Matthew Weiner: No Longer Linda's Loser Husband Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner joins us in Santa Barbara, Calif., to talk screenwriting, life before success, and his secret past as a Jeopardy! champion.

Matthew Weiner: No Longer Linda's Loser Husband

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OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and please welcome our VIP, the creator of the television series "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner.

(APPLAUSE)

MATTHEW WEINER: Hello, Santa Barbara.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Now, I know that this is, you know, a high-pressure game show environment for you, but it's not the highest-pressure game show environment that you've ever been part of.

WEINER: No, it's not.

EISENBERG: Because people don't know this - not everyone knows this, but Matthew Weiner was a "Jeopardy" champion.

WEINER: I was.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: You've got to tell us the story.

WEINER: It was the only money I earned for the first five years of my marriage.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: And I watched every day, and I'd watched through college and done badly in some classes 'cause it was on in the afternoon. But I am kind of a trivia person.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

WEINER: I grew up with, you know, the Guinness Book of records and "The Trivia Encyclopedia" and "The Book Of Lists," and I did that instead of reading books.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So you know that they say write what you know.

WEINER: Yes.

EISENBERG: And here - you were raised in LA. Your father was a neuroscientist.

WEINER: Yes - is.

EISENBERG: Is a neuroscientist. Your mother went to law school.

WEINER: Yes.

EISENBERG: So why write a show that is set in an ad agency in the '60s in New York?

WEINER: I don't know. No one's ever asked me that.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: I get asked a lot of stuff. I've never been asked that. I mean, when I was on "The Sopranos," I remember someone coming up to me and go, I heard you're the son of a Jewish doctor from Hancock Park. What are you doing here? And I'm like, well, I have what they call an imagination.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: I mean, you know, you dream of what you dream of. You know, I didn't change my name or anything like that. But I definitely thought this - I was interested in the period. I had worked in TV for a while. And certainly an advertising agency has all the same problems with the creative versus the business and the personality types and being a writer - a creative person that's being paid under the gun.

EISENBERG: Right.

WEINER: You know, you're given a lot of leeway, you know. You can play cards all day, and still - as long as you deliver, you know. When's it due is really what matters. So I sort of identify with the whole environment, and I just like the period, you know. I like the entertainment from that period, and I just - I don't know. It's - that's what it was.

EISENBERG: So - but you were - you didn't grow up in the '60s because you're...

WEINER: I was born - I'm the same age as baby Gene on the show. I was born in 1965.

EISENBERG: Oh.

WEINER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: I could understand why - because of the time period, too, why it spans so many ways. Like, people react to that time period in so many different ways. Like, that is an amazing...

WEINER: I think it was kind of forgotten in a way, too. I think the people sort of thought that it, you know, it sort of went from like, you know, Marilyn Monroe to Woodstock. And I don't think that they knew that there was this whole sort of like - they know about "Camelot," they know about the Kennedy assassination, but I don't think they know that this was a gradual change. You know, and I was just really interested in, like, if I got to do the show and cover 10 years in their life, even though the first season was all about how it's not the way you think it was, they were not innocent, when you got to the end, you'd look back and say, oh, they're so innocent...

EISENBERG: Right, they didn't know anything.

WEINER: ...because we're just human beings, you know.

EISENBERG: So when we watch the show - when I watch the show, "Mad Men," you know, it's cinematic, it's subtle. There's lots of subtext.

WEINER: Yeah.

EISENBERG: But did you get pressure from the network to give more exposition and maybe, you know, they were like, make it so everyone can understand what's going on.

WEINER: They - yeah, they had never made a TV show before.

EISENBERG: Right.

WEINER: I mean, I was kind of like - you know, I was the expert.

EISENBERG: Right.

WEINER: You know, and I had been standing next to greatness. I was on "The Sopranos" for the last three years of the show. You know, it was a huge hit, a multibillion-dollar industry when I showed up. And so I just sort of said well, over at "The Sopranos" - and I didn't know anything. I was - I was an employee, you know? I was a writer, but I was an employee. David Chase was the genius over there, so - but I used that trump card a lot. I was like well, David always said - if he knew the stuff that I said that he said...

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: David always said we should have a Starbucks run right around 3 o'clock.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: I know it's going to come out of the budget, but, you know, an army runs on its Starbucks. Napoleon actually said that.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Now, we're all about to experience the finale. But of course, you have had it in your head for many years.

WEINER: Yes.

EISENBERG: How many years? When did you have it?

WEINER: I knew what was going to happen when I pitched the show to AMC...

EISENBERG: OK, so...

