The former “Seinfeld” scribe also bashes traditional TV writers’ rooms
David Mandel is one of only a handful of people in Hollywood not named Larry David who can legitimately claim to have written for both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” two of the most influential sitcoms of the past 20 years.
Still, he is quick to point out that he’s an odd selection for a feature bearing the “Writers' Room" stamp.
“Ironically — and this should be pointed out at the top — ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb’ are both unique in not having a writers' room,” says Mandel (pictured, directing an episode of "Curb"), by phone from the New York City set of “The Dictator,” a Sacha Baron Cohen movie that he co-wrote along with his longtime cronies Jeff Schaffer and Alec Berg. “And they were actually much better shows because they didn’t.”
With the eighth-season premiere of the HBO comedy arriving Sunday at 10 p.m. ET, we’ve decided to go through with our plan to interview Mandel anyway. In this sprawling discussion, the 40-year-old talks about what’s in store for Larry David this year, whether there'll be a ninth season of "Curb," and how he’ll approach writing the “Fletch” reboot. But first things first.
You say that “Seinfeld” didn't use the traditional writers' room format. Why do you see that as an advantage?
I think part of it was just the way Larry and Jerry came up with the show, and the way it originally started, with them basically writing all the episodes themselves and very slowly adding other writers. Since they didn’t come out of the TV factory, if you will, they came forward with a rather unique idea: A writer should pitch a story and then write a show based on that pitch. That goes against everything else that gets put on television, practically, at least in terms of sitcoms.
In the average sitcom, you sit in a room, and everybody pitches ideas and lines on your story. It’s either tape-recorded or notes are made by a writer’s assistant. And then it’s assigned to whoever’s turn it is. Therefore, you could pitch out a really great story, and it gets handed to the guy sitting next to you, who doesn't have enthusiasm for it. Or you could be given something that you don’t have enthusiasm for. It’s been a long time so I haven't been around rooms that much, but my understanding is you’re given what the room came up with, and you’re not expected to go too far afield from it. So at some point or another, you think, “Couldn't a monkey be taught to do this? Why do you need a writer?”
Whereas at “Seinfeld,” you didn’t end up with those “room” jokes that I can't stand — things that have sort of joke-like structures and joke-like rhythms, but are not jokes. You know what I mean?
You mean jokes that end with a rimshot?
Yeah, those sort of pass by in rooms — they’re just very “written” lines that no one would actually say. You know, someone says something that sets up [the payoff] like a Wiffle ball on a tee. Those are the kind of lines that come out of rooms, as far as I’m concerned.
Has the non-room approach to sitcoms made you feel prouder of the episodes you’re credited with having written?
I feel like there’s two things. One, I know what I did and what I didn’t do in my scripts, I’ll tell you that. Which is not to say that I didn’t write things for "Seinfeld" that Larry and Jerry added incredible stuff to. And obviously, the scripts were also elevated by the performances of the actors. But I can tell you very proudly that my draft went to the table. You know what I mean? So, I think on the one hand, there’s the pride of having more responsibility. But also, just in general, I feel like I’m a writer, as opposed to a guy in a room. That’s what I enjoy.
Do you feel lucky to have avoided the room system?
Yes. I mean, it’s a crazy system. It’s very easy for bad writers to hide, first of all. It’s very easy for lazy people to hide. You hear things like, “Oh, he’s great in a room.” I’m just like, “What the f— does that mean? Can he write a script?” And what’s worse is the room engenders further room work — meaning you rise up in a system where you have to speak just enough in the room and all of a sudden you’re co-executive producer of a show. You’re right on the precipice of being a show-runner or a creator. But the question is, can you write? Obviously, a lot of them can. But to me, it’s a system that sort of begets the system.
And I also think a lot of times when you’re writing like that, there’s a sense of jokes by acclamation, meaning whatever gets the best laugh in the room goes into the script. And it can be a great joke, but it can also sometimes just be an easy joke. And then also, sometimes, when that many people are writing, no one person is giving the viewpoint for a show.
One of the things I think that "Seinfeld" was really unique about was, very early on, it had a real viewpoint — Larry and Jerry’s viewpoint. And the writers that ended up working there, for the most part, we were a bunch of ex-New Yorkers who felt persecuted for various reasons, and we brought that to each show. When you’re in a room, it’s just done by committee and everything gets smoothed out and you lose hard edges and you end up, you know, with Jim Belushi arguing with Courtney Thorne-Smith about the garbage for three hours. [Pause] In every interview I’ve ever done, I try and slam the Jim Belushi show, so I just wanted to get that in.
Admit it: You submitted to work on “According to Jim” and got rejected.
Yes! They turned me down and I’m bitter and that’s why I’m on a revenge mission. No, I think I would have gone to medical school before I went to work for a sitcom like that.
Is it frustrating to have to wait so long between seasons of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
I always joke that “Curb” is my part-time gig because of how I got started on it. I work with Jeff and Alec — we’ve been writing together on and off since college and we’ve done a lot of movie stuff together. Basically, we were being thrown out of our “Eurotrip” offices — remember the great 2004 teen tit-com “Eurotrip”? — and we needed a place to go. We were always in touch with Larry, who was doing “Curb,” and he was just so happened to be looking for people to bounce ideas off of [for season five]. So we sort of traded his “Why don’t you come into our office?” to “Give us an office!” That’s how it started.
