A million years from now, long after the earth’s population has evolved into a single species of translucent gelatinous cubes, there’s a good chance that someone will still answer the question “What did you do today?” with “You know… yada yada.” Thanks to Seinfeld writer Peter Mehlman (and TBS and now Hulu for making sure that we will never ever have a shortage of the show about nothing) the English language was forever altered, for the better, by some truly clever and unique phrases that Jerry Seinfeld and his hilariously awful friends delivered to us each Thursday for nine seasons. While Mehlman wasn’t responsible for all of the lines we love, he certainly came up with some gold, you sponge-worthy, anti-dentite bastards.
With Seinfeld recently making Hulu its forever home and the one-year anniversary of the release of his novel, “It Won’t Always Be This Great,” coming up, we caught up with Mehlman to discuss his post-TV life and legacy as a writer of such classic episodes as “The Smelly Car” and “The Sponge,” among many others. Oh, and there’s also the story of the Seinfeld/Friends crossover that would have been the greatest thing in the history of TV.
With your writing on Seinfeld and in your book, there’s a lot of Jewish humor but in an advanced way, so to speak. And you mention this in the book with the line “Whenever I want to say something funny to you I throw in the word Jew and I should stop doing that.” So I’m curious about your thoughts on Jewish humor and how you keep from falling into traps that a lot of people do?
That’s a really great question. Of course, that’s what you’re here for. I don’t like any kind of humor where you can just use a word and immediately it’s funny, and the easiest is when Jewish comedians or Jewish writers just say, “Blah blah blah blah blah Jew.” It feels so cheap. If I’m going to make any Jewish references, I’d like them to be as unique and original as possible. Everything else sounds so clichéd and so old; that’s the hazard you get into when you’re dealing with any Jewish humor because there’s such a long history of it.
Right, I was at a show the other night and was disappointed in these two Jewish comedians who fell into that trap, hurting their own culture. It was rough to see. It’s nice when you can see it done well.
I’m really glad that you see it that way because the last thing I want to do is hacky, trite old jokes that really are insulting in their un-originality. The worst thing is the mass generalization, you can get into, even on Seinfeld I did write that one episode, “The Yada Yada” episode is partially about a guy (“Tim Whatley,” portrayed by Bryan Cranston) who converts to Judaism and then, a day after, he starts making Jewish jokes. That seemed like an original take on things and even the Jewish joke he makes where he’s talking about how he’s using the health club and says, “Well, I was just in the sauna. It was kind of like a Jewish workout.” Even that one I was a little bit dicey, but I didn’t feel like I heard it much before so we went with it.
How was it for you when you started at Seinfeld? You had come from a journalism background. How was it transitioning? Was it easy?
It was easy in some ways and really hard in other ways. The easy part was writing dialogue. I was used to variations of my own voice because I wrote for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers. When you’re writing for Mademoiselle one day and Elle the next day and The New York Times the next day and GQ another day, you try to keep your own voice but you have to alter it to the publication, which I think is a good skill to learn. So, writing dialogue was easy. The hard transition is that when you’re in journalism you’re looking out on the world and reporting on stuff that’s actually happening. And on Seinfeld you’re creating things out of whole cloth. So, the creative aspect of it is the one that took me a while to adjust to.
And I’ve heard too that it wasn’t a traditional writer’s room. What was the process there?
The process was you basically had to come up with ideas for each of the characters and then you’d go into Larry and Jerry’s office and tell them what your ideas are and they’d say, “I like that one. I don’t like that one.” And hopefully you’d have three or four stories and you’d go off and write a script. It wasn’t a situation where you were in a room writing with a whole bunch of people. You were kind of on your own.
Jason Alexander said in a recent interview that the reason Susan was killed was because she was difficult to work with. Did you feel that way or did hearing him say that come as a surprise?
I was a little surprised to read that. I didn’t know there was a direct connection between that. I always thought it was just, basically, we were at a point where as a show we could get away with anything, so it might be interesting to have somebody get knocked off. There was one time when NBC was suggesting there be a crossover night where the characters from Seinfeld would be on Friends and vice-versa. Larry immediately said, “No way are we doing that.” And I said to Larry, “You know what would be good, though, if we just tell NBC we will do the crossover but in our show Ross would die.” I think Larry’s arm twitched towards the phone. We had a big laugh about it.