WEINER: ...OK, but I didn't know how it was going to happen until probably three or four years ago. I know - I was listening to - I do not want to end up being a question on that previous quiz.

EISENBERG: Oh, that's hilarious - yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

WEINER: That's all I was thinking about, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: There couldn't be any more pressure on it anyway, so what am I going to say, like you're going to love it...

EISENBERG: Right.

WEINER: ...You're going to hate it. I don't know. I like it. Here - the writers liked it. The actors liked it - at least they acted like they liked it.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: And my wife liked it. And my wife hates everything.

EISENBERG: All right.

WEINER: She doesn't hate the show, but my wife does not lie to me. I'm very excited to, like - for people to see it, honestly...

EISENBERG: Oh yeah...

WEINER: ...Right, you know...

EISENBERG: I mean...

WEINER: ...And for it to be complete. I do have a feeling, you know, I didn't finish anything until I was 30 years old. I did not finish a script. I did not finish my thesis in college. I didn't finish that sentence. Like, I - I...

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: And the idea that we really finished this thing - I have, like, a certain - it's a kind of adulthood.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And it's 14 years between when you wrote the pilot and right now.

WEINER: And right now, 14 years - took seven to get on the air and we've been on the air for seven. And interestingly enough, there is a year - there are seven years between writing the pilot and writing the second episode, so - because I got to go on "The Sopranos" and go to school...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

WEINER: ...So that was very helpful. But, you know, never give up.

EISENBERG: Never give up.

WEINER: You just can't give up. Oh my God, you can never give up. I just can't believe that it happened. It exceeded all my expectations. I just think about, like, thing - having it and being told over and over again, even by people who thought the writing was good and it was an excellent pilot, whatever, that it would never work, that no one would be interested in it, that the hero was unlikable, that the period was too expensive, that - their greatest concern - and this really proved to be wrong - is that no one outside the United States would have any interest in the story because it's so American. And I was like this is the American hero era.

EISENBERG: That's right.

WEINER: And it's a story of a lot of successful people of the world, and I kind of wanted to say that, too. Like, in America, you can come from nowhere and from another country or from a West Virginia mining town and - or whatever - and make up your whole life and not know your parents that well or whatever and, you know, you may never heal from the wounds of that existence, but you can make it. You can really make it. I mean, it's just like this is a place for that kind of hope, so I wanted to tell that story.

EISENBERG: Well, that story and, I mean, frankly, your story of, like, here you are, a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood that everyone said no to...

WEINER: I was Linda's loser husband.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: You should know that. That was my title. I was the guy who you might ask to go get someone if they were coming in to the airport in the middle of the day.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Oh my God. And 14 years later...

WEINER: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...Creator of one of the greatest television series on TV...

WEINER: Oh.

EISENBERG: ...In most of our - in my life, that is for sure.

WEINER: Oh, thank you very much.

EISENBERG: So yeah...

WEINER: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: So this is what we've cooked up for you - we thought we would pitch you some modern products in the "Mad Men" style that you made famous.

WEINER: OK.

EISENBERG: And all you have to do is tell us what product we are pitching. And these are the stakes of the game. If you get enough right, Beth Goldman (ph) of Plano, Texas, is going to win a prize.

WEINER: OK.

EISENBERG: Yes.

WEINER: All right, Beth. That's a real place?

EISENBERG: Plano, Texas, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: That sounds like a writer - like, I need a town in Texas. It's tough - can't be Waco. It's got other associations. I need something.

EISENBERG: But short.

WEINER: I'm from Plano.

EISENBERG: Now, for this game, we had some friends - and by that, I mean some of your friends...

WEINER: Oh man.

EISENBERG: ...Record these clues.

WEINER: Oh, OK.

EISENBERG: So here's your first clue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VINCENT KARTHEISER: (As Pete Campbell) The world can seem a cold, indifferent place. But that's not how life started out for you. In her womb, your mother warmed you with her body. Now it's time to warm yourself in a blue polyester blanket with sleeves.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: The Snuggly. Is that Vincent?

EISENBERG: That is - that is. Yeah, Vincent Kartheiser agreed...

WEINER: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...To do that for us.

WEINER: That's fantastic.

EISENBERG: And I like that you said - you said Snuggly?

WEINER: It's not called the Snuggly?

(LAUGHTER)

WILL HINES, BYLINE: That's a better name than the real one...

EISENBERG: That is a better name.

HINES: ...Yeah.

WEINER: What's it called?

EISENBERG: Well, there's Snuggie and there's Slanket.

WEINER: I can't believe I added a letter. I'm sorry about that.

EISENBERG: It's OK. We might accept it, just so you know.

WEINER: All right, OK.

