Back in 1998, when TV viewers turned to Friends and Frasier for punchlines and ER and NYPD Blue for drama, one series boldly attempted to be a one-stop shop: ABC’s Sports Night. Set in the high-stakes world of a live sports news program, the Aaron Sorkin-scribed dramedy followed the behind-the-scenes exploits of fictional “Sports Night” coanchors Casey (Peter Krause) and Dan (Josh Charles), their brilliant producer Dana (Felicity Huffman), harried associate producer Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), gruff executive Isaac (Robert Guillaume), and whip-smart researcher Jeremy (Josh Malina).
Sports Night was adored by the media—including EW, which called it “the most consistently funny, intelligent, and emotional of any new-season series.” But the show never became a hit, struggling with low ratings and unsympathetic network execs who insisted on an awkward laugh track for the first season and then canceled the series in 2000.
Yet a funny thing has happened in the nearly 15 years since the lights went out at the fictional Continental Sports Channel. Thanks to DVDs and online streaming—and a ripple effect from Sorkin’s hits in TV (The West Wing) and film (The Social Network)—Sports Night found fans beyond its all-too-brief two-season run. “‘Ahead of its time’ is overused,” says Malina. “But it actually is appropriate to Aaron and Sports Night.”
That time began in 1995. Bill Clinton was in the White House. TLC were on the radio. And Aaron Sorkin was living out of L.A.’s Four Seasons hotel, watching too much ESPN.
AARON SORKIN (Creator): I had a very vague idea for a movie, sort of Broadcast News at an ESPN-type network. Any time a story would occur to me, it would be a short story. I eventually mentioned that to my agent, who said, “It sounds like you’re talking about a TV series.” So within about 24 hours, I was marched into the office of Jamie Tarses, who was the head of ABC at the time. I said, “I can’t really tell you anything about the show except that it’s going to take place at a cable sports network. If you’re interested, you’re just going to have to let me go away and write the pilot.” And they did.
FELICITY HUFFMAN (Dana Whitaker): When there are great scripts for pilot season, the drumbeat goes out. Everybody knows about it—and everyone was talking about Sports Night.
JOSH CHARLES (Dan Rydell): I wasn’t looking to do a TV show at the time, so my agents passed on it for me. I had worked with [Thomas Schlamme], who was directing the pilot. He reached out to me and said, “Your agents passed on this for you, but I just wanted to make sure you had read it.”
JOSH MALINA (Jeremy Goodwin): I immediately fixated on what would ultimately become Josh Charles’ role of Dan. I thought it was perfect for me.
SORKIN: Josh Malina came in for Dan Rydell, but Josh Charles got the part, and I really wanted Josh in the show. I’d worked with him before [on A Few Good Men], and I knew what he could do.
MALINA: Aaron called, and he was like, “Hey, do you remember the role of Jeremy in the pilot?” As it was originally written, he was 21. And I was 30 at the time. He’s like, “I know he’s young, but what if I took another pass at it?” And he started describing what he might do, and I just interrupted him and said, “Are you trying to convince me? Yes! I would play anything in this!”
SORKIN: I wrote the scene in the pilot where Jeremy interviews with Dana to get the job. Josh came in the next day and read that scene for the network.
MALINA: It felt like it went great. This great writer had created the part for me. They told me to wait in the hall, and then Aaron came bounding out and picked me up, held me aloft, and I remember saying to him, “If this is your way of telling me I didn’t get the role, I’m going to be very upset.”
PETER KRAUSE (Casey McCall): The first time I read it, I read with Aaron. I’d rehearsed it really thoroughly, so I was going to do it pretty quickly. I said something to Aaron, like, “Think you can keep up?” He laughed and said, “I think I can manage.” I blistered through it, and it went very well. It was really my job to lose.
CHARLES: I remember reading with a couple different Caseys but feeling pretty strongly that Peter was great. There was a connection there.
SABRINA LLOYD (Natalie Hurley): I was waiting to go in to audition for Aaron. He saw me, and he did a double-take because he said he “saw Natalie.” He was looking at me, and he tripped. And he laughed, and I laughed, and that was the moment I knew I was going to get that job.
ROBERT GUILLAUME (Isaac Jaffe): I ran into Felicity Huffman [at the audition], and she was very upbeat about it, as was I.
HUFFMAN: I thought, “I might at least have a shot at getting an audition,” because Dana Whitaker wasn’t the lead. You had Josh Charles and Peter Krause and Robert Guillaume, and I thought, “Maybe I can slip in as number five or six.” I walked in, and there was Robert. He was so sweet, and I was so nervous. He said, “You go in there and get that part!”
When the cast started filming in the summer of 1998, ABC insisted on a live audience and a laugh track. Sorkin and Schlamme disagreed but couldn’t overrule the network.
SORKIN: We were engaged in a back-and-forth with the network because we didn’t want to do it in front of a live audience for two reasons: Once you do it in front of a live audience, you have to use a laugh track, because you’re going to be mixing different takes, and the laughs are going to be different in sizes and sounds, so you have to use a laugh track to smooth that over. The other reason we didn’t want a live audience was that we didn’t have a traditional multi-camera set. There were a lot of parts of the set that the audience couldn’t see. The audience wasn’t able to see the studio or the control room. The audience wasn’t able to see Isaac’s office or Dan and Casey’s office. Well, that’s most of the show.
LLOYD: There was a lot we couldn’t film in front of an audience, so we just sat there and read the rest of the script to them. It was its own comedy in trying to say, “Oh, we’re going to pretend we’re really doing this for you!”
MALINA: To me, it’s kind of a split thing: “Am I playing to the 50 people over there? Or am I trying to give a performance for the millions of people out there?”
HUFFMAN: I loved doing it in front of an audience, but I hated the laugh track. It cheapened it.
SORKIN: The network was looking for any touchstones that would make it feel like more of a traditional half hour, and one of them was the laugh track. By the second season, they said, “You don’t have to use it anymore.” On those occasions when I go back and watch an old episode, that laugh track sounds so terrible.
MALINA: Would The Office have worked with a laugh track? No. At the time, studio executives were going, “You don’t want to have a laugh track? But how are people going to know that it’s funny?”
NEXT: Ratings struggles—and Guillaume’s on-set stroke