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'Mad' About the 'Men'?

July 24, 2008 By:
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Matthew Weiner

Who knew Phil Gramm was such a fan of "Mad Men"?

How else to explain the former senator's recent rant that we've become a "nation of Weiners" (albeit, the press incorrectly spelled it "whiners.")

Matthew Weiner gets the compliment; the press is mad about this "Mad Men" man, creator of one of the millennium's most retro yet forward-thinking successes as it smokes the '50s and '60s ad world, explaining why Winston tasted good like a cigarette should -- especially when puffed on by such nicotine nymphs named Joan and Betty.

But the star of the show, which premieres its second season this Sunday night on AMC after snaring 16 Emmy Award nods for its first, isn't the treif-named actor John Hamm or the slatternly Sterling Cooper cop-out portrayed so sleazily by John Slattery.

It is very much the social insecurities as depicted and reflected in and on 1960s Madison Avenue, where human behavior was the best ad of all for the abyss that the abject sorrowful soul can fall into.

And it is the series' serious examination of anti-Semitism amid the maddening asymmetrical world of semantics as livelihood that provide some of the liveliest leitmotifs on "Mad Men."

Weiner himself is a poster boy for brilliance with brio; he first captured acclaim and applause for his work as writer/producer on "The Sopranos," and the story is oft-told of how his spec script of "Mad Men" got him work on "The Sopranos," but how his pitch was only to be whacked when trying to lure HBO into a deal for the series in its post-"Sopranos" world.

Now it's Weiner who's putting out the hit: "Mad Men" is a made-man with critics, whose praise could billboard the series into a major campaign.

At 42, Weiner -- the Jewish magician of Mad Ave. -- was too young to filter out those LSMFT ads that got in the eyes and ears of viewers and readers. But his hindsight, abetted by a highly intelligent insight and incisive investigation, is 20/20 tremendous.

It is acumen and accuracy that serve as acupuncture points of contention in scripts that seal and savage the past.

That old Pepsi Generation may have devolved into the Pepto Bismol pep-less, but some fears and frights have never run out of gas.

"It was very important for me," says Weiner, busy into shooting the second season, "that the story of anti-Semitism during that time -- which really had not been dealt with -- be told."

"It was all about assimilation," he says of bracing bias against the bonhomie that wracked the workplace, not just on Madison Avenue but in the madding crowds everywhere in the nation.

And the series, which has captured the attention of viewers -- and, possibly as important, an award-bestowing woman named Emmy, who nodded Weiner's and the series' way in multiples this past week -- is dug by so many discerning viewers because it digs so deeply in to our collective past.

"I am interested in the underdog," says Weiner of an undeniable truth, "and the American experience."

"Mad Men" is an experience worth savoring, according to the national Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. When "On the Scene" broached the topic of the topical series -- then and now -- with ADL, the national executive office issued this statement, its essence saying quite a bit of the series' impact:

" 'Mad Men' accurately portrays the anti-Semitism of the 1960s, giving us a unique window into a time where discrimination against Jews was endemic and an accepted practice in the business world.

"Many dramas have used anti-Semitism as a plot device in the past, yet few have presented such a complete picture of the moral and ethical dilemmas raised by this form of discrimination in the workplace.

" 'Mad Men' not only portrays those who had their upward mobility sidelined by prejudice, but also shows how others reacted to and were repulsed by the blatant anti-Semitism of that period."

Write on, ADL continued, in a chorus line of huzzahs for the lancing lines dripped in drama, dialogue dialed into the human heart: "The writers of 'Mad Men' deserve high praise for giving such careful treatment to an issue that still has resonance for Jews and others, who can vividly recall the many limitations placed on careers, educational opportunities and in being accepted generally by society as a result of the anti-Semitic and racist attitudes of that time."

Weiner feels their paean, happy with the homage that hits home for a man who recalls childhood days attending private school amid few Jews and having to build ramparts against rampant anti-Semitism. But the pen is mightier than the myth, and so was the lesson learned from his family of scientists and doctors: "It was always about telling the truth. And my father always told me, 'Think for yourself.' "

He doesn't think -- he knows -- that was the best advice he could have been given by a father figure who figured prominently in his own evolvement. (Dad is Dr. Leslie P. Weiner, an internationally lauded neuroscientist, whose name graces the neurological center at the University of Southern California while Mom, Judith, is a law-school grad.)

