up by Slate or anyone else. The episode we did together remains one of the proudest moments of this series and of my career. I enjoyed every day of the year we worked together.

Six Feet Under is a wonderful show, I'm sure you're proud of it. I wish you nothing less than what you deserve: Health, Happiness and another Emmy.

Aaron Sorkin

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Aaron "Benjamin" Sorkin
July 8, 2001


Thank you for being such a mensch about putting what I hope will be a dignified end to this mess. The year I spent working with you on the show -- and on our episode -- remains one of the proudest experiences of my career as well. And just so you know, I never spoke with Weinraub or anyone else at the Times, nor would I have felt the need to. I hope you guys sweep the Emmy Awards once again this year. And best of luck with the third season...

Best wishes,
Rick C. - Rick Cleveland

Posted at mightybigtv.com Forum
by Rick Cleveland
July 8, 2001

I reacted too quickly. I was simply responding to this person [on the Internet], not thinking that there were more than a dozen people in the room. I tried to talk about the situation. I then went a step too far." He paused. "It's not a guilty conscience. I know how this must look." - Aaron Sorkin

"Will 'West Wing' Go Up in Smoke?"
by Sharon Waxman
July 20, 2001
Washington Post

"He said awful things about me," says [Rick] Cleveland, now a writer/supervising producer on HBO's Six Feet Under. "I was deeply hurt. Deeply. Here is a guy with $15 million and I am a guy with zero million."

Sorkin admits that he made a mistake by posting his thoughts on the Internet. "I should have counted to 100" before logging on, he says. "I realize that doesn't matter how angry I am about all this; I made a guy I like feel very bad. I'd gone below the the belt in assessing his work. So I thought if I post an apology maybe he will see it. And in my naïveté about the Internet I thought around 12 people would see [all of] this."

"State of Disunion"
by Mary Murphy
August 11, 2001
TV Guide (American edition)

There's a more in-depth rundown about Sorkin's later issues with feminist critiques on TWoP, and a timeline here. The timeline is pretty current as to Sorkin's ongoing relationship with the internet, although cuts off before the start of Studio 60, which basically goes to show that Sorkin hasn't gotten over anything mentioned here.

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25 comments or Leave a comment
emilys_list From: emilys_list Date: November 28th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) (Link)
uhm - let's make out. because this was most informative and juicy and revealing - and i am not getting work done (which is fine by me). so, thanks :)
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
For you? Anytime. ;)
kiss_me_cassie From: kiss_me_cassie Date: November 28th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
urgh. nothing about nothing (sorry tori!) but I owe you half a beta still. grr. must do that.
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Goddamnit you do, because I'm waiting to read this fic for like months now.
emilys_list From: emilys_list Date: November 28th, 2007 06:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
lady it's been on my computer since... God... I started it in 2004 I think! At the latest 2005. Insanity. Maybe you'll help me finish/edit it and I'll offer you a co-writing credit ;) okay I was being snarky but I actually do mean that... I want this thing OUT.
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 06:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
So it's like my Mutant fic then. Right-o. We could trade?
emilys_list From: emilys_list Date: November 28th, 2007 06:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
you do! but, no worries, i have been drowning in office fic that i need to work on. plus, i am reading a book! great fun :)

