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For "Seinfeld" Writer, a Novel Life

By Lauren Brown


As a writer on “Seinfeld,”Peter Mehlman ’77 came up with “yada, yada,” “spongeworthy," “shrinkage” and “double-dipping.” They’re all part of the lexicon now, tied to the everyday absurdities and annoyances that the sitcom milked for laughs for nine seasons.

But on the subject of his four years at Maryland, Mehlman sheds the comic persona. He’s positively mushy.

“There’s a Paul Simon song with the line, “These are the days of miracle and wonder,” and that was what it was like for me at the University of Maryland,” says Mehlman, author of the new novel “It Won’t Always Be This Great.” “From the first morning—I was there alone and I went to breakfast and I had hash browns for the first time—it never stopped being eye-opening and wonderful.”

A long-ago transplant to the Los Angeles area, he returned to campus yesterday to read from the novel and remind students, faculty and staff that writing funny can be serious-ish business.

"I have a piece of advice: Always write for love, not for money, but try to get paid for it," he says.

A native of Queens, Mehlman came to the university in the afterglow of Watergate, when journalism was the height of cool. He learned about the value of “clear, concise, full sentences” and typed his Diamondback stories on the back of wire copy.

He says he weaseled his way into his first job, as a copy aide at The Washington Post. Knowing that women were underrepresented in the newsroom, he signed his cover letter with a female friend’s name. When "she" was offered the job, he confessed, and the editors, impressed by his writing (and chutzpah), brought him in anyway.

After moving up to sportswriter, he wrote for Howard Cosell’s TV show “SportsBeat” (1982–84), then essays for Esquire,GQ and The Village Voice and women’s magazines such as Glamour and Mademoiselle: Topics included the “We Just Broke Up Last Night Diet,” dating a vegetarian and how a man’s wardrobe changes when he gets a girlfriend.

“The idea of men writing about relationships was something they didn’t have,” he says. “It forced me to date more.”


“I really love you but I have no more stories to write.”

He later bumped into an acquaintance, Larry David ’69, who said he’d just started a TV comedy show about a standup comedian, and suggested Mehlman submit a script. Mehlman didn’t know anything about scriptwriting, so he sent in a funny essay that had appeared in The New York Times. Jerry Seinfeld immediately hired him as a freelancer, and Mehlman moved up to a full writer, then producer and executive producer.

He penned such famous episodes as “The Implant,” about the crew trying to determine if Teri Hatcher’s breasts were real, and “The Sponge,” about Elaine deciding whether love interests were worth her short-supplied birth control.

“I say the best thing about “Seinfeld” is that is was like being back in college, but the work was harder,” he says. “A studio lot is like being on a campus: You’re hanging out with friends and having lots of laughs. And instead of freshmen girls coming in every year, it was actresses every week."

When the show ended, he created a sitcom on his own. “It’s Like, You Know,” which co-starred Jennifer Grey. It was lauded as smart but canceled after 26 episodes.

He wrote in a withering essay in Entertainment Weekly in 2003, “I mentioned I wouldn't do another show for ABC if the future of Israel depended on it, and things got a little messy for me for a while, but everyone cooled down and I realized I should've been shocked the show lasted as long as it did. It got great reviews — a bad thing.”

The networks rejected his next pitch, about the relationship between a teen convinced she was Freud in a previous life and her town’s only adolescent psychologist, because, he wrote, “they did not feel their audience would know who Freud was.”

Mehlman worked on other TV shows and continued writing humor pieces; a half-dozen or so were collected in last year’s book, “Mandela Was Late.”

“It Won’t Always Be This Great,” his first foray into full-sentence fiction, has prominent UMD connections. A Jewish podiatrist sits at the bedside of his former Maryland roommate (who is now in a coma) and unravels the tale of what happened after he, uncharacteristically, threw a jar of kosher horseradish through the window of a store in his Long Island community.

The never-identified narrator pauses to examine his comfy life in suburbia, including his marriage to the college sweetheart he still adores, his relationship with his kids, the job that he doesn’t work too hard at, and the religion he doesn’t take very seriously.

Mehlman, who is neither married nor a father, says the story is rooted in his imagination and has only “tiny wisps” of the truth. He never took the “gut class” in psychology his narrator makes fun of (Confession: “I took one psych class that was really hard"), and he made up the references to scalping ACC tickets, meeting a “six-pack of girls from D Phi E” and never reading poetry at Maryland.

The novel was released Sept. 15; Publisher’s Weekly called it both “laugh-out-loud funny” and “deeply moving,” while Booklist praised it as “very entertaining.”

Mehlman is now tearing across the country for his book tour, stopping at Maryland between events in Baltimore and D.C.

Next? He’ll refocus on essays and op/eds, and he recently decided to try standup. Mehlman had worried that because he’s not high-energy, loud or hypersexual, he was too out-of-step to appeal to live audiences. He did a few gigs in July and August and enjoyed them. But he’s not likely to step on a stage outside Santa Monica, where he lives.

“I don’t want to put too much into it,” he says dryly, “so maybe I could go straight to the HBO special.”

Hear Mehlman for yourself at 6:30 p.m. tonight at Kramer Books & Afterwords Café in D.C.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.