An introduction to Peter Mehlman, author of Mandela Was Late: Odd things & essays from the Seinfeld writer who coined yada, yada, and made spongeworthy a compliment (The Sager Group, 2013). Mehlman is a multiple Primetime Emmy Award nominee, known for his work on the sitcom Seinfeld. He has won acclaim for his NPR commentaries and hilarious and poignant op-eds and personal essays in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Huffington Post, and Esquire. Host of the Webby-nominated YouTube series Narrow World of Sports, Mehlman grew up in Queens, New York, graduated from the University of Maryland, and now lives in Los Angeles.
Quick Facts on Peter Mehlman
- Website: www.pmehlman.com
- Home: Santa Monica, California
- Comfort food: pizza
- Top reads: John Updike, Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller
- Top movies and TV shows: The Graduate, Manhattan, Network, Three Days of the Condor, Taxi, Get Smart, Thirtysomething, Midnight Cowboy, All the President’s Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Talk to Her, Magnolia, American Splendor
- Current reads: Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and short stories by Don DeLillo
What are you working on at the moment?
One pilot, a slow developing novel, and a few essays.
How did your book, Mandela Was Late, come together?
It wasn’t originally planned as a book. After Seinfeld and my years at Dreamworks, I felt like going back to writing full sentences and started writing lots of essays, articles, and op-ed pieces for newspapers and magazines. After awhile, it just felt like there were some threads that would make the pieces combine into a whole.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
“A lot of laughs between
unexpected moments of seriousness.”
Hmm. It would be nice if they got a lot of laughs between unexpected moments of seriousness. And, it would be really nice if they see an overall point of view on life that I’m not even aware of.
Where and when do you prefer to write?
In my home office overlooking my quiet street in the morning after coffee. Then again in the mid to late afternoon. And maybe again late at night. The best thing is being able to do it whenever.
Do you listen to anything while you write?
Where would you most want to live and write?
Right where I am. At home in LA.
Do you have a philosophy for how and why you write?
Not really. I just like it and do it and try not to analyze it.
How have your goals as a writer changed over time?
Having been writing for different media makes it impossible to not have them change. But recently, I’ve been trying to not think about goals beyond doing the best job I can do on whatever I’m working on at the moment. I’m coming around to thinking that goals can be limiting. Any minute, a new thought can enter your head, leading to a new project, which changes your goals and can even make your last goal unmet.
“I’m coming around to thinking
that goals can be limiting.”
How has your background writing for the screen influenced your other writing work?
They all influence each other. Writing for The Washington Post required a set of demands—observation, concise writing—that helped somewhat at Seinfeld, which in turn, helped in essay writing. Seinfeld ideas came mostly from monitoring your own thoughts, while newspaper writing was about looking outward. So Seinfeld plus journalism combined to help with essays.
What do you find most challenging about writing humor pieces?
Getting from a funny concept to fleshing out a full humor piece is really tough. Sometimes they just “write themselves” but not often. It’s also tough to know if your little notions are actually even worth a full piece. I try hard to avoid “one-joke” pieces. It’s also tricky deciding if your ideas are relevant to readers.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
Eudora Welty said something about how the biggest adventures happen in your head—that you don’t have to do a bunch of world travelling and have a slew of exciting experiences to write creative stuff. Not sure if that’s motivational or inspiring so much as comforting, but it makes me feel better about being a homebody.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write a lot and read a lot. Find out who your favorite writers are and figure out why. Keep your mind open for business all the time, you never know when your tiniest thought—or a story in the paper, or an overheard comment on the street—can spark a whole project.
“Keep your mind open for business all the time.”
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?
“Write for love, not for money. But try to get paid for it.”
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Play basketball, go out to dinner, ski, read.
About Peter Mehlman
Peter Mehlman, after whom a hypochondriacal giraffe was named in the Madagascar movies, lives in Los Angeles where he writes essays, screenplays, NPR commentaries, and hosts the Webby-nominated YouTube series Narrow World of Sports. A multiple Primetime Emmy Award nominee, Peter Mehlman has coined such Seinfeld-isms as “spongeworthy,” and “double-dipping,” and is probably most famous for the Emmy nominated “Yada Yada” episode of Seinfeld, arguably one of the most popular and iconic sitcoms of all time. He grew up in Queens, New York, and graduated from the University of Maryland before writing for the Washington Post and ABC’s SportsBeat with Howard Cosell. He has written for Esquire, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and virtually every Conde Nast women’s magazine because of his powerful grasp on what women want. He was also a writer and co-executive producer of Seinfeld.
[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Peter Mehlman.” Words With Writers (April 17, 2013), https://wordswithwriters.com/2013/04/17/peter-mehlman.]