Breaking Out of TV and Into Novel Writing

With no algorithm or grasp of what an algorithm is, Peter Mehlman has produced a slew of oppressively precise statistics here based on nothing. Despite his mastery over a calculator being limited to subtraction, his statistics should compare favorably to the exactitude of say, the Nielsen ratings, so here it goes ...
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With no algorithm or grasp of what an algorithm is, I’ve produced a slew of oppressively precise statistics here based on nothing. Despite my mastery over a calculator being limited to subtraction, my statistics should compare favorably to the exactitude of say, the Nielsen ratings, so it here goes:

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Peter Mehlman, after whom a hypochondriacal giraffe was named in the Madagascar movies, lives in Los Angeles where he writes essays, screenplays, NPR commentaries and hosts the Webby-nominated YouTube series Narrow World of Sports. His most recent short story collection, MANDELA WAS LATE, has just been published by The Sager Group. He grew up in Queens, New York, and graduated from the University of Maryland before writing for the Washington Post and ABC’s SportsBeat with Howard Cosell. He has also written for Esquire, GQ, the New York Times Magazine and virtually every Conde Nast women’s magazine because of his powerful grasp on what women want. He was a writer and co-executive producer of Seinfeld. Associated with the show through nearly all of its nine-year-run, he is remembered for coining such terms as “sponge worthy” and “yada, yada”, the latter of which has been included as an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. For more info, please visit www.pmehlman.com.

MANDELA WAS LATE-front cover

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- 22.639% of sitcom writers haven’t written a full script in the past calendar year.

- 18.27% haven’t written a full sentence in the past calendar month.

- 98.672% of the time, it is unnecessary to put the word “calendar” before either the word “year” or “month.”

- 63.79% of all sitcom writers are moonlighting on a screenplay an yet only...

- 0.00012% of all working sitcom writers aspire to someday writing a novel sometime.

As you can readily discern, making the transition from writing half-hour comedy to prose -- you know, actual writing – is shockingly rare. While both pursuits require imagination and typing, somehow sitcom writers and real writers have almost nothing in common.

I’ve put some thought into the reasons for this but not a lot because I’m busy. Nevertheless, main conclusion: 83.36% of sitcom writers like the job title WRITER but what they want is not to write but to be in show business. Which is fine: show business is fun and lucrative and incredibly glamorous in the eyes of people who aren’t in show business.

Secondary conclusion: Where you start has a big impact on where you wind up. Majoring in English literature or journalism in college implies a certain level of high literary hopes right from the get-go. While novel writing usually requires advanced education and/or vast amounts of reading, sitcom writing success can be achieved -- and in 71.883% of cases has been achieved -- by virtue of being one of the five funniest people in ones frat house.

But for that 0.00012% of sitcom writers saddled with literary dreams, seguing is tough. After all, when you land a writing job on a sitcom, you land in a highly constricted world. The characters and their environment are already set as is the overall voice of the show. Right there, the individuality of a writer is cut down by 79.22%.

Over time, those limitations become quite comforting. The sitcom writer develops get a sixth sense for the boundaries of the show and, if it’s a hit, can live very happily ever after inside them.

However, if that writer takes a stab at literacy, the sudden lack of parameters can be dizzying, if not thoroughly nauseating. In fact, even the transition to creating one’s own sitcom is daunting: Inventing all new characters in new settings washes away many of the protective rules you’ve lived by for years.

So it’s understandable that making the leap to writing a novel is especially treacherous. Now all traces of your past comfort zone are wiped clean. Suddenly you have to deal with crazy stuff like “sentence structure” and “cogent thought.” Gone are the days when you could rely on talented actors to interpret your words and make them come alive. Suddenly, in lieu of your world being formulated by the eyes of production designers, location scouts and costumers, you have to use something so grotesquely alien to you as the adjective (AJ-ik-tiv).

When I took a sabbatical from script writing to focus on prose, the transition was easier than it would be for most because I started out my career as a writer for the Washington Post. The job required observation, interpretation and clean, grammatical (!) writing. In fact, even while happily ensconced in something as magical as Seinfeld, a part of me missed writing full sentences. Sure, Seinfeld prioritized the clever turn of a phrase more than 99.97236% of all sitcoms ever. But there was a limit to that. A beautiful prose sentence usually has no place in script dialogue, no matter how high-falutin the project.

However, in other ways, Seinfeld was a gateway to novel writing. The best Seinfeld scripts came out of small observations of people, social manners and one’s own thoughts. It made me hyper aware of all those things and that was something that translated well into writing (hopefully) literary fiction. When Seinfeld ended, I knew I’d continue coming up with story lines for the show because my mind was trained to do so. For a while, I thought I’d have no repository for those kinds of ideas but years later, they were a treasure trove of fodder for a novel.

Can you have a treasure trove of fodder?

Maybe it was a silo of fodder. (See? That’s the kind of stuff you have to deal with when you now longer have a sitcom “bible” leading you by the hand.)

The good news is, if you can get past the initial rockiness of making the transition to prose, the process can be enjoyable. With no Show Runner or “Network Head of Comedy” hovering over your every word, life suddenly feels full of possibility, freedom and fresh air. Momentum takes over and, in 31.863924% of cases, sitting down at the computer is no longer torture.

Over a mere nine months, I wrote a 350-page novel called It’s Not Always Going To Be This Great. I got a New York literary agent in no time who is desperately struggling to, and right on the verge of failing to, find a publisher. But that’s okay – not great, but okay -- because the actual work was so gratifying. Honestly, 48.669345603% of the time, I’m really happy I gave up on sitcoms and wrote a book.

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Follow me on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Check out my humor book, Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl.
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