After constructing my Top Ten Movies list with a focus on dialogue, I thought I would do the same for TV shows. I easily came up with ten well-written, witty productions – Buffy, Angel, Firefly (yes, I’m a Joss Whedon fan), Veronica Mars, Frasier, Scrubs, The OC, Dawson’s Creek, The Newsroom and The West Wing (yes, also an Aaron Sorkin fan).
You can probably identify the common theme running through all of them. At the time of their original screenings, they were known specifically for their dialogue – verbal battles, perfect slap downs, quick comebacks, dry and highly intellectual humour, all those words we wished we could come up with on the spot but never did.
However, the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt that although I love all these shows, I could easily find a top ten list of terrific dialogue that would outshine all others in just one of these shows. And that show is The West Wing.
The West Wing is my number one favourite show of all time. The final episode screened almost a decade ago now and watching any episode is still like watching it new. This show does not age. It doesn’t live on more gloriously in my memory and then fade in comparison when I watch it again. It is still just as perfect as when I watched it for the first time.
So here’s part one of my top ten TV show pieces of dialogue all from The West Wing. I know the subject matter is not everyone’s cup of tea but watching this show is like taking a masterclass in writing.
Season One, Episode One – Pilot
This scene is in the pilot episode of The West Wing and features representatives of the Christian right attending a White House meeting led by Toby Ziegler in which Josh Lyman has apologised for insulting Mary Marsh after telling her the God she prays to is being indicted for tax fraud. In addition to the apology, Mary expects a political peace offering as well. This excerpt is the perfect, perfect introduction of President Josiah Bartlet and ends with his first appearance and line in the show.
Mary Marsh: Good then. Let’s deal.
Toby Ziegler: I’m sorry?
Mary Marsh: What do we get?
Toby Ziegler: For what?
Mary Marsh: Insulting millions of Americans.
Toby Ziegler: Well, like Josh said…
Mary Marsh: I heard what Josh said, Toby. What do we get?
Toby Ziegler: An apology.
Mary Marsh: Sunday morning radio address. Public morals, school prayer or pornography. Take your pick.
Toby Ziegler: School prayer or pornography?
John van Dyke: It’s on every street corner.
Toby Ziegler: I’ve seen it. Mary…
Mary Marsh: Condoms in the schools.
Toby Ziegler: What?
Mary Marsh: Condoms in the schools.
Toby Ziegler: Well, that’s a problem.
Mary Marsh: What?
Toby Ziegler: We have a Surgeon-General who says they dramatically reduce the risk of teen pregnancy and AIDS.
Mary Marsh: So does abstinence.
John van Dyke: Show the average American teenage male a condom and his mind will turn to thoughts of lust.
Toby Ziegler: Show the average American teenage male a lug wrench and his mind will turn…
CJ Cregg: Toby…
Mary Marsh: School prayer, pornography, condoms, what’s it gonna be?
Toby Ziegler: We’re not prepared to make any sort of a deal right now.
Josh Lyman: Sure, we are. Mary…
Mary Marsh: My read of the landscape is that you’re cleaning out your desk before the end of business today so I’d just as soon negotiate with Toby if it’s all the same to you.
Reverend Al Caldwell: Mary…
Mary Marsh: Please allow me to work. It was only a matter of time with you, Josh. That New York sense of humour was just a little…
Reverend Al Caldwell: Mary, there’s no need to…
Mary Marsh: Reverend, please, they think they’re so much smarter. They think it’s smart talk but nobody else does.
Josh Lyman: I’m actually from Connecticut but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Mary…
Toby Ziegler: She meant Jewish. When she said “New York sense of humour”, she was talking about you and me.
Josh Lyman: You know, Toby, let’s not even go there.
Reverend Al Caldwell: There’s been an apology. Let’s move on.
John van Dyke: I’d like to discuss why we hear so much talk about the first amendment coming out of this building but no talk at all of the first commandment.
Mary Marsh: I don’t like what I’ve just been accused of.
