Stuart Elliott's Take On the Cultural Significance of MAD MEN
By Tim McHale
The New York Times Advertising Column is an industry institution, though it has little to do with the fact that it was the only newspaper back in the Mad Men era that had an Advertising Columnist on staff.
Notwithstanding its history, in today's environment the past accounts for nothing. The Advertising Column is a must-read (and email open) due to one writer, Stuart Elliott.
I've had the good fortune of "interviewing the interviewer" of record three times before. It's been a thrill each time. When Stuart joined our MAD MEN Facebook group last year we began corresponding together about getting together to catch up. But when the New York Times Magazine ran its recent article on the program and labeled it the "Best show on television," I called Stuart and told him I would not take no for an answer. We met at The New York Times, in their beautiful, brand-spanking new building on 41st and Eighth Avenue.
Kicking off this Sunday, Mad Men's Season Two picks up in 1962, right before "the 60s" really began. Who knows what lurks ahead? Here to tell what it's meant so far is "The 5th Beatle of Madison Avenue":
Tim: How's it going?
Stuart: It's going very well, thanks!
Tim: So, what's your take on MAD MEN?
Stuart: Well, I think it's a great show. You don't have to be in advertising to enjoy it. The Sopranos was about organized crime, but at the same time it spoke about a lot of other things, I think Mad Men is somewhat the same. It's about advertising, yes; but by being set in the early 60's, it sort of makes a running commentary about what life is like now. I think they are trying to show you how much has changed since then, but at the same time, how much hasn't.
Tim: That's interesting.
Stuart: That's the most fascinating part about the show. It's about this guy, the agency, his work environment, his work life and his personal life. However, in a larger way it's about corporate life in America. It's about finding out what people are like, in terms of who they really are. It's about how someone you think you really know, you really don't, and a whole bunch of other issues that really get to the core of who people are.
Tim: Even though I worked in ad agencies for over 20 years, I didn't realize how an ad agency appeared to someone not in the business until I started watching the show. Nothing actually happens at Sterling Cooper other than office work and conference room presentations.
Stuart: It is an idea factory.
Tim: Yeah, it is.
Stuart: That's a reason why there have been so many TV shows and movies set in an ad agency.
Tim: Which ones?
Stuart: Well, like the Rock Hudson/ Doris Day movies, Bewitched, and ThirtySomething, to name a few.
Tim: Do you see a connection between MAD MEN and Thirtysomething?
Stuart: Sure, Thirtysomething talked about people, and their faults and their failings. Elliot and Michael were the two characters who worked together and then left to start their own agency. They were very good friends, but at the same time, they bitterly disappointed each other all the time. Each of them had human failings and character flaws and I think MAD MEN reflects that same sort of approach.
Tim: For sure.
Stuart: But at the same time, by being setting in the past, it makes such big difference in terms of offering us a sort of "mirror-on-ourselves." It takes place when advertising was a very glamorous profession. It was hot. It was what the digital business was like 10 years ago. It was the hip place to be. It was an era when a healthy proportion of Ivy League graduates would go to work on Madison Avenue. The popular culture of that time reflected that interest.
Tim: It was also much more entrepreneurial as well. You could find an account, start your own agency and potentially make a lot of money.
Stuart: But its appeal also was this idea that advertising was so much part of the post-war consumer culture. All that pent-up demand after the depression, World War II and the Korean War all exploded in an unrestrained indulgence in buying and shopping and moving out to the suburbs and feathering your nest. Everyone wanted their car to be bigger than the other guy, and everybody wanted the new TV set, the new washing machine and the new dishwasher.
Tim: Having it all.
Stuart: Mad Men taps into some of that, like when in the first episode where Peggy is brought into the office and she is shown the IBM Selectric Typewriter. It's the new technology, but they tell her she shouldn't be afraid of it, because IBM built it "Easy enough for a woman to use."
Stuart: That was a bit of a wink-wink-nudge-nudge there about technology.
Tim: Who's your favorite character?
Stuart: Obviously, Jon Hamm, the lead Don Draper and his mysterious self. It was just brilliant when you find over the first few episodes there were those odd situations or incidents where people were mistaking him for someone else. We didn't know what that was about. And then you find out that he really is an entirely different person. That's Matthew Weiner's style. He also demonstrated it in the Sopranos' thugs. They are in New Jersey. They are criminals. Yet at the same time, there was this whole different life flip side to their lives. It's the same thing with this. Don Draper is a successful young advertising executive on the way up, but he is this really damaged human being who is passing himself off as something he's not. It's interesting to see him throw himself into the period, the ethos of the times and, obviously, is very uncomfortable with that all.
Tim: Who else?
Stuart: I like Pete Campbell a lot, who is played by Vincent Kartheiser. The little wormy, squirmy, obnoxious younger executive who is trying to climb the ladder and finds Don Draper blocking his way, or at least he feels that. He also has a lot of very odd character traits and personality flaws that make him a really fascinating character. He seems to have everything, but at the same time his rich parents don't care for him very much and they like his brother better.
