By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 3, 2017) — Before landing the job of a lifetime as a writer and producer (eventually executive producer) for “Seinfeld,” Peter Mehlman bounced around several jobs where his journalism skills paid the bills.
He worked as a sportswriter for The Washington Post after graduating from the University of Maryland. He wrote and produced for Howard Cosell’s “SportsBeat” TV program from 1982-84. He penned articles for Esquire and GQ and The New York Times magazine, among other publications.
Mehlman’s move to Los Angeles in 1989 paved the way for his eventual role as a key contributor to the remarkable success of Seinfeld, which aired from 1989-98. (Indeed, fellow New Yorkers Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, the show’s co-creators came to recognize that the witty Mehlman could and would make valuable contributions to the show.)
In recent years, the New York native, now in his early 60s, created an online interview show called “Peter Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports,” filling the roles of host, writer and producer. Mehlman is also a longtime Huffington Post contributor. A recent blog item: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-mehlman/250-million-undateable-people_b_9862748.html
In a recent interview, Mehlman explained what it was like working on the set of Seinfeld and why the job was such a joyful experience, described the “pure alchemy” between Seinfeld, David and the show’s other writers, revealed why he’s a big fan of Steven Wright’s contributions to comedy (plus Richard Pryor, Howard Stern and Johnny Carson, and others) and what it was like becoming a stand-up comic for the first time at age 58.
When you were 10 years old, what did you consider your dream job? How about when starting your senior year of high school?
Heart surgeon. I was a very eager-to-please 10-year-old. By senior year of high school, I thought the best possible job in the world was being Walt Frazier, the oppressively cool guard for the New York Knicks.
Who’s the funniest athlete you’ve interviewed and then written about?
I can’t think of anyone funny whom I’ve also written about. Writing profiles about athletes was never my thing. But Blake Griffin of the LA Clippers is the funniest athlete ever. The interview with him was incredible.
He’s practically a comic genius … and he’s very serious about comedy.
What’s your favorite episode of Seinfeld? Your favorite scene (perhaps from a different episode)?
I always like “The Deal*” in which Jerry and Elaine try to figure out how they can have sex and maintain their friendship. The first scene of that episode is the best comedy dialogue I’ve ever seen on TV. Larry David at the height of his powers.
Do you read a lot of serious essays and novels, contrasting with the image of a quintessential funny man?
I read nothing but serious essays and novels. Novels by John Updike and essays by Joan Didion have made for some of the most blissful moments in my life.
How would you describe the creative synergy between you and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David during Seinfeld’s heyday? Was there, in your view, a famous argument that took place over a certain episode or minute detail of a scene?
I can’t recall a single serious argument about the show’s content. There were disagreements and discussions but it never got heated, no one was ever offended. Seinfeld was, in addition to everything else, a very joyous place to work. The synergy between me (and every other writer) and Larry and Jerry was pure alchemy. We never focused on that kind of thing but each had his own sensibility. Larry was darker than Jerry and, on occasion, I was called in to give my opinion on their differences. I tended toward Larry’s point of view because (a) his viewpoint had already taken us to the mountain top and (b) when the show went to dangerous places, it gave me a bit of a thrill.
What was a typical TV production meeting like on the set of Seinfeld in the mid-1990s? Were Jerry and Larry both control freaks? Did one of them usually have greater control over the script and joke revisions at the 11th hour?
Larry had control over everything. Seinfeld was very different than all other sitcoms. There was no writers’ room and we didn’t have a lot of meetings and the ones we had were pretty quick. The word “joke” barely came up because we didn’t write jokes, we wrote funny dialogue. If you were stuck for a joke, you were in trouble… it meant that the scene was not organically funny. All the typical late nights and groping around for jokes in a room full of junk food-infested writers you hear about from other sitcoms, didn’t happen on Seinfeld. And by the way, if Larry liked a funny line that didn’t get laughs from the crew the whole week, he was undeterred. His confidence in what he believed to be funny was absolutely fireproof.
As a writer, you cemented your place in TV history from now till the end of time with expressions like “yada, yada, yada,” “shrinkage” and “double dip,” with those and other phrases entering the American pop cultural icon. That said, how influential do you think comedians are in shaping the way language is asked? (I ask this question while reflecting on George Carlin in the 1970s, for instance.)
Comedians have their place in the history of language but not an oversized place. If anything, comedians’ impact on the culture is slightly overrated. Personally, I think Steven Wright is the guy who’s put more absolutely brilliant lines out there than any other comic yet very few people would mention him if asked the same question. As someone who started out in journalism, I don’t feel the same level of reverence for comedians than most comedy writers, so I’m kind of freed up to say that George Carlin never made much of an impression on me. His “Seven words…” bit is all I remember and to me, it’s a big “So What?”
