All week, Vulture has been celebrating Seinfeld, which celebrates its 25th anniversary on July 5. Today, we talk to longtime Seinfeld writer and producer Peter Mehlman about the unique way the show was put together. (Unlike most shows, there was no writers’ room — each person wrote the episodes he thought of.) In addition to writing such classic episodes as “The Smelly Car,” “The Hamptons,” and “The Sponge,” Mehlman — whose first novel will be published in September — created some of the show’s most iconic catchphrases, including “shrinkage,” “double-dip,” and “yada yada.” Here, he talks about what type of jokes Larry David liked more than Jerry Seinfeld, and getting yada-yada’d by strangers.
I was wondering if you could walk me through the process of writing a Seinfeld episode.
First, you come up with an idea — well, you really need to come up with four ideas, or three, because you have to have all of the characters engaged. Coming up with story ideas was absolutely the most important part of your job, which is not true of 90 percent of sitcoms where you’re doing it as a group.
Would you come up with four ideas and be like, “This is one episode,” or would you mix and match ideas?
Well, it changed. It would be different according to what point of the season it was. When you first got together to start writing a new season, you hopefully had come up with a bunch of ideas. Larry would say, “I love that idea,” or “I don’t love that idea.” So you’d take the ones that they like, and then that would be it. But once the season was underway, it was a much less structured situation. Like, I remember going up to Larry during “The Masseuse” episode, and I had this idea about Jerry dating a masseuse and everyone getting massages. All she wants is sex, and he can’t get a massage. It kind of ended up playing out as a date-rape satire, with him trying to forcibly try to get a massage. But I remember going up to Larry on the set and saying, “You know what’s a perfectly small, good idea that I like? What if Jerry’s dating a girl who hates George?” Larry said, “That is such a you idea.” Throughout the entire run, I’d subscribe to the really tiny, slice-of-life ideas. I wasn’t a “Puerto Rican Day Parade” type of writer. I didn’t make salads in the sink and that type of shit. None of that was interesting to me.
In the episode with shrinkage, I was really stuck for what happened to turn the story over and give it a little engine for the second act, and Larry had this idea: What if George goes into the pool and, you know, it’s cold and he comes out? And I said, “Oh, and he has shrinkage?” And Larry said, “Yeah, shrinkage. And use that word. Use it a lot.” It was very informal about that type of thing.
Once the episode is being shot that week, you’re on the set all the time, but you’re not really punching up like they do on other shows. Once Larry was confident in something, he didn’t care whether the cameramen stopped laughing at the joke, like they do on other shows. Larry had much more confidence in that what he was doing was funny. But you’d suggest little lines here and there, or little changes as you thought of them. It was very casual that way.
Seinfeld often had endings where all the stories converged, which is kind of a Larry David signature. To write those, did you work backwards, or did it happen organically?
I’d like to say it worked organically or it worked from going backwards, but it worked and didn’t work in all of those ways. It never really happened the same way twice. A couple of times, I would think that I had it down pat, like in the episode with Teri Hatcher, “The Implant.” I had stories, but I also started off with four or five really great scenes. They had nothing to do with each other, but I knew they would make great scenes, so I started finding a way of mating them together. That episode came out great, so I thought that that was the way I would always do it. It never worked that way again. The process of that was pretty much a struggle every time.
That was also the episode with, “They’re real and they’re spectacular”?
Yeah, well that was also the episode with “double-dipping,” and I think that caught on more than “They’re real and they’re spectacular.” I was just at a party and saw somebody get mad at someone for double-dipping, and then I just came up with the phrase. It didn’t take any real genius to come up with “double-dip.”
I’ve read that when you finished your final draft, it wouldn’t be read over in the writers’ room because Seinfeld didn’t have one, so instead you’d hand it over to Jerry and Larry and they’d work their magic. Do you have a sense of how much they would change?
Well, it all hinged on how good of a job you did. There were times when it was like a complete makeover, and other times where it was more of a massaging. After a couple of years, if there was something wrong with the story and then they figured out a new way to do it, they would always tell me and let me write it because they trusted me. So, where I might’ve felt a little loss of ownership on the story itself, they were nice enough to let me still feel [like] a part of it.
Were there certain things you knew Jerry would really respond to, and certain things that Larry would really respond to?
Yeah, and at certain times those were at odds, because Larry was much more willing to go to darker places than Jerry. Like in the episode “The Alternate Side,” which was written by Bill Masters, when Elaine is dating that older guy and he has a stroke and she’s feeding him Yankee-bean soup and she kind of loses it and starts singing, “Yankee bean, Yankee bean,” Jerry felt very queasy about that, and Larry just loved it.
