How to Write a TV Show: Secrets from Seinfeld

The man who gave the world "yada, yada, yada" and "shrinkage" gives you an inside look at writing the best sitcom ever.

By Peter Mehlman
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2014

department of wit seinfeldSteve Wacksman for Reader’s Digest

Before instructing you on how to create the next ratings-busting, pop-culture-cracking, bazillions-earning sitcom, I offer this cautionary tale:

In 1992, when Seinfeld struggled for Wednesday night ratings, “The Virgin” episode featured a plotline in which George Costanza inadvertently caused his girlfriend, Susan, to lose her job. NBC executives took offense, calling George callous and unlikable. The writing staff tinkered, making George more regretful and less unlikable.

A mere four years later, when Seinfeld was a hit on Thursdays, an episode called “The Invitations” featured a plotline in which George inadvertently caused Susan to … die.

The same executives had no objections.

The moral of the story: If you compromise in order to stay on the air, your show may survive long enough to become the sitcom of your dreams. (And oh: When you get a better time slot, don’t emulate Larry David and say to a reporter that if people didn’t watch on Wednesdays, you don’t want them on Thursdays.)

Producing a sitcom is a walk through a minefield. At any moment, a wrong step can doom any project. How to navigate this minefield is a mystery roughly equal to man’s rise to the top of the food chain. The (somewhat) good news is, through years of heady success and blistering failure, I can (maybe) steer you toward a (slim) chance of sitcom glory.

OK, let’s get to work.

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  • Your Comments

    • hagar2935

      Seinfeld was one of the stupidest TV shows ever! Hated it!

      • Patrick Lawrence McCormack

        Seinfeld was NOT one of the stupidest TV shows ever. It tied for that “honor” with a multitude of shows.

        • hagar2935

          That doesn’t mean anything when a show is written to appeal to people with only an 8th grade education………..

      • Jim_in_WNC

        Which comedy show is your favorite?

        • hagar2935

          Our television comedy went down the sewer after the ’60′s, with few exceptions. MASH was one of the better shows. But I still preferred the comedy shows of the Bob Hope era. In those days we knew how to laugh without being vulgar!

    • Gus Mueller

      A family of incest survivors takes in their ailing uncle/perpetrator when he has nowhere else to go. The running joke is that the children are so sexually precocious he is no threat to them and he has to spend long periods in the bathroom dealing with his frustration.

    • Paulo

      How ’bout including tips on how to get access to tv executives in order to pitch a pilot.

    • Poopdeck

      I got an idea. A Sign-Language using Gorilla decides to run for president. His unexpected popularity causes the main candidate in the race to offer him the vice presidency after the primaries. They run in the general election and win. The United States now has a gorilla for vice-president. Hilarity ensues.

      • Patrick Lawrence McCormack

        but the gorilla has an affair with a chimpanzee and there is something about bananas…