December 14, 2018

Touch and Go

Touch and Go

TV writer and CBS executive Eugene Stein exposes a darkerside in his latest book of fiction

By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

Eugene Stein calls himself a Jewish writer, a gay writer, aprogressive writer.

He is also a successful TV writer and the vice president of comedydevelopment at CBS, where he develops sitcom scripts and pilots,including one for next season that will feature a cheerful nanny fromouter space.

But when the workday is done, Stein, 37, explores a darker part ofhimself, a biting, sardonic side that is featured in his second workof fiction, “Touch and Go” (Rob Weisbach Books, $22.). The oftenwickedly funny volume of short stories is about as far away fromsitcom as you can get.

The characters are mostly lost, lonely souls who wander bleak,absurd landscapes, from Belize to Fairfax Avenue. The stories arereminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut and Brett Easton Ellis, and, no, theywon’t play in Peoria.

A bedridden grandmother turns into a murderous giantess in “TheGrandma Golem.” A gay Jewish teen-ager is jealous of his straightbrother in “Mixed Signals.” Even the criminals are served freshcoffee at “Mom’s Diner.”

“What my protagonists have in common is that they are outsiders,”says Stein, who has something of an outsider’s perspective as a gayand Jewish man.

Yet the friendly, low-key executive seemed much the corporateinsider during a recent telephone interview, which he conducted fromhis busy CBS office. His hectic schedule goes around the clock: At 6a.m., he sits down to write his own fiction for two hours; he goesinto the office from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; at night, he often attends acomedy club or a sitcom taping.

Growing up near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, Stein, who says thathe was first drawn to sitcoms while watching “Get Smart” and “The OddCouple,” was imbued with “Jewish left-wing” politics and a love forliterature. His grandfather was a barber and a Yiddish journalist,his father was a union organizer, and his mother was a librarian.

The author draws upon his childhood memories in illustrating theBronx Jewish middle-class families that appear in “Touch and Go.” Healso touches, however unconsciously, upon the family trauma thatoccurred when he was 15 — the beginning of his older brother’sdownward spiral into mental illness.

Several characters in the short stories are tormented byrelationships with troubled brothers: In “Death in Belize,” a gay manjourneys far from home to avoid the pain of watching his siblingwaste away, but remains wracked by guilt.

In “Close Calls,” the pill-popping protagonist is pushed intobecoming an overachiever because his brother is not. “[He] can’t holddown a job, and I was always the one who succeeded, always the onewho set goals, always the one who had to do everything perfectly,”the character says, lamenting. “I take pills perfectly, too. I don’teven need water to swallow them.”

Stein dealt more directly with his brother’s illness in his firstnovel, “Straightjacket & Tie” (1994), in which the elder brotheris a schizophrenic who believes gays are taking over the world, andthe younger brother is struggling with the growing awareness that heis gay.

All this hasn’t stopped Stein himself from becoming anoverachiever. He graduated from Yale and from the Columbia GraduateSchool of Journalism and worked his way up the corporate TV ladderwhile still in his 20s. He has written episodes of “Cheers,” “MurphyBrown” and “The Golden Girls.”

Yet he isn’t above poking some vicious fun at his day job in”Touch and Go.” In “Close Calls,” the mortified protagonist has topitch a show to Fox about a black rabbi: “Go Down, Moses.” “They lovehigh-concept,” his boss assures him.

Once, Stein really did hear a pitch for a “‘Go Down, Moses,’ butwe passed on it,” he says, laughing.

Actually, the writer likes balancing the “intensely communal”world of television with the “intensely solitary” world of fiction.And he doesn’t see any conflict between calling himself a “gay-Jewishsocialist” and working in the capitalistic world of network TV.

“It is not unprogressive to give people pleasure,” says Stein, whois proud of his upcoming series, “George & Leo,” starring JuddHirsch and Bob Newhart as the mismatched machitonim (in-laws)of a mixed marriage. “I just hope I can work on shows that givepeople as much pleasure as ‘Taxi’ and ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’have given me.”

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