Peter Mehlman certainly has a flair for the English language. As a writer for beloved 1990s sitcom Seinfeld, he mainstreamed terms like shrinkage, sponge-worthy and “yada yada yada,” the last of which has such a footing in pop culture vernacular that it's part of the Oxford English Dictionary. Heck. Even Jon Stewart used it on The Daily Show as recently as last month.
In his new book of essays, Mandela Was Late, Mehlman, a journalist by training (the book's title stems from an essay he wrote for Esquire magazine), shares observations of working on Seinfeld, living in Los Angeles, and other cultural observations and musings. But he mused for us for free when we called to chat about his book. Here, Mehlman shares his thoughts on television today, catchphrases, character narcissism and why he won't compete with the Modern Seinfeld Twitter account.
You've got a ton of one-liners in your book, such as suggesting the Museum of Tolerance have a lactose exhibit, or responding to a traffic cop who asks where you're heading by saying “Would you believe … Daytona?” It's almost like you're working standup. But you were trained as a journalist.
I know in the preface I was trying to talk about how my life is gotten so full of these random thoughts and kind of threw them in there. I never even thought of it. The other pieces I'm hoping are more organic.
Do you think there's much of a difference between doing standup and being a journalist trying to get sources to talk with you?
If you're trying to get people to talk to you, you can cajole and you can kind of seduce them to talk to you. But as a comedian, you can't really do that to get laughs out of people. Comedy audiences are pretty tough. It's hard to get people to laugh and there's really no way to do it besides being funny.
Did you always think you were funny, even before you were a journalist and a TV writer?
I always aspired more to be witty and pithy. God there's two words for you.
Funny to me seems bigger and louder. I really think one of the reasons I was successful on a TV show is it just so happened to be a show where you really weren't writing jokes. Being funny was in the context of the situation. If you could get a huge laugh on a line that in and of itself wasn't funny, but was funny to the situation, then you knew you were onto something good.
Jerry Seinfeld hired you onto his show after you gave him an essay you wrote for The New York Times Magazine about searching for famous people in New York. Why did you decide on that writing piece, as opposed to the other?
It was a very New York-centric piece and it was a piece I really loved. And I knew the show was very heavily New York and this touched on so many aspects of life in New York City. And in a way, I got lucky because the show was so much about the little nuances of dating and living in New York and it just so happens that's what the article was about.
Do you think people can't have that experience in D.C. or San Francisco or other big cities?
You know something, I absolutely do. They can happen in any city. If anyone gave me their list of top 10 favorite Seinfeld episodes, I bet they could have taken place in any city. There are very few episodes that are so exclusively particular to New York if you think about it.
Seinfeld, like Friends, Cheers and many other '80s and '90s sitcoms, is known for its catchphrases. Do you think catchphrases are still an essential part of TV comedy?
I am so not up on TV comedy as much as used to be, but first of all it seems that the audience is so diffuse that you can't put a catchphrase out there that will catch on. Everything's too spread out. A show like Modern Family, how many people are they getting per week? Like nine million? [Editor's note: The April 11 episode actually pulled in a little over 10 million, but who's counting?]
And also, with the networks losing audience and everybody fighting for every last viewer, it's not a conducive environment to that kind of writing. You're trying to get the biggest laughs you can for the widest possible audience. It's really tough. It's virtually impossible now.
You've talked about liking Mad Men and Girls and Breaking Bad. All of those shows — perhaps Breaking Bad to a lesser extent — thrive on narcissistic characters. Seinfeld was criticized for this as well. But is narcissism an essential trait in making an interesting character?
It's interesting because I think narcissism really helps in creating funny characters, but clearly Breaking Bad is not funny. I think by nature, the character that is funny is always going to be narcissistic because, on a show you're establishing this character and you're giving them these strong character traits. Then, week after week you have to keep harping on that trait. In a way, they become a little narcissistic by [default].
But I don't know if the character has to be as deliberately narcissistic as on Seinfeld. As for Girls, I haven't gotten that deeply into analyzing into it. But I just like her dialogue. All of her references are all over the place, but really fascinating. There's part of me that likes her more just because she seems to be getting criticized so much.
Do you mean Lena Dunham or do you mean the character?
Just like with Seinfeld, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Well, with Seinfeld, as the show went on, TV Jerry and real Jerry got closer and closer.
The popular Twitter Modern Seinfeld shares possible Seinfeld plots of the show were on today. But you say in your book that you still think about plots for the show. Have you ever considered Tweeting those?
No. No. No. No. That's all I need is a Twitterverse thing … “Oh my God. This old Seinfeld writer's ideas stink.”
So you're going to let the other guy have all the glory?
I've had my share.
You also have an essay in your book about losing an Emmy to Ellen DeGeneres for “The Puppy Episode,” when she comes out of the closet. Are you still upset about the loss?
I'm not still upset about it, but sometimes I go back to think about how that year I was up for two Emmys; one for writing the “Yada Yada” episode and one for just best comedy. And you know, Ellen won for coming out of the closet and then Fraiser won for best show and that's a show where no one came out of the closet.
Do you think you'll ever go back to doing TV writing full time?
It's possible and I even wrote a pilot. But the kind of pilot I want to write now, somebody would have to take a huge chance. I'm not going to write what they want. I'm going to write what I want. And if they happen to not like it, what can I do?
What do you mean, what they want?
Every year, every network comes out with kind of a white paper with what kinds of shows they're looking for. And I'm just never going to fit into that. I recently wrote a pilot about a black couple who wants to adopt a white baby. They insist that it has to be a white baby. You hear about it the other way around all the time. And I just imagined a black couple wanting to adopt and being told, “Oh you're such perfect candidates and there are so many black people in need.” I can just imagine them getting resentful and them going like, “Why do you only offer us black kids? … Everyone else gets 31 flavors and we only get chocolate.” That's not the kind of show they're going to jump for … even with a black president, it feels like race is still the third rail.
Would you watch Mehlman's show? Sound off in the comments.