“Yada Yada,” Peter Mehlman wrote that episode of “Seinfeld,” with Jill Franklyn. He reintroduced the word, “shrinkage,” to everyday use and gave new life to, “sponge worthy.” In nine years, on “Seinfeld,” Mehlman helped alter sitcom sensibility.
Honest satire is rare, spreading thin, across time and space. “I don’t get why major league baseball teams need a utility infielder,” says Mehlman. “Isn't it hard enough to be a baseball player without having to deal with the gas and electric?” Howard Lapides, who manages Mike MacDonald and Dr Drew Pinsky, says, “Mehlman is the real deal.”
Any hit on satirical centre, a papal resignation, say, calls for stinging comments, alleged schemes and wrathful wit. “It turns out,” says Mehlman, “that Pope Benedict resigned because someone revealed the underside of his red skullcap read Josh Merkowitz Bar Mitzvah, 17 May 1969.” The sharp, piercing mind of a satirist is quick to skewer.
“Mehlman is profound,” says Dick Summer, the author, podcaster and radio legend. “For updates on the American Dream,” says the usually laconic Mehlman, “it's tough to beat poolside in Los Angeles. Somehow, after 237 years under spacious skies, Americans have reached a place where having it all only accents what we lack. We discount our blessings. Beyond poolside, this never-enough-ness turns up anywhere good fortune ravages a US citizen.” Dick Summer says, “Such clever insight comes from looking through the other end of a telescope.”
Mehlman wonders if atheists can have gawd-given talent. Does Gas-X relieve Sarin? Why does gawd have only one child? He’s also baffled: although having spoken to only 210 people in his life, he has 379 Facebook Friends.
A graduate in journalism from the University of Maryland, Mehlman wanted to write for the Washington “Post.” He signed his application letter as Faith Michelle Kates because the “Post” announced it was no longer hiring White men. The “Post” hired Mehlman as Faith Kates. In a follow up letter, he recanted, admitting he was Peter Mehlman. The “Post” wisely hired him, nevertheless.
At ABC Sports, Howard Cosell hired Mehlman as a writer. “Cosell and Seinfeld,” says Mehlman, “tie for the funniest boss.” Seinfeld is obvious. Howard Cosell begs explanation.
From his dislike of questions asked by reporters on ESPN came, “The Narrow World of Sports.” Mehlman asked Kobe Bryant, “When you score 55 points and the Lakers lose, why should you feel bad?” He asked Olympic Gymnast, Shawn Johnson, which of her many medals she usually wore on a first date.
Mehlman recently finished a novel, his first. It deals with the betrayal of the individual by the group. To paraphrase Nathan Zuckerman, a hero of Mehlman, this novel is a vigorous defence against the relentless demands satirists suffer, especially from nosy interviewers.
In this interview, Peter Mehlman shrewdly avoids commenting on his well-spoken belief that manic consumerism is a futile attempt to fill emotional potholes on the streets of our lives. He discusses many topics you haven’t mostly read elsewhere. He does talk about writing on “Seinfeld.”
GS Your writing is superb. You make a person want to give up writing.
GS Are you a writer who happens to be funny, as opposed to someone who thinks he or she is funny and a writer after that fact.
PMI care more about writing a correct sentence and getting my points across then I do about being funny. If it’s a humour piece, you must be funny. Other times not.
If your idea is funny and it’s organic, great. Many times, if you’re writing something that is supposedly funny and you feel you’re forcing it, that’s when it gets hard; maybe, less successful, too. I try not to do that.
GS Who’s your favourite writer.
PM I like John Updike. He’s obviously an unbelievably great writer and incredibly funny. In the Rabbit books, the wit and the observations are hysterical; so pointed and sharp. That’s what I aspire to do. Other writers I love, such as Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth and Lorrie Moore, are funny, too.
GS The chapter, in “Mandela was Late,” focusing on Philip Roth, was unbelievably imaginative. Who is Zuckerman?
PM Nathan Zuckerman is the name of a character that appears often, in novels by Roth, starting with “The Ghost Writer,” in 1979. Zuckerman shrewdly and subtly performs various roles, including anti-author, of a sort. Zuckerman may narrate the book or part of it; he may be the Greek Chorus and so on.
In a large sense, Zuckerman is the alter ego of Roth. The story of Zuckerman ends with “Exit Ghost,” where he’s left reading dead authors writing of death. That was 2007, I think.
GS Roth can be destructively funny.
PM Yes, decades ago, he noted how imagination is helpless against what appears in the media. For example, in 2006, then-Vice-president Dick Cheney, using his designer rifle, shot an elderly friend in the face during a quail hunt. After reading about the Cheney incident, Roth shakes his head and writes whatever he wants to write.
A comedy writer couldn't, not on this story. The Cheney story hit the satirical centre. This called for stinging comments, conspiracies alleged, pithiness mass-produced and harm done in the name of satire. The authorities released a quail, held for questioning and then shot it.
An experienced comedy writer dutifully heads to the edges of the story. There she or he finds the less obvious sources of material. For instance, the third hunter, in the Cheney group, was the US ambassador to Switzerland, which leads to tax shelters, cheese, yodels and funny clothing.
