PRIMETIME: Learn to Write TV with Screenwriting Legend Norman Steinberg

Over the past few years, several colleges and universities across the country—USC, UCLA, Emerson, Columbia College Chicago—have started undergrad, graduate, and professional programs designed to educate aspiring writers on the craft and business of television writing.

Many, however, operate in classrooms… using traditional lectures, workshops, etc.  …Which doesn’t mean they’re not great experiences—I haven’t gone to any of them, so I don’t know—but a new graduate program at Long Island University recently caught my eye as something uniquely different and valuable… and worth sharing with you here!

(To be fair, it didn’t exactly catch my eye.  My friend and co-worker Ed Crasnick, a great comic and writer, who has his finger on the pulse of all kinds of cool things, turned me on to this…)

Founded by veteran TV and film writer Norman Steinberg (Blazing Saddles, Johnny Dangerously, Cosby), LIU’s M.F.A. in Writing & Producing For Television (located on its Brooklyn campus) doesn’t plop students into classrooms and lecture halls.  It recreates the experience of writing and producing an actual television show—putting students into practical writers rooms and studios, where they write and produce a one-hour pilot!  (They also have opportunities to work on half-hour comedies, if that’s their focus.)

To me, this is the exact type of TV-writing training program more schools need to embrace; writing TV is such a collaborative process, it can’t—and shouldn’t—be learned in traditional classrooms.  Sure, you need to know all you can about structure and character and stakes and whatnot… but you also need to understand how to navigate the politics and relationships of a room, when to pitch and not to pitch, how to interact with showrunners, how to rewrite on set, etc.  And those are things you can’t learn in the bubble of a classroom!

So last week, I caught up with Norman—who somehow has time to run the program, teach, and prepare his upcoming TV show, “Chemistry”—to chat about teaching, his incredible career, and breaking into television.

Here’s what he had to say…

ME:  There are many schools and graduate programs focusing on television.  But your program at Long Island University takes a bit of different approach, a more “real-world” approach.  How is your program different… and what inspired you to start this program?

NORMAN: I don’t have to sit here and answer these inane fucking questions.  I’m leaving.

The SOUND of retreating FOOTSTEPS is HEARD. A door is SLAMMED SHUT.

A Beat. Another Beat.

A door OPENS.  Now, advancing FOOTSTEPS is HEARD.

Okay, maybe I was a bit precipitous.  I’m back; I’ve calmed down.

To begin with, I disagree with your topic sentence.  There are not “many schools and graduate programs focusing on television.”  I think that most schools offer programs that concentrate on screenwriting.  It’s hotter; more glamorous; more singular; and the money’s supposedly better. The art, the craft, the sometimes drudgery of writing for television takes a decided backseat almost all the time.  If it’s dealt with at all, it’s usually as a stepchild of a screenwriting curriculum.

My program at LIU’s Brooklyn Campus–The TV Writers Studio– (TVWS) focuses solely on writing and producing for TV.  The natural way for me to go would have been to establish a premiere screenwriting program at the University.   But, I did not want to deal one-on-one with twenty plus writers on twenty plus projects.

Maybe I needed some cohesion and collegiality in my own life. All I know is, I was intent on leading a collaborative program, which is the essence of writing for the television medium.  The second goal I had was to make the program experiential.  I wanted to give these students a true taste of what it is like to work, day to day, as a writer on the staff of a TV series.  Most theory-based faculty members frown on this approach, thinking it too “vocational.”  Well, screw them if they can’t take a joke. My game plan was to take my students every step of the way from series concept through writing, rewriting, and finally, production to network or cable sale and the inevitable lawsuits in the two years they would spend with me.

Norman Steinberg Long Island University Brooklyn MFA

Norman leads the first-ever convening of the TV Writers Studio!

That was my raw idea. It became less raw when I looked around and did not see anything like the TVWS in any American college or University.  Sure, there were TV courses that were segments of Media Arts or Film Studies programs. But I found no graduate level program, leading to a terminal degree like our MFA in Writing & Producing for TV.

I told you I was going to be long-winded.

The word on the street is you do a phenomenal job of teaching communication skills.  What unique interpersonal communication skills do TV writers need? NOT on the page?

What TV writers need to do is learn how to take a punch, a mandatory eight count and then get up and go back at it. They also have to know how to throw a punch.  By that I mean, in television, the criticism usually comes quickly, unexpectedly and in front of the rest of the staff.  Depending on the person running the table, it can sometimes be very harsh.  It takes a while to develop a thickness of skin needed to survive.  That is a form of communication you don’t see in other fields of writing.  In the same regard, as a collaborator, you have to learn to give criticism in such a way that is constructive rather than destructive.