I love that idea.
That would have been so funny. Just do a radical thing with one of their characters. We could have outed them or something like that. Anything that would have completely changed their show.
And they have no choice. That’s so good.
There would have been so much more money for the other characters.
What do you think the Friends writers would do to your characters? Do you think they would have been as vengeful?
They didn’t have any of the darkness that we had. You basically had six likable characters in that show and we had four people who would screw each other over for nothing, and they’d still be friends the next day. It was a whole different philosophy because our characters ultimately became pretty unlikable. But we always thought as long as they’re funny it doesn’t matter.
With the whole ethos of it being about nothing, what does that mean to you? Did you apply that idea into stories? And when you were setting out to write your book, did that thought come to you?
The whole “show about nothing” was very misleading because the show really was about everything. It really tackled a million different issues. But the cornerstone of the show was small human foibles and things like that. That part of it I carried forward into the book. But I thought the show was actually very relevant of the time. And the fact that it’s still doing so well in syndication shows that it has an enduring relevance to people’s lives. I always thought that was really misleading. It was funny, but people latched onto it.
Right, it seemed more like a phrase of the show so that people would think, “Ah, that’s so progressive and cool.”
Yeah, and also, “the show about nothing” had almost like a pop-song quality to you. “Show about nothing”—there’s your hook.
Right, it’s so, ‘oh that’s so counter to anything I’ve ever believed in, I must watch that.’
That’s true. I didn’t really think of it that way, but yeah.
Do you have a Seinfeld idea or something you brought to the show that you’re most proud of?
The thing I was proud of was, at certain times, I thought some of my ideas were very up to the minute. When the sponge birth control went out of business I immediately thought to myself, well, if Elaine is a sponge user she would immediately buy up as many as she can now. But she’d only get a limited number so she would have to change her entire screening system for who she sleeps with. I was really thrilled that that idea came through in one thought and I was really happy that it was an idea that was immediate. It was in the news, it was topical, yet people still get it today.
And when it comes to the catchphrases, were any of them things you already were saying in your everyday life?
They were all pretty much invented in the writing of the show. It just so happened that situations arose like “sponge-worthy” or “double-dipping.” I actually thought that someone double dipped a chip at a party and someone else got really annoyed. I was thinking, ‘oh this is such a great little slice here.’ It didn’t take any genius to come up with the term “double dip.” And “yada yada” was pretty bizarre. That was my last year of the show and somehow I thought back to a meeting I had when I lived in New York a decade earlier. It was with an editor and she would say, “Yada yada” and I thought back to it, that’s kind of funny that you can paper over all sorts of ills by just saying, “Yada yada.” Of course I had no idea it would take off like that. In fact, in the same episode was the term “anti-dentite,” which I thought, that would really go through the roof, but it didn’t.
It’s interesting, what phrases you anticipate becoming more popular than others.
Usually I had no idea. I was shocked that they became popular.
How does that feel for it to have become everyday vernacular for people? Even for people who didn’t watch Seinfeld?
I get that question a lot, so I always feel like, God, maybe I should be much happier about that than I am. I’m happy about it, I’m glad and have a certain set of satisfaction but I keep thinking that I should be feeling… God, I probably should be feeling great about this.
But you feel nothing.
I feel a quiet satisfaction. I don’t wake up euphoric.
With the “yada yada” thing, I noticed in your book that there was no “yadda yadda” — characters never said this. But they did say “bada bada.” Is that intentional, to avoid “yada yada”?
I have to say yes (laughs). I have to admit that. I did want to avoid “yada yada.”
Because of the strong association.
Right, and I avoid it in my normal life, too. I’ll say, “Blah blah blah” before I say, “Yada yada.”
You don’t use your catchphrases at all. People might think it’s too much?
I think it would be a little unseemly.
Do you have a favorite minor character on Seinfeld that you liked to write for?
I would say the Costanzas, George’s parents. They were kind of easy, but I did like to write for them. They were so much fun. But I didn’t actually have that many episodes with them in it. Maybe two.
And who did you feel most connected to with the main characters, did any resonate most with your personality?