The delay in reporting the Cheney incident led to noting how Cheney gave his entire security detail monogrammed breathalysers for Christmas.
Why, there's the lone gunman, Cheney, on television, talking to Brit Hume. Is he expressing regret? Can this be? He's talking in Remorse Code.
GS Roth, when he turned sixty years old, sent everyone away, cleaned out his house and started to write like a mad person?
PM Yes, it’s unbelievable.
GS Do you think age has much to do with successful writing.
PM That’s a good question. I would hope age would make you better. I think age makes me better. My perspective is better. Now, what I see is fuller.
At the same time, you do have to put in some effort to stay current. Alternatively, you must avoid pop culture in your writing, a little bit more. Maybe confine your themes to the most general.
You look at Woody Allen. Sometimes he’s [all] to me. Sometimes, in the last fifteen or twenty years, he references this or that piece of pop culture and I roll my eyes. “Oh, Woody, what are you doing.” If only I were there to stop you from making that reference, it’s too old.
Yet, Allen can do something like “Midnight in Paris” or “Blue Jasmine,” where he’s fiddling with philosophies or ideas about life and it doesn’t matter. He has much perspective, because of his age, which helps him. It doesn’t hurt that he’s good at what he does.
GS Is that’s why his movies take on more importance as he gets older.
PM Yes, the sitcom world has a problem with age. I’m sure if I were hell-bent on still writing for television, I would be just as frustrated as many other people my age. Thankfully, I don’t need to write a sitcom.
GS Is television, honestly, writing?
PM If you’re working on “Mad Men,” “The Wire” or “Breaking Bad,” then you are writing. If you’re doing “Two Broke Girls,” I do not think that's writing. There’s a distinction and it’s not a fine one.
GS What is the basis of such a distinction?
PM With a show such as “Mad Men,” you have one person, Matthew Weiner, whose sensibility rules the show. Writers are on staff and must work to the vision set up by Weiner.
The upbeat example is “Girls,” created by and starring Lena Dunham. This is her view. She’s great at it.
These shows are writing. I’m sure neither “Mad Men” nor “Girls” has a group of ten people sitting in a writing room, shouting out jokes. Individual writers do each show.
I’m sure Lena Dunham sits down with a staff writer, who’s working on the next script. They philosophise about the show, the episode, the script. Then the writer, on his or her own, writes the script.
There’s much room for some great writing, on “Mad Men” or “Girls.” If you look at the networks, thought, it’s not pleasant. The present and future are grim.
The network audience dwindled. The networks want only the 24-to-49-year-old audience, the presumed big spenders. Any ambition for a quality show, to strive to make a show great, say, as “Mad Men,” is long gone.
GS We’re not to expect another “St Elsewhere” next season.
PM No, I flick on the networks at night. I see the schedules, the lineup of shows. I don’t know how a network head sleeps, well. How he or she looks in the mirror.
It’s embarrassing. I can’t imagine a network head can feel good, deep down. They’re not doing anything they can take any pride in, at all. Fill time between commercials is what they do.
Today, “Man Men” is the standard. It so well thought out, written and performed. This means spending much time and long deadlines, only thirteen episodes a year. “Two Broke Girls” has short deadlines.
GS What you’re saying is “Ten Broke Girls” likely has a writing room, whereas “Man Men” doesn’t.
PM Yes. I never understood the whole “room,” when ten comedians sit around pitching jokes at each other. Someone, a producer or story editor, say, tries to find a way to use the jokes in a disjointed script. This doesn’t ring creative to me.
GS Does the writing of Jerzy Kosinski influence you.
PM No, I wouldn’t say he’s an influence. I enjoyed reading Kosinski, as much as you can enjoy reading “The Painted Bird.” It’s so dark, decadent.
Still, Kosinski fascinated me. My friend, Robert Morton, who was the executive producer of “Late Night, with David Letterman,” was good friends with Kosinski. I was so envious.
Kosinski used to sleep from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm and, again, from 4:00 am to 8:00 am. That was every day. In the eight-hour stretches between sleep, he researched his novels, wrote and hung out.
The fact Morton hung out with Kosinski made me think, “Oh man, what luck.” That, for me, is what is missing from New York City, today. No one hangs out, any more; everyone has some place to go.
When I wrote “Star Trekking,” about celebrity spotting in New York City, in the late 1980s, the city was so much more interesting than it is today. Now, there are some actors and some media people, you might see, on the street, but not many. It’s different.
GS If you went “Star Trekking” on the streets of Los Angeles, what starts might you see trekking the streets? Are certain celebrities more available on the streets than are others?
PM Celebrities are everywhere, in LA. The city is one big celebrity petting zoo. It’s not even a challenge.
GS After graduating from the University of Maryland, you became a sports writer.
PM I like journalism, the writing; that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to work at the Washington “Post.” I got in where I could. I made an entry in Sports.
GS You wrote Howard Simons, the then-Managing Editor, posing as a woman because the “Post” openly declared it wasn’t hiring any more White men.
PM Right. As there were no important qualifications on my resume, I made the letter a joke. I signed it Faith Michelle Kates.
GS Simons hired you by mail, based solely on the letter, as a copy aide, 7 pm to 3am, with Mondays and Tuesdays off.
