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Feature Interviews K to O > Peter Krause (1999
To Make TV Safe For Smart People
Jay S. Jacobs
All rights reserved. Revised:
October 17, 2014.
The fall of 1998 was a
tough time for television comedy. The networks tried to come up with a plan for
post-Seinfeld TV, but the best they seemed to be able to come up with were tired
retreads like Jesse, Two of a Kind and Maggie Winters. But
shining like a diamond in the empty mine of a new comedy schedule was one true
pedigree. Sports Night was a smart and funny look behind the scenes at a
cable sports newscast. Created and almost completely written by playwright and
screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President) the
writing was clever, complex and different than anything else on TV. Running on
Tuesday nights at 9:30 on ABC, Sports Night quickly got a rabid critical and cult
Peter Krause, who stars in
the show as sportscaster Casey McCall, sat down with us to discuss Sports Night's
triumphant first year and also let us know a little about what to expect in the future.
I'm from Philadelphia, and I
know you're from Minnesota, so I guess my first question would have to be, can we have
Randall Cunningham back, please?
Yeah, we had a good season last
year. It's funny, one of my best friends from grad school is from Philly. And all
throughout the year I was riding him about how Randall Cunningham finally came into his
own with the Vikings. He emailed me back when the Vikings lost the NFC Championship game
I sort of hoped he'd win. I've
always been a fan, and I figured, since we stunk so much, Randall might as well win.
He just needs to throw some longer
passes and not underthrow Randy Moss so much. He'll be fine next year.
When did you know you had to become
I came to it late, actually. It was
when I was in college. I started college Pre-Med. That lasted about half a semester. I did
find I used to spend all my time with my nose in the books. So, I dropped that line of
study and took up the Russian language, and continued my study of English literature.
Then, midway through my sophomore year, I did my second play. I had done one play in high
school, but then I hurt my back pole-vaulting. To meet a girl. Met the girl, took her to
the prom, but I didn't like the part I got in the play. It didn't really attract me. But
then in college, this first play I did - Paul Sill's Story Theater, was a great
experience. The director of that play asked me to do Harold Pinter's The Dumbwaiter
immediately following that play. After that, I went on to do Caryl Churchill's Cloud
Nine and David Mamet's American Buffalo in college. Lots of great plays. So it
was when I was a sophomore in college that I really started to get into it. Immediately
following college I got into NYU's MFA acting program.
It says in your artist bio that you
first met Aaron Sorkin while bartending at The Palace Theatre. Did you ever imagine you'd
be working together on TV?
I think he did, originally. But,
, but I didn't. I got that job through Camryn Manheim, who's on The Practice.
We went to NYU together and she got me the job. I met Aaron and he was working on this
play about guys in the Marines. He asked me if I'd do a reading of it. It was in the
early stages, when he was developing the play. He was going to do a reading in his
apartment and then at the West Side Playhouse. He gave me the script and I left it in the
changing room, thinking to myself that this guy spent too much time in the sandbox as a
kid, playing with little plastic army men. And that it would never amount to anything. But
then, years later, A Few Good Men was on Broadway and I was just getting out of
grad school. I hadn't seen him for a long time, and then I met up with him again and
we're quite happy to be working together on Sports Night.
I have to admit for the first few
Sports Night, I was trying to figure out how I had seen you before and
then it hit me that it was from Cybill. How did you get involved with that show?
Well, when I first moved out here
in 1990, I did a series with Carol Burnett called Carol & Company. Then in
between that and Cybill, I did a bunch of series that only lasted for like eight
or nine episodes. The Great Defender. If Not For You with Hank Azaria and
Elizabeth McGovern. When If Not For You was cancelled, Les Moonves, who had been
in Warner Brothers when I did The Great Defender, liked me a lot, so they
set up this meeting with the people over at Cybill. They were casting a new
character, her son-in-law. So, it was really Les Moonves and the people over at Cybill
that made that happen. I spent about two years there, and DeeDee Pfeiffer and I left the
show to pursue other things.
It also said in your bio that you
were on Seinfeld, but I honestly can't remember you on that show. Which episode was
I did an episode called 'The Limo,'
where I played a neo-Nazi.
Right! That was you!
