Uma Thurman is dancing in place at the bar in a black miniskirt and jacket, hair swept up in a golden twist, surrounded by a group of admirers. A very pregnant Kate Hudson is perched on a nearby chair, laughing. Alec Baldwin walks by on his way to the restroom.

The “Back to School” party, an annual bash the Creative Artists Agency puts on for its television and movie writers at the beginning of the fall season, is in full swing at “The Blue Whale,” architect Cesar Pelli’s dramatic sapphire-hued Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, and Mark Goffman ’90C is riding the escalator up to the main floor.

“Hey, congratulations on The West Wing,” a partygoer behind him says, reaching out to shake his hand.

“Thanks,” says Goffman, smiling.

It’s been an intense week for Goffman and his fellow writers on NBC’s Wednesday night political drama, which takes viewers inside the White House of a fictional Democratic administration. On Sunday, the show took the Emmy for best drama series for the fourth year running, tying Hill Street Blues for most consecutive wins in the category. And last night, The West Wing season premiere was broadcast, earning a thumbs-up from reviewers at the New York Times and trouncing its competition, the season finale of Big Brother 4 and the premiere of The Bachelor.

“It’s funny how many e-mails and phone calls I got from people saying they recognized the top of my head on TV, ” says Goffman, who took the stage with the rest of the West Wing team in a rare moment of recognition for the show’s writers, who operate mostly behind the scenes.

The West Wing has a reputation for being one of the most smartly written, literate shows on television; to land a writer’s position on staff is the equivalent of being drafted to the majors. The unlikely story of how the thirty-four-year-old Goffman came to be standing on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium at the fifty-fifth annual Emmy Awards has the makings of a screenplay itself.

After graduating from Emory with a double major in philosophy and economics, Goffman went on to receive a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. When a screenplay he and a fellow Kennedy School student wrote—about a twelve-year-old who became a mayor in New England—received attention from an agent and a producer, he decided to move to Los Angeles.

His parents, back in his hometown of Houston, were understandably a bit nervous. “They didn’t know anyone in show business,” he says. But his grandfather, George London, a concert violinist in the 1930s for the Baltimore Symphony, was his biggest supporter. “He had stopped playing violin professionally and became an accountant. He told my parents, ‘I gave up my dream and worked this hard so that my family could pursue theirs. If Mark wants to go out there, he should have that opportunity.’ ”

The deal for the screenplay never materialized, but Goffman persevered, working as a political consultant while honing his craft in Hollywood. One of Goffman’s mentors was polling strategist Frank Luntz, who hired him to write speeches for clients such as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

In 1999, Goffman entered a Warner Brothers script competition. Out of a thousand entrants, he was one of twenty-five selected for the WB Comedy Writers Workshop, an L.A. institution. “It’s like a farm league for sitcom writers,” he says.

At the workshop, each of the participants wrote a fresh script. Two were selected to be read aloud on the final evening; one was Goffman’s. Producers for the ABC series Odd Man Out, a comedy about a teenage boy living with five women, were in the audience, and hired Goffman on the spot.

Like half of all new shows, the series was cancelled the following year.

Not to be dissuaded, Goffman wrote several more movie scripts, did a series of commercials for Gibson guitars and Baldwin pianos, wrote and directed two short films, freelanced for CBS’s Touched by an Angel, and worked with James Cameron on the Titanic expedition, before being hired on to The West Wing.

“I always thought you got one big break,” says Goffman, who now commutes to the Warner Brothers lot each day from his 1920s Spanish-style home off Melrose Avenue. “But instead, it was a series of small breaks.”

As time nears for The West Wing’s daily writers meeting, Goffman and the other writers start gathering outside the conference room, noshing on snacks from a cupboard and a refrigerator stocked with yogurt, soda, cereal, crackers, Bazooka bubble gum, and granola bars. An assistant has made a Starbucks run and is distributing lattés and espressos. Goffman, who doesn’t drink coffee, gets a Jamba Juice.

These brainstorming sessions—where writers fine-tune the lively banter, divine the current political zeitgeist, and come up with timely and compelling new plotlines—are an integral part of creating each year’s twenty-two new West Wing episodes. The meetings are attended by about a dozen people, including executive producer John Wells (The West Wing’s creator and chief writer, Aaron Sorkin, left in May).

The show’s main writers—seven men and three women—are, as a whole, young, bright, Ivy educated, and opinionated. Many of them came from other top series—Friends, E.R., China Beach, and Sex and the City. Others have political experience, such as Al Gore’s former speech writer, Eli Attie, and MSNBC’s senior political analyst, Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. The air is relaxed and informal as the writers take their seats around a rectangular table that dominates the room.

“We’ll joke around, loosen each other up, then as we settle on stories, we do the research and develop the storylines,” Goffman says.

In general, writers have the creative control in television, as opposed to directors and stars in films. The hierarchy ascends from staff writer to story editor to producer. For the past four years, however, Sorkin wrote much of The West Wing dialogue himself, using the writers more as a research and support staff. This year, in Sorkin’s absence, the process has changed.

“John [Wells] took us all to Hawaii for a week in June—the five new writers and five returning writers—to develop character and story arcs for the season,” Goffman says. “Then he assigned writers to each episode.”