PM Yes, after getting the offer, I fessed up in another letter. Simons asked to meet me. I wore white boat neck sweater and said something mildly funny about the “Mary Tyler More” show. They liked that somebody conned them, I think.
GS Do you think Washington, DC, is a funny place to live.
PM Interestingly, Washington, DC, is not a city with a great sense of humour. People are not funny in Washington, DC. It’s not a priority.
In New York City funny, witty or sharp-tongued is a huge priority. In Washington, DC, humour is not important. When someone funny comes along, in Washington, it’s a joy.
GS You were writing funny sports stories, at the “Post.”
PM No, I was writing straight sports, mostly, but they let me in the building. That was my goal. That was the big step.
GS How did you find your way to working for Howard Cosell?
PM After I moved back to New York, I was looking for a job. I got a tip from the sports writer, Peter Vecsey, who was with the “Daily News,” at the time.
Vessi said, “You should call Mike Marley. He’s working for Howard Cosell on ‘Sports Beat.’” I did. Marley gave me another name.
I dropped off my job letter with the second fellow. This letter was also funny. I couldn’t write a boring job letter.
I got an interview. Then, I got to interview with Howard Cosell. He hired me.
In all, it took two days, from contacting Marley to Cosell hiring me. When I got the job, I introduced myself to Mike Marley. He says, “Wow; that was fast.”
GS Many breaks turned around fast for you. You wrote “Star Trekking,” sent it to the New York “Times” and had it accepted, all in four hours.
PM Sometimes events turn wonderfully fast. Sometimes the world moves much slower. You never know.
GS You said, when it came to funny bosses, Howard Cosell and Jerry Seinfeld tied for tops. Can you explain that?
PM You'd expect Seinfeld to be funny. He’s a hugely popular comedian. He starred in a funny, hugely successful sitcom.
There was more tension at ABC Sports. At the time, Cosell has a huge star. He was just so incredibly famous ABC Sports built around him and not only “Sports Beat.”
It was hysterical. Cosell would poke his head in my office and say, “Peter, I’m going to take a tinkle, let’s go.” I would crack up.
I had made a couple of jokes, early on, that made him laugh. Afterwards, he was always putting pressure on me to be funny. Cosell would call me into his office and ask, “So, Peter, what are your plans?”
On 15 December 1984, Cosell had to let me go, truthfully. I thought he was joking. I said he was carrying the joke too far. He didn’t laugh.
Mehlman freelanced before joining “Seinfeld.” This snippet is from a profile piece that ran in the Washington “Post,”
Bill Masters will sail through the rest of his set in a town that's gone from being comedy hell to comedy heaven overnight. He won't even try to explain why. It's just the road, where bombing one night and flying the next is business as usual. It's just the road, where a comic can make a living on the way to making a name. It's just the road, where no one audience [can] become more than a footnote to a career.
GS Freelancing is a notorious route to poverty and hunger. You’re a great writer, but many good freelancers starve. How did you get along before Seinfeld?
PM I wasn’t rich. I was living, as did many people in New York City, back then. I was barely getting by and, yet, somehow going out to dinner every night.
That’s the past, obviously. The whole hedge fund industry pushed all of those kinds of people, artists, out of Manhattan, at least. Even Brooklyn, I hear, is getting pricey and artists are moving to Queens.
GS Before we know it, Yonkers will be a haven for artists.
PM Right. I found some success writing for many magazines. That was good. I was writing, a great deal, for magazines targeted to women. Those magazines were always receptive to an article from a male perspective.
Chris Whittle, Whittle Communications, based in Tennessee, published roughly one hundred glossy magazines. That was in the late 1980s. I wrote, a great deal, for his magazines.
My philosophy was to write an article, which I put much heart into, once a month. Then, I’d churn out as many articles as necessary to pay the rent.
GS The heartfelt articles probably went a long way to selling the churned-out articles.
PM That may be true. Now, it’s bad. Now, when I write the occasional article, the pay is less then I earned in 1988. This is not the time to make a living as a freelance writer.
GS I’m not surprised.
PM The competition, today, pits writers against bloggers. Bloggers mostly write for no fee. No matter how good or imaginative a writer is, the legions of bloggers charge the right price, although they often have nothing to say.
GS How did you come to “The Narrow World of Sports”?
PM That show came out of my simmering resentment towards ESPN. I’m always shocked when ESPN correspondents are interviewing an athlete or a coach. They always know the answer before they ask a question.
ESPN reporters ask the most obvious question. “How important was that three run homer in the bottom of the ninth?” Are you kidding?
What’s the player to say? “It disappointed me. I don’t think it helped us win 4-3. Next time, I’ll try for a double.”
The questions I wanted to ask inspired me. Thus, I created “The Narrow World of Sports,” produced by Berman and Braun. I asked Kobe Bryant, “If you score 55 and the team loses, why should you feel bad?
He said, “I don’t.” Athletes were so happy to hear these kinds of different questions. The interviews I did were fun for them.
GS Did you work out the questions and answers before taping.
PM Some of the later interviewees saw the earliest interviews. Kobe was first, we didn’t prepare much. He set the tone for the series. Once I had Kobe, on the show, everybody else was in line and ready to go.
