Today, Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest Peter Mehlman author of Mandela Was Late.

Peter began his writing career with the Washington Post as a sportswriter and moved into television writing, when from 1982 to 1984, he wrote for and produced for the television series SportsBeat with Howard Cosell. For the next five years he returned to freelance magazine writing in New York for such publications as the New York Times Magazine, Go and Esquire.

In 1989 Peter moved to Los Angeles when he was offered the opportunity to write a script for Seinfeld by Larry David. As Peter recounts, he had never written a script to that point and he barely had written any dialogue in his life. Instead, he submitted a short humorous piece that he had written for the New York Times Magazine. Jerry Seinfeld was so impressed by the piece that he gave Peter a writing assignment out of which came the series' first freelance episode, “The Apartment.” Subsequently, he was hired for the first full season of Seinfeld as a program consultant and over the next six years he worked his way up to the co-executive producer in the show's last season after Larry David departed.

Peter is a multiple Primetime Emmy Award nominee and has coined such Seinfeld-isms as sponge worthy, double-dipping and is responsible for adding Yada Yada to the Oxford dictionary.

Post Seinfeld, Peter directed and produced his own TV show and independent films, including BLANK, starring Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Arianna Huffington, and Malcolm Gladwell, and the Webby Award nominated web series The Narrow World of Sports (featuring interviews with Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and Blake Griffin), not to speak of many hilarious and poignant NPR commentaries, op-eds and personal essays in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Huffington Post, and Esquire.

Good day Peter and thanks for participating in our interview.

Norm:

How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going and what attracted you to writing comedy?

Peter:

At the university of Maryland, the diamondback was the number one student newspaper in the country and, in the wake of Watergate, journalism was a very cool field. I started writing for the paper and just loved it.

Most of my stories were straight journalism but on occasion, I’d get into features and editorials and felt this urge to put some funny stuff in there. That said, I was never really attracted to comedy writing… it just happened when I fell into. Before writing a script, I got to see cassettes of the four episodes Larry and Jerry had produced to that point and they were so good I actually felt nervous because suddenly I was overcome with the desire to succeed on that show.

Now that I’m (possibly) done with sit-coms, writing well put together, full sentences in essays and articles drives me. After all those years with network executives, it’s nice just having the freedom to write whatever pops in my head.

Norm:

What was it like to work with Jerry Seinfeld and the three other members of the group George, Elaine and Kramer?

Peter:

It was a pleasure ALL the time.. When I was new to all of this, the most amazing thing was the disparity between the way I heard my writing and how the actors ultimately delivered it. They always took your words and delivered them in a way that made them better.

Jason almost effortlessly delivered lines in the most perfect way. Jerry, as a comedian, tinkered to find the funniest delivery possible. Michael Richards was amazing at taking tiny lines and making them epic while Julia Louis-Dreyfus was so creative you never knew what she’d come up. She was definitely the actor who surprised you the most with her interpretations of dialogue.

The Seinfeld set was very loose. At any time during rehearsals, I could stroll over to the stage and hang around with the cast. Unlike most shows, it was all really casual. If you had thoughts on a scene you didn’t have to go through the director in order to get your ideas to the actors. In a way, it was a big advantage that Larry and Jerry never ran a show before. They didn’t know all the dopey rules and manners from the sit-com “rule book.”

Another thing about Jerry… he was all about being funny so if you made a suggestion he liked, he was incredibly generous with his laughs. And making him laugh was always gratifying.

Norm:

The Hamptons is one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes. How did you come up with the plot and particularly the shrinkage scene? As a follow up, how did you get your ideas for the Seinfeld episodes and did you work together with a team in writing these episodes?

Peter:

There was never any consistent way of coming up with Seinfeld plotlines… which was both exasperating and scary. My ideas usually just came out of living my life and keeping my eyes and ears open for business at all times. There were writing teams on the staff but for the most part you were on your own, having to come up with story lines and then writing all by yourself. That was another major difference between Seinfeld and all other shows where the whole writing staff would be together in a room until all hours of the night.

The Hamptons” arose from a memory I had of being in a Long Island summer share house in the 80s. A friend’s girlfriend suddenly went topless on the sundeck and I thought about how my friend had put out so much effort to access this girl’s breasts and here I was, getting to see them for free. In 1993, I thought it would be funnier if George’s girlfriend went topless in front of the others before George did. That gave rise to the dueling nudity and, with the help of the ugly baby plot line, I could make the episode into a kind of French farce/bedroom comedy.

The concept of shrinkage was highly collaborative. Larry had the idea of Jerry’s girlfriend walking in on George and seeing him naked just after he’d gotten out of the pool. I paused and said, “Oh… you mean George had shrinkage?” And Larry said, “Yes. Shrinkage. And use that word. Use it a lot.”

Norm:

What motivated you to write Mandela Was Late and can you tell our readers a little about the book? As a follow up, what would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read the book?

Peter:

Mandela Was Late is collection of essays and articles I’ve written over the years, so it wasn’t originally intended to be a book. My publisher, Mike Sager (The Sager Group) suggested it as a book because he saw a great variety in the pieces.

