Creating a New Work History: 'Mad Men'

Host Liane Hansen speaks with Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, AMC's new show that centers on the high-powered world of Madison Avenue advertising agencies in the 1960's.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Don Draper is the protagonist of a new drama on AMC called "Mad Men." And this dapper character on the custom-made suit appears to have it made. The year is 1960, and as the creative director of a high-powered Madison Avenue ad agency, Draper, a classically handsome man with a chiseled chin and sleek black hair, inhabits a world where lightning up a smoke or pouring a drink in the office is just part of doing business. The wives are at home with the kids. Women in the office are secretaries or sex objects, sometimes both. Draper has a mistress. But in the series, he also hits on a client who says she never married because she never fell in love.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. JON HAMN (Actor): (As Don Draper) When you mean love, you mean big lightning bolt to the heart where you can't eat and you can't work and you just ran off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.

HANSEN: That's the actor John Hamn as Don Draper, the main character on the new original drama series "Mad Men" on AMC. Matthew Weiner is the creator and executive producer of the series, and he joins us.

Thanks for your time.

Mr. MATTHEW WEINER (Executive Producer, "Mad Men"): Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: Give us the definition of "Mad Men."

Mr. WEINER: It was supposedly a phrase coined to describe the executives in the late '50s at Madison Avenue who worked in advertising. They call themselves mad men. So it was a great title and a great piece of self-promotion that showed who they were.

HANSEN: This is the time when advertising was really ramping up as a medium and it's an interesting world. What is it about it that compelled you to create a series about it?

Mr. WEINER: Well, I was interested in where we are now and I'm fascinated by advertising as are a lot of creative people and a lot of people in general when it's good, it's so entertaining. And when I started realizing what these men did and what their contribution was, and what - where they were in New York that there were these rock stars. And also, I work in television and it's a very similar world.

HANSEN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WEINER: That's a world of ego and creative people can't be pushed too hard so they're given a lot of leeway. They are allowed to drink, and they're allowed to come in late and they're allowed to be mean to their bosses, you know. So I loved all that.

HANSEN: 1960 was also a watershed year. It sort of that great wall that came down in culture, certainly American culture. Why did you want to set this series in 1960?

Mr. WEINER: Well, I'm glad to hear you say that. I don't know that it was really recognize as that. I think when I looked at 1960, it was a watershed year. It was the height of the '50s. There was a lot of counter-culture, a lot of subversion as the election revealed, subversion in the sense that people were not taking the American dream for granted. There was so much prosperity that people started thinking about other needs in their lives and you heard people talking about intolerance, inventing the bomb and, you know, the election was that close.

So that, in addition to the fact that the pill came out then, a lot of women flocked to New York just to be in the secretarial poll but, certainly, there was an influx of women into the workforce even at a low level. Also, I think that a big change really was happening and I don't know how to describe what made it take place, but there is definitely a before and after 1960.

HANSEN: One constant, I think, in any story that's been told about any decade is the dynamic between men and women. I mean, you can look at it any different number of ways that is presented in this series, I mean, because it is the nether world...

Mr. WEINER: Right.

HANSEN: ...between the bohemian below 14th Street and, you know, the office manager, the wife with the puff skirt, the woman who's trying to own her father's department store, the new...

Mr. WEINER: Right.

HANSEN: I mean, this is like these archetypes...

Mr. WEINER: That's a - yeah.

HANSEN: ...bullet bras and birth control pills. What are you saying about what these women that you've created want?

Mr. WEINER: I do believe that sexist behavior, although, it's unconscionable in the office place, you should be sue. It does not belong in domestic situations. I do believe that it is the biological basis of sexual attraction. And that I try to keep alive in there somehow, you know, Pete Campbell tells a story to Peggy about hunting and this fantasy about going into this cabin and seeing this woman there after he's killed this animal.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. VINCENT KARTHEISER (Actor) (As Pete Campbell): And I'd go into the cabin and there'll be this woman waiting for me, standing by one of those old stoves with a big black pipe. And I'd hand it to her, and she put it in the cast iron skillet. And then, I'd set up the table and she'd bring it to me. And I wipe my knife on my knee and then I would eat it while she watches.

Ms. ELISABETH MOSS (Actress): (As Peggy Olson) That would be wonderful.

Mr. WEINER: Women love men because they kill things.

HANSEN: Yes. And she just listens with her, you know, little mouse ears and she breathes and, you know, she's the new girl who comes in to the office pool and so forth. Can I ask you a question?

Mr. WEINER: Sure.