All they knew was that I was a comedy writer. I was going to interview them. They were ready.
GS Blake Griffin, of the Los Angeles “Clippers” was on the show.
PM Yes, I called him biracial.
GS He handled that well.
PM He is a comedic genius. I knew he was the number one pick in the draft. I didn’t know anything about him, as a person.
Comedy is his strength. When the NBA players were on strike, he did an internship with “Funny or Die.” I guarantee you he was the funniest person there.
GS Griffin focused his eyes, as if he was thinking deeply, deeply. He’d come out with something hilarious.
PM He’s a master of deadpan. We’ve become friendly. He is just so funny.
He mastered the dry delivery. He’s brilliant. I couldn’t catch him by surprise with any question. He took every question as if it were a serious sports question.
The interesting part, I think, is that with joke questions, I got a much more accurate view of whom these people are, than if you’re doing a serious interview.
GS Did anyone you interviewed fail to make the final cut?
PM Everyone made the cut. Almost all the people interviewed handled the questions well. In their own way, they tried to make it seem like they were answering a serious question.
Shawn Johnson, she’s the 18-years-old Olympic Gold Medallist in Gymnastics, was great. I asked her, “On a first date, do you wear the gold metal or the bronze?” As if it was a legitimate question, she went with it. Johnson was exceptional, incredible.
Johnson is a gymnast and thus short. At the restaurant, for the interview, someone had set out a smaller table and chairs for us. I had no idea and went with it; she thought it was hilarious.
GS The “Narrow World of Sports,” which airs on YouTube, had an advertiser, Palm Pre.
GS Why would that not keep the show going?
PM I do not know; obviously, we talked about it and everything. Somehow, no one made it happen. I wasn’t going to push it.
I take a stab at what someone offers. I rely on others to come through, to make it happen. If they don’t, I move on.
GS How did you arrive at the opening sequence for each episode of “The Narrow World of Sports”?
PM Every television show must have a little introduction to each episode. We thought it would be funny to make it as absurd as possible. There was a phone on the desk; you could clearly see the wire hanging, going nowhere.
The idea was always to just have a desk, as if I were at work. Having the desk in unexpected places, such as a public basketball court or a high school football field, being blatant about it, was funny. Then, we accidentally hit on the idea of making the product placement, of the Palm Pre, incredibly blatant.
Most shows do product placements. Audiences are smart; they’re rolling their eyes. “Could they pander anymore?” We made it so obvious that we brought the audience in on the joke.
GS You pitched a television show, a sitcom, about Whitey Bulger, the odious criminal from Boston.
GS Did you see him in person, while he was on the run, living in Santa Monica.
PM No, I didn’t knowingly, although he lived there for years.
GS You would know it, if you saw him.
PM I can’t remember seeing him. I know many people who did see him. The day of his arrest, it was, “I saw him in the pet store yesterday. I was behind that fellow in line; he bought a box of birdseed.”
GS You came up with a comedy idea based on the life of Bulger on the lamb, without much emphasis on the criminal.
PM Yes. Someone that’s number one on the Most Wanted List, living undercover, inspired by Bulger. It’s the continual tension of imminent capture. It’s a great sitcom, in waiting.
GS I think Fox took your idea seriously.
PM Yes, Fox was serious about it for a while. They paid me to write the pilot. Then for reasons I don’t know or care to know, Fox passed.
GS That’s interesting. Who was your choice for the lead role?
PM John Malkovich is perfect for the role.
GS Do you have other as unconventional a sitcom about Whitey Bulger?
PM I had an idea about Black couples deciding to adopt White babies. I never pushed it. I might try. I don’t know.
GS Your new book, “Mandela was Late,” is excellent.
PM Thank you.
GS How did the idea for the book format?
PM At one time, maybe four or five years ago, I talked with a literary agent about putting together a collection of essays and articles. He said to me, “It’s hard to sell a collection.”
I said to him, “You know what? It’s hard to write a collection?”
That’s how the American economy works. I do a hard part. Then you do a hard part. He had no interest in signing me.
I let the idea go. Then, somebody I knew from the Washington “Post,” Mike Sager, who’s a great writer, got sick of the publishing industry. He started his own imprint.
He approached me about putting together a collection. I guess he thought it would sell. That’s how it happened.
GS That’s the Sager Group.
PM Yes. Sager is gung-ho about publishing. He’s dead serious. One of these days, he’s going to break through with something huge. I just know it.
GS “Mandela Was Late” may the breakout book for Sager. Who chose the lineup for the entries in “Mandela Was Late”?
PM I did. I had to sift through and make sure I wasn’t repetitive. I knew that putting some science and health-related stuff was going to be important. Yet, that’s where the overlapping was most likely.
If you’re writing about television, obviously, you’re going to make cracks about it and the executives that run it. I didn’t want to have more than one or two pieces where it seems like I’m negative about television. That would be unseemly, considering how easily my career in television started.
GS I found “Blank,” the first chapter the best.
PM “Blank” had a few incarnations. First, it was a column in the Los Angeles “Times,” called, “Apathy Keeps Me Busy.” The theme was that I have no opinions on anything.