I looked very different in that
episode, I was wearing a trenchcoat, wielding a gun. But it was a lot of fun, those guys
are really great to work with. I really enjoyed working with Jerry and Jason Alexander. We
spent most of our time in the limousine on the stage with those two guys. Had a lot of
One of the great things about
Sports Night, is that unlike most TV comedies, it does not assume the audience is
stupid. Do you think that could be a problem in the long run, that Sports Night could
be too smart for the average viewer?
I think in the beginning, it was a
problem for people to figure out what it was. By comparing it with other television
product that they've seen, I don't think there's been anything out there lately that they
can compare it to, and say, oh, this is like that show. I think in the long run it's going
to work to our advantage, because I think the TV viewers are starved for shows like Sports
Night. We've done episodes about racism in college sports. About personal vanity. And
then kooky things like people being afraid of fish. It is a very intelligent show, and I
think in the long run it's going to help us. In the beginning, I don't want to say it hurt
us, but I think the viewers couldn't quite figure out what the show was. Over time, with
more sampling, more people will be drawn to it. We've already been a huge critical
success. We've got a great cult audience. And we're shooting for more popular success, and
I think that will come in the second or third years.
In truth, the show has very little
to do with sports. Do you worry that some people, particularly women, may not give the
show a chance because of the name?
I think that has been
the case. That's a case of people judging a book by its cover.
Looking at the title and assuming that the show is just about sports. It's
clearly not. It's about personal relationships and neuroses. But Aaron has also
been really smart in terms of some of the sports he's chosen to do episodes
about. We did an episode about mountain climbing. That was a metaphor for trying
to achieve great things in your life. Like trying to ascend that mountain. We
did an episode featuring cricket, too. It's not purely American sports that we
deal with. A lot of times, we'll use a sports story to underscore what's going
on with somebody in the show. There was a great episode called 'The Sword of
Orion' in which the character Jeremy (Joshua Malina) finds out that his father has been having an affair for
twenty-five years or something like that while they were married. And there was the
metaphor of this ship that gets lost at sea, sort of tied into his parents' relationship
getting lost. What happened? Where did that ship go? It's a mystery to him how that
happened. Again, it's not baseball, basketball, football all the time. Here he's using a
sailing race as a backdrop for a personal story. This show uses sports as a metaphor
for life, which I think is really smart on his part. And now, they're putting Dharma
& Greg in front of us, to try and draw more female viewers because apparently that
show does really well across the board. Lots of female viewers. ABC's been treating us
really well. They kept us at our same timeslot, so the viewers that got hooked on us last
year know where to find us. And they gave us a great lead in with Dharma & Greg.
The cast (and creator) of
Sports Night have strong theater backgrounds. Probably because of that, the show has a
much different vibe than the usual sit-com rhythm of setup-punchline-setup-punchline. How
do you think the theatrical backgrounds help the show?
The theatrical background that we
all share helps us in our working process. We only have two days rehearsal, then we film
for three days. The scripts for Sports Night are about twelve pages longer on
average than any other half-hour show that's been on television. So, we've got to pick up
our cues, as if you're doing a play on stage. We're all talking a little bit faster than
most half-hour shows. And we've worked really hard to eliminate the laugh track. There
still is a laugh track, but it's been diminished quite a bit. You probably don't even
notice it anymore. But that's something the network wanted. They feel like it was the
touch of familiarity for the television audiences. Things like that. It's been a battle,
but it hasn't been a battle full of animosity. Both sides have understood what the other
has tried to do. ABC and Imagine and Disney/Touchstone have been really supportive with
Aaron, Tommy Schlamme, the director, and the cast. To try achieve the best show possible.
Each side understands creative and business concerns. So, it's been a pretty happy battle
with a laugh track.
I know Felicity Huffman has done a
lot of work with David Mamet. I even liked her in her old series Golden Years. In
fact the show feels a lot like half-hour Mamet plays without the cursing. What is it like
working with her?
