Laugh Riot

What happens when a newcomer tries to bend the rules of the most venerable and conservative of cultural forms—the American sitcom?

  1. In a large white office at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, an office that falls under the bashful gaze of the seven dwarfs who adorn the pediment of corporate headquarters across the way, four men are brooding about art, commerce, and the fate of their television show. It is a late afternoon in mid-July, and the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, sits at his desk smoking a Merit and sneaking glances at the computer screen, where the script of his second episode awaits him. ABC, the network that will air their situation comedy, wants it to be filmed in front of a live audience and have a laugh track. To Sorkin and the others in this room, a laugh track represents all that is truckling and mediocre about television and would destroy their show. “It feels like I’ve put on an Armani tuxedo, tied my tie, snapped on my cuff links,” Sorkin told me, “and the last thing I do before I leave the house is spray Cheez Whiz all over myself.”

    The show, Sports Night, which debuts on ABC this Tuesday night, September 22, at 9:30 P.M., is about six smart producers and anchors of a late-night sports-highlight show that resembles ESPN’s Sports Center. Some of the best sitcoms have been about the world of television—The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Larry Sanders Show—but Sorkin intends an unusual mixture of comedy and drama, with runs of banter that are funny but not jokey intercut with serious, and even solemn, moments. In the first episode, Casey, one of the anchors, is gettin...