Seinfeld Writer, Santa Monica Resident Peter Mehlman Talks About His Debut Novel
By Guest Writer: Elan Barnehama
I sat down with Peter Mehlman, former writer and executive producer of the Seinfeld show, at a Santa Monica coffee shop to talk about writing, being funny, and his debut novel, It Won’t Always Be This Great (September 2014, Bancroft Press). Mehlman, who fed the Seinfeld cast such lines as “Yada Yada” “spongeworthy,” “shrinkage,” and “double-dipping,” said he was “still feeling a good endorphin rush” from his long running regular basketball game at the Santa Monica YWCA the night before. Mehlman began his career as a sportswriter for the Washington Post, and has produced a series of humorous interviews with athletes such as Kobe Bryant, Danica Patrick and others.
Set in the crushing complacency of suburbia, It Won’t Always Be This Great is narrated by an unnamed Long Island podiatrist who commits an accidental act of vandalism that shakes him, albeit temporarily, out of his sleepwalking existence. Overflowing with humorous, strange, and insightful social observations, the novel is told with Mehlman’s particular sensibility.
The novel’s unnamed podiatrist reveals the details and secrets of his story to a friend in a coma. This lands the narrator a wonderful middle ground between telling and not telling. On a few choice occasions, the narrator withholds information he deems too personal, despite his friend’s comatose state. “It’s a slight cheat on my part,” Mehlman said, “because it allows the narrator to be conversational.” At the same time, it creates an intimate bond between reader and narrator.
In a refreshing twist, the novel’s narrator still loves and respects his wife, Alyse. Even after 24 years, he’s still trying to impress her. “You never hear a story about a marriage that works,” Mehlman said, “that a guy is happy to be in.” And Alyse has a cool edge to her. She’s more perceptive, maybe smarter than her husband, but less grounded. Meaning she’s a fully developed character, not some trophy wife. “It’s so easy to have them at war with each other, to have that quiet hatred,” he added. “But who’s going to do that better than Updike, anyway?”
While the narrator sleepwalks through much of his life, he is fully engaged in his relationship with Alyse, and you can’t help but like him for that.
I wondered why Mehlman would turn to writing a novel, given all his success with TV writing. “I just like the actual work,” he said. “You want the actual work to be something you love because the second you send it out it’s devalued by like 50 percent. I t’s like driving a new car of the lot, it looses its value immediately.”
On the challenges and strategies of writing funny, Mehlman said, “I think it helps to have a certain awareness of wanting to be funny. One great things about Seinfeld was that I became very aware of the seemingly meaningless little thoughts that float through my head. And they’re funny. And they end up being universal.” He went on the say that the word joke hardly ever came up at Seinfeld and that funny was organic to the show.
“There are very few totally original thoughts,” Mehlman continued. “If your New Year’s resolution was to have one original thought, it would be difficult. Most thoughts have been thought before. It’s just a matter of who can capture them and put them into words. It’s a race.”
Near the end of It Won’t Always Be This Great, the narrator and his family are taking a drive through their neighborhood and there’s a sense that inside the car everything is good, and that the family is, for a moment, a united front against the craziness. It’s clear that this is temporary and that they will all soon leave the safety of the car and rejoin the world of crazies. But for a moment things are actually that great.
Mehlman approaches writing with diligence. “I don’t think you can spend enough time deciding on the exact wording of your sentences,” he said. “Sentence structure is everything.”
He went on to talk about using grammar and using as few words as possible, and how throwing in an extra word can ruin a line. “If I have a sentence that I think is going to be funny, and its starts off in nine words, I start thinking, isn’t there any way I can cut it by a third, just to get the line out faster.”
“I have very little advice about writing, but one of the few I have is that you have to put out a tremendous amount of effort to make it look effortless. That’s the most important thing to me. It has to look like you didn’t put much effort into a joke because if it shows effort it’s a problem. If it shows too much effort it’s failed.”
By that measure, It Won’t Always Be This Great doesn’t seem to have taken any effort at all.
See all of Peter Mehlman’s work at http://pmehlman.com.
Elan Barnehama is the author of FINDING BLUEFIELD, a novel.