Yeah, Jerry. We saw the world in a similar way. We’re both kind of people who sit back and watch a lot and make little quiet comments about things. Most of the writers who came through had a much easier time coming up with stories for George and Kramer and they were the two more extreme personalities. But it was always much easier and more satisfying for me to write for Jerry and Elaine.
With your book, when you started it, was there a nugget to your own life that sparked the idea for it?
I was having dinner with a friend and his parents were in town from Long Island. They were telling me about this town in Long Island where there has been an incredible Orthodox Jewish influx to the point where if you own a business in that town and you’re open on Shabbat they will economically freeze you out. I remember them being very outraged by it and just imposing your values on other people. And I just started writing. I don’t know why I started in the first person, but I did and then I was thinking about how a middle-aged man in America who is hard-working with a family. He’s not going to get much of an opportunity to really have the floor in life to say what’s on his mind. Somehow I hit on this idea of the narrator telling the story to someone who’s in a coma because that person couldn’t interrupt. I was 40 pages into it before I even knew I was writing a novel and I’m always fascinated by the way that you could lead an incredibly upright, respectable life and then do one tiny little thing wrong and it will all unravel so easily. So, that’s another big thing about the book.
It’s true. And those thoughts that he has, like when he’s in the grocery store and thinks, if I just touch someone inappropriately it’s all over. It’s such a thought everyone has.
It’s so easy. It’s so easy to destroy yourself. All of us normal, law-abiding citizens have a lot at stake just by maintaining the social contract and it’s so easy to break. It’s amazing. It takes nothing and you can blow it all.
Did you feel any connection to the main character? He went from journalism to podiatry, so I’m wondering…
I felt a lot of connection to him and just the way he worries about things. He’s somebody who kind of obsesses on things and when something bad occurs he thinks of all the circumstances that led up to that bad thing happening. And saying something like, “If I had stayed in the shower two minutes less, none of this would have happened.” But that was the part of him that really emanated for me. The interesting part for me is he’s a guy who’s been married for 24 years and he’s still crazy about his wife. It was interesting because at one point, 60 pages in, I had him making a little joke about his wife and I felt terrible about it because I liked them so much. So, I took it out and that’s when I started thinking, ‘this book could have a whole new genre of marriage that actually works.’
You feel like that isn’t seen enough?
I don’t think it’s seen at all. Whoever writes about a marriage that’s really good? I’ve never read a book where there’s a married couple and they really just are crazy about each other.
Yeah, and it’s so telling when he feels such guilt for saying, “Looks are deceiving.”
I know. He feels guilty for something that just seems like it came out a flirtation. And yet his wife is totally cool with it, she totally gets it. She’s so much smarter than him in a lot of ways.
So, when you started the book, was your intent for it to be a short story and then it just spiraled from there?
I don’t think I had any plans, I just started writing. I was thinking, about 30 or 40 pages, this has the pace — or on the path anyway — of being a novel. So I just kept on going. I had this feeling if I could make a little progress every day, eventually I could get there. Probably the most disciplined I’ve ever been in my life.
How is it, again, transitioning from writing for TV to writing a book?
It feels more natural. I really feel like Seinfeld was a detour for me. I mean, it was an incredibly great detour. I started out in journalism and I think what I basically do is write full sentences as opposed to what you’re writing in Seinfeld. I felt pretty comfortable with it.
So, you feel like you’re back in your natural element.
I do. I absolutely do.
After Seinfeld, you knew you wanted to veer away from TV?
I kept doing it for a while and I had a development deal with Dreamworks — a couple of shows went and a couple didn’t work out. And then I was a free agent and was trying to decide what I wanted to do. I naturally started writing essays and op-ed pieces for newspapers and things like that. At that point I was back to doing a different kind of writing.
The following is an excerpt from Peter Mehlman’s book, “It Won’t Always Be This Great.”
Then the door to the steam room flew open. Usually, I hate when guys have conversations in there, the tiled acoustics pumping up their voices to a million decibels. But I’d had enough deep thoughts for one steam and, as it happened, two guys entered in mid-conversation about “the vandalism on Stratification Boulevard.” They sat up front, a blinding blanket of steam standing between them and me.
