I reached out to Peter Mehlman with zero expectation of a response. I mean, he's Peter Mehlman. He wrote some of our most beloved episodes of Seinfeld including "The Smelly Car" and "The Sponge"...not to mention he single-handedly coined some of the most famous expressions from the show we still use today like "yada, yada, yada" and "double dip". Now, he's written a new book called It Won't Always Be This Great that every Seinfeld-lover would appreciate. His list of accomplishments goes on for miles, but I have to stop myself somewhere.
When Peter responded to my email, my first reaction was utter shock. A moment later, sheer joy. Quickly followed up by absolute panic. What can I ask him that he hasn't been asked before? Should I still include questions he gets all the time in case my readers don't know the answers? Will he think I'm prying, or will my questions not be introspective enough? I found myself overthinking the situation, a habit Peter is markedly known for. Maybe he would understand. And he did. His answers are thoughtful and honest, and despite having been in the industry for many years, he brings a fresh perspective I haven't yet gotten from anyone else.
Peter didn't send me a selfie, but he was kind enough to share this old photo of him, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David having a laugh on set in 1998. It's a little blurry, but iconic nonetheless.
Peter, I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to do this. Your email came through on my birthday and made my entire week. Happy birthday! Glad the timing worked out so flawlessly.
I’ve done more Peter Mehlman research over the past 24 hours than any writer I’ve worked with. There’s just so much to know! Not necessarily about your career or your many accomplishments, but about your perspective on things. I appreciate hearing your thoughts. Fire away. These kinds of questions benefit me too…just focusing on where my ever-changing thoughts are at the moment.
You said something in a recent interview that struck a chord with me which was “I don’t think of it as being funny, I just think of it as the way that I think”. You aren’t out to make people laugh. You’re simply making an observation around a topic that you find interesting yourself, and it just happens to be funny. It’s great to make people laugh and there are times that’s the goal, but being funny can just be an off-shoot of how you see the world. A lot of times, people laugh in response to something I say or write and I’m genuinely surprised. That’s good in a lot of ways and scary in others. It’s reassuring to actually be aware of what’s funny but surprises are good too. It makes me re-think what made them laugh and if I’m lucky, it starts to make sense.
Do you feel more understood through your writing than you do through in-person interactions?Definitely. Having the time to construct your thoughts into clear English leaves much less room for misunderstandings arising from all the variables of speech: voice tone, facial expression, ungrammatical utterances, slang-y word usage. All of those things affect others in unpredictable ways. In writing, there’s much more control over the message.
I agree. I fear I'm misinterpreted in person since I'm so hyper-aware of these variables. The over-analyzing leads to me avoiding body movement and vocal inflection at all costs. Basically, I come across as Spock. What were you like as a kid? Pretty much innocent and eager to please. I did like making jokes and getting people to laugh but I’m a much more rebellious as an adult than I was as teenager. I don’t think I was very focused as a kid… kind of dreamy. Very into sports, heavy New York accent (which I’ve lost most of)… that’s all I can think of. Anything people tell me about myself as a kid is kind of surprising. I do notice, especially through Facebook, people are much more consumed with their childhoods than I am. They also seem to remember me better than I remember me.
How did you begin your career? I wangled my way into a job at the Washington Post. After hearing they weren’t hiring white males, I wrote a job letter as a woman. It was a really funny letter and they offered me a copy aide job. Then when I fessed up to being a guy, they liked me even more. I was a bad copy aide… hanging up on people calling in stories from Asia, etc. After a while they just let me write.
You moved to Los Angeles with no expectation to become a screenwriter, and then you met Larry David. A short time later, he and Jerry Seinfeld welcomed you to their writing staff for Seinfeld. What comes to mind when you look back on the experience? The first couple of years on staff were a whirlwind. The show took off like a rocket and, having never written scripts or comedy before, I was nervous and holding on for dear life. Writers were being fired left and right so I remember it being an exciting yet insecure time. After I’d written a few episodes that were fairly notorious, I got secure in my job. From then on, it was a lot of fun and exciting – even though I was still wrestling with the whole concept of creativity. All in all, it was a like a beautiful dream…almost like being back in college where you’re hanging out on a campus with funny people.
You’re known for your observational humor. Does it overwhelm you being so in-tune with your own thoughts? It overwhelmed me for a while at Seinfeld, but now I’m pretty much at peace with it. I don’t have to force it and I’m just relaxed enough to live life while not consciously observing it.
