The Writers: Peter Mehlman: The genesis of a Seinfeld episode

Dr. Robert Gardner is the chair and professor of media writing at the School of Radio and Television Arts, Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto. The following is one of a series of articles on prominent media writers.

* * *

I was excited about seeing my friend Peter Mehlman again. He’d just finished working on the season’s last episode of Seinfeld and he’d invited me to his new home not far from the Pacific Coast highway in Los Angeles.

Peter had promised to walk me through the construction of an idea that may be produced for Seinfeld this season. There’s a pretty good chance it will go to air since Peter is not only story editor, he’s also one of the show’s mainstay producers.

He talked about the evolution of the show, and how it had continually changed. He said quite frequently he’ll start with an idea without having the slightest notion of where the story is taking him. Operating in him, though, is an intimate understanding of the show’s structure.

Like all good artists, he feigns a kind of ‘not knowing.’ But if you listen closely to what he is saying, and if you’re prepared to follow the detours and the flips in the narrative, a strong structure emerges.

Here’s his stream-of-consciousness account of how a show might be conceived. Stay with me on this one, because I’m going to jump back and forth a bit as Peter elaborates the shape of the show.

The basic idea

Peter looks exhausted. Seinfeld is a tough show. So don’t think it’s easy. The way Peter describes it, it’s a constant battle – with your own imagination and your own creativity.

He digs deep to find the thread of the story, and sighs with a sense of fatigue: ‘I heard that a very popular over-the-counter birth control device for women was going out of business. It’s called ‘The Sponge,’ which is a funny word. I thought it would be great if Elaine would hear about the rumorshe just loves the sponge, so she buys out the West Side and hoards them.’

At this point, Peter has his central approach, but he has to create stories for each of the characters and every story has to intertwine and come to resolution in about 22 minutes (when you subtract commercial time). Into that 22 minutes, Seinfeld may shoehorn as many as 26 different sets and over 50 different scenes. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Peter starts to think about dribs and drabs of dialogue, but as you hear him, you can actually visualize the characters:

‘Now Elaine has 50 of the sponges (the last in the city), but she doesn’t want to have sex with her boyfriend because she wants to conserve them. And I have this whole conversation in my mind between Jerry and Elaine where he says, `But the sponge is so you can have sex.’ And she says, `I know, but I don’t want to waste them. I could be using them with the wrong guy.’ `The sponge,’ says Jerry, `is what helps you decide if he’s the right guy!’ ‘

Peter mimics, exactly, the voices of the characters, and that little mini-scene gets catalogued in his prematurely gray head.

He’s talking to me, but he’s kind of on automatic pilot. He’s gone into that realm where writers go when they’re working on a concept. I call it the dungeon.

Immediately, Peter the spider (I have this image of him spinning all these little interweaving stories) starts another intertwining story:

‘I also had this other idea lying around. Once in a while I dabble in the stock market and think, `Boy, if only I could start a buyout rumor on my company and the stock would go five or 10 points and I’d sell. I thought you’d go to Wall Street, go to a big brokerage house and whisper your rumor and hope it catches hold.

‘My immediate thought was that Kramer and Neuman doing that together would be really funny. Now, I said to myself, what if Kramer and Neuman bought stock in a company that sells over-the-counter contraceptive devices because Kramer heard the sponge was going out of business and that this other company would do very well?’

Peter eases back on the lawn chair and he describes Kramer and Neuman dressed in ill-fitting suits going off to Wall Street to spread their innocent little rumor.

Now Peter does another mental flip. He goes back to show how Elaine first hears about the sponge situation. That’s how his mind works. It’s like non-linear editing. This man is all imagination; all concept.

Peter provides the motivation: ‘It’s at this point that Kramer shares his scheme with Elaine and he tells her about the sponge, and she immediately panics and rushes off to buy as many sponges as possible.’

The next part of the plot came out of Peter’s own personal experiences. This is how he sets it up:

‘George meets a girl and she says, `George, we’re so like each other. I bet if we dated, we’d have great sex for about 10 days and then we’d hate each other and we’d split up.’

‘George, seizing the opportunity, wonders out loud if there would be any problem if they stayed with each other for a week and then, by mutual consent, they’d call it quits. That way they could have all the pleasure without any of the pain.

‘George is on the edge of victory. Except that the girl likes a certain type of contraceptive (you guessed it, the sponge) and the entire West Side has been cleared of the product by Elaine.’

Now Peter brings Jerry into the story:

‘Jerry (again mimicking something that happened to Peter in real life) found out the unlisted number of a girl he likes from a list of donors to a marathon to benefit aids patients. She’s mystified where he got the number and Jerry doesn’t want her to know that he’d stoop that low.

‘It just happens that it comes up in the conversation that she asks, `Don’t you sometimes give to aids charities?’ Jerry is taken aback, so he says, `No, no.’ And then, so he doesn’t look heartless, he says, `Instead of charities, I give to companies that conduct aids research.’ And she says, `Oh, what’s the name of the company?’ He’s lost for a moment, and then he blurts out the name of the company that Kramer and Neuman bought into. It’s the only name that immediately comes to mind.

‘Meanwhile, Kramer and Neuman, in another foray into Wall Street, have a fight with an obnoxious guy in the elevator and a negative rumor about the company they’ve invested in is immediately generated.’

Peter juggles more scenes in his head:

‘Jerry’s girlfriend, believing in his ramblings about this terrific company and its aids research capacity, buys 5,000 shares, just in time for the rumor to take hold, and the stock’s price falls through the floor.’

Another backflip. Peter begins to elaborate on some more possible dialogue. He takes a long sip of his coffee and continues:

‘When George tells Jerry about the girl he has met and their agreement to have one week of sex without remorse, Jerry says, `Prediction? This is going to be the best week of sex you’ve ever had in your life.’ And George says, `This is the only woman I have ever dated that I won’t dread bumping into on the street for the rest of my life.’ And Jerry says, `I know what you mean. I have this cult following of women and I’d pay not to have to bump into them in the streets of this city.’ ‘ Of course, we all know he’s about to add to that number.

Peter, at this point, is struggling to keep all the relationships in mind:

‘They agree to double date. That way Jerry’s date will be less likely to ask how he got her phone number. So all George has to do is not mention phone numbers or aids. This is, of course, too much pressure for George.

‘Jerry’s date happens to mention that she’s going to a party and Woody Allen will be there and she could invite everyone. And George says, `Too bad, my girlfriend and I are breaking up next Tuesday (in accordance with their agreement). Maybe I could call Woody and just tell him I could come another time.’ Then he stops and blurts out, `Of course, how am I going to call Woody, he probably has an unlisted number!’ ‘ Oops.

What does it matter?

‘At that moment, one of Jerry’s old girlfriends drops by the restaurant and George says, `Where are you off to?’ `A charity function,’ she replies. `What kind of charity?’ Jerry glares at George and rasps, `What does it matter, George? They’re all good!’ The friend obliges, however; she’s off to an aids charity.’

Peter gets up to get another cup of coffee. As far as he’s concerned, the whole thing could write itself. You can almost hear the banter of Elaine, Kramer, Neuman, George, Jerrythe entire gang.

In a sense, the show now exists, and it all came from the slightly off-the-center mind of Peter Mehlman. No sex for George, no sex for Jerry, no windfall profit for Kramer and Neuman. There’s even no sex for Elaine since she’s paranoid about using up the sponges.

Peter knows, and I know, that no one ever wins in Seinfeld. It’s a show that flirts with victory and huge success, but it always ends in failure of one form or another. Success would move the whole crew towards maturity; and, for the sake of the show, maturity is to be avoided at all costs.