I expanded the idea. It became a fictional story about s Eugene Brusca, a fellow with no opinions. The article published in one of these micro-fiction literary magazines. Then I made it into a short film.
GS You made it into a film.
GS Is it on YouTube.
PM You can find “Blank” among the “Narrow World of Sports” episodes on YouTube. As a movie, “Blank” turned out funny. Joe Mantegna narrated.
GS Where did the idea for “Blank” come from?
PM I think part of “Blank” is my fear that half my opinions root in what Maureen Dowd wrote in her column, yesterday. I hope not. It is possible, though.
This thought of trying to figure out the source of your ideas is something I try not to focus on, too much. I can tell you the idea for “Blank” evolved. My first thought was to reverse the normal presentation.
Usually, a newspaper runs the title and the body of the article followed the author’s name; say, “Peter Mehlman is a writer living in Los Angeles.” I wanted to run my name first. Then, as a footnote, of sorts, would be the article’ say, “Peter Mehlman has no opinions on anything” and the footnote would continue that way, presenting what usually was the body.
No editor wanted article presented that way. I guess newspapers don’t want to monkey with their format. That’s the way it seemed.
That’s where “Blank” started. It went from first person to third person. Then it became a piece of fiction, in "SmokeLong Quarterly." Then it became a script for a short film. That was fun. Finally, it’s a chapter in my book.
GS Is “Blank” influenced by Jerzy Kosinski, specifically “Being There.”
PM Yes. “Blank” has a twinge of “Being There.” It also has a twinge of “Zelig,” a 1983 mockumentary by Woody Allen.
GS Is it possible to explain such satire.
PM It is hard to explain. Mostly, it’s getting lucky enough to have a particular thought. Then I go into the shower and think, “I could expand this.”
GS You do much thinking in the shower.
GS Would “Blank” have been a great episode of “Seinfeld.”
PM I think it could have worked for the show. A pathologically un-opinionated person, the hero, Eugene Brusca, is what I like about “Blank.” As in “Zelig,” the character is so desperate to fit in, somewhere.
Brusca goes to parties and tries to switch the conversation from politics to cocktails. He says, “These are good.” People stare at him in wonder.
In “Blank,” the movie, Ted Koppel says Brusca has no personality. His “only notable achievement, prior to him becoming a cultural icon, is that he never dialled a wrong number in his entire life.”
Some women and men achieve without trying. I wish there were more people like Brusca.
In the end, Brusca finds peace in a new home in Obscurity, California, where he lives quietly, to this date, unopinionated.
GS Why did you put “Blank” first in the book?
PM I am not sure. Mike Sagar, the publisher, thought it should be first. I guess he liked it because it had the short film connection.
GS I am stuck in vaudeville, where the best act performed next to last. Each chapter is excellent. I like “Zuckerman Juiced” second best.
PM That’s a compliment. Many people think “Mandela was Late” is the best. It’s good to know readers appreciate other chapters, too.
GS In the preface to “Mandela was Late,” you report a woman at Starbucks described someone as a, “Christ-like figure.” You said, ‘Do you mean he had a beard and low percentage of body fat.’ There was no reaction; maybe too soon.” I’m not sure I understand the “Maybe too soon.”
PM That’s a big deal these days, with people wanting to make jokes about tragedies. They say, “No, it’s too soon. Not enough time has passed.”
GS It’s a good line. Did someone say that or did you make it up?
PM I heard someone online saying that he was a Christ-like figure. I piped in and got nothing.
GS You mention someone worked at a Museum of Tolerance. You suggested a display devoted to lactose. Again, there’s no reaction.
PM I love that joke. Someone made it up, not me. The other one, on the same page, completes the triplet. “It seems strange God had only one kid.”
GS It makes you think, as does all good satire.
PM When friends or acquaintances divorce, I ask them if they knew, when walking down the aisle, it wasn’t going to work. Ninety per cent say “Yes.”
It’s sad but true. I have literally asked that question so many times. Only one person said, “I thought it was going to be forever.”
GS Was it a good Catholic girl?
PM No, it was a Jewish fellow.
I know a woman that framed her divorce papers. This was to show she had been taking part in what she thought she must do in life or suffer ill effects. She wanted to confirm she tried to conform.
GS On the cover of “Mandela was Late,” you’re wearing a football jersey bearing the number 56. Why is the number not 69?
PM That picture comes from “Blank,” the movie. When you see the movie, you’ll understand.
GS I watched the movie and I still don’t understand.
PM The shirt makes no sense. It was there. The cover needed a picture and that’s the picture.
GS It was odd, given the chapter on 69.
PM Yes. In the public readings I give, I use chapters from “Mandela was Late.” I would do a couple of stories and jump around. Until recently, I had not used the chapter about sixty-nine.
One day I thought I would read this chapter. The sixty-nine story went over so well that I refelt the whole chapter. This piece is better than I thought. I keep using it.
GS You worked with Larry David, on “Seinfeld,” for several years.
PM Yes, Larry has his area of comedy, his sensibility of humour. It’s outstanding anyone can have that strong of a sensibility. “Seinfeld” was the first time David got to work on one project for that long. It was all his. His creative growth over the course of the show was exceptional.
