Peter Mehlman’s Career Started at Maryland

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Peter Mehlman’s Career Started at Maryland
Mar 28, 2017

Peter Mehlman visits The Diamondback on September 22, 2014. (Picture by Dave Ottalini)

Peter Mehlman signed the letter “Faith Michelle Kates.”

It was the late 1970s and Mehlman, a University of Maryland graduate, heard from a friend working at The Washington Post that the Post was trying to increase newsroom diversity and therefore wasn’t hiring white men.

But he wanted to work at the Post, so he inquired about a job and pretended to be a woman. The paper responded with a job offer for “Michelle,” putting Mehlman in a bit of a pickle.

“Then I had to write another later explaining the first letter,” Mehlman said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “And then off that letter, they invited me in and I got to meet with almost every big editor at the Post. It was like the greatest day in the world.”

Mehlman eventually took a job with the Post and began a professional career that has spanned nearly 40 years. The writer has plied his trade in newspapers, magazines, novels, online and, perhaps most notably, in television as a writer for the sitcom “Seinfeld.”

Before he worked at the Post, though, Mehlman was a student at Maryland. He majored in history, played a lot of basketball, wrote for The Diamondback and studied just enough to keep his GPA in respectable territory.

Even then he was a prolific writer, penning 60 articles for the student newspaper in one semester on the student government beat and contributing basketball sidebars for the sports section on the side.

When asked who his favorite basketball player to cover was, Mehlman doesn’t hesitate: “Oh, John Lucas.”

His first interaction with the three-time All-American point guard didn’t exactly follow standard journalistic practice.

“I opened up by saying, ‘Hi I’m Peter Mehlman and if you think you could play on the same court as Walt Frazier you must be out of your mind,’” said Mehlman, who grew up in New York and was a Knicks fan at the time, although his fandom has lapsed in recent years. “And he just cracked up and we became really fast friends.”

Although he didn’t major in journalism, he credits his time at The Diamondback and his journalism coursework with helping him hone the writing skill that has taken him all over the media landscape in his career.

“I really think that a journalism education is like the best education you can get,” Mehlman said. “It teaches you such great things like being observant and writing concisely. I just think I write better than most people because I was a journalism student.”

After Maryland, Mehlman took the job with the Post and wrote “everything from the racetrack to the Baltimore Orioles to Georgetown and a lot of college stuff.”

“Anywhere I could get my name in the paper, which is really the most important thing to do when you’re that young,” he said.

One story in particular Mehlman remembers writing at the newspaper was a 1980 piece titled “Club Lacrosse’s Dead-End Kids” in which he profiled Maryland lacrosse star Frank Urso and the lack of a league where the athlete could continue his career professionally.

In the article, Mehlman wrote, “In a previous life, Frank Urso was the most celestial lacrosse player in America—maybe the universe.”

“This was the Michael Jordan of lacrosse,” Mehlman remembers 37 years later. “It was just an interesting story to me and I kind of like that kind of story.”

Mehlman moved to television in 1982, writing for “SportsBeat with Howard Cosell” before migrating back to print with bylines in Esquire and GQ, among other publications in the late 1980s.

Also in that decade, he twice met Larry David in New York. Their paths crossed again in Los Angeles after Mehlman had moved to the city in 1989.

“We bumped into each other, which is a key point because luck is everything,” Mehlman said.

When they met in Los Angeles, David invited him to submit a script for “a little show with Jerry Seinfeld,” according to Mehlman’s website.

Mehlman had never written any kind of fiction or dialogue before, but, undeterred, he turned in an essay he’d written for The New York Times Magazine. David had extended the offer for script submissions to a handful of other writers, as well, but Seinfeld only liked Mehlman’s piece.

“Jerry didn’t take a shine to any of their scripts, but he loved the article, so I got a shot to write a Seinfeld script and the next thing I knew I was loaded,” Mehlman said.

His first episode came in the second season of “Seinfeld” in 1991. He submitted the script at the show’s offices and drove home. When he got there, a message from David was waiting on his answering machine.

“’We read your script the second you left and we absolutely loved it, you’re terrific,”’ Mehlman recalled, mimicking David’s Brooklyn accent on the machine. “As soon as I played that message I had an overwhelming feeling my life was about to change, just because I thought the show, from the three episodes I’d seen at that point, I thought it was the greatest show I’d ever seen.”

Over the next six years, Mehlman wrote or co-wrote over 20 Seinfeld episodes, eventually becoming a co-producer of the show and garnering five Emmy nominations.

Through all of the time he wrote with the show, however, Mehlman’s scriptwriting process never stayed the same from episode to episode.

“In the 20-some episodes I wrote, [the process] probably never happened the same way twice,” he said. “Having been from a journalism background, I spent a lot of time at ‘Seinfeld’ wrestling with the creative process, trying to goose creativity out of myself.

“It required a whole different thought process from journalism. In journalism you’re looking out at the world. In ‘Seinfeld’ it was much more beneficial to look inward and get in touch with your deepest thoughts.”

One of the final episodes Mehlman wrote for the show was “The Yada Yada,” one of the most popular episodes during the show’s run. He and co-writer Jill Franklyn were nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Script.

The episode aired near the end of the series’ penultimate season in 1997 and Mehlman felt it was a good time to step away from the show.

“I kind of knew the show was going to end after the next season and quite frankly I didn’t want to be one of, like, 10 ‘Seinfeld’ writers who was out there pitching new shows,” he said.

Even two decades later, he still has ideas for new “Seinfeld” episodes, from viewing the world around him.

“When you’ve been on a show like ‘Seinfeld’ where it’s so observational, you keep on coming up with these observations and going,  ‘Oh that would be such a good ‘Seinfeld’ moment,’” Mehlman said.

In the last year and a half, he has been trying his hand at stand-up comedy, performing in Los Angeles at The Improv, and opening for Jeff Garlin at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, California.

“I love it,” he said of his new on-stage career. “Of course, it’s a lot easier when you have nothing at stake.”

Mehlman isn’t sure what the future holds for him, and he likes it that way.

“I don’t really make plans,” he said. “I’m not a goal-oriented person. Everyone talks about how you have to set goals and my feeling is like, ‘Why limit yourself?’”

Dylan Sinn is in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism Graduate School at the University of Maryland.

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