A Conversation About Nothing

September 4, 2014
BY Simone Ellin
Seinfeld writer, novelist comes to Gordon Center

090514_seinfeldEver wonder who coined the phrase: “Yada yada yada?” What about “double dipping?” “Shrinkage?” Although these terms are now part of English vernacular, that wasn’t always the case.

All three phrases came out of the brain of journalist, comedy writer, TV producer and YouTube host-turned-novelist, Peter Mehlman. Mehlman, a University of Maryland alum, will bring his unique brand of comedy to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts on Sept.18 at 7 p.m.

A Queens, N.Y., native, Mehlman, 58, said that “being funny has always mattered” to him. The decision to attend Maryland came to him while playing basketball one day.

“I stopped mid-game and just thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’” Mehlman said. “All of the N.Y. state schools seemed too rural. I thought it would be good to be on a campus near a big city. Maryland was eye-opening.

“Being around Jews from Baltimore was so different,” he continued. “I think that Jews in Baltimore, and most Jews in the suburbs, have this day-to-day awareness of being Jewish. They don’t take it for granted. In New York, there are so many Jews that you don’t really think about it too much.”

Mehlman said he keeps in touch with many of the friends he made at Maryland. He even plans to see some of them when he visits Baltimore next month.

After graduating, Mehlman took a job as a sports writer for The Washington Post, which led to a position as a writer on ABC TV’s “SportsBeat with Howard Cosell.”

“He was the best,” Mehlman said of the legendary sports announcer. “He was incredibly funny, and you felt you were in the center of the sports universe when you worked with him. He took so much pleasure in his own success. Looking back, it’s quite refreshing. Famous people always complain it’s a burden to be famous. Howard never felt it was a burden. He loved being famous.”

Mehlman remained with “SportsBeat” from 1982 to 1985, when the show was canceled. Afterward, he returned to journalism, writing for publications such as The New York Times Magazine and Esquire, but he was forever transformed when he ran into Larry David, an acquaintance, who told him about a “little show” he was developing with Jerry Seinfeld. The rest is history. Mehlman became one of the show’s longest-tenured writers and eventually its executive producer.

“Working on Seinfeld was like being on the greatest thrill ride of all time. I knew this was something special,” he said. “We were hysterical all the time.”

Mehlman attributed his success on “Seinfeld,” for which he was nominated five times for an Emmy Award and once for a Writers Guild Award, not so much to his talent as to the fact that he behaved “like a mensch.”

“Other writers would make a big tzimmes when there was one little edit to their writing,” he said. “They screwed up their futures.”

As for his favorite episodes, Mehlman said “The Deal,” an episode written by David in which main characters Jerry and Elaine devise a plan where they will be able to have sex but remain friends, “was one of the greatest pieces of writing ever. It was unbelievable.”

Since “Seinfeld” went off the air in 1998 — incidentally, Mehlman liked the final episode — he has kept busy, creating the sitcom “It’s Like You Know” which aired on ABC for two seasons, publishing a collection of his essays called “Mandela Was Late” in 2013 and hosting a 2010 Webby Award-winning YouTube program called “Peter Mehlman’s Narrow World of Sports.” On the show, Mehlman interviews athletes such as basketball star Kobe Bryant and gymnast Shawn Johnson and asks questions he has “always wanted to ask.” An interview might go like this to Kobe Bryant: “What would happen if after a game you said, ‘It wasn’t a team effort. We won all because of me.’ Would the world explode?”

Mehlman’s first novel, “It Won’t Always Be This Great,” will be released this month. The novel tells the story of a middle-aged Jewish podiatrist, husband and father from the suburbs, who, in a sudden fit of anger, vandalizes a local store and sets in motion a highly unexpected turn of events that he shares with a comatose friend.

“I wanted to give it a form where it could become a confessional. He could really express himself, yet, since the friend is in a coma, it’s almost like he is rehearsing telling his story. It’s also about a good marriage,” said Mehlman, who is single. “Everyone is always complaining about his wife. No one ever writes about a marriage that works. It was a good challenge.”

To reserve tickets for this free show, visit gordoncenter.com.

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