There are several stories about – or touching on – my years of joy and struggle in the TV comedy business. I’d always kept my hand in writing full sentences as opposed to just scripts and in my articles about Seinfeld and the shows I created after, I realized they were much more honest and frank than anything I’d read about the TV business before. So those articles have a lot of appeal to a lot of readers who aspire to a career in comedy writing. One of the essays, “Star Trekking,” has been of special interest to aspiring comedy writers because it was the article that convinced Jerry and Larry to give me a shot at writing on Seinfeld.

It’s also notable that, while there are a ton of great drama shows on TV now, there are painfully few good comedies. Seinfeld is really the touchstone for the last great time of TV comedy and it’s been pretty shocking to see how much reaction there has been to my Seinfeld-related writings.

Then there are pieces that have nothing to do with Seinfeld and yet, you can read them and see how much my thinking was influenced by the show. For example: On the radio, I heard a piece about the 27 years Nelson Mandela spent in that small prison in South Africa. It was such a sad yet heroic story… but somehow my head jumped to thinking how funny it would be if, upon his release, Mandela still had to see a parole officer.

That process was similar to “The Sponge” episode of Seinfeld in which again, I heard a radio report about the “Today Sponge” going out of business and immediately thought how funny it would be if Elaine was a sponge user and bought out the entire remaining stock on West Side of Manhattan. If she got a certain amount of them, it would change her entire screening system for sleeping with guys.

There are also a lot of pieces in the book that deal with subjects I shouldn’t be dealing with. This was purposeful because I don’t believe in the axiom “Write What You Know.” I think you should write what you don’t know so you’re forced to be creative and empathetic. For example, one piece is called “Raising Moderately Healthy Jerks.” I don’t have children but I didn’t see why it should stop me from writing about parenting.

Norm:

Would you describe yourself as a character writer or a plot writer?

The short answer is “No.” It all depends on what I’m working on. I did write my first novel and was a little surprised by how deeply I got into the main character. But that was all new so I can’t say for sure if it’s the direction I’m headed. So far, the unpredictably of it all has been a pleasant surprise. Of course, ideally, I’d like to be both a character and plot writer.

Norm:

What helps you focus when you write?

Peter:

Peace and time. Just being free to quietly let my mind wander is the most important thing. If I’m beset by worries and the world seems suddenly way too loud, it gets harder to sit down at the computer.

Then again, I wrote one piece in the book, “Comedy is Easy. Anxiety is Hard,” while in the throes of a series of nasty panic attacks. That’s what the story was about… a sudden onset of panic attacks. It was all totally alien to me and really scary. But the fact that I sat down and wrote about it, finished the piece and had it published in Esquire, kind of reassured me that I wasn’t totally losing my shit.

Norm:

Do you find it easy reading back your own work?

Peter:

Ahhh, no. I think I can go back to anything I’ve written and spend the rest of my life re-writing it. Plus, I like just moving on to the next project, the next idea, so doubling back and rereading my stuff is a chore. When I have to do it, there are nice moments when I’m pleasantly surprised by some sentence or paragraph but it’s not that gratifying because it’s the past and it’s over. Don’t get me wrong, I’m lazy enough to think that resting on your laurels is way underrated. But something compels me to keep turning out the next thing.

Norm:

What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?

Peter:

If your desire to write is that strong, you can be a good writer. That urge to express yourself and compulsion to write is a giant indicator. There are a zillion Hollywood writers who are just tied up in the glamor of show business. They like saying, “I write movies for a living” but they lack any real creative drive. In the piece called, “Notes From The Sit-Com’s Deathbed,” I get deeply into this.

The most important step toward becoming a good writer lies in wanting it for the right reasons. Writing is not something you can do on a superficial basis. But if your motives are pure, you have to ditch the useless fears Norm mentioned in his question and just write. It’s like anything else in life you want: the big regrets will come from not taking the leap.

Norm:

Where can our readers find out more about you and Mandela Was Late?

Peter:

Of course, anyone can just Google me back into the Stone Age and find out whatever they need to know. I also have a WEBSITE --I have no clue as to how to work it. 

Mandela Was Late is available on Amazon in both ebook and paperback. For anything else you need, you can just stop by my house.

My address is – Oh wait. Don’t stop by. I’m busy. Really. Probably not even home. So skip that.

Norm:

What is next for Peter Mehlman?

Peter:

I’m going to Starbucks. That’s definite. Other than that, I don’t know what I’m even doing for lunch. Like I said, I also wrote a novel and God knows when it will come out but you’ll be the first to know, Norm.

Norm:

As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer

Peter:

It would have been nice if you asked, “Peter, how do you explain your ability to keep playing basketball at such a high level now that you’re well into your 50s?

Peter:

Well, Norm, I really can’t explain it but I just have so much game, I don’t know what to do with it all.

Norm:

Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors


Follow Here To Purchase Mandela Was Late: Odd Things & Essays From the Seinfeld Writer Who Coined Yada, Yada and Made Spongeworthy a Compliment

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