Hollywood & Vine |
with Post Style correspondent Sharon Waxman
Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2000; 2 p.m. EDT
Washington Post Style correspondent Sharon Waxman brings Hollywood & Vine Live Online for a discussion on the inner workings of the movie industry. There is a whole political universe behind how the movies happen, the tug and pull of egos, financial imperatives, a pecking order of privileges as well as genuine creative impulses.
Waxman is on hand to answer your questions and field your comments on the industry personalities she has met; the movies that are causing a stir and why; trends in the industry and the culture of moviemaking in general.
Today's guest is writer and producer Peter Mehlman. Mehlman wrote and produced the hit television series "Seinfeld," and wrote many Seinfeldisms, including "spongeworthy" and "shrinkage." His most famous show is the "Yada Yada."
In 1997, Mehlman joined DreamWorks and created the series "It's Like, You Know..." skewering L.A. culture, starring Jennifer Grey.
He has also written for the Washington Post, wrote and produced for the television series "SportsBeat," and was a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, GQ and Elle.
The transcript follows...
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Sharon Waxman: Welcome all to Holly and Vine.
As promised, with us is the famous Peter Mehlman (oh sorry, also "and handsome" -- and did I mention rich and single?) to talk about television, comedy, life in the tarpits of Los Angeles, or the Santa Monica canyon, whatever.
As promised, he will answer any and all questions, and if he doesn't I'll whack him over the head, not to worry. We've got a bunch of questions already, so here we go.
I think that it is great that you are taking questions. I have two.
Why do you think that "It's Like..." didn't connect the way Sienfield did? I thought it had all the trappings of a great comedy series.
What advice would you give aspiring comedy writers? Do you think that a stand-up background helps?
Thanks in advance.
Peter Mehlman: ILYK didn't really get the chance to connect with the audience. It was wildly underpromoted by ABC not so much because they didn't like it but because they couldn't pigeonhole it in a particular genre. So basically, they didn't know what to do with it. Also, Seinfeld didn't really connect for a long time either. It wasn't until the fourth season that it caught on (second full season). the way things are now, the networks want instant ratings or they just move on. But thanks for liking ILYK.
As far as advice for comedy, all I can tell you is what I learned at Seinfeld: be aware of your tiniest thoughts at all time and leave yourself open to good influences like Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, Philip Roth, John Updike... anyone who's incisive and funny. As for Stand-up, I really think it's a totally different art form. And while it can let you see what audiences respond to, the fact is, stand-up is kind of dead these days and the audiences are not exactly highbrow...
Hi Sharon and Peter. Peter, what shows do YOU watch on TV? The last few months, the only TV I watch anymore is on HBO: Sex & the City, The Corner, etc. I even watch all the reruns of the Sopranos because I'm scared I'll go into a coma watching the mind-numbing drivel that passes for TV shows on the non-cable stations. Please tell me it won't be like this forever...
Peter Mehlman:The only shows I watch are West Wing, Soprano's, NYPD, Law and Order... and occasionally Ally MacBeal. I can't tell you how much I HATE Sex in the City. It's vulgar, dumb and completely lacking in even one original thought, At it's best, it does a mediocre job of rehashing observations that Erica Jong made thirty years ago... and she did it much better.
Sharon Waxman: Can't disagree more on Sex In the City, but what do I know - married, and not a comedy writer. But it makes me laugh... So I wanna know: Peter, are you watching anything in the new TV season?
Peter Mehlman: Why yes, Sharon! I'm watching the new Geena Davis show religiously!!!! Honestly, no. I can't watch any of these show. You see, I am the kind of person who CAN take his eyes off a car wreck.
How can I put this... I thought that the finale was... well.. lacking. Why did they ask a guy (sorry, the name escapes me) to write the last show who had previously stated that he was "tapped out" and had to, as I understand it, be courted to do it? Do I have this wrong? Please correct me if I do.
Peter Mehlman:The Seinfeld finale couldn't possibly live up to your expectations. Frankly, I thought it was pretty funny although, in retrospect, there was a big mistake. The thoughtlessness and callousness our heroes displayed in the finale was a lot worse than what they normally perpetrated and so maybe that turned some people off. But at least we stuck to our guns: the heroes never learned anything, they never hugged... they just wound up in jail having the same conversations they always had in a coffee shop.