You are credited for coming up with “yada yada yada.” Is it something you used in your regular day life?
No. That’s a really strange one. I thought back to a meeting I had had with an editor of a women’s magazine probably ten years earlier, and a couple of times she used the words yada yada and I don’t think I had even heard anyone say it after. And I don’t know why, but it just popped back into my mind. At first, I just thought of it as some little quirk that I could throw in, but then all of a sudden, I started thinking of all of the things you could just gloss over using yada yada. It ended up perfect because I realized that not only does it give me a great story, but also everyone in the story could start using it. You love a thing where one of the stories can affect everybody else. That was also the case of “The Smelly Car.” The valet parker had such incredibly bad B.O. that the smell attached itself to anyone who got in the car, so if I could get everybody in that car, it connects up the stories.
“Yada yada yada” seems like such an essential part of speech now. Has someone ever done it to you not even realizing you are the man who kind of penned it?
Oh yeah, all the time. It happened Saturday.
I was golfing with my friend, and we were paired with two strangers — a couple. The wife, first she said — when her husband missed a short putt — “No par for you.” I rolled my eyes because, to be perfectly frank, I was never really in love with that episode. Then she told some story, and she goes, “Yada yada.” I was like, Wow, this one. I don’t say anything.
There are so many funny lines on the show. Do you have any sense of why certain quotes broke out and are still used?
It’s because of the relatability. It’s putting terminology on something that a lot of people have experienced. “Sponge-worthy” is not a direct thing that a lot of people experience, but deeming somebody worth sleeping with and reducing them down to a phrase, you can see why that would catch on.
Were there things that you thought would, but didn’t?
Yes. “Yada yada” completely wiped out “anti-dentite.” And I really liked “anti-dentite.” I love when Kramer goes, “You’re a rabid anti-dentite!” I really liked that one more than “yada yada.”
The show has such a specific worldview, with its focus on the minutiae of everyday life. After you left the show, was it personally hard to turn off that level of observation?
I kind of made the transition to living a more normal life after around three or four seasons. I had never really written scripts before — I was a journalist — so Seinfeld was the first time I was doing something creative. I got obsessed with that, and I’d look at Larry and the way that he was so in tune with his tiniest thoughts. Most of us have these thoughts that could be pure gold, but we’re not aware of them. We don’t think in those terms. I was trying to be aware of my own thoughts, and it went overboard.
After one season, I went to a health spa for a few days because I was just fried. I had met this girl there, and eventually we started making out. As we’re making out, I’m thinking, Oh, it’s funny how every girl has got her own little kissing system. Hands here. Lips there. And then all of a sudden I was like, Oh my God, I’m observing my own thoughts in the middle of making out! That’s when I realized that this was going a little bit too far. I think by my fifth season, I hit a happy medium of trying to be aware of my own thoughts but actually living.
Do you watch episodes now, years later?
No. My mother visited me recently from New York, and she was using the remote, so she went to places where I never went, and actually “The Yada Yada” was on, so we did sit and watch. But I don’t really watch. I basically end up remembering what was going on the week the we shot it or something like that. I’m not completely enjoying it.
Do you think there are parts of the show that hold up to time a little bit better than others?
I think the show holds up because it’s just so much about human dealings and human foibles and little peccadillos and the same kinds of mistakes that we all make — and we keep making them. Even though there are cell phones and the internet, which would have changed a lot of things on the show, I don’t think the absence of all that technology makes the show any less relevant. We’re all just making the same faux-pas and saying the wrong things. No matter what, there’s always going to be social interactions that go really the wrong way. There’s always going to be dating.
If it were shot today, would it still be shot in front of a live audience?
The fact that it was shot in front of a live audience is part of the reason it was so good. Those were live performers. Jerry and Julia and Michael and Jason: They’re used to performing before live audiences. It’s what they do. It makes it funnier. Sometimes when there’s a huge laugh, you see the actors holding for the laugh to subside, and there’s something really charming about that.
What do you think is the most Seinfeld-y Seinfeld episode? Not necessarily the best, but the most definitive.
Well, I would always go with “The Contest,” because all four characters are so deeply involved in it. But the one I really love also is “The Deal,” when Jerry and Elaine try to make an arrangement where they can remain friends and yet sleep together. Why it typifies the show is that a lot of Seinfeld is these characters trying to create a perfect world. Like, Why can’t everything be better?