Inside the TV Writers Studio
Celebrated Screenwriter Norman Steinberg’s LIU Brooklyn Master’s Program is an Incubator for the Next Generation of TV Talent
By Rachel Deletto, LIU Magazine Spring 2015
Five blue-scrubbed doctors run by, pursued by three cops in SWAT gear. A gritty punk-rocker in a beat-up biker jacket with straggly, jet-black hair takes a sticky bite of pastry, guzzling coffee to wash it down. The elevator dings. They step inside. The doors begin to close, but are halted by a dainty, manicured hand. A primly dressed woman with a sleek chestnut bob steps in. They look at each other, sure they recognize her from somewhere. The doors close. End Scene.
Sometimes the characters are more Girls and less Gotham, but working among active production sets at Steiner Studio Stage 2 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, extras in costume mingling around craft services, gaffers rigging sound and lighting, mock-explosions, and famous faces are part of the everyday experience for students in LIU Brooklyn’s TV Writers Studio.
Founded in 2010 by Emmy Award-winning veteran screenwriter, director, producer, and showrunner Norman Steinberg, the TV Writers Studio is a one-of-a-kind M.F.A program in Writing and Producing for Television that gives students a true taste of what it’s like to work as a writer on the staff of a TV series.
“The best writing in America is being done for television. If you can write for TV you can write for the big screen and television is where the jobs are, where careers are formed,” said Steinberg. But no university in America had a program focused on television writing. Steinberg had a vision of a graduate program that took an almost vocational approach, taking students every step of the way from series concept through writing, rewriting, and production, to pitching the pilot for network or cable sale.
Productive Arguing Builds Strong Scripts
“Anyone who tells you they can teach you how to write is lying to you. What we do in the TV Writers Studio is teach people how to be writers,” Steinberg said with his signature brilliantly blunt humor.
Each fall, 15-25 students from diverse backgrounds across the country and abroad are chosen to join the program and enter the TV Writers Studio (TVWS), where they work collaboratively on a television pilot in an environment that replicates the writers room of a professional series. Under the experienced oversight of Steinberg—whose credits include co-writing Blazing Saddles with Mel Brooks, My Favorite Year, Johnny Dangerously, and Cosby, among a slew of other television and film projects—in year one, the class literally sits around a table and develops characters, plans storyline, and creates the world of the show, ultimately writing a polished script they will cull down and produce into a 10-minute reel and a shortened trailer in year two.
In practice, working in the TV Writers Studio means a lot of productive arguing. “Collaborating is the core of professional TV writing,” Steinberg said. “Everyone brings their own ideas to the table and oftentimes it’s a slugfest.” But, he said, learning to take criticism, fight for your characters, and compromise for the good of the project are almost as important as honing writing skills. “[TVWS graduates] are not afraid or intimidated. They can go land jobs in writers rooms on series and work well in that tough environment,” Steinberg said with pride.
Gabriel A. Tolliver B’13
, who now works in the finance department on the Showtime series Power,
which is filmed at Steiner Studios, described the TVWS experience as “part confessional, part laboratory, part writer’s boot camp.” The former Army journalist said the collaborative process creates a lot of conflict. But just like building strong characters and compelling storylines, conflict makes good television writing.
“We all come from different places and write differently, but it’s making me a better writer to understand how others write and think,” said Connor Bowen
, a student in Cohort IV, the 2014 first-year class.
Kill Your Darlings, and Other People’s, Too
Unlimited access to feedback and advice from an industry legend like Steinberg doesn’t hurt either. Alumna Kate Oliva B’14
said the best piece of advice was: “You’ve got to learn to take a punch.” Steinberg doesn’t sugarcoat his criticism—or anything really—it’s part of what makes him a magnetic and fascinating mentor. And what makes his students better television writers.
“Sometimes you are going to get harsh feedback,” said Oliva, adding “and usually it’s necessary. You have to learn to write from your heart, but not be so attached to your characters and story that you are not open to change.”
Because television writing is a group endeavor, Steinberg teaches students to not only develop thick skin when they receive criticism, but also to build interpersonal communication skills so that they can give criticism in a way that is constructive, rather than demoralizing.