Sharon Waxman: Sorry to interject -- there are many good questions that Peter will get to in a minute -- but I'd like him to talk a little bit about a pilot that he's written. I believe it's a dark comedy - something new, I gather, though I've not been privileged to actually READ it -- and that has made the rounds at some of the studios. Peter can you tell us a little bit about the concept of the show, and what the hazing process is in trying to get a studio's attention, interest and green-light? Is it as frustrating as we have always heard, or are the networks beating down your door, or are they numskulls as nearly every writer in my travels in Hollywood has told me thus far (apols to Stu/Scott/Les and all the other brain-trust members running our television universe).
Peter Mehlman: I have a new pilot I've been shopping around. It's a (very) dark comedy called "The White Album." It is very different and I think (and have been told a thousand times) extremely funny. It is somewhat David Lynch-like. It concerns a guy who's a lifelong do-gooder who is wrongly accused of murder. It takes place in a fictional American city called Urbana Dekay.
The network selling process has been mind boggling thus far. At NBC, the top brass LOVED my pilot and then rejected it, suggesting I submit it to HBO. This is essentially saying, "This is too good for us but we've conceded the high ground to HBO so you should go there." I feel like I'm the last person in LA who feels that comedy on network television should have some potential. I am having a meeting with ABC about the show tomorrow. Six months ago, I said I wouldn't go back to ABC if the future of Israel depended on it. Now my question is, are you allowed to eat shit on Yom Kippur?
Does it piss you off to see so much crap on TV, knowing that you could do and have done so much better?
Can you be credited with the line, "My boys need a home"?
Peter Mehlman:I don't really remember who came up with that line. On Seinfeld, it was the ideas for episodes, not the jokes, that were important.
Mr. Mehlman -- or since you're the famous, rich, handsome, single guy, -Peter- -- what do you think of the Michael Richards show?
Peter Mehlman:I wish Michael and the producers all the best but I think they fell into a trap... When you conceive of a show based purely on a star actor -- as opposed to a concept you love -- you're making a deal with the devil. I would never cast a show before writing it. But like I say, I love Michael and many of the people slaving away on his show so... good luck.
Sharon Waxman: Well I've seen the pilot, or they're not calling it the pilot, since they already trashed that months ago, they're calling it the first episode. Anyway, they're not going to air that, according to NBC chief Garth Ancier who I spoke to last week (we're doing a story on this train wreck, upcoming soon). Anyway, Garth has good instincts on this one; the 'first episode' -- where they introduce the characters, but why would we need to see that? -- is deeply unfunny. Tim Meadows has this bizarre foible where he's a ... "pervert" who gets an assignment to the Bahamas where there's some beauty contest. Fear! Horror! He gets this frozen look on his face when he hears this which results in... viewer confusion.
I too shall wish them luck. They'll need it.
How was Seinfeld to work with? Was it a collaborative environment on the show, or was it clear there was a star?
Peter Mehlman:Jerry was a dream to work with and the most unselfish actor imaginable. He was always giving up funny lines to the other actors in ways no big star does. Of course, Jerry was also pretty tough on writers and had no problems firing people. After the first two seasons on the show, I felt like I'd walked through a minefield... that's how many writers were fired. But after that, Jerry made me feel like permanent family and it was as gratifying as anything I could imagine. I love the guy...
Ally McBeal became unfocused last season, possibly because David Kelley stretched himself too thin. What do you think of the current practice of buying multiple shows from the same producer-writer? When the success of television show like Ally McBeal depends on the voice of a particular writer, anything that that dilutes or overextends the writer can't be a good idea.
Peter Mehlman:Great question.
The best shows do have a singular voice and it is so hard to find writers who are capable of adapting the voice of the show's creator. I think that my work as freelance writer for magazines ranging from GW to Elle to The NY Times, made me a more malleable writer and helped me succeed at Seinfeld.
As for Ally, I agree it has tailed off in the past two years and I think David Kelly would agree. I'm pretty sure he plans to rein things in this season. (Robert Downey Jr., the second best actor of his generation after Sean Penn, would make things interesting. I do think that one producer doing so many shows is a mistake. But when you have a hit maker like David Kelly (a great guy, by the way) the networks strive to suck him dry.
IIRC "Seinfeld" was originally rejected by all three (at the time) networks for being "too New York." After it became a hit, it set off a period in TV history in which almost all sitcoms were about single white professionals living in Manhattan. My favorite comedy is "King of the Hill," partly because it's about a middle-class family in Texas.
