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Notes From the Sitcom's Deathbed

''Seinfeld'' scribe reports on pilot season -- Peter Mehlman writes about the annual ritual in which writers pitch shows to network execs -- and pray

TUESDAY, AUGUST 19, 2003

Spent afternoon lolling around the DreamWorks animation campus in Glendale, Calif. The place is like Berkeley, warm and full-blooded with youth and grass and dreamy.

''Mehlman!''

Wheel around: It's Jonathan Berry, junior member of the three heads of DreamWorks Television.

''Peter, I was going to call you. It's almost pilot season.''

Ignore the rumors. L.A. does have four seasons: earthquake season, fire season, riot season, and the most ravaging — pilot season. Network TV keeps groping to win over an America it despises — a viewing public it sees as a blurry, fat, brainless blob of uninsured, Hemi-powered, God-fearing Wal-Mart clerks. I'm paid to entertain them.

''When should I come by your office?''

''Two-thirty.''

Jonathan races off. I turn, walk, and bump into Jonathan's bosses, Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey. Both are mid-30s, sharp, and smart. Makes you wonder why they chose not to contribute to society. I wonder that about myself. But that's our America: Harvard grads once wrote speeches for Jack Kennedy. Now they write dialogue for Jim Belushi.

We chat about ratings, producers, agents, and a guy who fell victim to identity theft. I say, ''No one has to steal my identity. They can have it.'' Darryl laughs: ''You gotta put that in a script!''

Sure. A funny line that doesn't end up in a sitcom. What good does that do anyone?

Justin says it's time for me to think up a new sitcom idea. Since the sitcom is like a terminally ill patient hanging on for no apparent reason, I want to say I'd rather be a travel agent on the Gaza Strip, but Justin gets a cell call.

I get an idea for a sitcom: 77 Gaza Strip.

Two-thirty. Jonathan's office. ''Oh, Mehlman, you didn't have to come over. Darryl and Justin told me they saw you. That's all I wanted to talk to you about.''

''Okay.''

''I'm sending you the Network Landscape.''

''Landscape?''

''The listing of what kind of new shows the networks are looking for. I send it to you every year.''

''Do I ever read it?''

''No.''

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 27

Today starts out as the kind of day I love. No plans. No meetings. Nothing. Still, I feel hemmed in, like the world will pop in at any moment. I have no wife, no kids, no responsibilities, and yet 40 times a day I mutter to myself, ''Christ, it never ends.''

Outside a Starbucks in Santa Monica with my dog, Izzy, a mutt with so many warring instincts ping-ponging through her head she never knows whether to beg for treats or sniff suitcases for anthrax. At the next table are a man and four women.

Idea for sitcom: A woman gets divorced from a polygamist and collects alimony from one man and three women.

Turn the other way. A young girl is reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Idea for sitcom: The Autobiography of Malcolm in the Middle.

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