“With my wife being a shiksa, I felt like I had to seem concerned, you know, just to keep the home fires burning. But I’m not so sure it was anti-Semitism.”
“Well, the fact that it was a bottle of horseradish . . .”
“So what? Everyone eats horseradish. Mormons probably eat it.”
“But it was that Mossad shit.”
“Still, that’s a long way from spray-painting swastikas.”
“But the guy they busted for it—”
“See, even that sounds fishy to me. He comes here all the way from Brooklyn for the first time in his life just to smash a window and go home?”
“Yeah but, A) He also stole some street signs and B) The guy whose window he smashed is a big deal in Jewish circles.”
“Whatever that means.”
“How did you know it was the suspect’s first time here?”
“Jennifer’s brother’s a cop. So I’m not totally talking out of my ass like I usually do.” The two guys burst out in laughs that sounded like they were break-dancing off the walls, and the tumult went straight through my eardrums. Still, fairly certain they didn’t know I was even in there, I didn’t make a sound.
“So this cop, he doesn’t think they got the right guy?”
“He’s uh, well, between you and me, he’s got his doubts.”
Commie, you won’t believe what I decided to do next. I’m somewhere between a limp piece of spaghetti and a prune by the time the two guys leave the steam room, but then I barely wait a minute before flying out of there to try to find them. I grab a shower stall across from the two they’re in—mind you, they’re still talking throughout their showers—and then I follow them to their lockers. I should explain: When you get to the locker room, you hand the attendant your membership card and he puts it in a cubbyhole with a number on it. Then he takes a key from the same cubbyhole and gives it to you. From the voices, I figured out which of the guys was the one with the brother-in-law who’s a cop, and so I nonchalantly checked out his locker number, went to the attendant, asked him to get me a few band-aids from the back, went around the counter, found the number of the cubbyhole, grabbed the guy’s card, looked at the name, reached up to put the card back in its cubbyhole—
“What the fuck are you doing?”
The attendant was lanky, maybe 19, kind of white trash-y. He held the box of band-aids in front of him like a Glock. Maybe because I’d just been playing baseball, my first thought was: Kid looks like Randy Johnson. I don’t know if you remember, but looking like Randy Johnson without actually being Randy Johnson is not a good thing.
“Are you stealing ID’s? I’m getting the manager. He’s gonna kick your ass out of this club so fast. He’ll probably call the cops as well . . .”
Kids don’t say “too” anymore. They say “as well.” Like, for this one tiny tic of the English language, I’m going to sound really British. “So I hooked up with that skank ho . . . as well.”
The fear of being busted finally rushed through me and I went out of body again, hearing myself say, “Look, I’m sorry. It’s not what you think.”
The kid just looked at me, the band-aid box still trained on my chest.
“I’ve been a member here for a long time. You’ve probably seen me around. I saw a guy, another member, who I’ve seen a million times and I couldn’t remember his name. It was driving me crazy. Believe me, when you hit my age, you’ll understand how nuts your lame memory can make you. Anyhow, I happened to know about what locker he was at and I just was so fixated on getting his name, and I was standing here waiting . . . So, I did what I did. It was a totally uncool thing to do, but it was innocent. I mean, really, I have my own ID, so what reason would I have to steal someone else’s?”
The kid slackened, pondering my question.
“Actually, forget I asked that question. Your job is to protect the members and their property so you shouldn’t have to figure out my motives. The truth is, you’re right. I deserve to be busted. But I’m telling you the truth and I’m asking you to give me a break this one time. I’m sorry. I guess I’m just a little . . . brain-damaged.”
The kid almost smiled, handed me two band-aids, and grunted, “It’s cool. Forget it. But don’t do it again.”
You know those old over-told stories about adrenaline allowing mothers to lift cars to save their kids? I think, for me, adrenaline just turns me into a really good liar.
Anyway, can you believe I did that? Sneaking around and grabbing the ID? It was like All The President’s Men, when Bernstein got rid of the secretary to barge into the office of that guy in Florida who had all the Committee to Reelect checks written to the Watergate burglars. Only Bernstein was taking down the President of the United States and I was trying to exonerate a two-bit Jew-hater.
