Arts & Culture

TV writers figure it out: Papa knew best

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the November 20, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star

The Wall Street Journal says people are talking really fast on television."

"You don't say."

"No, really. Especially on 'West Wing.' "

"Smart show."

"That's right. Mostly written by a guy named Aaron Sorkin."

"All that politics -"

"Ripped from the headlines!"

"And real-life drama."

"It's nice that Bartlet and his wife are getting closer."

"Illness will do that."

"I suppose. But it's about - "

"Power and powerlessness."

"Good way to put it, but I've been thinking about this TV thing for a long time. And one thing the Journal didn't mention - "

"Only one?"

"Well, a few things, but one important one was the real source of that dialogue."


"Straight out of Hemingway."




"The Sun Also Rises. All that Paris banter. All those young hipsters."

"All that drinking -"

"That, too, but I first noticed this a few years ago on another show Sorkin did - 'Sports Night.' "

"That ESPN thing."

"Something like that. But it was great. Behind the scenes at a sports talk show that had virtually nothing to do with -"


"Yeah. It was all about the people. And they talked fast, and they talked on top of each other and they completed one another's -"


"You've got it. And for some reason that's why I put two and two together."

"And came up with Hemingway."

"Listen to this. It's when Jake Barnes invites a passing woman to sit down and have a drink. He's the narrator":

"What's the matter?" she asked. "Going on a party?"

"Sure. Aren't you?"

"I don't know. You never know in this town."

"Don't you like Paris?"


"Why don't you go somewhere else?"

"Isn't anywhere else."

"You're happy, all right."

"Happy, hell!"

"I see what you're talking about."

"Things happen fast on TV comedies, dramas, too, like 'ER,' and this article I read said it had to do with cramming lots of scenes in a show to keep people laughing. Wears some people out. 'Lucy' was funny. But 'Seinfeld' was faster. Just like those old screwball comedies from way back when."

"Yeh, yeh, yeh."

"I might add that 'Frasier' is just as clever, more urbane, but slower."

"It takes time to make a latte."

"And you know 'Seinfeld,' that show about nothing."

"Yada yada yada."

"Exactly. Know where that comes from?"

"I'm getting a feeling -"

"Yep. 'A Clean Well-Lighted Place.' Seinfeld did yada yada. Hemingway did nada nada. Read it and weep."

"Will do."

"These really good TV guys - Sorkin, David Chase -"

" 'Sopranos.' "

"Yup. And Matt Groening -"

" 'Simpsons. ' "



"No. Roger. As in 'Roger That.' You're right. 'Simpsons.' But what I was trying to say -"

"Before I interrupted - "

"Was that the best of this stuff seems to be so aware of things. Aware of the world. Aware of pop culture."

"Uh huh."

"I mean, some of these guys even love books."

"I'll never forget that Jack London episode of 'Northern Exposure.' "

"Brilliant. That's what I mean. Or Amy Sherman-Palladino."


"She writes 'Gilmore Girls.' There's some media-savvy dialogue, for you, even though it feels a little forced."

"She's no Hemingway, you mean."

"Well, I don't think I'm too far out on a literary limb with that theory. Surely Sorkin read 'Hills Like White Elephants.' "

"Who hasn't?"

"One thing you hear a lot is wordplay. Repetition. You accent something by repeating it two or three or more times."


"It's like pingpong words. Not singsong to put you to sleep. Pingpong to keep you alert."

"Back and forth you mean?"

"Words pingponging, or pinballing. Like one time on the 'Gilmore Girls' Rory and a friend were riffing on the word 'wing-it.' They didn't know they were riffing, they were just saying what the writers wrote. But 'wing-it' as a compound verb and an adjective, meaning just the opposite of 'Zagat,' meaning you'd look it up in the restaurant guide rather than wing-it. The friend was having a date and she was worried about not looking at Zagat and they'd be forced to wing-it. Zagat. Wing-it."


"It's like action poetry."

"Poetry? On television?"

"TV is literature, you know. I mean look at 'Sports Night.' "

"It's a shame they killed it."

"Yeah, that really torqued my chili."

"Peter Krause was great."

"Just like he is on 'Six Feet Under.' And now one of those 'Sports Night' guys is on 'West Wing.' "

"The guy with glasses."

"But Felicity What's-Her-Name - she played the lead character, the talk-show producer - was married to William H. Macy and they were great, too."

"Great character - Macy. The ratings consultant."

"Huffman. Felicity Huffman. And they're theater people."


"They do Mamet. I mean they're friends with Mamet."


"The F-word guy. Plays. Movies."

"Yeah, I know, I know. But did you just say, 'It really torqued my chili'?"


"Where'd that come from?"

"People talk that way."

"C'mon -"

"No, they do. The beauty of language. I love it. 'Torqued my chili.' Some guy from Oklahoma says it. I heard it at a diner."

"A diner?"

"You know, like in 'The Killers.' "

"Ernie again?"

"Short story."

"Kind of like television."

"Except without the ads."

"Another reason they talk fast, right?"

"Yeah. To squeeze in more -"


- To reach Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, call (816) 234-4762 or send e-mail: The Hemingway style

No, we won't take credit for turning Ernest Hemingway into the dominant American writer of the 20th century. But this newspaper did prod him along at the beginning of his career. It was in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star, in 1917-18, that Hemingway learned a few things about writing effectively. He long acknowledged the habits he acquired by adhering to the newspaper's style sheet: "Use short sentences ... Use vigorous English."

He didn't always write that way, but when he did it was powerful. As powerful as anything we hear on television these days.

Like this excerpt from his short story "Hills Like White Elephants":

"And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible."

"What did you say?"

"I said we can have everything."

"No, we can't."

"We can go everywhere."

"No, we can't. It isn't ours anymore."

"It's ours."

"No, it isn't. And once they take it away, you never get it back."

"But they haven't taken it away."

"We'll wait and see."