Toby Ziegler: Well, I’m afraid that’s just tough, Mrs Marsh.
John van Dyke: The first commandment says, “Honour thy father.”
Toby Ziegler: No, it doesn’t!
Josh Lyman: Toby!
Toby Ziegler: It doesn’t!
Josh Lyman: Listen to me.
Toby Ziegler: No! If I’m going to make you sit through this preposterous exercise, we’re gonna get the names of the damn commandments right!
Mary Marsh: Okay, here we go.
Toby Ziegler: “Honour thy father” is the third commandment.
John van Dyke: Then what’s the first commandment?
President Josiah Bartlet: I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other god before me. Boy, those were the days, huh?
Season One, Episode Eight – Enemies
In this scene in the Oval Office, it’s 1.30am and the President wants to chat, while a fatigued Josh Lyman just wants to go home and sleep.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yellowstone, established through an Act signed by Ulysses S Grant, was the nation’s first national park. March first, 1872.
Josh Lyman: It’s getting late, sir. I was wondering, are we through for the evening?
President Josiah Bartlet: Well, we’re through with work, Josh. But this part’s fun.
Josh Lyman: Which part, sir?
President Josiah Bartlet: The part where I get you to sit down and teach you a little something.
Josh Lyman: Ah.
President Josiah Bartlet: Yeah.
Josh Lyman: You’re not tired, sir?
President Josiah Bartlet: No.
Josh Lyman: Perhaps if you got into bed…
President Josiah Bartlet: I’m a national park buff, Josh.
Josh Lyman: I’m sorry, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: I say I’m a national park buff. I’ll bet you didn’t know that about me.
Josh Lyman: I didn’t know that about you, sir, but I’m certainly not surprised.
President Josiah Bartlet: Why’s that?
Josh Lyman: You’re quite a nerd, Mr President.
President Josiah Bartlet: Really?
Josh Lyman: Yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: I assume that was said with all due respect.
Josh Lyman: Yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: Is it nerd-like to know that Everglades National Park is the largest remaining sub-tropical wilderness in the continental United States and has extensive mangrove forests?
Josh Lyman: Just a little bit, yes, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: There are fifty-four national parks in this country, Josh.
Josh Lyman: Please tell me you haven’t been to all of them.
President Josiah Bartlet: I have been to all of them. I should show you my slide collection.
Josh Lyman: Oh, would you?
President Josiah Bartlet: Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Badlands, Capitol Reef, Arcadia, which is so often overlooked.
Josh Lyman: You should certainly feel free to keep talking but I need to go home so that I can be back in my office in four hours.
President Josiah Bartlet: Dry Tortugas?
Josh Lyman: See, the thing is I can’t leave until you give me permission.
President Josiah Bartlet: Petrified Forest, North Cascades, Joshua Tree. Shenandoah National Park, right here in Virginia. We should organise a staff field trip to Shenandoah. I could even act as the guide. What do you think?
Josh Lyman: Good a place as any to dump your body.
President Josiah Bartlet: What was that?
Josh Lyman: Did I say that out loud?
President Josiah Bartlet: See. And I was gonna let you go home.
Josh Lyman: But instead?
President Josiah Bartlet: We’re going to talk about Yosemite.
Season One, Episode Thirteen – Take Out the Trash Day
In this scene, Toby battles Republicans wanting to know why the Federal Government is subsidising television for rich people (also known as the Public Broadcasting Service).
Female Republican staffer: Toby, your argument isn’t with us. We watch PBS, we like PBS. But we also work for Congressmen who have constituencies that want to know why the Federal Government is subsidising television for rich people.
Toby Ziegler: It’s not television for rich people.
Male Republican staffer: Ugh, Toby…
Toby Ziegler: It’s not television for rich people. In fact, the television audience is a fairly accurate reflection of the social and economic make-up of the United States. One quarter of the PBS audience is in households with incomes lower than twenty thousand a year. Blacks comprise eleven per cent of the public television audience and blacks comprise eleven per cent of the commercial TV audience. Forty-seven per cent of PBS viewers have a high school education or less, which is one per cent better than the commercial TV audience so what are you talking to me about?