“Seinfeld” began simply. The show grew. The intersection of storylines became increasingly complicated. It was tough to keep up with Larry David, sometimes.
GS What is his comic sensibility?
PM The sensibility of Larry David is difficult to capture in words. The only word that comes to me is rage. Wrath litters his humour.
GS I always get the impression that he wanted to be Woody Allen.
PM Who wouldn’t want to be Woody Allen. He’s had the greatest career, not in the history of show business, but in the history of the world. Allen is a Hall-of-Famer in three different categories: stand-up comedy, movie directing and writing his casuals for the “New Yorker.” He’s in the top five in all of those three categories in American History.
Who wouldn’t want his career? He’s 78-years-old and makes a movie a year, with no interference or anything. He has the greatest job in the world and he’s earned every part of it.
GS As difficult as it is to believe, today, you sent an Op-ed you wrote for the New York “Times,” to Jerry Seinfeld, as an audition, of sorts, for a writing job on “Seinfeld.”
PM It just happened. No one else, running a sitcom, would read a writing sample, other than Seinfeld. He did and gave me a shot at a script.
“Star Trekking” was what I sent. I hadn’t written dialogue. The show wasn’t exactly on the radar, yet. This allowed Larry David and Seinfeld to gamble.
I was lucky David and Seinfeld weren’t fully in the sitcom world. They had no interest in a speculative or spec script for “Cheers,” as did most sitcom producers. No, they wanted a sensibility more than experience.
GS You had that. “Star Trekking,” steeped in everyday life, had the sensibility of “Seinfeld.”
PM Yes, I think that’s what caught David and Seinfeld. “Star Trekking” is such a New York City story, about celebrity spotting. It reflected so much on life in New York City that it happened to hit Seinfeld the right way.
I had many friends who got the same offer, from Larry David, as did I. He said, simply, “Turn in a writing sample and I’ll pass it on to Jerry.” They all turned in scripts and screenplays; not one received an offer.
Without even hitchhiking, “Seinfeld,” a rocket ship of a show, picked me up.
GS “Star Trekking” is an excellent piece. I easily see it as a “Seinfeld” episode.
PM Thank you, it’s interesting you say that. I was thinking, “It’s funny I never thought of it as an episode.” Gold nuggets are everywhere.
GS What year did you join Seinfeld?
PM I wrote my first freelance script in 1990. That was the first non-staff written show they produced. I was on staff starting in the summer of 1991.
GS Did you pitch ideas or full scripts for “Seinfeld”?
PM We pitched ideas for scripts. Unlike other sitcoms, say, “Roseanne,” writers on “Seinfeld” wrote individually, not as a group. There was no writing room for “Seinfeld,” as there was for “Roseanne.”
GS For a “Seinfeld” episode, “The Apartment,” you pitched a script that involves “Elaine,” portrayed by Julie Louis-Dreyfus, moving out of the city. Larry David, Larry Charles and Jerry Seinfeld remake the idea. “Elaine” moves closer to “Jerry,” rather than farther away. How did the 180 degrees happen?
PM Charles, David and Seinfeld liked the idea of “Jerry” having to confront his relations with “Elaine,” a little bit more. That would have worked either way. It was funnier, as it turned out, to have her move closer, into the building.
GS She moved into the building.
PM Yes, “Elaine” was always looking for a new apartment. She had an annoying roommate. David, Charles and Seinfeld thought that when the dumb-thinking “Jerry” character heard there was an apartment available in his building, he’d tell “Elaine.”
“Elaine,” he said, “you wouldn’t believe it. There’s an apartment open in the city.” Suddenly, he realises what he said. It was funny.
If she moved out of the city or moved away, he would have to find ways of keeping her in the city, without expressing any real feelings, which was a no-no. “Jerry” expressed few feelings for “Elaine.”
GS “Elaine” and “Jerry,” I guess, were more than merely casual friends.
PM There was tension there.
GS I have the impression “Jerry” and “Elaine” found a stasis that worked for them. They just kept it going in place and didn’t move it along any farther.
PM Yes, there wasn’t much mention of any affection between them, beyond friends. It’s funny because there’s an episode where “Elaine” says she never had an orgasm with “Jerry.” This was season five, I think.
At first, I hated this idea. It seemed too on the head. Yet, it turned out to be a good episode.
GS How did the staff writer arrangement work?
PM If you were on staff, your pay was for all episodes produced. Payment was for all twenty or twenty-two episodes. A title, such as producer or executive producer, story editor or supervising producer, went with the pay cheque.
If you wrote an episode, there was a minimum extra payment decreed by the Screen Writers Guild (SWG). Mostly, there was a weekly pay cheque to do a job; then, if we did our jobs, there was more pay.
GS I like that job, pure “Seinfeld.”
PM It was unbelievable. As I write, in, “Mandela was Late,” there were times I would go back to New York City and be afraid my money wouldn’t be good there; that my pay was in sitcom coinage. I had a great job.
GS Television producer and executive producer, you were both. What’s the difference between these titles?
PM I have no idea. Well, yes, I do have idea, money. If you’re a producer, your pay is at one level. The same goes for executive producer.
