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"Don't be an asshole": writing advice from the best TV writer you've never heard of

Peter Mehlman is responsible for the best episodes of Seinfeld - here's everything he knows

"Don't be an asshole": writing advice from the best TV writer you've never heard of
01 September 2017

Peter Mehlman hasn’t heard of you either. However, unlike you, Mehlman is responsible for some of the most significant additions to the lexicon while working on the most significant sitcom in history. As a writer and producer on Seinfeld from the show’s second year until its conclusion, he is the mind behind such eternally useful concepts as ‘shrinkage’, ‘double-dipping’ and ‘sponge-worthy’ men. Hell, he even popularised the term “yada yada”. Not bad for someone who had no real intention of getting into television.

“My major piece of advice for any aspiring writer is don’t be an asshole,” says Peter Mehlman. While working as a magazine writer, a chance meeting with Larry David was enough to convince to David to ask Mehlman to submit some writing to see if he might be interested in working on Seinfeld. “I have no doubt that if I hadn’t got on with Larry the first time we met that he’d never have given me the opportunity.”

Mehlman had never written a script, so instead sent in a New York Times Magazine essay about walking the streets of Manhattan attempting to spot a celebrity in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. Jerry Seinfeld was so impressed with the piece that Mehlman was handed the task of writing the show’s first freelance episode, inspiring a generation of journalists to believe they could make a similar move.

However, there’s a reason why most efforts to break into comedy writing end up in the bins of producers’ offices while Mehlman managed to write some of Seinfeld’s most memorable episodes. ‘The Virgin’, ‘The Sponge’and his personal favourite, ‘The Implant’, an all-time classic that somehow combines a plot involving Salman Rushdie with Jerry’s efforts to discover whether his girlfriend, played by Teri Hatcher, has breast implants. My friend Matt was the first person I knew who also clocked that Peter Mehlman’s name appearing at the start of a Seinfeld episode was a guarantee of quality, and that’s a good a basis for friendship as any.

Mehlman quickly turned his lack of experience in the writers’ room to his advantage. “At first everyone was trying so hard to be funny to impress Larry and Jerry so I wrote myself a note that read, ‘Shut up and learn.’” He trained himself to observe himself – his own neuroses and mannerisms – rather than trying to glean them from others around him in order to generate the best plots. He would have awkward conversations on dates when the lady across the table would ask if she might end up inspiring an episode. “Well, if you say some really funny things, that would be great.” It was counter-intuitive to how he’d operated as a journalist, but it paid off. Seinfeld became broader and less naturalistic as time wore on, but that was never as a result of a Mehlman script. “I was a true believer in everything Larry had originally intended for the show – my episodes tended to be slices of life based in reality.” To trot out a trite-ism, they were funny, because they were true

Like Seinfeld, David and producer Rick Ludwin, he didn’t really know what he was doing or even watch much television. “Do your job and stay out of show business” was Mehlman’s motto. He would go six months without speaking to his agent and, even then, only to ask if they could secure him Steely Dan tickets.

As a result, Seinfeld retained an outsider status that ensured it broke all the rules on the way to becoming a cultural behemoth. The characters weren’t likeable, they didn’t learn from their mistakes and the formulaic setup/punchline dialogue that dominated the sitcoms of the time was entirely dispensed with. In spite of being filmed in front of a live audience, the show was even shot with an almost documentary style feel, paving the way for shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation. Ignoring all the observed conventions for how a sitcom should be filmed allowed the show’s writers to create new ones.

Perhaps no story sums up the show or the man better than an incident that occurred in 1994. NBC, despite having Friends and Seinfeld already dominating the ratings, came up with a gimmick they felt certain was a winner; a themed night in which all their New York set shows would experience the same blackout and characters from one show could even pop up in another. David was predictably incensed when the call came through but Mehlman had an idea: “We could have Ross from Friends on our show and kill him. Like, he actually dies and we leave them to work out what to do next week.” Tempting though it was, even the Seinfeld team knew not to push their luck. The end result, however, was that the characters in Friends, Mad About You and Madman of the People all experienced the same blackout that Thursday night while Jerry dated an Olympian on Seinfeld with no power outage whatsoever. By that point, Seinfeld was impervious to NBC’s meddling.

In the immediate aftermath of Seinfeld, Mehlman created the sitcom It’s Like, You Know… lampooning the upper class Los Angeles lifestyle. Cancelled after just two seasons, the series feels almost like a West Coast Seinfeld but the executives merely wanted to emulate the success of that Seinfeld, rather than the content or manner of working. It was Mehlman’s first experience of network interference and when the ABC executives suggested a change that he flatly refused: “They looked at me as if I'd announced I was pro-paedophilia.” Things went downhill from there.

“It was a battle between comedy and commerce so commerce was always going to win. The network chose to dedicate most of primetime to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and they got rid of It’s Like, You Know… and Sportsnight by Aaron Sorkin. We were the first two victims of reality TV.”

Since then, he has largely eschewed TV work – briefly working on Father of the Pride, a short-lived adult animated comedy, and writing on DreamWorks’ Madagascar. While he misses the ability to influence the social landscape that writing for the country’s biggest show allowed, being published by The New York Times remains his biggest thrill since he prefers “writing full sentences”.

Since then, he has written a novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, an inspired debut about a Long Island podiatrist. While the New York Jewish humour of Seinfeld is clearly present, the book has a heartfelt and generous quality that Mehlman undoubtedly possesses despite the cynicism of the show that made his name.

On a personal level, for my Mehlman-loving friend Matt’s 30th birthday, I wrote to the man himself and asked if he’d mind signing the cover page of one of his scripts. He immediately obliged and refused to accept a penny for the cost of shipping it over from Los Angeles. I posted a picture of the present on Facebook, explained what had occurred and tagged him by way of thanks. The comments were largely Seinfeld references expressing admiration for the writer. Then the man himself chimed in with the following words:

“He is such a great guy.”

It was funny and it was true. Classic Peter Mehlman.