Felicity and I get along great on
stage. She and Josh Charles are my two favorite people to have scenes with. And most of my
scenes are scenes with them. In my personal life, Felicity is the bane of my existence. We
were down in Florida for some interviews down there. She somehow got a key to my hotel
room. I was out golfing. And I came back and discovered all my underwear and socks
twirling from the ceiling fans. My shoes were in the freezer. There was a basket of fruit,
the contents of which had been emptied into the bathtub -- which was full of water along
with all of my toiletries floating around in there. She hung all my clothes out on my
balcony. So all the people down at the pool must have looked up wondering what the hell's
going on there? She gives me a lot of grief. But we enjoy each other very much. Felicity's
The characters of Casey and Dan
seem very different in many ways, Dan is much more impulsive and outgoing while Casey is
more introspective and worried of people's reactions. Why do you think the characters work
so well together?
I think that they kind of lucked
out with Josh and I. We have a natural chemistry and became real fast friends. And now,
being in the off-season, we do a lot together. Their chemistry is real good, I think,
because it shows a pretty standard guy relationship. But then it also shows two guys who
talk to each other very sensitively about their problems. I don't mean that in a soft,
feminine way, but you know they're guys who are able to speak honestly about problems they
are having. With each other. And their predicaments are
they're offset. Casey's this
guy who's married, or was married. Hasn't really gotten over his former wife, Lisa. Has a
son. So he's further along in life. I think Casey masks a lot of his problems in kind of a
bravado and tends to be rather impulsive in his own way. In terms of the things he does in
his life. Especially concerning Dana. And then has to move pretty quick to try to fix
those things. Meanwhile, Dan is a little younger and single. Doing his thing. So they
really kind of cover each other's back. They're very much each other's wingman.
I was very pleasantly surprised by
what a good actor Robert Guillaume is. He never really had a chance to stretch out in
Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his health problems. How is he doing?
He's doing great. I just saw him on
Monday. And everytime I see him he looks better and seems in better spirits. He's
definitely a fighter and is deeply committed to coming back to the show and working as
much as possible.
Lots of sit-coms do run into
problems when they act on long-ignored passions in main characters. So far the show has
juggled the Casey-Dana relationship very deftly, but how do you think they'll avoid the
Sam & Diane, Ross & Rachel syndrome?
Well, I'm not sure exactly where
Aaron is going to take that story. But I anticipate a very strong move. I think we're
going to shake up the series next year. I don't think this is going to be a continuation
of storylines from last year. We're going to assume that time has taken place. We've been
away from the show for a while. We're coming back and things have happened. I would think
that perhaps next year, for an entire season, Casey and Dana really won't have any
involvement whatsoever. It might be some giant rift or something like that which pushes
them apart, but they still remain friends. Something I enjoyed last year, which I hope
continues, is the acidic banter that happened between Casey and Dana. Then you'd also see
this deep friendship. That when they really needed each other, they were there. I think
that playing up the romantic aspect at the end of last season was really interesting. I
don't think anything could be consummated. I don't think we could pay it off. That's
something you've got to make the audience wait for. That's what they want. But, they've
also known each other for a long time, so you have to think, gosh, wouldn't it have
happened by now? I think next year we may see things shaken up a little bit. Casey and
Dana might be at odds with each other. But they'll still be good friends. We'll see where
the subsequent seasons take us.
One great thing about the show is
that it very much is about the workplace and has people doing real jobs. In fact, I can
only remember one scene in the entire season that took place outside of the CSC building,
when Casey and Dana went on a double date. Please tell me they aren't going to open up the
show, because that really fits the show and situation.
Our bread and butter has certainly
in the beginning of every show you're kind of flying along. You're drawn into
this world while we're doing a sports broadcast. At the end, you're kind of drawn out. So
it's like you fly into the world and fly back out. You just get a glimpse of this life
there. The place, the studio is certainly our bread and butter, and I think that will stay
intact. There has been talk of us going to New York next year a couple of times and
shooting some stuff. Josh and I sat down with Aaron and we discussed the concern of
we don't want it to look like Sports Night In New York. We've got to try and
seamlessly make it work with what we were doing last year. And with the show. If,
for instance, there is a way of getting on top of a building in New York that would look
like the top of the CSC building, or something like that. A place where Dan and Casey go
to take a break. Have a chat or something like that. So, we're going to be going to New
York, hopefully, next year and filming some stuff there on location. I think that we may
go out of the studio a little more this year than we did last, but not much.
How much of yourself is in the
character of Casey, and in what ways is he different from you?