If you’re an executive producer, the next time you get a job you’re an executive producer that’s your pay scale. Titles don’t make any difference. That’s why I always just said, “I’m a writer.” If you’re a producer, your credit goes in a different place, long before the final two, writer and director. I never went with those titles.
GS Is there a “Seinfeld” formula.
PM If there’s a formula it’s common sense. Find a comedian that hasn’t done much television, such as Jerry Seinfeld. Put a cast of great actors around him, that’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards and Jason Alexander. Stir slowly.
You have a hit sitcom or not. Some sitcoms hit, such as “Seinfeld” or “Roseanne”; the cast gels and connects with viewers. Most sitcoms don’t hit; nothing gels or connects.
GS How was writing the “Cosmo Kramer” character, portrayed by Michael Richards?
PM He was the easiest character for most people to write. For me, he was the hardest. I liked writing for “Jerry” and “Elaine,” the closest to normal characters on “Seinfeld.”
“Kramer” was always big and expensive; the way he dissilently enters “Jerry’s” apartment. It took me four or five years to realise that many story ideas I thought good for “Jerry” should go to “Kramer.” That took far too long for me to realise.
GS Is the expansiveness Michael Richards, the actor, the comedian, or is there so much space there are no limits on the character.
PM It’s both the character and the actor.
GS How was writing for the “Elaine” character, portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus?
PM The character was a dream to write. Louis-Dreyfus is a brilliant performer. I can’t say enough about her. She and Jason Alexander are great actors.
I liked how the actors never say the lines the way a writer hears them in his or her head. I often couldn’t believe how Louis-Dreyfus or Alexander would deliver a line. It would be great.
GS Does that make some of the show improve.
PM No, little of “Seinfeld” was improvisational. During the week, some improve, of a few lines, might occur, to see that it works and say, “Hey check this out?” The show presented mostly as written.
GS Did you write the episodes involving pitching a show about nothing?
PM No, Larry David wrote those episodes.
GS Do you have any explanation or any thoughts on why “Seinfeld” has found such strong legs in reruns.
PM I have no idea. It’s continually astonishing to me. I’m happy to accept the residual payments, though.
GS Every three years or so, 20-year-olds discover “Seinfeld” and Led Zeppelin.
PM One out of two is not bad. I’m not a Led Zeppelin fan. Led Zeppelin is not going to exist on the face of the earth in fifty years from now.
GS That’s saying a lot.
PM In fifty to seventy-five years, there’s only going to be “The Beatles,” from our lifetime, nothing else.
GS Do you think “Seinfeld” will make the long-term cut?
PM I can’t imagine. Who knows? I never imagined it would stay this long.
GS The “Seinfeld” themes are universal to human experience. You can probably translate that into any time or language.
PM Yes, one problem, though, is people see “Seinfeld” as only a New York City show. It isn’t. “Seinfeld” is about mannerisms and such. I bet if you asked a sample of “Seinfeld” fans to list their top ten favourite shows, each one could as easily take place in Omaha or Peoria as New York City.
GS That’s why, in fifty or seventy-five years, “Seinfeld” might still be here and you might still be getting checks.
PM Wouldn’t that be exceptional.
GS The “Yadda-Yadda” line on “Seinfeld.”
PM A girlfriend of the “George Costanza” character would finish stories she told with the phrase, “Yadda-Yadda,” as her version of “and so forth.” The line worked. Viewers liked it. She could have said “And so forth,” but it wouldn’t be funny.
When I was living in New York in the late 1980s, I had lunch with an editor. I noticed she said, “Yadda-Yadda,” a couple of times. I don’t know why. I wrote that episode nine years later. I owe that editor a huge debt of gratitude.
Jill Franklyn was trying to make it as a writer. I said, “I’ll bring you on and we’ll write one script together.” It turned out to be, “Yadda-Yadda.”
GS “Yadda-Yadda” now in the “Oxford Dictionary” because of you and it’s something you heard.
I always think I should feel something about the pop culture effect of “Yada Yada” and that it’s in the Oxford, but I don’t. I figure, that’s fine, the phrase is in the dictionary. I always thought of it as a tribute to the show, not only to me.
What a reach, though. That’s what so great about having been part of “Seinfeld,” it occupies many spaces. That’s great, but I never thought, “Wow, I did Yadda-Yadda.”
GS I haven’t seen the episode with the word, “Shrinkage.”
PM That word is in “The Hamptons.” That was a great episode because it’s different. It’s has a French farce feel to it.
The episode takes place in a house in the Hamptons. People are walking in and out of each other’s rooms. There’s a “What’s New Pussycat” sensibility.
The word, shrinkage, existed for two hundred years before it appeared on “Seinfeld.” Then the word finds a new life.
Another episode, “The Sponge,” re-introduced that word to daily use. “Sponge worthy” became a special compliment, I understand.
GS “Seinfeld” continues as wallpaper, especially in late night, on a great many television stations and cable channels.
PM Sometimes my mother will call me from New York and say, “You should be expecting a check.” She saw the “The Sponge,” in a rerun.
GS Is that how you get residuals: an episode airs in reruns and someone sends you a check.
PM Yes. There’s a formula. You get a check and a list of episodes shown.
I get this much if I produced. I get more if I also wrote the episode. The residuals remain healthy. It would surprise you.
