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Thanksgiving Flashback: Behind the Scenes of ‘The West Wing’ Turkey Pardon

by Stacy Lambe 8:00 AM PST, November 23, 2016
Playing Thanksgiving Flashback: Behind the Scenes of ‘The West Wing’ Turkey Pardon

“I’m dropping off the turkeys. Where should I put them?” Morton (Jonah Rooney), a farm hand from Jasper Farms, asks the White House staff early in The West Wing episode “Shibboleth.”

“C.J.’s office,” a bewildered Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and Toby Zeigler (Richard Schiff) collectively answer, thus setting the course for C.J. Cregg’s (Allison Janney) perplexing task of deciding between two turkeys -- named Eric and Troy -- for the presidential pardon ceremony on the series’ first-ever Thanksgiving episode.

Photo: NBC

Elsewhere in the season two episode, its business as usual for the White House as President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his staff figure out what to do when Chinese stowaways are discovered in a container ship in California. Meanwhile, Toby battles his boss over a recess appointment and Charlie Young (Dulé Hill) is on the hunt for the ultimate carving knife.

While sitcoms -- most notably Friends -- are often remembered for their annual Thanksgiving-themed episodes, The West Wing was among a number of dramas to serve up memorable hours dedicated to the holiday. (Bitter pie on Gossip Girl or a heaping of family drama on Parenthood, anyone?) The Daily Dot wrote that “The West Wing is still home to TV’s best Thanksgivings,” while “Shibboleth” is listed among several roundups of TV’s best turkey day episodes. “In my house, we watch this episode every Thanksgiving,” The West Wing Weekly podcast co-host Hrishikesh Hirway revealed in a recent conversation with co-host and former West Wing star Josh Malina.

MORE: 10 Things We Learned About 'The West Wing' 10 Years Later

Ten years after The West Wing ended in 2006, ET is looking back on when we went behind the scenes of C.J.’s fateful decision -- and the gobbling guest stars were all that anyone could talk about. “We’ve only had one or two accidents,” Whitford said in 2000, joking, “They’re a lot easier to work with than some other actors on this set.”

Meanwhile, Lowe was less fond of the “smelly” turkeys and told ET: “I have it specifically written in my contract that I very infrequently work with animals.”

“I thought, ‘Two live turkeys and Allison Janney. Where could there be any problems?’” said Janel Moloney, who plays Donna Moss. “Oh my god, it’s the real turkey!” Janney can be heard screaming on set as she, Moloney and Sheen prepare to rehearse their final scene with one of the birds. 

After C.J. decided that both should be saved from slaughter, it’s up to President Bartlet to “officially” pardon the second of the two so that Morton doesn’t return it to Jasper Farms. “By the power vested in me by the Constitution of the United States I hereby pardon you,” he says outside the Oval Office.

“OK,” Morton says, satisfied that the turkey is “officially” saved from being eaten.

“No, it's not OK,” Bartlet replies. Annoyed by the frivolous act, the president admonishes Morton, Donna and C.J. all the while he has to make the difficult decision of whether or not to grant asylum to the Chinese stowaways. “Morton, I can't pardon a turkey. If you think I can pardon a turkey then you have got to go back to your school and insist that you be better prepared to go out in the world.”

Watch the scene in all its glory:

“You can go from a missile crisis through a door to an Easter egg hunt. I think the White House is a mixture of the sublime, the tragic and utterly ridiculous,” Whitford said at the time, complimenting creator Aaron Sorkin’s ability to weave humorous moments like the turkey pardon in with the more serious decision about asylum. “Life is usually a mixture of those things: the wacky and the heartfelt. And very few writers are able to mix the way he is. I think it’s part of the reason why the show works.”

Even Lowe had to admit that the turkey added “a good chance for some good comedy” to the show.

A decade later, Sheen is still singing Sorkin’s praises. “Aaron Sorkin -- who in my humble opinion, which is shared by many millions of others -- is the best writer in American cinema today and I was very honored to embody Jed Bartlet,” he told The Insider in October.

MORE: 'West Wing' Star Allison Janney Takes Returns to the White House and Takes Over the Press Briefing Room

It’s perhaps why -- Thanksgiving or not -- “Shibboleth” is considered a favorite among fans and its stars. Hirway cited its balance of storylines and humor (“Allison Janney is so good, it’s crazy”). In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Janney revealed “anytime where Aaron let me do comedic scenes” were among her favorite moments on the show. “Convincing the president that he needed to pardon two turkeys is even more hilarious," she later told Variety. "I just love that I got to do something like going into the Oval Office.”

Hill also listed “Shibboleth” among his favorites, citing the bonding moment between the president and Charlie over the carving knives.

“Charlie, my father gave this to me, and his father gave it to him, and now I'm giving it to you,” Bartlet says while holding his family’s carving knife, before ending the exchange with: “This was made for my family by a Boston silversmith named Paul Revere. I'm proud of you, Charlie.”

And let’s end with that heartwarming moment: 

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