Many young writers are reluctant to offer their opinions at the table for any number of reasons.  Once again, this is a collaborative medium. So… collaborate. Speak your mind. You may be off base, but take the chance that you might be bringing some great insight to the discussion.  Throw the punch.

You’ve been successful in both film and TV… but many writers find it difficult to straddle both.  What are the differences between a TV career and a film career… and how have you been able to maintain both?

If anything, those worlds have come much closer together. Used to be that you were branded as either a screenwriter or a TV writer.  I never accepted those strictures and was able to move back and forth with ease. Too many writers pigeonhole themselves and never get out of their own way.  Their mindset should be: “I am a writer, pure and simple. I can write in any genre for any medium. Whattaya need?”

Given the expansive writing being done in television today, it is a less troublesome transition to screenwriting than it was years ago.  There is also a much wider acceptance of TV writers into the screenwriting ranks.  The transition from screen to TV has always been easier. Just look at the proliferation of “A-list” screenwriters working full-time in TV, which was never the case before. Writing for television has definitely moved into the first-class cabin and along with it, greater access to screen work.

In the TV Writers Studio, I encourage my students to write screenplays as well as TV scripts during their free time. I read those scripts and give them notes. Several have already completed screenplays since we started last September. This is to further break down the divide, if there is any, between the big and small screens.

You’ve worked with hundreds of young writers—both professional and aspiring.  What are the biggest weaknesses you see with young writers, either creatively or business-wise?

…that they’re not older.  Or smarter.  Actually, they are probably much smarter and certainly less set in their ways than people like my contemporaries or me. The biggest weakness that I see is in their aspect.  Many of them look at writing as a “job,” a great way to make a great living. I’m not sure how many young writers view it as a calling.  I think I can always spot the ones who have been “called.” The ones who have to write or they start gasping for breath. This ain’t a calling like the priesthood, but then again, maybe it is. It’s like Woody Allen’s answer to the question, “Is Sex dirty?”  His answer was,“Only when it’s done properly.”  Maybe it’s the same for writing; only when it’s done properly; when writing is almost as important as breathing.

I often tell students and readers that in order to break into television you must must MUST live in Los Angeles.  But your program is in New York.  How do you help students and graduates bridge the gap between New York City and Los Angeles?

Stop telling them that!  It’s just not true.  What supposed “gap” must you bridge to get to Los Angeles… and why?  A writer’s passport to anywhere is his/her work.  Where one does the best work is paramount.  It’s usually in a place of comfort and love. New York was that place for me.

I lived and worked in LA over a period of more than forty years.  Twenty or more of those years were spent back here in New York. During those various New York periods, I did my best work.  How did I miss my own message? It wasn’t that I didn’t like LA.  What’s not to like?  It’s just that I never felt that I belonged there.  I was a displaced person in Los Angeles.  I’m a much happier person being back in Brooklyn where I started and where I belong.

As you look back over the many years of your career, in both film and TV, what’s one mistake you made… or one thing, one regret, you wish you could do over?

….not marrying Penelope Cruz.  What was I thinking?  Maybe the most beautiful woman in the world; smart as hell and makes a phenomenal living.  Here I am, breaking my ass trying to wrangle 20+ students.

Biggest mistake I made was not lunging for a directing career.  When did Sylvester Stallone get so smart?  He wrote “Rocky” and wasn’t going to give it to any producer or studio unless he played the lead. I wish I had fought harder to direct some of the work I wrote.  If you get the directing part right, it’s a first-class ticket to guaranteeing that your work makes it to the screen. I know I could have done a great job, directing some of the films that I wrote.  But I never fought hard enough for that privilege.  I regret that.

You had an amazing mentor yourself—Mel Brooks.  What did you learn from Mel about being a mentor?  What did he teach you not about writing or comedy, but about teaching others?  How did he make you a better mentor?

Honesty…brutal honesty.  Mel always speaks his mind.  And always I speak mine right back to him.  He never pulls a punch. (Lotta’ pugilism in these answers.) He gives it to you full force, full frontal.  He doesn’t tiptoe around any criticism and neither do I.  When a writer asks me to read and critique their work, I always warn them that my remarks will be exactly what I felt.  No sugarcoating.  No massages.  No favors.  I always go into these projects hoping that I’ll be reading the next Mel Brooks or William Goldman or Aaron Sorkin or Terence Winter.  Sometimes lightening strikes.  Most of the time, well…

Getting a job in TV doesn’t simply require great material, it also requires an entire network of personal and professional contacts.  Why is this more important in television than in other “literary” mediums… and how does your MFA program help people make those contacts or get jobs?

