Writing About Nothing: Peter Mehlman
A background in journalism taught Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman how to shift his voice, and this training helped him easily transition into sitcom writing, evoking some of the most-repeated phrases from the show's cantankerous characters.
Peter Mehlman has travelled an odd but auspicious path. He started as a journalist, which led to a gig writing for SportsBeat with sports-casting legend Howard Cosell. After that, he kicked around the freelance magazine-writing scene in New York until he moved to Los Angeles, met Larry David, and began writing for what would become the most popular sitcom in television history. As a screenwriter on Seinfeld, Mehlman crafted some of the most enduring pop-culture references in recent memory. From “double dipping,” “to shrinkage,” to “yadda yadda yadda,” his words became part of the lexicon.
In 2009, he created the popular Web series, “Peter Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports,” where he interviewed athletes with questions like, “After a playoff game, do you give the referees a bigger tip than you do during regular season games?” It seems that most of Mehlman’s success—and failure, for that matter—has come because he approaches his work in exactly the opposite way most people would. Whether writing for a sitcom that turned the format on its head or conducting a sports interview by basically mocking the idea of a sports interview, Mehlman’s career is proof that conventional wisdom is often the enemy of art. He recently spoke to Get In Media about this and more.
Get In Media: What was the experience like when you started writing for Seinfeld?
Peter Mehlman: Well, it was nothing like what I expected, because I had heard that if you get an assignment from a sitcom, you’d be in a room with these guys, and you’d talk out the story beat by beat, and you’d basically fill in the blanks. But, Seinfeld, I gave them an idea—literally, one idea—of Elaine moving into Jerry’s building, and they were like, [in his Larry David voice] “Okay, great. Go and write it.” That was it. So, I had another story beat about George wearing a wedding ring to see if it really draws women to him, and that wasn’t even discussed. I turned in the script, and for them, that was a huge surprise.
GIM: You came from a sports writing background, right?
PM: A journalism background, yeah. Sports and journalism.
GIM: Was it difficult to transition to the format of the sitcom?
PM: I wrote a lot for a lot of different magazines. So, when you’re writing for Elle magazine one day and GQ the next and the New York Times the next, you’re used to altering your voice according to the publication. I thought that was a big advantage for me, actually, because it didn’t take me any time at all to hook into the voices of these characters. I think in most ways, it was advantageous to come from a journalism background because I was used to looking at the world. The downside is, I wasn’t used to observing myself, my own thoughts. And Seinfeld was a lot of trying to capture your own thoughts, your own idiosyncrasies and insecurities, to come up with stories.
GIM: Did you find it hard to have to pay more attention to yourself?
PM: Yes, it was a very difficult transition because I became kind of fixated on the creative process and my own thoughts. It almost went a little bit overboard, where I was observing my own thoughts, as opposed to actually living. After one season, I was exhausted, and I went to a spa just to chill out for a few days, and I met this girl there and we were hanging out. Then, one day, we just started making out. And, in my mind, I’m thinking to myself, “It’s funny how every girl has her own little kissing system—right hand here, lip here, lip there.” Then, all of a sudden I realize, “Oh, my God. I’m making out with somebody, and I’m not even in the moment. I’m observing the moment.” I realized at that point that maybe I was going too far with all of this, and I tried to find a balance between understanding my thoughts and living my life.
GIM: You spoke about getting into the voices of the characters. Did you have to watch the show all the time, even episodes you didn’t write, just to make sure you were developing the characters in a way that made sense?
PM: I’d say I was a little bit arrogant about that. I thought that I was the most hooked-in writer, as far as adhering to Larry’s vision of the show. I never said anything, but down deep, I always thought that I was the true believer. I think a lot of other writers expanded the characters into places I would have never gone, and I think sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I never felt like I was doing anything that was outside the realm of what they should be doing.
GIM: As it progressed, the show often had four separate story lines that would all intersect. Was that hard to write?
PM: One thing that made it hard is that, creatively, you were always a step or two behind Larry. You were always catching up to where his mind was going. At first, the four story lines and the interconnections were really hard. It added a whole new dimension to it, but slowly, it made you think in that way. Like, I had two ideas of Jerry dating a masseuse, and he doesn’t want to have sex with her, he just wants to get a massage. And, at the same time, I had this other story, which was like a perfect story for me— simple, total Seinfeld—of Jerry dating a girl who just hated George. Then, I realized I could combine those two, and you have Jerry and George stories that are interweaving. It was always good to have two characters basically in conflict with each other.
GIM: When did you first have the feeling that something special was happening with the show?
PM: After I met Larry and they invited me to come in, they gave me tapes of the first four episodes, which I hadn’t seen. I hadn’t even heard of the show, to tell you the truth. I watched them, and I was like, “This show is fantastic.” When I wrote my first script, I drove home, and I had a message on my machine from Jerry and Larry that they absolutely loved the script. Right then, I had this feeling that my life was about to change.