EISENBERG: Here's your next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JON HAMM: (As Don Draper) You can tell a lot about a man about what's in his suit jacket - a matchbook from a bar in Saint-Tropez, crumpled receipt from Tiffany's, chips from a casino in Marrakesh. That man only carries what he needs. And if he needs Philly steak and cheese, pepperoni pizza or cheddar cheeseburger, he can carry it in his hand in a steaming, microwavable crust pouch, a self-contained meal for the self-contained man.

WEINER: The Hot Pocket.

EISENBERG: That is the Hot Pocket.

(APPLAUSE)

HINES: What's interesting is that was Christina Hendricks. That's what's...

(LAUGHTER)

HINES: ...The most interesting thing.

EISENBERG: That was John Hamm doing his...

HINES: That was John Hamm.

EISENBERG: ...Don Draper. Have you ever woken up with a Hot Pocket beside you...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...With no explanations?

WEINER: I - no, I have not. But I have gotten the, you know, traditional third-degree burn on the roof of my mouth.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: The traditional - the patented three-degree...

WEINER: Yes.

EISENBERG: ...the promised, as advertised.

WEINER: You won't need that layer of skin.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: It's going to grow back nice and young. All right, here's your next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMM: (As Don Draper) Every woman has secrets. Every woman holds in and compresses her real self so the truth can't shake loose. Every woman should be able to change her shape. And here's why the name rhymes with thanks - it'll shock her how much her thighs don't move.

WEINER: (Laughter) Spanx, that's great.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: I do hate it when the truth shakes loose.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Here's your next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARTHEISER: (As Pete Campbell) In the time before mirrors, narcissist was fascinated by his reflection in the water. Since then, we've been obsessed with the way others see us. Today, you can capture every duck face on your phone, but you're still limited by the length of your arm. You deserve to know how you look from farther away. All you have to do is hold out for more.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: I don't - I don't know what they're called. I have one. I know...

EISENBERG: You have one?

WEINER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: Yes, it was given to me. I don't - my son uses it all the time to have a conversation and take a picture while you don't know it. What is that stick, the camera on the stick - what is that thing called? Oh, they just banned them in everywhere.

EISENBERG: In museums...

WEINER: In museums...

EISENBERG: ...And stuff like that.

WEINER: Yeah.

HINES: They're named after the type of photo of your - of you...

WEINER: Oh, so it's called a Selfie Stick?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

WEINER: Oh.

(APPLAUSE)

WEINER: These are very good. These are very poetic.

EISENBERG: All right, we've got a couple more. See if you get this next one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMM: (As Don Draper) In the "Rubaiyat," Omar Khayyam wrote, (reading) the moving finger writes and having writ moves on.

What else can the moving finger do? Cure loneliness. Swipe left and see a different face. Swipe right, and you're no longer alone because you know what you like as soon as you see it. And sometimes, all that matters is proximity.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: Tinder.

EISENBERG: Tinder.

(APPLAUSE)

WEINER: See? I'm not that old. I know Frank Sinatra and Tinder.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: And how do you know Tinder?

WEINER: I work in a writer's room.

EISENBERG: Oh yeah, so...

WEINER: I know everything that is in that end of the world.

EISENBERG: This is your last question.

WEINER: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMM: (As Don Draper) To be a pioneer is to build your own environment and rename things to your liking. I want to call my bookcase BILLY. I want to call my coffee table KRAGSTA, and I want to build them with my own hands and a little Z-shaped tool. Rename your environment, and try the tiny little meatballs.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: IKEA.

EISENBERG: IKEA. That is correct.

WEINER: Fantastic.

(APPLAUSE)

WEINER: I have this node on my wrist here from putting together a bunk bed for my son from IKEA.

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: I do remember, too, trying to climb up this thing and trying to get his tooth out from under his pillow for the tooth fairy thing and just hearing it going (imitates bed creaking).

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: And I was like, how am I going - (imitates bed creaking).

(LAUGHTER)

WEINER: What if this thing collapses (laughter)? He'll know there's no tooth fairy.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That is the real problem.

WEINER: Yeah, yeah (laughter).

EISENBERG: Well, you did it.

WEINER: All right.

EISENBERG: You got enough right, you and Beth Goldman.

(APPLAUSE)

WEINER: Your ads are great.

EISENBERG: Oh, thank you.

WEINER: They're really funny. All the questions on this are fantastic.

EISENBERG: Oh, thank you so much.

WEINER: I wish I had someplace to employ some of these people.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Well, fingers crossed. You're at a game show.

WEINER: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: Thank you so much. Matthew Weiner, everybody.

WEINER: Thank you, everybody.

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