Female Republican staffer: I’ve got news for you, Toby. When PBS claims that a majority of households are weekly viewers, they use the Nielsen Index that’s based on diaries.
Male Republican staffer: Those results always show vastly higher PBS viewing than the numbers gathered by the automated boxes.
Female Republican staffer: Why? Because they’re…
Toby Ziegler: Because people want to claim they’re more sophisticated than they are.
Female Republican staffer: That’s right.
Toby Ziegler: Look…
Male Republican staffer: Hang on, there’s one other thing. Uh, product licencing for Big Bird dolls and Fuzzy Bear toys…
Toby Ziegler: Fozzie Bear.
Male Republican staffer: Oh. Whatever.
Toby Ziegler: It’s Fozzie Bear, not Fuzzy Bear.
Male Republican staffer: Product licencing for this merchandise brings in over twenty million dollars a year. None of which goes to PBS. All of which goes to the show’s producer, the Children’s Television Workshop. Now this is a company whose chief executive earns high six figures in salary and benefits per year. Yet Sesame Street is subsidised by taxpayer dollars.
Toby Ziegler: It’s a perfectly reasonable complaint.
Female Republican staffer: And?
Toby Ziegler: I don’t care.
Male Republican staffer: Toby!
Toby Ziegler: We’re gonna see to all those things. In the meantime, at a time when the public is rightly concerned about the impact of sex and violence on TV, this administration is going to protect the Muppets, we’re going to protect Wall Street Week, we’re going to protect Live From Lincoln Centre and, by God, we are going to protect Julia Child!
Season One, Episode Fourteen – Take This Sabbath Day
This scene shows the introduction of one of The West Wing’s most memorable and wise characters, Joey Lucas. Joey is deaf and conducts most conversations with the help of her translator, although she can speak herself. She’s also an adept political operative and is not pleased by the Democratic Party’s attempts to cut off funding for the candidate she is trying to get elected. Josh Lyman, the subject of her anger, has been to a buck’s party the night before and is head-splittingly hungover. He also smells like a brewery and has spilled coffee on his clothes, which his assistant has taken to be dry-cleaned. In the interim, he’s wearing borrowed wet weather waders and sleeping on his desk.
Translator: Are you the unmitigated jackass who has the DNC choking off funding for the O’Dwyer campaign in the California 46th?
Josh Lyman: What in God’s name is happening right now?
Translator: I’m Joey Lucas.
Josh Lyman: You’re Joey Lucas?
Translator: No, I’m Joey Lucas.
Josh Lyman: Help me ’cause I don’t…
Joey Lucas: You idiot, I’m Joey Lucas!
Josh Lyman: Oh. Ah, okay. I’m Josh Lyman.
Translator: I know who you are.
Josh Lyman: You’re Joey Lucas?
Translator: What we’re you expecting?
Josh Lyman: A man.
Translator: I’m a woman.
Josh Lyman: You’re O’Dwyer’s campaign manager?
Translator: Yes. And I have three sources, two at the DNC…
Joey Lucas: What the hell are you wearing?
Josh Lyman: Me?
Joey Lucas: Yes.
Josh Lyman: I was… I, um… I spilled some things on my clothes. Tell you what, let’s take a deep breath for a second while I try to remember, you know, where I am right now.
Translator: Are you drunk?
Josh Lyman: I have a very delicate system.
Translator: Okay, look, I’m totally serious about this. I’m trying to get a guy elected to Congress. It’s going to be a very tight race and I want to know why the White House is screwing around with me.
Donna Moss: Excuse me?
Josh Lyman: Thank God.
Donna Moss: What’s going on?
Josh Lyman: This is my assistant, Donna Moss. Donna, Joey Lucas.
Donna Moss: Hi.
Josh Lyman: I’m just gonna go… I’m gonna go change my clothes. I’ll be right back.