GIM: And the show ended up changing the culture quite a bit. What does it feel like as a screenwriter to have your words—shrinkage, or yadda yadda—become popular phenomena like that?
PM: It was great to be on a show that had the potential for that kind of impact. I always thought that I could have been making the same money and being on just as high a rated show if I were working on Friends, but—maybe I’m wrong about this—besides Jennifer Aniston’s hair styles, I can’t think of one impact that “Friends” had on the culture.
GIM: It’s interesting that you mention Friends, because people talk about how Seinfeld changed the sitcom, and it seems that Friends is a perfect example of a show that basically bit off Seinfeld’s style but didn’t have the same quality of writing.
PM: Well, I totally disagree that Seinfeld changed anything. I actually think that it all basically went back to where it was. I can’t point to any show that even took on the characteristics of Seinfeld. We kind of fed into this with the “show about nothing,” but if you look at it, it took on every issue around. It took on abortion; it took on all kinds of social values and moral dilemmas. With a show like Friends, it’s basically those six characters and whomever they date, and then it has absolutely no relevance to the rest of the planet.
GIM: How did Seinfeld change your career? It seems that after doing a show like that, you’d have carte blanche.
PM: You would think, but that wasn’t the case at all, much to my shock. I kind of learned very quickly that people at the networks might have been fans of Seinfeld, as far as sitting at home and watching it, but as far as the dynamics of the show, they hated it. They hated that there were four characters who weren’t all that likable. They hated the fact that they were friends, and yet they would screw each other at the drop of a hat.
GIM: With considerable joy.
PM: Yeah, they’d just screw each other over, and at the end of the day, they were still friends. They hated that. Seinfeld was a very unrealistic place to be, as far as in relation to other shows.
GIM: What gave Seinfeld that latitude?
PM: It was luck. When a good show on television fails, that is not an example of a show that has fallen through the cracks. It’s when a good show succeeds that it has fallen through the cracks. The networks are there to pretty much ruin your show. Seinfeld was saved by Rick Ludwin, who was at NBC and was in charge of late night and specials. He liked the show so much that he took it under his budget, so we didn’t have network executives who were normal sitcom people at our show. We just had this guy who loved the show, and he basically gave no notes ever. It was complete luck.
GIM: With “Narrow World of Sports,” it seems like you were trying to get beyond the normal sports interview.
PM: That’s part of what I was hoping for. I was just kind of wanting to be the anti-ESPN. I just don’t want to take sports that seriously. I’ve been around sports more than any of these people. I was around Howard Cossell for three years, which was like the epicenter of sports. It’s a funny coincidence that I say that nothing really took up the mantle of Seinfeld, because in sports, nothing took up the mantle of Howard Cosell. The closest thing is Bryant Gumball’s show. I couldn’t wait to ask Kobe Bryant, “If you go 23 for 30 from the floor, score 55 points, and you lose, why should you feel bad?” I’m trying to blow all the clichés out of the water.
GIM: It seems like once you ask the first question, the athletes immediately let their guards down and go with it.
PM: They’re in on it right away, if they’re smart. Landon Donovan wasn’t smart. Sugar Ray Leonard was punch drunk, which in its own way is fine, because the questions are more important than the answers. Shawn Johnson was fantastic. Like, I’m asking her if on a first date she wears the gold or the silver, and she went right with it. And, Blake Griffin was just off the charts.
GIM: How did you get access to such big-name athletes?
PM: I was able to get Kobe, because I knew the publicist of the Lakers, and he’s a huge Seinfeld fan. I actually sent a couple of what the typical questions would be like. I sent him, like, “After a playoff game, do you tip the refs more than you do during the regular season?” With guys like that, if they get a chance to do a different kind of interview, they’re happy.
GIM: What’s your next project?
PM: Well, I’m doing another series of “Narrow World,” but it’s going to be “Narrow World” of everything. If I do 14 of them, say, I’d only do two or three about sports. It will be hopefully actors, pop stars, politicians, whatever.
GIM: What would you tell someone who wanted to get into writing for sitcoms or developing something on the Web like “Narrow World?”
PM: I always kind of dread that question, because I don’t really know. I’d just suggest write, write, write. Just keep writing. And, there are so many more outlets right now that you can basically do it yourself. Try not to be in a gigantic rush with what you’re doing. Make sure that you take the time to make it as good as you can possibly make it, because no one knows whether it took you two weeks or six months. If you’re writing that spec script, make sure it’s great. And, if you’re doing your own little Web series, make sure it’s great. And, you have got to be at war with cliché at all times.
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