“Writers rooms can be rough and tumble. But writers are typically very generous, kind, and want to help fellow writers. So I encourage them to not be so kind. Speak your mind. What I need is the truth. You may be off base, but take the chance that you might be bringing some great insight to the discussion,” said Steinberg.
The young writers of Cohort IV gravitated to Brooklyn from far and near and brought with them an ample assortment of talents and life and educational experiences. “It’s hard to be patient when the group is working through an idea you might not like,” said Samantha Felmus
. “But I’m learning to express my ideas and opinions more effectively and to be tough-skinned when they get shot down.” Fellow first-year Rebecca Shein
added that the group dynamic and collaborative process is training them to maintain professionalism.
Find Your Team and Get to Work
In addition to Steinberg’s invaluable feedback on group and individual scripts, the TV Writers Studio is a place to build your creative team.
“We’re trapped in here for 10 hours straight. Figuring out how to collaborate and come together for our end goal is frustrating, but it’s always the best part of my week,” Bowen said.
Oliva agreed with this: “My favorite part of the program was learning how much I loved collaborative writing, and how much better a script can be made by writing in this way.” Oliva, along with cohort classmates Bryan Pauquette and Jordan Freiman (also Class of 2014), enjoyed the teamwork aspect so much they formed Covert Bacon, a digital media company that produces comedic web series and other digital video content, including a TVWS commercial available on the website tvwritersstuio.com. In less than two years they have built a network of filmmakers, actors, producers, and writers and produced six episodic web series, two of which were honored as official selections at the 2015 Los Angeles Web Festival and HollyWeb Festival.
Together for the full two-year arc of the TVWS program, the cohorts form close working relationships and have many opportunities to pursue projects outside of the coursework that an individual writer couldn’t accomplish alone. “If you want to shoot a video or a web series you have a built-in group of people who will give up their time because they believe in your project and have your back,” said Joanna McKee, a TVWS first-year.
Script, Shoot, Sell
“TVWS doesn’t do traditional lectures and homework,” said alumnus Bryan Pauquette ’14, “it puts you right in the fire. Diving right into it really expedites the learning curve.”
In addition to teaching a specialty no one else is offering in a uniquely experiential way, students also have unparalleled access to the world of professional television and film production. Students report to work in the TVWS writers room at Steiner Studios, the largest film and television production studio complex outside of Hollywood.
“This program broke open a part of New York that I didn’t know was accessible to me,” said Aidan Daley-Hines ’13. “Being able to go to work at Steiner Studios every day was a type of access I didn’t imagine for myself.”
Instead of lectures and homework, Steinberg calls upon his bulging rolodex of friends in the industry—many of whom he gave their start—to offer advice, mentorship, insight, and a look behind the scenes of major television productions, including a recent video conference with Executive Producer Warren Littlefield from the North Dakota set of the Emmy Award-winning FX drama, Fargo.
“This program is about learning how to be a professional in this business. So I bring in people like Tom Purcell, who was an executive producer on The Colbert Report and is going with Stephen to CBS, and he says to them, ‘You want a job? here’s what you have to do,’ and gives them an assignment to write an opening segment for the show. We also had the head of development for Amazon Studios, Joe Lewis, who developed Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, to talk to them about new opportunities in online streaming,” said Steinberg.
About the common myth that you have to go to Los Angeles to make it in the TV and film industry, Steinberg admits a lot of his friends and former students do go to Hollywood, but, he said, “if you stay in New York you’ll become a better writer.”
“Here you are assaulted, buffeted by what New York is—the energy, the pulse of it. L.A. is a nice place, comfortable, but it has no pulse. It doesn’t give you inspiration. Most of the ideas out there are not impassioned, but about money—studios are only making films with the word ‘Man’ in them. Even just the street life here—there’s no bumping into each other in L.A. There’s no grit. You have to have abrasion to make pearls.”
During the second year of TVWS the Cohort operates as a production team, each taking on roles with the mission of designing, casting, staging, and shooting a professional trailer or “sizzle-reel” of their pilot script.
In January 2014, Steinberg’s friend Jonathan Frakes, best known for his role as Commander William T. Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, directed the Cohort II script “OSS,” a World War II spy drama. The TVWS students utilized the historical architecture of the LIU Post campus as their setting and transformed Lorber Hall into an active set to shoot their script.