Stuart: I think he realizes that a lot of what he's got in his life, he really hasn't accomplished. It was only because of who he knows. That makes him uncomfortable.
Tim: He's great.
Stuart: Then there's Peggy Olson - played by Elizabeth Moss - who began with the viewer's entry point into this whole world. They brought her in as a new employee and she was the secretary and subject to all the indignities that the secretaries and women were at the time. Now she is moving up. She's become a junior copywriter. I think it's going to be very interesting to watch what happens to her and will play a big part going forward in the show.
Tim: That's right.
Stuart: There are stories that you hear about what happened to women in that period that make what goes on in the show look tame. There is a story about some very powerful woman in advertising who had to enter a private club through the kitchen to meet with the client because they didn't allow women into the meeting rooms or into the main halls. She had to come in via the kitchen while all of the other executives from her agency went in from the front door.
Tim: I think it's funny that Robert Morse is the senior guy at the agency. Back then he was in "How to Succeed in Business Without even Trying", which was a big Broadway hit and movie in the early 1960s. I don't remember if it was at an ad agency...
Stuart: It wasn't. It was a company called World Wide Wicket and the joke was that nobody who worked there knew what they did. Nobody knew what they made exactly. The whole plot point was around advertising and marketing. The company produced a big TV show around a global treasure hunt contest to find a "giant Wicket."
Tim: I remember seeing it.
Stuart: At the end of the movie someone announces on the TV show that they hid the prize inside one of the company's office. Then the employees ransacked the building and tore it up looking for it.
Tim: (Laughs). And the song "I believe in you."
Stuart: "I believe in you", which he keeps singing to himself. First the actress Michele Lee who plays his girlfriend sings it to him and then later on he sings it to himself, when he thinks that the other executives are out to get him.
Tim: It was like a mantra.
Stuart: This is a huge irony about MAD MEN to cast Morse as the mysterious head of the ad agency. I'm waiting for them to make a reference. It will be interesting to see if at some point some character references going to go off to see "How to Succeed in Business without Trying" on Broadway. It opened up around that time. You could conceivably have one of the characters go off to see the show, which is again, another brilliant thing about the writing and how the show is put together.
Tim: The biggest thrill for me is how assumptive and non-judgmental it is about things that are all so Un-PC today.
Stuart: No matter whether they mistreat the women, whether they mistreat the black people, whether they mistreat the gays, it's all treated as a very matter of fact because that's was it was like then. It's absolutely fascinating to watch that. He's telling us how far we've come from that period and at the same time maybe how far we haven't.
Stuart: One of the things that is very interesting in asking young people who watch the show is how they are really shocked by the sexism. They sort of know that people were treated that way, that women were treated that way, men behaved that way, but to see it acted out like that is very startling to them.
Stuart: There are all sorts of other touch points in there too. The sexism is obviously major, but he goes after anti-Semitism and homophobia, and racism. It's a fascinating part of the show and they almost never overdo it. I think, they are trying to be very, very careful in putting that in front of the people's faces and making it a motive so that you don't get the feeling that you're being pounded over the head with it.
Tim: For sure.
Stuart: There are people who watch the show, who remember that and there are many, many people who are watching the show who have no idea what an IBM Selectric typewriter was, or what Life Magazine was or the Volkswagen Beetle Lemon campaign. They are presenting these things as a part of the fabric of life. Then at the same time, they have to lay some pipe in some of the cases to try to explain what it was, to put it in the context.
Tim: They do it very well.
Stuart: And then again like it's about everyday life. Some of the ways they treat women or black people or the gay people is so matter-of-fact; it's just like in passing. There is a really painful wince-inducing remark or behavior that would, today, get you put up on charges or tossed out of a window or something. Back then, it was very the part the way people were.
Tim: For me the biggest winch was in the episode that when Betty Draper and a local friend who's pregnant are smoking cigarettes while one of their kids is wearing the plastic from the dry cleaners over her head.
Stuart: And the mother's concern was, "If my clothes are wrinkled, I'm going to get very angry."
Stuart: That was just like that kids party, where the kids are running through the house. One kid's father slaps a boy not his own for almost knocking something over. The kid's real parent was thankful. "Thank you for disciplining my child." Nowadays people don't hit their own kids like that, much less be allowed to hit somebody else's kid.
Tim: What's your favorite?
Stuart: There are so many startling moments that sort of remind you of, supposedly, how far we've come. But I guess the smoking, drinking pregnant women and the way the African Americans are just all in menial jobs and very downtrodden and the way Sal, the gay art director has to live his life deeply in the closet, it's like, "Oh my God."
Tim: Right. They say the next season will begin 1962.
Stuart: And it does.
Tim: Any thoughts about what lies ahead?
Stuart: Well, I heard that Matthew Weiner said he wants the show to run for five seasons, with the last episode taking place on November 9th 1965. For those who are good with trivia, that day of the New York City blackout. But I don't know how committed he is to that.
Tim: That's brilliant! Thank you, Stuart. This was great!
Stuart: It was my pleasure, Tim!