That's an interesting question. I
think that he's similar to me in that he's very serious-minded. At the same time, there's
a real boyish quality about him. The guy that didn't want to grow up. But he's got a son
and he's very responsible about that. And there's this specter of his former relationship
with his wife that I think haunts him. That's something that's not necessarily in the
text, but something that I sat down with Aaron and we talked about. There are moments I
just try and carry that with me a little bit, when I'm doing episodes of the show. There's
a loneliness, I think, about Casey at this point in his life. Because he spends so much
time with Dana. That's part of it.
Like you just mentioned, your
character's ex-wife, Lisa, is mentioned quite a few times, but hasn't been shown. Will she
be on the show eventually, or do you think she'll become one of those classic unseen
characters like Vera and Bob Sakamato?
We just had a meeting about that
and we discussed the pros and cons of adding her to the show. That's a very important bit
of casting, because once you establish that person and we wanted to bring her back, if
she's busy doing something else, that causes problems. There's some value to a character
that's not seen, like Maris in Frasier. But, I think in this show, it would be
valuable to see her at some point, and to see Casey struggle with the possibility of
getting back together with her. What that does to Dana and the people around him, who see
that she's really the wrong person for him.
In their infinite wisdom, the
networks counter-programmed your show with Will & Grace, which was the
only other acclaimed comedy of the fall season. That really hurt both shows. Does it ever
make you wonder how a quality show like yours could have a smaller following than an
obviously inferior show like Veronica's Closet?
I think that every show on
television has its place. I think Married With Children or, I don't know, The
some people want to go home, turn on the TV and be able to iron their
clothes or grab a sandwich. Come out and catch a joke and not have to follow the story.
Our show requires you to pay a lot more attention than most shows on TV. Maybe any show.
Because the scripts, the stories are like these houses of cards. If you miss a piece,
you're not going to quite catch the whole story. The storytelling is really strong on the
show. It doesn't bother me that we're not doing as well. Because I believe that over time
we will. I believe it's something that you have to acquire a taste for. We tackle subject
matter that some hour shows don't.
Aaron Sorkin wrote or co-wrote all
of the episodes of last season. He plans to write all of the new season as well, plus his
new Presidential drama The West Wing. Do you think he might be stretching himself a
little too thin?
I certainly worry about that. I
probably don't worry about it as much as Aaron does, though. He said himself that he
doesn't quite know what he's going to do. But, to give a show a specific artistic voice,
it's important for one person to sort of be leading the charge. This year for Aaron might
become about learning how to incorporate other writers, so that he doesn't spread himself
too thin. He comes from a playwriting, film-writing background. Which doesn't involve a
group of writers in a room. I think his process has been going into a room by himself.
Putting the nose to the grindstone and doing the work. So, it'll be interesting to see
what happens this year with those two shows. I think that it's incredibly time intensive
and I know that he's trying to use these months in the summer to kind of get a head start.
On both shows. He reassured me by saying that Sports Night is his true love.
Right now, West Wing is his mistress. So, we'll see what happens.
What misconceptions would you like
to clear up?
Gosh, I can't really think of any.
I mean, I think the biggest thing would be that it's not just about sports. And, it's not
a show just for guys. I also think last year, towards the end of the year, we dealt a lot
with relationships. I don't think that's going to become any sort of template for the
future either. I think that everybody on the show wants to try and take the show in as
many directions as possible. To keep the audience on its toes. Not to deliver the same
thing every week. That's something that most television shows try to do. I think that Cheers
did that really well. They found a way of doing different episodes each week, but the
audience knew that every week they were going to come back and get a serving of the same
good comedy. The same characters doing very similar things, but different clever episodes.
I think for us, you're going to see characters doing wildly different things on different
episodes. There are some weeks that are very dramatic, others are comedic, and you also
see characters grow on our show and not just do the same thing over and over and over
again. That's something that we've talked about in the coming year that we want to see
characters move in some different directions. Later on, some new personality traits with
everybody. New characters and new directions.
What do you know for sure?
I've done several TV shows before
this. I know for sure that television series like this one may only come across once in a
Thanks for doing the interview; I
really love the show.
Thanks, I'm trying to think if
there's anything else
I want to mention about Felicity that she also makes fun of my
clothes constantly. She's, oh, God, she's
No, we get along famously. She's great.
But, she likes to give me a hard time.
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All rights reserved. Revised:
October 17, 2014.