p.s. your beta was so fierce.
stuwest From: stuwest Date: November 28th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
He can't stop reading Twop. I don't understand it: any time I've visited that site, all it takes is about 2 pages of one of their recaps and I'm vowing never to return.
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 06:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I loved it when I was 16. (One of the reasons I'm glad that board doesn't exist anymore is that so people can't see my fawning posts over him when he was there.) IMHO, it appeals to a very 16 year old mentality. While I'm just as snarky, if not more-so, I'd also rather talk about what the show was actually about, good and bad, and I don't think TWoP has ever been very good at that.
soaked_in_stars From: soaked_in_stars Date: November 28th, 2007 06:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fantastic post, you. I'm going to try to have more thoughts on it when I'm not at work.
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 06:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
gingasaur From: gingasaur Date: November 28th, 2007 06:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
Best. Wank. Ever. I always wondered what the so-called "Aaron Sorkin TWOP Lollercaust" was all about, and since the original posts don't exist anymore, I never knew. 'till now, that is.
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 06:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
My favorite part is how he got banninated from the interwebs by the studio, but that didn't happen until after the feminism wank a few months later.
no_name_no1 From: no_name_no1 Date: November 28th, 2007 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Fascinating stuff...none of which I'd known about. Thanks for the info!
zinke From: zinke Date: November 28th, 2007 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
This was wonderful - thank you so much for posting this. I'd heard about the TwoP exchanges, but never got to the chance to read them.
dianora2 From: dianora2 Date: November 28th, 2007 08:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
Heh. Thanks for the roundup. I was on MBTV at the time, but not really on the West Wing boards (I think those were the good old days of mocking Dawson's Creek as much as humanly possible), so I "heard" about it around the site after the fact and went over there to check it out. And proceeded to gape like a fish at what a dumbass he was. *g* Somehow I STILL can't get over the fact that he eventually incorporated all of his frustrations into an episode -- especially since all he was doing was giving the site the blatant shout-out they so desperately craved. Hell, he probably helped make TWoP what it is today, in a way, which is not a good thing.

*misses MBTV*
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 10:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah. The resulting shitstorm didn't do MBTV any favors, since after that Wing Chun and co realized they could 'be people' by increasing the level of anger and hate to phenomenal levels.

My problem is less that he incorporated it into one episode as it is that this stuff has never gone away. He never got over it. He's still pissed about it and that's what ruined S60 for me.
laurenba From: laurenba Date: November 28th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wow, thanks so much for the background and the links. I had heard rumblings of this long after the fact, but I didn't even know that MBT (or TWOP) existed until years later. Certainly puts "the U.S. Poet Laureate" and Lemonlyman.com in a whole new light...
From: lidbit91 Date: November 28th, 2007 09:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
first of all, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS. I'd been wanting to read it for a year and just assumed it was long gone.
You know, in a way, this kind of (and don't be mad) makes me like Sorkin even more. I just think that there is so much BS in the world right now, and everyone's got a publicisit and God forbid anybody see how a person really is, as it might interfere with someone’s personal gain, and don't even get me started on politics...
So, I just think that it's sort of refreshing to see a (really idiotic, yet) realistic unfolding of events. For better or worse, it's a very honest turn of events, in my opinion.
Ok, so I guess I'm gonna be playing devil's advocate here, but I certainly don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. I'm not condoning his behavior, I'm just trying to understand it as someone who has always admired his work.

I've been reading TWoP for about 3 years, but I've never really ventured into the boards, because well... fandom boards scare me. I never read the site when it was MBTV, though.

I should probably give a disclaimer that I watch way too much tv. And it's mostly serialized shows, I rarely watch reruns or cable during the day. I’ll watch shows that I hate, just because I have to know what happens and I like adding to the library of stuff that I've seen, as it helps me to see where shows get it wrong.
I also don't have a lot of people who I can speak intelligently with about the shows I like. Most of my friends/family don't really look below the surface of tv, and find my interest in it to be somewhat superficial. Reading TWoP was always a good way for me to see what other people thought of shows, while having a sort of assurance that they were being paid to perform this job, and therefore must have some credentials to back them up. Whereas... I mean, without sounding too much like Sorkin, there are a lot of wackos out there. And... the world wide web does give them all a kind of megaphone.
I've read ( and continue to read, when I can) the first four and a half season's worth of recaps at TWoP, and I've found them really valuable in seeing other reactions to the show. Regardless of your opinion of the site, I think that Deborah did a good job of putting aside whatever her personal reaction to Sorkin may have been, and writing the recaps (somewhat) objectively. I found her to be intelligent, basically fair, and helpful in understanding some of the finer details of the show. I do disagree with a LOT of what she has said/thought about the show, but I don't think that that makes her dumb or a bad person. So I guess my point is just that while I understand the criticisms against TWoP, I think there is something to be said for it.
Alright, jeez, I have to split this into two posts.

