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 seinfeld

Steve 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.

Steve Wacksman for Reader’s Digest

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