Peter Mehlman will likely always be best known for penning such standards as “Yada-yada-yada,” “double-dipping” and “sponge-worthy” during his eight-year writer-producer run on “Seinfeld.” But he has uncommon range, having been on staff at the Washington Post and “SportsBeat with Howard Cosell,” as well as writing for GQ, Esquire, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.
His first novel, “It Won’t Always Be This Great” (Bancroft Press, $25), takes a sly and subversive slant on everyday life in the suburbs, just as “Seinfeld” did with urban living.
You went from a show “about nothing” to a 375-page novel about family, lust, suburbia, anti-Semitism, mid-life crises. As a writer, which was more challenging?
I actually found the novel easier. First of all “Seinfeld” was 22 minutes, and you had to wrap up the stories really quickly, and you didn’t get a chance to explore the thoughts of the characters. Here, I had no idea where I was going the whole way, but it was such a pleasure to just go along with it.
Did you work from an outline?
I just started writing. I was 30 pages in before I realized I was writing a novel. I’m the least-disciplined person in the world, but I couldn’t wait to get back to it.
Without giving too much away, at one point your main character vandalizes a shop window. What is his rage directed at?
He lives in suburbia and he feels pent up. And to me the level of tact that it takes to get through a day in suburbia is so impressive, it’s amazing. When you’re living in New York City and you see the same person at the elevator every day and you don’t acknowledge their existence, that’s like the peak of civility. But in suburbia, you really have to deal with people, and he hates it.
But he’s got a great marriage. There’s the tension.
He’s so happy with his wife, it’s all about upsetting that. I think this book could start a whole new genre: a marriage that works.
What makes your main character suddenly act out?
Men turn 50 and we lose it. You see so many 50-year-old men really just go off the rails. And this guy ... that’s his moment of going off the rails and it only lasts a few days. And for the first time in his life, instead of calling the police, he just walks away. And for a few days he’s actually on a high. But being an outlaw kind of exhausts him.
You’ve done all sorts of writing; do you have a favorite?
I think I like essays the most, because I feel like I have sort of a 1,500-word personality. “Seinfeld” was the big detour in my career. I always liked writing full sentences. So this was hopefully getting me back to where I should be going. But it’s hard to say because I never had any goals. I always said “why limit yourself?”
The evolution of the sitcom seems to have stopped at “Seinfeld,” then slid backward.
“Girls” is the only one I really watch, because Lena Dunham has such nerve, she’s so audacious. She rips herself basically, which is what we did on “Seinfeld” a lot. One of the great phrases “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” that was basically slamming our own liberalism. Because our characters clearly felt there was something wrong with that. Dunham does the same thing. She pulls no punches.
Is L.A. a good writer’s city?
I’m not sure it’s been a good writer’s city, but I think it’s getting there. Now that hedge fund people are strong-arming all the cool people out of New York, you know they’re going to wind up here more and more, and the writing is just going to get better and better.
I’ve always found L.A. inspiring in that so many people are moving here to follow their dreams. And even if their dreams are unrealistic, it’s just very inspiring that they’re at least going after it. I just can’t believe that someone who wants to be an investment banker thinks that they have a dream in life – “I want to produce nothing and make millions, that’s what my dream is”? You don’t get that much here. They get off the plane and they have big ideas. I love that about L.A.