Hear ye, hear ye -- order in the family court of whipsmart Weiners? Whether it is a Jewish trait or a universal urge in pursuit of truths, Weiner inarguably was shaped by those dinner-time arguments meant to feed the heart and nourish the neshama.

A Voice Above the Din
In a wonderful way, Weiner is a table-for-one in the "let's do lunch" mass mess of Hollywood gorge-fests and feeding frenzies, a voice above the din of dinner, out there by himself in presenting such acutely accurate portrayals of what it meant to be Jewish in the going-for-the-jugular ad world of the late '50 and early '60s.

Is there a gentleman's agreement among Hollywood insiders that the insidiousness of anti-Semitism from that era be eradicated from nightly viewing? If there was, this Jewish gentleman has broken it brightly, cracking any cravenly contract with a karate -- make that krav maga -- kick to the soul plexus.

"When I thought about the characters, I tried to look at what I heard from my parents," says Weiner, "what it meant, having the affinity and existential experience of being an American Jew."

It is a generous, albeit bittersweet, sui generis jab at the past that Weiner takes a wickedly wise wack at. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the relationship between Don Draper (Hamm) and Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), the airy Jewish heiress to a department store trying to expand her family's fortunes beyond the concentrated crowd that is "Our Crowd" by hiring Sterling Cooper to do their advertising.

Ooh, how those WASPS can sting! In some of the more memorable scenes between her and Draper -- and others in this gentile if not genteel agency -- Jewish japes and denigration dent her pride and pluck.

Weiner examines the whys and why nots with withering wit writ precisely, unloading his fountain pen pent up with emotionally echtian examples of laser-like insights. In one episode, he focuses on the Holocaust and the heritage of hate that is a lesion of a legacy for Jews.

"I put those pictures from concentration camps in the scene purposely," he says.

The result? Recoiling reactions: "It was shocking for people" of that era, in their insulated industry. "For people like Dan, it was like seeing pictures [now] of Darfur."

And there is much talk about Israel, unreal a topic of discussion amid the dashing Mad Ave. set, who settle for their three martinis shaken not stirred with macabre memories.

Mad about Manischewitz? Not this group! See them congregate at a bar, but never a Bar Mitzvah.

"I wanted to show the complexity of a people who are overrepresented in the culture and business world" and how they are viewed -- and skewed -- by those not of their world, he says of Jews.

Weiner addresses the issue of assimilation with an assiduousness rarely seen on TV. "That," he says of that focus, "is one of the most revolutionary things I am doing."

The spin stops here: "I wanted to address the idea of conformity and how, as Rachel says, by blending in, you lose something."

Weiner is not at a loss for words; they flow fantastically free from his heritage, hurt -- and humor. And as "Mad Men" makes no mistake about it, Jewish societal contributions do get their due.

"Working in TV comedy," which he has done, "and being in the writers' room -- which was mainly filled with Jews and the Irish -- you see that comedy is our [Jews'] jazz, our American contribution. Everybody," he ads, "likes our sense of humor."

Weiner himself must need one when he spots blogs blathering on about Don's mysterious origins -- including many conjectures which turn the other chic and anoint the at-times annoying ad man as a secret Jew. "I was stunned when I read that some viewers thought he was Jewish," concedes Weiner.

But, the man who helped create him sees where it has credence ... a bit. Albeit, Weiner's not biting. "Don does have the affinity for Rachel, who is Jewish, and he shares her sense of being the outsider."

But ... bemused at thoughts of Draper at the bimah? Midrash for this Mad Man? "I'd say emotionally he is Jewish."

Other than that ... Weiner can empathize with Draper as feeling like "the other."

"I was an 'other,' " he recalls of those early school days that extended to his campus concerns at Wesleyan College when he overheard anti-Jewish jibes. "No matter how big you can make your brain," and get the best education and be a success, "you're still considered crude and a foreigner to so many others."