You know, I’m starting to feel a tiny bit guilty about the number of “Jew” references I’m throwing at you. It’s like, whenever I want to say something funny to you, I throw in the word “Jew.” I should stop doing that. It’s the same as in college when anyone could get a laugh just by saying the word JAP. Hey, great idea for a TV show: Jappy Days. It’s just . . . it’s cheap is what it is. And, for what it’s worth, it is our religion. Besides, you’re not laughing. So, what’s the point? Maybe in lieu of laughing, you’re wondering what I planned to do with the guy’s name. Which, by the way, was Greg Pompian. Or maybe you already knew that. I went into the gym’s “quiet room” and Googled the living crap out of Greg Pompian on my BlackBerry. Like most people you Google, his most cyber-worthy achievement was finishing third in a 5K race, followed by a tiny wedding announcement from Newsday, October 16th, 1988.
Jennifer McNeill and Greg Pompian were married October 16 at Temple Israel of Tenafly. She is an accountant for Blitz Advertising Inc. of Sands Point and is the daughter of Jack and Eileen McNeill of Summit. The bridegroom is the chief financial officer of Amherst Corp. in New York and is the son of Herbert Pompian of Littleneck and Denise Kramer of Boca Raton, Fla.
Another search turned up Detective Chris McNeill, also gracing the pages of Newsday, curtly commenting on the raid of a photography supply facility that, in lieu of matte paper and stop bath, housed just over 12,000 marijuana plants. “We’ve watched the place a long time. That’s all I’ll say.”
The Internet is totally amazing, but if I were a reporter today, I think I’d feel like it’s cheating. Twenty-five years ago, this information would have taken some real digging. Now, it’s all just there, waiting to be found. It takes a lot of the fun out of it.
On the other hand, if you’re an investigative journalist with a podiatry practice, a family, and maybe three free hours a week, it’s pretty great.
I took Don Graydon’s card out of my wallet and emailed him. In the subject box, I wrote: “Deep background from Deep Throat.” Underneath: “Nassau P.D. Detective Chris McNeill has serious doubts about the guilt of their chief suspect.”
Upon hitting “send,” I was now taking an active role in trying to clear You-ey. But I convinced myself that Graydon would assume I was a bored family man getting off on playing journalist. That was certainly more reasonable than his assuming I was a bored family man who committed the crime myself.
Chris McNeill. Wasn’t that the name of the character in The Exorcist?
As I put the phone in my pocket, it rang loudly, knocking another three days off my life. Did I mention that my ring tone is the beginning of The Perry Mason theme? You’re supposed to turn your phone off in the quiet room, and a guy lying there with a towel over his head jolted up like Raymond Burr had hit him over the head. He peeked out, rolled his eyes at me, and then burrowed back under his towel. I guess he thought I was an asshole, but what can you do? “Honey, where are you?”
Quietly, I said, “Just leaving the gym. Ankle rehab.”
“Oh. Long rehab session.”
“Yeah. You feeling better?”
“Uh huh. I don’t know what happened. I’m so sorry. I’m just sick that I said what I said. I know your panic attacks were a purely physical thing, and for me to make a snide comment like that about it was just horrible. I can’t believe I did that.”
“Alyse, you’re entitled to lose it on occasion.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t like cracks in my armor.”
“You can cover them with a scarf before we go to dinner tonight.”
“That’s a good idea.” Then, “Oh, and by the way, I heard there was another chant by the mob waiting outside the police station when they brought You-ey in.”
“They were chanting, ‘No Justice, No Shalom!”
“Yes. I’m joking. I just thought of that. Funny, isn’t it?”
“Yup. I’ll probably steal that line.”
“I know you will.”
“Look, I gotta get out of here.”
“Okay. I love you.”
Alyse said, “Guess you’re not alone, huh?”
“No. But you’re a really good person.”
It was good to hear Alyse laugh. While driving home, I thought it was also good to see Alyse cry too. Occasionally, I need to view my wife as a mere mortal. Between us, Commie? Sometimes, when Alyse goes to the city, I picture millions of people passing her on the street without being the least bit affected by her presence, and I wonder who’s crazy, me or the world? Maybe in your state, you’re freed from such dopey thoughts. I hope so.
I got home, showered, and got ready for our triple-date dinner. Yes, another shower. I think the gym shower leaves me smelling chlorine-y.