Comics like Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman or Garry Shandling have had a much bigger impact on me. Woody Allen has contributed more brilliant lines than anyone but that’s more in the context of writing than from being a comedian. All that said, putting the term “double dip” out there is nice — but a thousand times less impactful than, say, “Can’t we all just get along?” by Rodney King or “Better angels” by Abraham Lincoln or “Follow the money” by William Goldman in “All The President’s Men.”
What’s your reaction to this statement: Seinfeld’s online show “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” is one of the five best things on the Internet in the 2010s?
My reaction is … I have no idea what the other four are because I don’t watch much internet content. Jerry’s show is interesting to me in how you get to see comics being funny, or trying to be funny, without their material. Sometimes it’s fantastic and reassuring, other times it’s disillusioning and cringeworthy. I see the show as less comedy and more suspense … “Who is really funny?”
Do you devote X number of hours per day to writing? If so, how many? Where do you like to write? Do you prefer to do so at home, in a public setting? On a laptop or tablet? On a notepad?
At home, on a desktop with no particular hours of operation.
How far and wide have you traveled doing stand-up comedy? Were was your first show? Your biggest show? Your most-recent show?
In order to perform stand-up comedy, I have traveled all the way to Burbank. It might be nice to try it out of town but let’s face it, when you do stand-up for the first time at the age of 58, you’re doing it for the fun/challenge, not as a career. My first time was the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. My biggest show was following Dane Cook on a Saturday night at The Improv in Hollywood. It was fantastic.
What’s your earliest recollection of finding something funny? What was it?
My parents got tickets to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts which were later on TV and sponsored by Bell Telephone. After a long symphony, Lenny (as we called him) said, “We’re going to take a break now for a long distance call.” Somehow I got the joke. It was thrilling because it came from an adult. A super famous, genius adult.
Do you consider yourself naturally funny? Do you think that humor is best expressed with the written word?
I never really thought about being naturally funny but being funny was always important to me. Humor in the written word is completely different. It’s all about grammar and usage, as opposed to voice delivery and facial expression. Written word humor is hard and, ultimately, the most intelligent form.
Who was the funniest person you knew before your 10th birthday? What made him or her so funny? Same question … but between ages 10-20. Why?
Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. He just made funny sounds and faces. Of course, he was already dead by the time I saw him…
Between 10-20 — a wildly changing time span — I started out loving Don Adams on “Get Smart.” It was and is one of my favorite shows ever. The repetition was especially funny; you knew certain lines were coming and that made the show even funnier. I guess I was loving Mel Brooks but I didn’t really read the credits. Between 16-20 it was all Woody Allen and then Richard Pryor. I listened to their albums and knew every line. They were funny in radically different ways. Woody was so creative, his movies and stand-up were wild and unpredictable. I stole lines and tried to use them on girls. Pryor was a whole different planet for me. I went to a high school that was almost half black but wasn’t exposed to the deepest thoughts of black people. Pryor was so funny and powerful and eloquent and profane simultaneously. It was mind-blowing.
For you, who was the first comedian you considered a role model or hero?
Woody Allen, the reasons above. He not only made great, funny, deep movies but he did amazing stand-up AND wrote for The New Yorker. “Getting Even” and “Without Feathers” were monster examples of great writing and humor. And I used to chat with Woody at Knick games at Madison Square Garden when I was around 13. So I felt like I knew him.
If there were an all-time starting nine of superstar comedians to steal a baseball term, who’d crack the starting lineup? Who’d be your No. 1 pick?
Pryor, Woody, Steven Wright, Sarah Silverman, Garry Shandling, Gilbert Gottfried, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles and just to give a nod to the present, Jarrod Carmichael. Picking a number one between those first six is too tough.
What’s the best joke you heard or read in the 20th century?
I don’t really know. I’m not a joke guy.
What’s the best joke of the 21st century?
What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said?
No idea. I’m so not into picking superlatives out of my own life.
What’s the funniest line you’ve ever written?
What was the most impressive aspect of David Letterman’s long run on late-night TV?
That he seemed so cheerful every night as opposed to what he was like in reality.
Who do you consider the most underrated comedian of all time? Why?
Gilbert Gottfried. His delivery overwhelms his content for a lot of people but his material is amazing. In a way, Sarah Silverman is similar: the genius and courageousness of her material is, for some people, lost in what’s misperceived as raunchiness.
What’s the funniest movie you’ve ever seen?