So we helped him write one of the seasons, and then from there, our roles sort of expanded, and we got into more day-to-day exec producing and directing. We do a season of “Curb” and then go back off to our little movie world, and then when he is ready to do more “Curb,” we do that. But oddly, I never think of myself as still doing TV. Because I’m not doing TV, I’m doing “Curb.” It’s a very different thing.
Because it's on HBO, or because it's Larry David?
Both. But if you told me that Larry was just a crazy millionaire making the show for himself and putting it on his own private TV station, that’s kind of what it’s like. He’s the ultimate judge and jury. There’s no network involvement. There’s no audience testing. There’s no “I don’t like our guy for that.” It’s ultimately what Larry thinks is funny. And dare I say, in the last few years, what sometimes I’m able to convince Larry is funny.
"Curb" has many obvious similarities with "Seinfeld" but how is writing for them different?
For one thing, the seasons are slower because we write all 10 shows and then we start production. It’s the slower process that allows us to get it right. You know what I mean?
At what point does HBO start pushing for completion?
Once we’ve done around five episodes, we kind of let people know we’re at five. And when we get to eight, they’ll start usually bringing the production people back in. I know everyone grouses about how long it took, but what’s funny is that, this year, these episodes could have started airing in the spring — but HBO wasn’t doing comedy until the summer. We could have been on a couple months earlier, probably.
So the ridiculously long hiatus is all HBO’s fault.
Yeah. There’s your headline. But I think rightfully so. You don’t really think of the “Curb Your Enthusiasm”/”Treme” power hour. They probably made the right decision.
The show shifts to New York at some point this season. Did you need to do that because you were out of ideas, like when “Laverne and Shirley” moved to Los Angeles?
Everyone’s always gone west. Laverne and Shirley went west. Lucy and Desi went west. No one ever went east, so I think that’s where we’re really reinventing the wheel here. No, honestly, look — first of all, it was fun. Also, the thing about the show is, despite the fact that it takes place mostly in a three-block area of the Palisades in Los Angeles, it’s a New York show that happens to be set in the Palisades. So, there was an internal logic. Larry is the quintessential New Yorker, even though he hasn't lived in New York in 20 years. It’s not like we took “The Dukes of Hazzard” and sent them up north. And the reason Larry goes to New York, I think people will really enjoy it. It’s a reason that only Larry David would go to New York for, or because of.
He goes out there to find a perfect marble rye, doesn’t he?
I don’t want to give up the reason! It’s going to happen five episodes in. I’ll just say that it’s an incredibly unique Larry David reason, and only he would do it. I’ll leave it at that. Honestly, you would hate me if I actually told you because you will enjoy it that much more. It is not arbitrary. He doesn't win the lottery and go there. He doesn't do it because he loses a bet, or anything of that nature. It is a genuine reason, that only Larry David could have.
Ah, so he go there because of a grudge.
It is grudge-related. It's grudge-adjacent. That’s all I’m saying! Changing the subject!
You coined the incredibly useful expression "man hands" with the "Seinfeld" episode "The Bizarro Jerry." Is that still the best line you've ever come up with?
Boy, it’s tough — I don’t even really think like that, is the honest answer. I mean, it’s probably “man hands,” or people using the word "bizarro." But I enjoy weird little lines that probably no one cares about. That’s what I like. I’m much more happy that there’s, like, a James Polk reference in that episode than I am specifically about the catch-phrasiness of “man hands.” I personally don’t think James Polk gets enough credit for the westward expansion of the United States of America. That’s my agenda. Other people have their own — but that’s my agenda.
There’s going to be a Polk reference in your “Fletch” script, isn't there?
Are you bringing any Larry Davidisms to your revamp of “Fletch”?
Look, I love "Fletch," I love "Fletch Lives" — there was nothing funnier than Chevy Chase back then. Like any other red-blooded American male, I can quote both movies at will. But because I loved that first movie so much, I devoured all of the books, the entire series, as a younger man and, you know, they definitely made their mark on me. Gregory McDonald wrote such amazing, crisp dialogue.
The differences between the books and the movies are small — but also huge. In the books, the Fletch character is not above using a fake name, and things like that. But there are perhaps fewer funny wigs and funny teeth. So I think there’s an opportunity to go back to the source material. I know, that’s very, like, J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" or "Batman Begins," but they’re not bad models. They're taking things that are very beloved and putting a new spin on them. But in no way [are they] saying that the past is bad, just going, “Here’s a new version.”
And I do think the Fletch character, in the books, is more of a character. He is more particular and has his own code of morality. I think Larry David has his own code of morality. And I think I have my own code of morality. There are certain things I wouldn't do. There are certain things that I consider to be ultimate betrayals. Whether you think they are or not, I do. And hopefully, I can bring some of that to Fletch, if that makes sense. What I’m basically saying is, the new Fletch is going to be a 50-year-old balding Jewish guy with glasses.
What’s the status on season nine of "Curb Your Enthusiasm"?
I’m in New York now, working on “The Dictator" with Alec and Jeff, and Larry’s sort of at the point of going, “So when are you guys going to be done?” He sort of starting with the “So, when are you guys going to be back in L.A.?” And I’ll say "September" and he’ll go, “Well, maybe we’ll talk then.” Which doesn’t mean there’ll be a season nine, but it also doesn’t not mean season nine, if you know what I mean.
Wait — so Larry doesn’t die at the end of season eight? Thanks for the spoiler alert!
Oh, maybe he does. You don’t know that. He could have meant the Jeff Garlin and Susie Essman spinoff.
Nice cover-up. And I suppose Larry did survive dying at the end of season five.
Exactly. I mean, he came back from that. If death can’t stop him, what can?