Peter Mehlman was the first writer hired for Seinfeld outside the core production staff, starting with the 13-episode season that was basically the show’s second. (It began with one episode in July 1989, four episodes the next summer, and 13 the following year.) He was also one of the rare Seinfeld writers who stuck around for multiple seasons—in fact, he didn’t leave until the penultimate season, when he left to develop his own show, the gone-too-soon It’s Like, You Know …. Here, some highlights of my interview with Mehlman for my upcoming book Seinfeldia (out July 5, available for pre-order now!).
So what was that like, being there for most of the show’s run?
It was so amazing to be on that ride. The show was so good, it was like I couldn’t believe the show could possibly fail. After my first script, when we shot it, Larry said, “If by some off chance we get picked up, you’ve got the job.” And it was like, there was no doubt in my mind that this was going to get picked up. It was just so good. I didn’t realize, of course, that being good is actually a detriment to your chances. At that time, I didn’t realize all that.
Did your life change as the show got popular?
Not so much in day-to-day work life. But you could feel things changing. Like all of a sudden the show started getting a little bit of notice and tons of agents started showing up. And none of us knew what we were doing. Larry and Jerry hadn’t even done a sitcom before so we would just let the agents hang out on the floor. So the floor of the Seinfeld set got to be this weekly party. It was like a mob scene.
They were trying to sign writers, especially me because I was with a boutique agency. I would say almost more like a bodega agency. I later found out that CAA and ICM, they literally had agents assigned to me, to try to get me to leave my agency.
Did you ever?
Not until about two years ago.
How did you initially get your agent?
I wrote one spec script for The Wonder Years, not even really planning on getting into the business. I was a freelance magazine writer at the time. So I moved to Los Angeles and I’d seen a few episodes of The Wonder Years and I thought, “Oh, you know what I should do? I should write a freelance script for them and make all this money!” I thought it would really help me out because moving is expensive. I had no idea that your chances of having a script bought on a freelance basis like that are basically next to zero. And obviously it never got anywhere near the show, but somebody passed it on to somebody who passed it on to somebody and it got to my agent. And then somebody met with me and I had an agent!
Did he help you get Seinfeld then?
No, he had nothing to do with it. Agents never really get anybody any jobs. They negotiate when something falls in their lap.
So how did Seinfeld happen?
I met Larry in New York a couple of times. And then I moved out [to L.A.] in ’89. I was still just freelance magazine writing. And the year I moved here, I bumped into Larry. He was doing this little show with Jerry Seinfeld. And maybe I could write a script? He had no idea that I’d never written dialog, really. And so I gave him a writing sample. It was an article from The New York Times, an “About Men” column that was kind of a bittersweet, funny essay. And he passed it on to Jerry. And Jerry just liked it, so… they gave me a chance to write a script.
For more, check out Seinfeldia, on sale July 5.