Gina Massaro, an LIU Post alumna who received a B.F.A. in Film in 2012 before earning an M.F.A. in Writing and Producing for Television from LIU Brooklyn in 2014, (in interviews with The Pioneer and Newsday during production of “OSS”), said that the experience of producing the pilot exposed them to what it’s like to work on a real set. “During production and pre-production I learned a lot of skills, especially in casting, dealing with agents, managers, auditions, booking talent, running sessions,” she said.
Frakes told Newsday that working with the TVWS cohort was a “fabulous experience.” He said it reminded him the kind of experience that he had when he first started in the industry. “Everyone’s energized, everyone’s excited,” Frakes said.
And that’s exactly what Steinberg hoped for. “This has been an incredible life. I want to pass it on.”
Norman Steinberg wrestled with the big philosophical question of life: “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
His father had died and he wanted to do the responsible thing and make him proud. So he went to law school, and after a stint in the Army, went to work as an attorney. But it never felt right.
Every day he saw Mel Brooks at his regular coffee shop. “He was my hero and I accosted him and would tell him ‘I want to be a writer.’ And he would look deeply into my eyes and say ‘Leave me alone.’” But one day, Brooks handed him a piece of paper with a name and number on it. Steinberg spoke to an executive producer at Get Smart and sent in a spec script for a new project. The producer called him back and said it was good and if the show got picked up they’d hire him. “It didn’t get picked up, but it gave me the impetus to walk in and quit.”
“Half of this business is dumb luck—right time, right place,” Steinberg said. He got a job writing for a music magazine, hanging out with Jim Morrison, Ike and Tina Turner and Joe Cocker in the psychedelic East Village of the mid-1960s. He sent some spec late night monologues to a cousin of an Army friend who was a William Morris agent and landed a gig writing for a comedy record. It won a Grammy Award.
Out in Los Angeles, Steinberg ran into a friend he’d worked with on the record, who introduced him to the head writer on The Flip Wilson Show. They gave him a job writing sketches with George Carlin. “I’d see a sketch I had written on TV and envision people across America falling off their couches at how funny this was.” Steinberg won an Emmy in his first season, but didn’t feel at home in L.A., so he declined to return to the show and moved back to New York. Next he worked on a special called “Aquacade in Acapulco,” starring Ed McMahon, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, Tony Randall, and an appearance by Mel Brooks. Steinberg and Brooks wrote sketches together and had so much fun that at the end of the shoot, Brooks was asking to work with Steinberg.
Mel asked him to read a script by Andrew Bergman called “Tex-X” about a black sheriff in the old west."I told him ‘I think it’s terrific but needs a rewrite.’ So me and Mel and Andrew go to work on the top floor of 666 Fifth Avenue, which was Warner Bros. headquarters,” said Steinberg of the job that changed everything.
“Mel looks around the room and says, ‘I see a bunch of white Jews in here writing about a black sheriff. We need a gentleman of color.’ So I told him I’d call Richard Pryor (whom he'd worked with on the Flip Wison Show). So we had two major homerun-hitters in comedy in the same room. It was unbelievable. Richie only lasted a few weeks—he was in really bad shape, but I’ve never seen anything like him.
“The whole process was about a year and a half. We knew that we had taken a lot of risks—nobody had ever done anything like that before. But Warner Brothers said let’s do it. After Mel directed the film he showed it to the executives, he came back ashy. He said they didn’t laugh once, they just stared at it. He wanted to recut the whole thing, but the producer and I pushed him up against a wall and said, ‘we have a screening tonight with real human beings, not suits.’ The screening was out of control. People were bouncing off walls. That thing took off like a rocket. That was forty-something years ago and still everywhere I go people want to talk about Blazing Saddles. This thing has a shelf life that will never end. I saw it on the family channel recently, and they took out the fart scene, but they left in all the ‘N’ words! It’s crazy.”
“Then it started,” Steinberg said. “This story goes to show that this is attainable. It’s not easy, but if you have passion, if you have talent and you’re willing to run through walls, this program is going to show you how it works and what you have to do to make it happen.”