GS Do you do stand-up?
PM I do not.
GS Have you ever tried doing stand-up comedy.
PM I have not.
GS Would you consider trying stand-up comedy.
PM I would not.
GS Do you go to see comedians.
PM For some reason, I don’t.
GS Do you think it might get in the way?
PM No, I think I’m astounded how comedians get up there to do what they do, with what they have. I’m worried I’m going to be judgmental. I’m going to sit there and go, "How do you get up there with material like that?”
When you’ve been around comedy, a lot, your standards get high. If you’re not going to be as interesting as is Gary Shandling, what’s the point? If you’re not going to be as sublime as Gilbert Gottfried is, what’s the point? If you’re not going be as clever as is Sarah Silverman, what’s the point?
GS Who do you think is funny, today.
PM Sarah Silverman, I think is funny and smart. I still think Gary Shandling is funny. Kevin Nealon is funny. Louis CK is funny.
GS Why is Louis CK funny?
PM He’s an observational comic, which is not my passion, but his observations are darker and more desperate than most. He’s not talking about the food on an airplane, as are many comedians.
Louis CK has a good method for keeping track of his little thoughts. That was the whole secret on “Seinfeld.” I admire that and him a great deal.
GS Other than Woody Allen, would you say that Groucho is one of your comedic idols?
PM No, I’m not a big Groucho Marx fan, as is everybody else. I like his word play. In a way, Allen Alda ruined Groucho for me because. For the last six years of “M*A*S*H, Alda gave his line readings as Groucho.
Today, audiences see Allen Alda doing a bad Groucho. They don’t even see Groucho doing a bad Groucho. Yet, the Marx Brothers movies, in digitised release, look great and are funny. The humour is exceptional and it’s almost 100-years-old.
GS What do you think of the work of George Carlin?
PM I was never a fan. I never liked the way he delivered his jokes. I didn’t think his observations were as acute as many people believe.
His observations were not more than anyone else could make, if they tried. There wasn’t much subtly in his delivery, either. I was not a fan.
Carlin owned the “Slam You Over the Head” style. Hit the audience with everything he was saying. Henny Youngman used a vaguely similar style and was much funnier.
GS What do you think of Richard Prior?
PM He was the greatest comedian ever. Among some friends, we talk in Richard Prior all the time. From two major albums, he showed the best comedy. For a while, on “Seinfeld,” Larry Charles and I were constantly saying, when someone, an actor or a writer, went into a bad area, “Oh man, you done landed on Mr Gilmore’s property.”
Prior was an unbelievable genius.
GS If you had a favourite comedian, today, who would it be?
PM I like Sarah Silverman.
GS I can see that.
PM I am a huge fan of hers. She’s great.
GS Do you think women get the short end of the shtick in comedy?
PM Once, I guess, but not as much now. Sarah Silverman is the best woman comedian. She’s cerebral, which was once unusual for women comedians.
GS What’s in the future for you?
PM I wrote a novel that’s supposedly publishable.
GS What’s the title?
PM “It is Not Always Going to be This Great.”
GS What’s the essence of your novel?
PM It’s hard to describe the idea and treatment.
GS Can you try.
PM It’s about a Podiatrist in a town on Long Island, outside New York City. He still plays basketball at 50-years-old. He has a wife and kids.
He’s an incredibly great family man. He loves his kids. He loves his wife.
He lives in a town taken over by Orthodox Jews. In this town, where my novel takes places, anyone who doesn’t keep Orthodox Jewish law has troubles, economically. If you keep your store open on Shabbat, say, customers avoid you, every day. If you’re Jewish, you can’t drive on a Friday night.
One Friday, this Podiatrist stayed late at his office. He must walk home, in the freezing cold. He trips over a bottle of horseradish and pinches his ankle.
He’s sick, thinking he’ll never be able to play basketball again. He gets so angry that he throws the bottle of horseradish. It crashes through the store window of a prominent Jew, in his town.
For some reason, the Podiatrist goes against his usual instinct. He owns up to what he did. He admits it. He walks away.
Unfortunately, throwing the bottle of horseradish through the window of a prominent Jewish business person becomes an anti-Semitic act, in this community.
GS Your protagonist isn’t Jewish.
PM Yes, he is Jewish, but not Orthodox. He’s such a reformed Jew; his wife calls the one Synagogue they sometimes attend, “Temple Jon Benet.” The whole story is in the first person, but he is telling the story to his college roommate who’s in a coma. That’s the novel.
GS Have you signed with a publisher.
PM Yes. I don’t know exactly when book releases.
GS Do you have an agent?
PM I do not. I stopped having an agent, after twenty years in television. We drifted apart.
I now have a sense of freedom. I don’t have anybody calling me with bad opportunities. I don’t have anyone calling me, which is good.
GS Thanks, Peter.
Peter Mehlman (2012), “Mandela was Late: odd things and essays” published by the Sagar Group.
Peter Mehlman (1988), “Anything for Laughs; stand-up comic Bill Masters has a wife in New York and an audience waiting for him in La Grange, Ga. This is no joke,” appeared in the Washington “Post Magazine,” 25 January 1988. P. w22.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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