If you're a Jew, you're a Jew all the way, from that first circumcision to your last utterance of "oy vey"? It is more than a West Side story; it is one all over the map. And, sometimes, according to Weiner, Jewish whines are not good before their times. "When I was younger and saw Woody Allen's 'Radio Days,' and all those Jewish stereotypes, I thought to myself, how can you be so brutal?"

Ah, 1987 -- not a very good year for brute vintage. Now, he says, he sees the humor behind the depicted self-hate. Turning up the volume on stereotypes sometimes makes the noisome noise seem even more intolerable and, thus, subject for even more scrutiny. "I revel in stereotypes," he laughs.

Self-deprecation doesn't devolve into self-depreciation, however. Weiner is wisely aware of that. He is also no smart-ass, but rather a smart man who doesn't smart at others taking potshots.

There are those, for instance, who have brooded and blamed Weiner for putting Jewish ad men -- and they were, in the main, men, not women -- in their place -- way outside the mainstream. According to a blogging Adam Hanft, founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, an ad agency: "Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the WASPs who had long dominated advertising were beginning to find their privileged world threatened. One of the characters in 'Mad Men' notes pointedly that Jewish agencies sell 'Jewish products to Jewish people.'

"But Grey Advertising, an agency started and run by Jews, was awarded echt gentile Proctor and Gamble business in 1956 in the form of the Lilt home-permanents account, and P&G would eventually become a hugely important Grey client. Milton Biow, an advertising legend and a Jew, had built what was by 1952 the industry's eighth-largest agency, with accounts like Pepsi and Philip Morris."

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, John L. Bernbach, founder and president of NTM, is quoted as having had a particular perspective: His father, William, helped found the agency -- Doyle Dane Bernbach -- that executives at Sterling Cooper enviously contend with.

Why was this Jewish agency different from all others?

Pass over the baton to Bernbach, who, in the Times article, has his own two, if not four, questions: "What do I think of 'Mad Men'? As a soap opera or as an advertising show from the 1960s? I was a teenager then, and our family was very close. My father never took clients out, he didn't travel, didn't entertain. In the show, there's not a scene without somebody smoking and drinking.

"And it's an overly simplistic view of the process of coming up with ads. You were handling millions of dollars of people's money, and no one took it lightly. Here they're smoking, joking, ogling girls, then they think of a line."

Join the line, Abe Rosen. Now senior partner in Rosen-Coren, a public-relations firm in Langhorne, Rosen was a formidable fury of a force to be reckoned with in the early '60s, working as he did in P.R. and advertising.

And while his talents have always been more aligned with P.R. -- he is a member of the Philadelphia Public Relations Hall of Fame -- the 91-year-old recalls the anything but halcyon, helter-skelter skilled world of ads from those days.

Being from Pennsylvania doesn't put him in a different state of mind: "Madison Avenue refers to the entire ad world."

But he takes exception to depictions of anti-Semitism corrupting the ad workplace. Indeed, Rosen rose quickly at Al Paul Lefton Advertising, whose namesake was Jewish.

Exactly, says Weiner. "The Jews were on the rise in advertising at that time, and the reality of it all was that there were Jewish firms."

Weiner takes a firm stance, refusing to divulge this season's plotlines, fast-forwarded to the more forward-thinking 1962. And let's not even do baby talk about Peggy. But he already has established a hallowed history of hi-jinks and tarnished halos in the give-'em-hell ad world that will most likely continue in 1962 and beyond.

And that singular Jewish perspective of his is not just an after-thought, an add-on in this depiction of the ad world of the 1960s, when Camelot took a Cuban Missile Crisis hit and an era when Jewish pride was no mere jejune topic, but one to be considered.

It is a show of quiet explosions: The "Mad Men" in the great flammable suits. When all is said and done -- and so addictive this view of the ad world is -- what Matthew Weiner, Phil Gramm's favorite ad man, may be all about is teaching history. As he maps the human condition, gleaning global insights, Weiner knows his is a story of history in the making.

"I hope this does teach a lesson," he says of his seriously taken series, the first basic cable show (along with "Damages") to be nominated for a best drama Emmy.

And that lesson, he advises, is not about changing your stripes by having a tiger in the tank. Or about how a little dab will do ya because of the brilliant gleam of Brylcreem.

"It is," says "Mad Men" 's master of the universal, "about humanity."

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