Based on their creative synergy and gift for delivering “a show about nothing” each week, is it an apt description to label Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David the Lennon and McCartney of TV sitcoms?
More like the Lennon and McCartney of Seinfeld. The show was beyond the genre of sitcom.
Looking back on the remarkable success and popularity of “Seinfeld” and the cultural footprints it left and contributions to the English language as well with memorable phrases, how satisfying is it personally that you were a key part of the show’s writing and production?
It’s satisfying and pleasing and I’m grateful it happened. But I’m just grateful for my other jobs. Being published in The Washington Post and New York Times was equally wonderful… I just didn’t get paid as much. In a way, the lasting catchphrases is the best part of it all… you don’t often get to have an impact on the cultural landscape of this huge, unwieldy nation.
Has that satisfaction increased over the years?
No. I was aware of it when it was happening and I’m still aware of it.
Just suppose the show was relaunched in 2017 with the four main characters. Is there a story line for the first show that you have in mind?
It would be fun if Kramer met Maya Lin and convinced her to re-design his bathroom.
Who are some influential individuals — let’s say 5-6 people — who have shaped the way you write and inject humor into your writings? (Please elaborate on each one’s role as an influential figure for you.)
John Updike, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Ian McEwan, Fran Liebowitz, Woody Allen… all of them for the same reasons: they use the English language perfectly at their funniest moments. They weave humor in their writing with a seamlessness that’s always surprising and therefore doubly impactful.
How did working at The Washington Post under both George Solomon and legendary executive editor Ben Bradlee help guide you on the path to success as a writer? As prominent journalism professionals, what impression did each of them make?
They infused young writers with the two most important traits: commitment to truth and fearlessness.
And how did writing for Howard Cosell’s “SportsBeat” TV program further establish your career? What was the most important thing you’d say you accomplished during those 2 1/2 years you worked with Cosell?
He forced you to question everything and develop a highly functioning bullshit detector. Growing up a sports fan, I had to unlearn every belief I had about teams, athletes, executives, agents, everything. Sports is a massively corrupt world and it’s important to keep people from mindlessly watching games without seeing the hypocrisy staring us in the face.
On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your ability to do Cosell impersonations?
8.5. Not as good as a few other people on the SportsBeat staff, better than Billy Crystal.
Finish this sentence to give it a comic tone: Donald Trump and George Costanza walk into a bar and …
Nothing happens. Most of what we learned to anticipate never happens.
What immediately comes to mind — a handful of adjectives and/or phrases — for each of the following?
Peter Sellers – Unhinged, brilliant and incredibly poignant in “Being There.”
Richard Pryor – Tortured genius, beyond powerful… I can quote entire albums of his stuff. Meeting him was a religious experience.
Denis Leary – Aggressive, smart. I’ve gotten to know him and really like him. It’s kind of funny that he’s a real urban Boston guy and yet, through his truck commercial voice-overs, he’s become one of the big voices of Redneck America.
George Burns – Understated, kind. Major longevity.
Chris Rock – Insanely self-confident, prowling, prolific — great taste in heroes (Woody Allen)
Johnny Carson – mysterious, dangerous, unpredictable, dark, secretive, better at his job than anyone ever was or will be.
Stephen Colbert – Better as his fictional character on the Colbert Report than himself on Late Night.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Greatest line-readings ever. Classy. Grounded. Unpretentious. Enunciates words to perfection… no American speaks more beautifully than JLD.
Bob Newhart – Low key. Halting. Stylistically as unique as anyone ever.
Joan Rivers – Made you laugh despite not wanting to. Jam packed with human frailty. Brave. An aura of desperation.
Howard Stern – Makes me laugh on a more consistent basis than anyone in the world. Tuning into Howard is a lifeline. Fearless. The greatest thing about him is, for all his low-brow humor and incorrigibility, you know that he’s a really good guy with his heart in the right place on everything.
Joe Pesci – Great in “My Cousin Vinny.” Otherwise, he’s exhausting. The fact that he’s an avid golfer seems weird.
Robin Williams – Mixed feelings. Epically wonderful in “Good Will Hunting” and kind of ruined “Garp” (one of my favorite novels ever.) Probably a brilliant comic but I’m not big on improvisational, unwritten stand-up.
Lenny Bruce – In this time of cancerous political correctness, he should be resurrected as a way of showing the world how you can say anything and have it be OK if it’s funny or true. Not even sure he was especially funny but it doesn’t matter, he had something important to say. Also: At 16, seeing one still photo of him on the cover of his biography (by Dick Schaap) made me think stand-up would be a cool job.
Follow Peter Mehlman on Twitter: @PeterMehlman