And a little later after Josh has changed his clothes and returned:
Translator: I’m running a campaign against a conservative Republican who has held his seat for over thirty years. He opposed gay rights, abortion, gun control and raising the minimum wage and supports government-sponsored prayer in the schools and amending the Bill of Rights to prohibit burning the American flag. Now, for the first time in three decades we have a chance to beat him. Why are you telling the DNC to cut down my funding?
Josh Lyman: Because you have a chance to beat him.
Translator: Excuse me?
Josh Lyman: We’ve been watching your campaign. You’re doing way too well.
Translator: Are you deranged?
Josh Lyman: He’s a preposterous figure. We want to keep him right where he is.
Translator: You mean you want to keep him on as a poster boy for the radical right?
Josh Lyman: Joey, every time he comes out with one of his declarations about brown people crossing the border, the DNC slaps it into a direct mail campaign and he’s good for two or three million dollars.
Translator: I want to speak to the president.
Josh Lyman: No problem.
Translator: I’m perfectly serious.
Josh Lyman: The president doesn’t take meetings on this level. I don’t even take meetings on this level.
Translator: What level is that?
Josh Lyman: Joey…
Translator: You should be afraid of me, pal. I can create problems for you you’ve never even heard of.
Josh Lyman: I’m not hearing a lot of party loyalty from you here, Joey.
Translator: Well, maybe if your head wasn’t so far up your a…
Joey Lucas: I want to speak to the president!
Josh Lyman: Hey, lunatic lady! Trust me when I tell you that there’s absolutely no way that you are going to see the president.
President Josiah Bartlet: Hey, Josh.
Josh Lyman: Hello, Mr President. Welcome back.
President Josiah Bartlet: How are you?
Josh Lyman: Well, I’d like this day to be over pretty bad.
President Josiah Bartlet: Who are your friends?
Josh Lyman: This is Joey Lucas.
President Josiah Bartlet: How are you?
Joey Lucas: Honoured to meet you, Mr President.
Josh Lyman: And this is Kenny… somebody.
President Josiah Bartlet: Hi, Kenny.
Josh Lyman: We were just finishing up.
President Josiah Bartlet: I was just wandering the halls and thinking.
Josh Lyman: Well, why don’t you let me show these people off and I can wander the halls with you?
President Josiah Bartlet: You ever seen the White House?
Joey Lucas: No, sir.
President Josiah Bartlet: Let’s take a walk.
Josh Lyman: Sir…
President Josiah Bartlet: Come on.
Josh Lyman: Yes, sir.
Season Two, Episode Five – And It’s Surely To Their Credit
In this scene, the newly hired Associate Counsel, Ainsley Hayes (on her first day of work and who also happens to be a Republican) and White House Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, discuss her new boss, Lionel Tribby.
Ainsley Hayes: He was okay with it?
Leo McGarry: He thinks it’s a great idea. He can’t wait to meet you.
Ainsley Hayes: Lionel Tribby?
Leo McGarry: Yeah.
Ainsley Hayes: Lionel Tribby thinks hiring me was a great idea?
Leo McGarry: Why are you surprised?
Ainsley Hayes: Well, because I’m a Republican and Lionel Tribby is incredibly not.
Leo McGarry: Lionel Tribby is the White House Counsel. He is a brilliant and fair-minded attorney and he will accept you on his staff because he is, well, fair-minded and because…
Ainsley Hayes: You haven’t told him.
Leo McGarry: I have, in fact, not told him yet, no.
Ainsley Hayes: So you lied to me just then.
Leo McGarry: I’m a politician, Ainsley. Of course, I lied to you just then.
Ainsley Hayes: My first day is getting off to a great start.
Leo McGarry: It’s about to get better.
Ainsley Hayes: Why?
Leo McGarry: Yeah?
Margaret: Lionel Tribby is on his way over.
Ainsley Hayes: Oh. I just want to die.
Leo McGarry: It’s the White House. You get used to that feeling.
Keep an eye out for Part Two on Friday.