“Seinfeld” writer Peter Mehlman takes on the culture war in “#MeAsWell”
By Danny Karel
Peter Mehlman’s particular form of satire — playful, a touch neurotic — has earned him a successful career. He was a writer and executive producer on the iconic TV show “Seinfeld,” responsible for some of the show’s most memorable bits and phrases including “double-dipping,” “shrinkage” and “yada yada.” He has contributed humor pieces to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Esquire. He’s a stand-up comedian. But, as Mehlman observes — and Arnie Pepper, the Pulitzer-prize winning sports journalist and protagonist of Mehlman’s latest novel “#MeAsWell,” discovers — these are not easy times to be funny.
Over the course of a whirlwind 48 hours, the fictional Pepper’s gilded career is threatened when an off-color joke questioning an NBA player’s masculinity slips onto social media. The wisecrack goes viral, and Pepper becomes the target of death threats, the wrath of the RMF (Radical Masculine Feminists), and faces the possibility of losing his job. This dramatic upheaval gives rise to more pressing issues: Is he not the good person he believed he was? Will his daughter, a bright young correspondent for NPR, still respect him? Where are the lines drawn in this new culture war?
Mehlman, 64, celebrates the release of his novel next Thursday (Nov. 21) at Budman Studios in Venice. He spoke to The Argonaut about the origins of “#MeAsWell,” the pros and cons of a “sensitive” culture, and how social media has whipped societal change into a frenzy.
“#MeAsWell” addresses gender politics, digital culture and social movements. How long have you been thinking about these topics, and what prompted you to write the book?
I wasn’t consciously thinking about these subjects — I mean, of course it’s almost impossible to not be thinking about them — but what caused me to write this book originally was reading an obituary of Philip Roth. The writer was talking about “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and I was wondering: What would I be as obsessive about as Portnoy was about his mother? And the funny thing is, the only thing I could come up with, that I had that many opinions on, was sports. So originally the book was going to be a little bit of a sports screed. But then, I don’t know, it just changed on its own. The idea about making one joke about an athlete and having it go viral just hooked into a whole bunch of different things that kind of consumed me, like politically incorrect humor.
Also, I have to say, that when the Harvey Weinsteins and the Louis CKs and Matt Lauers of the world go through what they are going through, I’m always wondering what their day-to-day life is like. You know? Going to restaurants, just the looks you get. Can you go out to dinner with your daughter? All that stuff just fascinates me.
The plot of the book unfolds over only two days. Why such a tight timeframe?
I wanted it to be really concentrated, to go into the immediate effects of what happens when somebody is caught up in one of these storms. I found that there was a wealth of little moments that you could get into, and obviously the book is a little bit exaggerated, just for dramatic and humorous effect.
Some might agree with Arnie Pepper that the culture is too “sensitive” now. Have we lost the ability to laugh at ourselves?
A few things about that. For one, everybody says, ‘OK, we’re all super sensitive now and these things go in cycles and it will swing back.’ I’m not that sure it will swing back. I don’t think we’re going to become less sensitive, and in certain ways that’s good. Even Arnie says that, in certain ways, there’s progress in political correctness because people are aware that they can so easily offend someone else. At the same time, it’s hard not to ascribe a lot of this to social media, because there are people sitting around just dying to be offended so they can lash out, because now everyone’s got a soapbox to lash back. … I’ve written the absolute most feathery little humor pieces for different publications, and the letters you get back are so vicious it’s amazing. To this day it never ceases to amaze me, the angry responses I get to stuff that, to me, are like unbelievably puff pieces.
Do you think this anger is new, or is it just that we have platforms to express what we weren’t able to express before?
There’s a bit of me that feels there are so many people in America now, so many people in the world now, who are more anonymous, in a way, than they’ve ever been. And when they look out to the select famous people in the world who get to express themselves, they’re like, ‘Why not me?’ I think people’s values have gotten a little more skewed. I like to think that people weren’t always like this.
You know, the funny thing is, it used to be that if you lived in New York you had no clue what a person in Oklahoma thought. Now you not only know, they literally respond to the stuff that you’re putting online, and you find out their opinions not even secondhand but right in your face. It’s crazy.
It seems that younger people intuit the new rules of culture a little bit better than older generations. This shows up in the book, too. What gives younger people the edge?
I think younger people are always more on the ball about things. The Baby Boomers were much more on top of things in the ’60s, and our parents were completely out of the loop. Now the Baby Boomers are the aging generation, and everything is happening so fast it’s really hard to keep up. We just hear about it, bits and pieces, from our kids and our kids’ friends.
Through my stand-up comedy hobby I meet a lot of young comedians. They’re very sensitive about where [topically] they can go, but at the same time they can go to certain areas that seem like they should be offensive but they’re not, you know? If they’re not getting laughs, they go right to some kind of anal sex joke and it’s hysterical, and they’re laughing, and the audience is laughing like crazy. I don’t know. It seems a little cheap. I think [Arnie Pepper] mentions this in the book, about how no matter how sensitive everybody is, an eight o’clock sitcom can make a joke about prison rape and somehow that’s OK. There are these weird rules.
What makes certain jokes OK and others not?
Humor-wise, there are certain people that can get away with just about anything, and most people can’t. Sarah Silverman is such a brilliant comic because the way she delivers her lines she can pretty much say anything, or Howard Stern can pretty much get away with saying anything. If you are just a no-name comedian, or an anonymous person on the street, it’s very dangerous to say the exact same thing that Sarah Silverman said. So a lot of it depends on your delivery.
Last question: If I were to ask Arnie Pepper the Lakers’ chances of winning a title this year, what do you think he would he say?
He would say their chances of winning a title are about a quarter as good as the chances of the Clippers winning the title.
An improvement from recent years! I’ll take it.
Mehlman celebrates the launch of “#MeAsWell” from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21, at Budman Studios, 361 Vernon Ave., Venice. RSVP at eventbrite.com.