From: lidbit91 Date: November 28th, 2007 09:45 pm (UTC) (Link)


So at the moment, I'm still in school, but would eventually like to work in television, my end goal being something akin to what Sorkin does (you know, fingers crossed).
I completely understand Sorkin's desire to write (almost) every episode himself, and it's one of my favorite aspects of the show. I find it admirable because, yes, it’s obviously a lot of work, but I think that when tv shows have a consistent voice throughout every episode, it ends up working a lot better than shows that don't. And say what you will about Sorkinuity, but he basically always stays true to the characters, which is frankly the most important part of a show.
So I sympathize with him, because I think if I ever had my own show, it would really be hard for me to have any of the episodes be written by other people. Although I don't really feel the same way about his class/substitute teacher analogy. I sort of think that's just his way of being nice about the fact that he doesn't really trust other people to write the show. I would imagine that being the creator/showrunner of your own show is somewhat like having a child, and I think that it's a natural inclination to want to protect that child and to think you know what’s best for it.

Having said all that, I don't really know what was going through Sorkin's mind during all this. It seems like a profoundly stupid thing to do, but at the same time, I can kind of understand the post being sort of an unedited, initial reaction to things that were being said about him.
I know he's done a lot of bad things, and I know that he's said a lot of bad things, but... he's an artist. Many of the good ones aren't exactly the same people who you would invite to babysit your kids, you know what I mean? He's kind of crazy, and he's kind of an ass, but in the end, I find that (when he's not using his work as an attack on those who’ve offended him) his work and his talent counteract his... assholic tendencies.

Ok, this went really long, and I doubt anybody really cares what I think this much, but God knows I could go on for days, so... sorry.
skywaterblue From: skywaterblue Date: November 28th, 2007 10:04 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: ...continued

I know he's done a lot of bad things, and I know that he's said a lot of bad things, but... he's an artist. Many of the good ones aren't exactly the same people who you would invite to babysit your kids, you know what I mean? He's kind of crazy, and he's kind of an ass, but in the end, I find that (when he's not using his work as an attack on those who’ve offended him) his work and his talent counteract his... assholic tendencies.

I agree with the sentiment in practice. A lot of artists have self-destructive tendencies. It would be one thing if he was just a drug addict -- a lot of addicts have made amazing work in their thrall. We have pity for people who get caught up in drugs. The problem with Sorkin seems to be that his dysfunction isn't really the drugs but the rage and bitterness he keeps holding on too.

A lot of artists do roman a' clef work, but Sorkin's the only one I can think of at the moment so blatantly continuing to spew venom.

My advice to you if you want to pursue a career in any type of art, however, is not to piss people off. Do not do what Sorkin is doing to his career. The only reason Sorkin continues to work is because he's so fucking talented that people are willing to put up with this for the chance to make a lot of money. Most people will never be as naturally talented as he is or as lucky.

newyork_noodles From: newyork_noodles Date: November 28th, 2007 11:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
LMAO, at least now we know where the LemonLyman storyline came from. Awesome, thanks for posting!
katiebug78 From: katiebug78 Date: November 29th, 2007 01:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's funny how I think Sorkin is brilliant, but simultaneously a bit of an ass...

The first time I saw the lemonlyman plot, I didn't know the history behind it, not being American and not yet having really discovered fandom. But I subsequently did and now cringe every time I watch that ep (and cringe at how I chuckled the first time - knowing I have become one of those who were mocked to my amusement).

But thanks for the reminder - I had never read the Rick Cleveland article before...
the_antichris From: the_antichris Date: November 29th, 2007 02:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
...this explains so much! Thanks for posting - I'm kind of late to the fandom here, if not the show, and this is fascinating.
caz963 From: caz963 Date: November 29th, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for posting all this. I knew about the stuff that went on behind this episode, but not in such detail and haven't read the original posts - fascinating stuff.
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