Ex-'Seinfeld' Writer on 'Curb,' His Book and Why 'Girls' Is the Only Comedy He Can Stand
You may not know Peter Mehlman by name, but you likely know his work. During his tenure making the mundane seem hilarious as a writer on Seinfeld, he introduced “spongeworthy” and “yada, yada” into the pop culture lexicon.
But despite writing for one of the most successful comedy series of all time, he says he never thought of himself as a TV writer per se. Mehlman, who worked as a freelance journalist before moving to Los Angeles and starting on Seinfeld, tells The Hollywood Reporter he doesn’t even particularly care for TV comedies.
"None of them really speak to me," Mehlman says. "I’ll watch Girls just because some of the dialogue is really witty and good. All the other stuff that everybody talks about, I don’t really care. But I think she [Lena Dunham] writes really good dialogue."
Mehlman is returning to his non-TV writing roots with a recently released book of essays, Mandela Was Late. He’ll be giving a reading April 4 at Book Soup in Hollywood. In an interview with THR, Mehlman also praised the parody Twitter account @SeinfeldToday, which tweets plots imagining the show were still going on.
"It’s unbelievable. The ideas for stories they come up with are so much better than the ones we used to get [sent in the mail]."
Below find THR’s conversation with Mehlman, in which he reveals how he feels about his Seinfeld legacy and discusses the 2009 Curb Your Enthusiasm quasi-reunion.
The Hollywood Reporter: How is writing a book different than writing for TV?
Peter Mehlman: It’s really nice not having a thousand people passing judgment on everything you write. I consider that TV was kind of a detour in my career -- that this is what I really do.
THR: You started out doing stuff like this and now you're back to it after your TV "detour."
PM: I looked at it as writing dialogue versus writing full sentences. That whole thing of being really funny [for TV] -- it’s exhausting after a while.
THR: So you don’t have that pressure of having to be funny with every line.
THR: A lot of this book is informed by living in L.A. Could this have been written had you been living somewhere else?
PM: It would have been a lot different. Living in L.A. really helped because it’s such a different place that it kind of makes you more observant. You’re really living a different kind of life out here. I imagine I still would have had a book if I’d stayed in New York. It probably would’ve come a lot sooner because I wouldn’t have been sidetracked by Seinfeld and all that. The book would have obviously been a lot different.
THR: After years of long hours writing for TV, do you get the chance to relax more with this type of writing?
PM: Oh god. I’m so relaxed, it’s disgusting. I’m in a very fortunate position where I don’t really have to worry about money that much. I could write what I want. If I had never moved out here and I was continuing in New York, basically freelancing, I’d still be hustling.
THR: There have been a few continuations of Seinfeld. One was the Curb Your Enthusiasm reunion that happened a few years ago. What did you think about where the characters were in their lives?
PM: I liked it. I thought it was where they should be. Still not really advanced much. Circumstances changed, but they didn’t. It seemed like the logical place where they’d be.
THR: There’s also a Twitter account that unofficially continues the story. Have you seen that?
PM: It’s unbelievable. The ideas for stories they come up with are so much better than the ones we used to get. We used to get scripts in the mail, like 20 a day. You’d read two pages of it and see that there was no way this was usable. We never used any of them. Never. I see ideas on [@SeinfeldToday] and some of them are really good.
THR: How do you feel about having coined "yada, yada" and "spongeworthy" -- things everyone seems to know?
PM: I keep thinking I’m supposed to feel much better about that than I do. I mean, I feel good about it. I’m glad I did it and it’s nice that it caught on, but I don’t really feel anything on any kind of gut level, like, "Oh my god, people are saying 'yada, yada' because I wrote it."
THR: Are you watching any TV these days?
PM: Not comedy shows. But I’m looking forward to Mad Men coming back. I love that. And Breaking Bad. And now this new show Top of the Lake looks pretty interesting. But I don’t really watch any comedies, to tell you the truth.
THR: Do you have a sense of why that is?
PM: I think it’s just personal taste. None of them really speak to me in any way. I’ll watch Girls just because some of the dialogue is really witty and good. All the other stuff that everybody talks about, I don’t really care. But I think she [Lena Dunham] writes really good dialogue.
THR: What about other comedies?
PM: Wittiness is not part of TV. Making any kind of real observations on the world is just completely done.
THR: Back when Seinfeld was on, did you feel that way about other shows? Or is this a shift since those days?
PM: I felt that way before Seinfeld and during. I was lucky to be in a place where you could make a small observation on life and it would have a great reaction. I was never really into TV before Seinfeld. Before Seinfeld for a while I was watching this show The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. It was really a different kind of show. Most of the writers were like playwrights. It was really, really good.
THR: What was the process like from when you moved to L.A. to getting Seinfeld?
PM: I was out here about a year when I worked on the show Wings for six weeks. But I completely screwed up the characters and I didn’t get it. I didn’t know what I was doing, and, thank God, they let me go. Two months later, I bumped into Larry David, whom I had met in New York once or twice, and he told me, "I’m doing this little show with Jerry Seinfeld and maybe you can write a script." I don’t think he knew I really didn’t write scripts.
Mehlman’s Mandela Was Late is on sale now.