Peter Mehlman became a writer for the Washington Post after college. He then found his way into television in 1982 working on SportsBeat with Howard Cosell. From 1985-90 he wrote for The New York Times Magazine, GQ and Esquire. Then it was time for the left coast. While out there, he ran into Larry David, whom he’d met back in New York. David invited Mehlman to submit a sample script for his show Seinfeld. Mehlman elected to send in a humor piece he’d written for the Times Magazine instead and landed the gig as a freelance writer for the show. It would be the first Seinfeld freelance episode, The Apartment. Over the eight-year run of the show, Mehlman rose to executive producer and coined such Seinfeld-isms as Yada Yada spongeworthy, shrinkage,. and double-dipping. In 1997, Mehlman joined DreamWorks and created It’s like, you know…, a scathing look at Los Angeles. Recently, Mehlman received praise for his first novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great, which was released in 2014. The Washington Post named it “One of the top five comedic books of 2014” and the only novel to make that list. In It Won’t Always Be This Great, Mehlman shows how one man’s story is never really his story alone including his hopes, failures, dreams, and realities. And how one man’s moment of rage snowballs into an entirely new life for him and those around him.
Aaron Sorkin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Steven Soderbergh have also glorified the book. It’s available here. We here at The Laugh Button had the opportunity to catch up with Mehlman and pick his brain about writing, performing stand-up for the first time, his next novel and taking the greatest detour of his life in Seinfeld.
If I had to describe you Peter, I would say you are the type of guy who would walk into an elevator and then face everyone. Am I close?
Wow, that’s a really good depiction of somebody else. I really like that. It’s not me, but I like the imagery a lot.
I think of you as someone who wants to make things a little awkward with an observational eye to grab on to the best parts of the awkwardness. Is that a little better?
That’s pretty good. That’s definitely better.
You’ve written for just about everyone, the list would be shorter of who you haven’t written for. Who’s on that list?
The New York Post.
Have you wanted to?
No, in fact I think that’s one of my greatest achievements. Avoiding it.
Do one their pun-y headlines ever grab you and you think, “Damnit, that one’s not bad.”
Absolutely, in fact it happened very recently when Hilary Clinton had that whole scandal about her e-mail. The headline read, Delete-r of the Free World. I was like “Wow, that was brilliant!”
When you read something you like, do you get frustrated that you didn’t come up with it?
Occasionally, I very rarely feel that way. But there were a couple of episodes that Larry David came up with Seinfeld that I felt I should have come up with. For instance, there was a situation where George and Elaine felt like they weren’t really friends in law if Jerry wasn’t there. It was all awkward. That, I should have come up with. And the episode where George does the opposite of his instincts. I definitely should have come up with that one.
Do you feel like there are two time lines for you, the Seinfeld time line and then everything else you do that people need to pay attention too because it’s just as awesome?
There were times when people would say, congrats on all the success and I was like, “What? Was I a failure before this?” You can’t really care about what everyone says. You can’t let it bother you. To tell you the truth, I think that Seinfeld was really a detour in my career.
Well, that’s a pretty good detour to be a part of.
It’s the greatest detour ever.
Did you feel like when the show was completed that you had accomplished everything you could with it?
Yes. At the time I definitely felt that way. The last episode I wrote was “Yada, Yada”. And that was kind of a throwback episode because it was about a very small social quirk. Saying Yada Yada and covering all matters of sins. I felt really good that episode was really big and had a catch phrase and it was like the earlier episodes of the show. I felt really satisfied at that point. Now years later there are ideas that pop into my head that I wish I could have done, but I pretty much did it all. And I felt like I went out on the right note.
With “Deflate Gate” and the term “shrinkage” in the forefront of social consciousness, what’s it like hearing a term you came up with resurface in pop culture 15 years later?
I would say it’s mildly gratifying, and I ask your very question to myself all the time. It should feel better. People always ask how it feels to have done that. It feels ok. But the more people ask about it, I think, god I should be more euphoric over this.
But you are a writer. You did that. You move on, right?
Moving on is really a big thing. You really have to move on. You see a lot of people have this one bit of success and hanging on to it for dear life. I don’t get the point of that.
It’s interesting with things like “Throwback Thursday” and people going back and reliving there life on their current and forward time line, ultimately cutting their life in half because they are reliving what they’ve already done.
Exactly. I think there is something inherently depressing about that, don’t you?
Yes. Big time. The more you document your life the less you are going to live, especially if you go back to relive those moments that clearly won’t be as good as when you experienced them. Because your memory is now of just you documenting it instead of living it.
Yeah, and you have to wonder what the ulterior motive is when people are posting these things. Like a picture of themselves with a rockstar from 1973. What is that? That I was once great? That I was once totally happening? It’s never enough for people. They just have to keep on proving it. Facebook started making me think that the only real game in America is “My life is better than yours”. That’s the only game in town. Everyone is constantly trying to just say, My life is better than yours.
And no one is winning that game.
I don’t even think George Clooney is winning that game.
I’m guessing he’s at least in the top 10.
Yeah, he’s not quite mathematically eliminated yet, haha.