Mr. WEINER: Is it my imagination or do her bullet bras get bigger under the knitted sweaters as the series goes on for seven episodes?

Mr. WEINER: And there is no imagination necessary. There is something physically happening to her and it is happening upstairs.

HANSEN: One of the great artifacts you have throughout this are the ashtrays that everybody uses because everybody's...

Mr. WEINER: Yes.

HANSEN: ...smoking all the time. I have to ask, what kind of deal did you have to make with the actors to get them to smoke so much?

Mr. WEINER: Well, they smoke herbal cigarettes. And quite honestly, I don't let actors who have never smoked or who don't smoke smoke mostly because they don't look good doing it. And then the other thing is that actors love smoking in scenes the same way they love eating in scenes because the most difficult thing, and you can ask this from Jack Nicholson down to someone doing a sit 'n sleep commercial, the most difficult thing to deal is with your hands. And the minute you have a piece of business - and I write a lot of business because it's my actors are great actors and they want to do the stuff and they can. So that business of smoking is actually to be used for punctuation, for emphasis.

In the pilot, Rachel Menken, you know, when she's done with the meeting she takes her cigarettes and stamps it out in a shrimp cocktail that they've provided her, not realizing that she may not eat that.

HANSEN: Yes. Yes.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Ms. MAGGIE SIFF (Actress): (As Rachel Menken) You are right, Roger. This place really runs on charm.

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (As Don Draper) This is ridiculous.

Mr. JOHN SLATTERY (Actor): (As Roger Sterling) Don.

Mr. HAMM: (As Don Draper) I'm not going to let a woman talk to me like this. This meeting is over. Good luck, Ms. Menken.

HANSEN: Smoking is rampant in this series and...

Mr. WEINER: Yes.

HANSEN: ...at one point, the ad agency is charged with the account of a tobacco company that needs to market cigarettes again and they are able to market it on the line it's toasted.

Mr. WEINER: Yes. The smoking is somehow alarming to people and they think it's somehow historically inaccurate or that I'm doing it for effect. And what they don't realize is people used to go to the doctor and measure their smoking in packs of cigarettes. This is not excessive. And there are people who don't smoke. But people who smoked, smoked all the time. They smoked everywhere. I was born in 1965 and I grew up with a smoker and I am completely speaking from experience.

And in terms of their interest in the consumer culture, what's kind of interesting about what I'm saying about advertising, I think, and I'm not trying to educate the public about advertising. Trying to educate them about the fact that their wishes and desires are what make them buy things. And that sometimes the strictness of a campaign, that Don is smart enough to realize, that the qualities of the product are completely unrelated to the product. If something is dangerous, the answer is don't think about it. And that is how Don lives. He could have taken the route of doing the death wish, which I think in some level is what Marlboro did with this cowboy who is, you know, I'm so tough. These cigarettes can't kill me. I'm going to Marlboro country. What is that? That is definitely a cemetery of some kind.

HANSEN: Uh-huh.

Mr. WEINER: And Don says no. I'm interested in making people feel good about themselves. And so it is an ostrich-like behavior but it is the root of - it is another sales technique and then in the end it tells us a lot about Don.

HANSEN: We see Don in his home, actually, ignoring the danger that lurks. It's a domestic scene. And one of Draper's children comes into the room and she's wearing a plastic dry-cleaning bag over her head. And mom, Betty, gets upset and it's not because her daughter might suffocate, which is what we look at through our eyes, but basically she's - well, let's - we the scene. Let's hear it.

Mr. WEINER: Okay.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Ms. JANUARY JONES (Actress): (As Betty Draper) Sally Draper, come over here this minute. If the clothes from that dry cleaning bag are on the floor of my closet, you're going to be a very sorry young lady.

HANSEN: She runs (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: ...you'll find one on the floor of the bedroom.

Mr. WEINER: Yeah. Listen, we grew up with our car seats and all these things and it is not - I don't know, I have four children and I do think we are too protective of them on some level. But I just want to show the fact that this is definitely - I remember that.

HANSEN: It's an interesting route to tap because even in 1960, there was a certain fatalism about the - the nuclear age, you know.

Mr. WEINER: Absolutely. And I think that that entrance into the modern age of fear, on some level, which is one of the things that comes when you're not worrying about your everyday existence. When you're not worrying - when there is prosperity, other things come into play. What am I here for?

HANSEN: Matthew Weiner is the executive producer and creator of the AMC original series "Mad Men." A marathon of episodes is being broadcast this weekend.

Thanks.

Mr. WEINER: Thank you very much, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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