By Rebecca J. Ritzel
To apply for the new M.F.A. program at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus, writers are invited to submit a sample from any genre they like. Except poetry.
“I hate reading poems,” said Norman Steinberg, director of the program. “My son once said to me, ‘Dad, I want to be a poet.’ And I said, ‘OK, here’s your obit: Nick Steinberg, dead at age 30 by his own hand.’”
If that sounds deadpan, it is. Steinberg made a career out of writing comedy, and his recommendation to all would-be poets and other writers out there in undergrad land, related to him or not, is to consider writing for the small screen. His new M.F.A. program is—he says—the only one in the nation devoted solely to television writing. Most of his established competitors at schools like the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, and Northwestern University advertise more general screenwriting degrees.
“I want students to come out of this program caring more about television then anyone else in television,” Steinberg said.
Now his M.F.A. in Writing and Producing for Television is recruiting a second set of applicants, so Steinberg, best known as the screenwriter of Mel Brooks’ cult classic Blazing Saddles, is hitting the trail in search of a few good students.
“I have probably launched 250 careers in my 40-year career,” Steinberg said, singling out former mentees now working in the business. “Television is tough. It’s a tough medium, but it is so much fun. Get the first thing right, and you are on your way.”
Steinberg has recently been stumping for his program at Dartmouth College, Howard University, Morgan State University, Wesleyan College, the University of Vermont, and his alma mater, the University of Maryland, where his presentation was cosponsored by an unsuspecting student group known as the Terpoets.
Steinberg began by asking the University of Maryland group how many students turned out for a Blazing Saddles screening the night before.
“Twelve,” a student organizer answered, “But you were competing with the Duke game.”
The actual talk drew nearly 20 people, including Steinberg’s friend Michael Olmert, a three-time Emmy winner who teaches in Maryland’s English department.
“Norm is the real thing,” Olmert told the students. “You could be him one day.”
But would they want to? The rumpled looking undergrads, with their piercings and yellow hair and layered scarves, contrasted with the nattily dressed Steinberg. At 71, he’s still tow-headed, and looking professorial in a gray tweed jacket and matching round specs. Once introduced, he set off on a 90-minute tour de force of 1980s name-dropping, frequently punctuating his promotional talk with stories about shows he worked before his target audience was born. Dawson’s Creek was as close to current as he got.
Steinberg’s credentials include stints as executive producer of Cosby, Teech, and Doctor Doctor. Four years ago, he found himself looking to “get out of Hollywood” and set out in search of a teaching job. Offers came in from University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Emerson College, but it was Long Island University that let him create an M.F.A. program, carte blanche, he said.
Students in the two-year program go to class just one day a week, but that class meets at Steiner Studios, a Brooklyn bastion where HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and several other series are filmed. His first cohort of a score of students, chosen from 65 applications, is spending months crafting scripts for a show Steinberg promises to shop around to (in this order) networks, cable channels, and online outlets.
To eliminate any upfront squabbling, the students had little say in the brainstorming process. Steinberg has them working on a series he calls Red Hook, with action revolving around firefighters who patrol the Brooklyn neighborhood, haunted by memories of colleagues who died on Sept. 11. Presently, the central firefighter is most worried about extinguishing his son’s desire to become a stand-up comic.
Steinberg likes stand-up. Provided that the material is written in advance. He had little encouragement for the Maryland student who admitted he was in an improv theater troupe.
“You need to make up your mind,” Steinberg said. “Acting or writing.”
No doubt Tina Fey would shoot down that false dichotomy with a zinger, but 30 Rock did not make the list of current shows Steinberg offered when a student pressed him for some quality 21st-century television. Boardwalk Empire, The Good Wife, House, and Mad Men did.
“I think there’s another Golden Age of television coming,” Steinberg said. “If we could just get rid of the Kardashian family.”