This afternoon, Goffman’s episode, “Shutdown,” is on the agenda. In it, President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen (left), and the Speaker of the House have a classic Western-style standoff, reminiscent of Gunfight at the OK Corral. Feedback from Goffman’s colleagues has been good so far, but he’s still a bit apprehensive about the meeting.

“Sometimes the scripts are discussed line for line. You’re having your work scrutinized by the best writers in the business,” he says. “It can be painful. But that’s how you learn.”

Wells, clearly the clan’s patriarch, sits at the table’s head, gently directing the conversation. He’s one of the most prolific writers and producers in television and film today—executive producer and creator of E.R. and Third Watch, producer of White Oleander and One Hour Photo, award-winning writer on China Beach, former president of the Writer’s Guild of America. Yet, dressed casually in khakis and a short-sleeved shirt, he looks more like a rumpled suburban dad.

The afternoon sun throws slanted shadows against the walls, which are covered with dry-erase boards, one per episode, containing the evolving storylines. As each episode is shot, the writers get to erase that board.

During the meeting, details are added to several episodes in progress; the looks and mannerisms of a new character are determined; the continuing occupation of Iraq is discussed, as is the impact media coverage can have on political events.

A guiding creed (referenced in almost every decision) is that the show must transcend politics and get at the heart of what democracy means: to have a government made up of real, flawed human beings who are called upon to make monumental decisions. “We want to appeal to the ‘better angels of our natures,’ ” says one writer.

Goffman listens intently as portions of his script are discussed.

As the meeting nears its midpoint, Wells is called to another commitment and leaves the writers to continue their session. A few seconds later he re-enters the room, walks over to Goffman and, with a smile, shakes his hand before leaving again.

Much of The West Wing is filmed on two enormous soundstages in the Warner Brothers lot, next to the E.R. hospital and The Gilmore Girls’ town square. Everything from the White House Press Room to the Oval Office has been painstakingly replicated.

Goffman frequently visits the set, especially when his scripts are being shot, so he’s available to answer questions about the intent of a scene or line, or to make timing adjustments. It’s an amazing process to watch, Goffman admits, standing aside as cameras are rolled into the Roosevelt Room. Actor John Spencer, who plays Leo McGarry, Bartlett’s chief of staff and main confidant on the show, is eating an ice-cream sandwich between takes.

“This is their domain, the actors and directors,” Goffman says. “They bring emotions to the scene you didn’t even know were there, or take it in a different, better direction. With the caliber of actors we have, that often happens.”

A trademark of The West Wing is that much of the pivotal dialogue takes place in hallways while characters are walking from office to office. That keeps the shot from being static, Goffman explains, and underscores the rapid-fire pace of the characters’ work life. The main characters also finish each other’s sentences and even talk over one another.

“It’s like the lyrics of a song,” says Goffman. “You don’t have to hear every word, just enough to care and be interested.”

Three times a year the cast and crew fly to Washington, D.C., to film select scenes. These on-location shots make the show one of the most expensive to shoot in television, but sometimes there’s no replacing the panoramic grandiosity of the nation’s capitol.

“In my episode, the story pivots around President Bartlet walking down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. So even though that ended up on page thirty-nine, I had to write that scene first,” Goffman says. “It took a half day to shoot in D.C., and then, more than a month later, we shot the rest of the episode here on set at Warner Brothers.”

While Bartlet, a Nobel laureate in economics and unapologetic liberal, is still the clear lead and moral authority of the series, strong Republican characters are emerging this season as well. Wells has said the drama will be more balanced in presenting the Democratic and Republican perspectives.

“In the beginning, we had a lot of Republicans who watched the show and we’ve lost some of that audience,” he told reporters. “It’s incumbent upon us to get it back—we don’t want to just be preaching to the choir.”

The New York Times gave a favorable review to the premiere, saying: “Viewers can already tell that The West Wing has taken a sharp right turn. . . . It shatters the complacent amity of the Bartlet White House, giving room to all the tensions that flourish around a real Oval Office. . . . The nation may not have a shortage of Republican face time, but The West Wing did: its heroes needed a worthy enemy.” The review concluded that “overall, the first episode of the post-Sorkin West Wing is a treat.”

In Goffman’s office, photos of him shaking hands with President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton are displayed on the top of his bookshelf. Before moving to Los Angeles, Goffman was pursuing a career in public service.

“I love politics,” says Goffman who, contrary to the perception that West Wingers are all die-hard liberals and yellow-dog Democrats, is a registered Republican.

Even though a whole fan culture has sprung up around the show, with “Re-elect Bartlet” banners and “Jed Bartlet is my President” bumper stickers, Goffman says the reason The West Wing attracts an average of sixteen million viewers a week isn’t partisan politics.

“The show isn’t so much about Republicans or Democrats,” he says, “as it is smart people passionately debating policy at the highest levels of government.”

Exactly the sort of debate one hopes is happening, at this moment, in the West Wing itself.


L.A. Alumni:

Kai Ryssdal ’85C

Zachary Hansen ’94C

Geoffrey Emery ’86L

Curley Bonds ’87C


© 2004 Emory University