Part of the promise of The TV Writers Studio at LIU is that I will put my students in harm’s way.  I promised to bring working professionals of all stripes into the classroom.  I haven’t done that yet because I didn’t feel that the two pilot scripts we are developing were far enough along to warrant these visits.  We are almost there.  Once there, I will introduce the students to working writers, directors, producers, entertainment lawyers, network and cable executives, etc.

The TV Writers Studio Class of 2012

This is where the personality and charm and, with any luck, the writing will interest one of these pros to actually give a student a job.  None of my students would be in The TV Writers Studio unless I thought that they could actually land on the staff of an ongoing series and hold their own around a writers’ table.  I have absolutely no doubt that each and every one of them could perform.

The great irony of our media is that as it has expanded exponentially, there seem to be fewer writing jobs available.  Explain that to me.  Is it the spectral vomiting of reality shows? As the writing job universe has contracted, the non-scripted world has blossomed.  What’s that mean?  It means that more and more of these jobs, especially the entry-level types are going to be parceled out to writers with “connections” or who have made those connections.  This is where my buttonholing work kicks in.  My aim is to place as many of my graduates in real writing jobs.  That may mean pure and simple begging or asking writers whose careers I’ve started for paybacks.  Either way, I’m ready to do whatever it takes.

When I was just starting out, a veteran Sid Caesar writer named Gary Belkin gave me my first job, writing a comedy LP and future Grammy Winner for David Frye called “I Am the President.”  I was on my way.  Belkin then gave me my second job on “Comedy Tonight,” a summer replacement show starring Robert Klein, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle.  I was so grateful.  I asked Gary, “How can I ever repay you?” His two-word answer was, “Pass it on.”  That was my epiphany.  I vowed that I would do just that.  Since then I have started over 250 writing careers.  And my goal is to continue that with The TV Writers Studio.

In your career, you’ve worked on some of the most critically and commercially acclaimed projects out there.  Now that you’re teaching, how has teaching made you a better writer?  How has becoming a teacher boosted your writing chops, or the way you navigate a writers room… or has it?

It hasn’t.  Teaching has not made me a better writer. In fact it’s gotten in the way of my writing.  There’s just no time.  Besides, I was good way before this career in academia ever began.  Of all the people in my class, I have learned the least.  I would act the same way around a writers’ table today as I did 35 years ago.  Like Popeye, “I Am What I Am.”

New technologies—the Internet, cell phones, even video games—are changing not only the way stories are being distributed, but the way they’re being told.  Does your TV Writers Studio program address this?  Do you deal with new media, and new ways of telling stories?

Of course we do.  I expect that, when my class graduates in 2012, each student will be as well versed in the new media as any person working in that arena. Our New Media Guru at LIU is the head of one of the largest Cable and Cable Access operations in the entire region, serving over 750,000 homes in the New York/New Jersey area.

For those of you interested in researching or applying to the program, click HERE or visit:

http://www2.brooklyn.liu.edu/depts/mediarts/mfatvnorman.htm

Or:

http://www.tvwritersstudio.com/

You can also follow them on Twitter at:

http://twitter.com/TvWritersStudio

In the mean time, a huge thanks to Norman for taking the time to chat about the program!  It’s truly an amazing endeavor… one I hope is not only successful, but spawns a new generation of TV programs genuinely designed to train students for the real world of television.

As usual, loyal readers– if you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to post them below or email me at chad@chadgervich.com.

And lastly, enjoy this video for Norman’s program… it’s as fun as it is informative!

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2 thoughts on “PRIMETIME: Learn to Write TV with Screenwriting Legend Norman Steinberg

  1. Pingback: Script Magazine « The TV Writers Studio

  2. carlito rodriguez

    Good stuff, once again.

    But Chad. Bro-ski. M’man, m’mellow… PLEASE address Norman’s “Stop telling them that!” response to your question about aspiring TV scribes bridging the gap between NY and LA.

    As an expatriated Noo Yawkuh who made the hop to La-La Land — with no safety net — a little over six short months ago, I can’t help notice how many more productions have been popping up that call the Big Apple home, with Boardwalk Empire and FX’s Lights Out readily coming to mind. (Mind you, with B’Walk Empire being a Terence Winter/Scorsese thing, keeping it in the Brooklyn Navy Yard made “perfect” sense.)

    So…

    Any rebuttal to Norman’s take that living in LA is no longer a must?

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