Former 'Seinfeld' writer publishes first novel

When the writer Peter Mehlman was working on the television show "Seinfeld," he could be counted on to come up with the tiniest, most insignificant — and ultimately, the most memorable — plots.

It was Mehlman, now 58 and a Los Angeles resident, who explored snack-eating etiquette at parties, and Mehlman who decided that the show's female lead, Elaine, would hoard contraceptive sponges.

And it was Mehlman who coined several catchphrases that have entered the cultural lexicon, from "yada yada" to gloss over a conversation, "sponge-worthy" to describe a hot date and "double-dipping" to refer to the practice of dunking a snack into a sauce at a party, taking a bite and then dunking it again into the same container.

It's not surprising then, that Mehlman's debut novel, "It Won't Always Be This Great," is full of the author's off-center musings about the minute irritations and curiosities of daily life.

As he puts it: "I always try to find the tiniest little slice-of-life stories, the smallest comedies of manners, the things that not many people look at twice."

In "It Won't Always Be This Great," a mild-mannered podiatrist is walking home after dark when he trips over a bottle of horseradish sauce and sprains his ankle. In an uncharacteristic fit of rage, he hurls the offending bottle through the plate glass window of a Jewish-owned clothing store — setting into a motion a chain of events that will involve white supremacists, the FBI, a man in a coma and a teenage patient with a crush on her doctor.

The University of Maryland, College Park makes several appearances in the novel; Mehlman, a New York native, graduated from the school in 1977 before going to work as a sportswriter for The Washington Post. He later spent three years writing for TV broadcaster Howard Cosell's "SportsBeat." Then, in 1989, the author bumped into a casual acquaintance — the comedian Larry David — who suggested that Mehlman submit a sample script for "a little show" being developed for Jerry Seinfeld.

Hee's an edited transcript of a recent conversation, in which Mehlman reminisces about "Seinfeld" and reflects on the art of writing comedy:

Was it a challenge for you to go from writing television episodes to writing a novel?

It was about as pleasurable a writing experience as I've had. I'm not a super-disciplined writer, but I'd go out to lunch with friends and my mind would wander, and I couldn't wait to get back to it.

"Seinfeld" was kind of like a detour in my career. Before I started writing for the show, I'd always been writing full sentences. Then "Seinfeld" came along, and it was all dialogue, which is very different from writing a novel. This felt much more natural to me.

How did you decide to go with a small, independent publisher, Baltimore's Bancroft Press? I'd have thought that after "Seinfeld," you'd have had your pick of the big guys.

Apparently, I'm not as big a deal as you think. I had gone to a few big publishing houses, but there was at least one person in every one of them who didn't go for it. Basically, I just started looking for someone more independent who could read the novel, enjoy it and say yes. I don't need whatever prestige comes from having a big publisher. The joy of writing the book was enough for me.

In your book, the podiatrist says "bada bada" to refer to a boring conversation. That sounds an awful like "yada yada." Was that intentional?

No. It's funny — certain things in the book have been pointed out to me that I never thought of and wasn't aware of at all. For instance, the kids' names are Charlie and Esme, which are J.D. Salinger characters. People thought that another one of my characters is nicknamed "Commie" because he's in a coma. But he's called "Commie" because his actual last name is Moscow.

What makes some observations resonate in the culture, and how can I write one?

Certain things become catchphrases because they put a name to universal experiences that haven't had a name before. I was never able to predict which ones would catch on. The only one I ever thought would be a big deal was "anti-dentite" [for people who don't like dentists], and it got nothing.

I didn't set out to write catchphrases. Instead, I was just trying to come up with a funny way to describe something in particular.

What makes a catchphrase funny?

I learned at "Seinfeld" that alliteration always helps. Words beginning with the letters "b" and "k" are always good. Elaine can say, 'He's the Bubble Boy" and everybody just laughs. I have no idea why.

Larry had an unshakable sense of what he believed was funny that's pretty rare in TV. On most shows, if the cameramen stop laughing four days into the week, they'd change the line. That was not the way it was on "Seinfeld." It didn't even matter to Larry if the audience laughed. He'd always say, "I don't care if it's funny. I'm leaving it in."

The one serious take-away from the book is the schism between different branches of Judaism. Where does that come from?

One day, I had dinner with a friend and his visiting parents. They mentioned that this town in Long Island had a big influx of Orthodox Jews. It got to the point where if you had a business in that town, the Orthodox Jews would not patronize your store if you happened to be opened during the Shabbat on a Friday night or Saturday. I resented that, even though I'm Jewish. Any time anyone foists their religion on someone else, I find it offensive.

The novel took off from there.

I take it you're not Orthodox?

No. If I could be something less than Reformed, that would be me. I'm from the atheist wing of Judaism.

About the book

"It Won't Always Be This Great" by Peter Mehlman was published Sept. 15 by Bancroft Press. $25, 374 pages.

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