My real question: People often complain that there are too many shows about free-wheeling single life and not enough about families. There are also too many shows set in New York and L.A. Is part of the reason for this that most writers (and perhaps other TV people) live a big-city no-kids lifestyle and can't write realistically about other kinds of people's lives?
Peter Mehlman:Not a King of the Hill Fan but, that's what makes horse races.
I think you make an excellent point about writers out here: they have so little life experience. The fact that I had three other writing careers before Seinfeld was an advantage. Most writers go to Harvard to learn how to write Sitcoms... how sick is that???
I think there are so many shows about single people because the sex is more illicit and appeals more strongly to prurient interest. Also, you MUST understand: The networks truly believe that you, the viewers, are incredibly stupid.
You've worked with several casts -- is there an actor you thought was most talented and had the most fun working with? I'd ask the opposite -- least talented and no fun -- but I imagine you'd refrain, depending on future work.
Peter Mehlman:Julia Louis-Dreyfus was astonishing to work with. You never knew how she was going to say your lines, but she'd always make them better than you wrote them. She is the rarest of the rare: pretty, smart, funny and so normal.
If you saw the documentary episode of It's like, you know... AJ Langer, in her interview scenes, was incredible. It was always exciting to watch her work.
I couldn't possibly mention who I considered a bad actor. After all, I wrote a couple of BAD Seinfeld episodes ("The Scofflaw" )
New York, N.Y.:
Peter, do you miss writing for print? Of your two careers, do you prefer one over the other? Is it easy to make the transition?
Peter Mehlman:Yes, I do miss writing for print. I miss writing full sentences. I think I'm better at writing full sentences than dialog. But a great script seems much more achievable than a great work of prose. After reading the last three Philip Roth books, I never wanted to write prose again. But no script ever made me feel like that. I think the transition is easier going from print to scripts than visa versa. Print people are generally interested in actually writing well. Screenwriters are more interested in getting their work produced. So it's definitely preferable to come to screenwriting from a real writing background. Really good question... and why are you at this web site if you live in NY? Are you from DC?
Wow, I'm so glad to hear an "insider" admit that the execs really have little respect for viewers, and actually believe we're stupid, bubbly-headed couch potatoes.
Do they view the L.A. market differently than, say the midwest or New Englanders?
But how much do we help when wrestling dominates cable ratings and four nights a week of "millionaire" still hasn't satiated the public's appetite for mindless quiz shows?
Peter Mehlman:To some degree, the audience gets what it deserves: CRAP.
But, if the audience is given the opportunity to get used to something smart -- if they're given an opportunity to actually learn -- they will take it. Look at the ratings of West Wing... and can you imagine a more left wing, elitist show? On Seinfeld, we did episodes about John Cheever, chocolate Babka... and everyone tuned in anyway.
Re: the David Kelley question and stretching too thin. Though I love love loved "Sports Night," do you think the same could eventually have been said about Aaron Sorkin? Every story on the guy talked about how frazzled he was trying to keep it and "The West Wing" going. Sharon, you spent time with him, what do you think?
Peter Mehlman:I liked Sports Night too but it's biggest problem was that it wasn't quite as funny as SportsCenter. Now, just because a show lasts a half hour, it shouldn't mean it MUST be funny. But that's the way the networks are. In fighting for the show, I hear Aaron Sorkin told ABC, "I swear, I'll make it funnier." I think Aaron's a great writer but funny? I haven't seen that side yet.
Sharon Waxman: Not funny? Didn't you see the episode on West Wing where CJ has emergency dental surgery? Was I the only person who peed themselves? On Aaron - he must think I'm becoming obsessed with talking about the guy, Aaron I assure you I'm not -- his two shows, written simultaneously, were better than 80 percent of the rest of the drivel on television, so I'll take Aaron's overtired, over wrought, overstressed writing over most of the TV-land writers any day. I suspect that a lot of writers do BETTER under stress, when the adrenaline flows (I do, anyway). We'll see how the new season looks.
So that's gotta be it folks. We've gone over, and still not gotten to tons of good comments and questions. Guess I should have guests on more often. Peter, thank you so much for coming - good luck launching your new pilot, we know that it will find a home, and if it is HBO - too bad for the network. See you next week.
Peter: Thanks. Bye....
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