How did working with Larry David change your perspective? Larry is responsible for me looking inward and being more aware of my own thoughts. That was huge for me, although every job I’ve ever had has impacted my perspective. I worked for the sportscaster Howard Cosell and he was influential in lots of other ways. Every job you have should alter the way you look at the world.
What do you think of his Bernie Sanders impression? It’s funny and pretty much spot on. What’s especially good about it is that’s not an exact impression, it’s a satirical impression. That gives it a less obvious point of view, which is more interesting than just straight imitation.
Just as "Larry David" in 'Curb' was a satirical version of himself. He's pretty good at that. Prettyyyy, prettyyyyy, pretty good. The writing process for Seinfeld was very different than most other sitcoms in that there was no formal writers’ room. How did that affect your work? It helped my work. As a person with a journalism back ground, I’m not an overly collaborative person. Sitting in a group of people all trying to out-funny each other would have been a disaster for me. So Seinfeld, where you were left to your own devices, was a perfect fit.
Which leads me to my next question. In what ways do you feel the writing landscape has changed since Seinfeld? Comedy-wise, it’s not too encouraging. It kind of scares me how rarely anything in TV or movies makes me laugh. I worry it’s me: I’m out of touch. I don’t get it. Humor writing seems a little cheap… button-pushing references and shock value rule the day in a time when no one is shocked by anything. The drama writing, especially on TV, has become fantastic. Mad Men was my favorite show ever, but there are so many great dramas out there now.
Your latest fictional novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, centers around a good-natured family man who has a momentary lapse in judgment, leading him into a spiral of unfortunate events. How did you come up with the concept? It just kind of happened on its own. It deals with certain preoccupations of mine: How easily a respectable life can unravel; how religion is less about personal feelings and more about foisting it on others; how suburbia is so intense and lacking in privacy… there are just a bunch of themes that started me off. I was 30 pages in before I realized I was writing a novel.
How do you know when an idea is worth your time? Good question. Sometimes you start and realize it’s not worth your time. But one little rule I have, which arose from Seinfeld, is: If I can describe my story in two sentences or fewer and grab your attention, it’s probably a story worth pursuing.
What was your writing process like for the book? I’m not that disciplined in general but I strove to just make some progress everyday. Even if it was just a paragraph. Then, once I sat down, chances were, I’d write more than one paragraph.
Were you always more interested in literary writing? Vaguely. The more I read, the more interested I became. John Updike, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Don Delillo, Joan Didion…all of them tweaked my interest.
Why are you a writer? I don’t know. I never really had career goals or anything. In college, I wandered into the student newspaper office without thinking about it and it was instantly alluring. My father was very into proper grammar which was handed down, I guess. But I haven’t given my career much conscious thought. The concept of goals always rubbed me the wrong way…like, why limit yourself?
Totally agree [shreds personal goal chart into a million pieces]. What career path would you have pursued if writing wasn’t an option? No idea. I like law and photojournalism but law school demands too much drab study and photojournalism might be a little outside the lines of my taste for adventure. I’m blown away by war photographers and while it’s appealing, there’s definitely a personality type required and I don’t have it.
How do you feel about the media landscape today? I’m a little worried that the New York Times is the only place still devoted to serious journalism. But I’m optimistic that journalism is important enough that there will always be a demand for quality work. It’s also a little troubling that there’s no one voice that people trust in journalism...a Walter Cronkite type who is clearly trustworthy. The sad thing is that everyone flocks to the slant of journalism aligning with their own opinions. It’s a strange time in the field, but all the tumult is still pretty recent so hopefully it’ll pan out in a constructive way.
Speaking of serious journalism, I’m a huge fan of your tweets. Do you enjoy being on social media? Eh. It’s fun sometimes and I’ve met or gotten in contact with some great people, but the occasional nasty response to a tweet cancels out the joy. We always knew there were crazy people in the world but now they access to you. It makes me want to update my home security system.
Is there anything in your career you would have done differently? A million things. I’d have been more disciplined at the Washington Post. I’d have done grittier pieces for ABC Sports. On the other hand, it all worked out better than I could have expected. The thing is, people who say they wouldn’t change a thing and have no regrets…they strike me as being out of their minds. It’s okay to have regrets as long as they don’t overwhelm you. It’s kidding yourself to think you wouldn’t change a thing.
What do you want people to know about you outside of your writing? That I have nothing to hide. Otherwise, as little as possible.
To close, I would be honored if you would share an exclusive Peter Mehlman thought. Just something that’s been bothering you lately or a rumination you want to bring to the forefront. Latest thought: The biggest sector of the American economy is the manufacturing of stress.