NPR

Talking 'Mad Men' With Creator Matthew Weiner

The the third season of the AMC drama Mad Men ended in a spectacularly big way.

Not only did protagonist Don Draper and some of his coworkers leave the advertising firm Sterling Cooper to form a new agency -- Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce -- but Don's marriage to his wife Betty exploded after Don revealed that he isn't who he said he was all along.

Series creator Matthew Weiner tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he always intended to shake up Mad Men's plot -- and in a big way.

"From the beginning of the season last year, I said, 'This year is really going to be about change.'" he says. "And I really felt, story-wise, well, this marriage is the crux of the series, and Don had this secret that he was keeping from everyone, including his wife -- and that needed to come out."

On today's Fresh Air, Weiner explains how he came up with the idea for the major plot shakeup and details his favorite moments from the series. Weiner -- who is also Mad Men's head writer and an executive producer -- was previously a writer for The Sopranos. He has received six Emmy Awards for his work on the two series.


Interview Highlights

On letting actors and sets go

"It was really hard. It was really hard to make just a change. I remember shooting the last scene [of season three's finale], which was between Peggy and Don, the way the schedule worked. And it was in his office, and I pulled [Elizabeth Moss, who plays Peggy Olsen] aside afterward, and I said 'What am I doing?' I was a little emotional; I said, 'This set is, probably more than I know, the secret of success of the show.' ... And she said 'You won't be sorry. You need a new challenge.'"

On Don Draper's secret identity

"Throughout the seasons, we've seen him come closer and closer to being that idealized man in the suit, with the house in Westchester and the beautiful wife and the two kids and some fame. But it always felt to me that it couldn't be front and center because he has this secret identity. How much fame could he really get? What is his ambition? So now we're at a point in the show where, if he goes out on his own, he is the star of the business -- and he has to go out and basically claim this success."

On the inspiration for Don Draper's character

"Part of the inspiration for this character [Don Draper] is based on personalities like Marilyn Monroe. It's hard to identify Don Draper with Marilyn Monroe, but this idea of a false self -- of creating a persona that is so different from where you came from ... there can be a sense of shame, of 'You don't know me. You will never know me. I'm a fraud.' And that's the part that I think the audience can engage with."

On continuity on the Mad Men set

"I lived in Baltimore, Md., until I was 11 years old, and [things there stayed] basically the way it was in 1960 or 1959, until 1980. The world never catches up to some places. ... I've always walked into the Draper bedroom -- the set -- and we have the furniture there and the pictures on the walls, and it smells to me like my grandmother's apartment."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last night was the first episode in Season Four of "Mad Men," the AMC series about the professional and personal lives of people in an advertising agency in the first half of the 1960s.

We're about to talk with the creator of the series, who also wrote last night's episode, Matthew Weiner. The new season opened with a journalist from Advertising Week interviewing Don Draper, the advertising genius played by Jon Hamm.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Who is Don Draper?

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (As Don Draper) Excuse me?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Who is Don Draper?

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) What do men say when you ask that?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Well, they usually take a minute to think about it, and then they do something cute. One creative director said he was a lion tamer.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) I don't want to do that. In the third person? I don't know.

Unidentified Man #1: Knock-out wife, two kids, house in Westchester, take the train, maybe take your car, now that you can afford it.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Who told you that?

Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Anything? Now's your chance.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Well, as I said before, I'm from the Midwest. We were taught that it's not polite to talk about yourself.

GROSS: Even Don Draper isn't sure of who he is when this season begins. His life radically changed at the end of last season: The ad agency in which he worked was sold, so rather than answer to new bosses he didn't respect, he and some others left and started their own small agency.

Meanwhile, Draper's wife, Betty, had discovered in Season Three that Don isn't the man he says he is. Last season ended with Betty on a plane to Reno, where she planned to get a divorce.

The new season is set one year later. It's 1964. Betty is remarried, living with her new husband in the home she used to live in with Don. The new ad agency in which Don is a partner is facing potential financial problems. And that interview Don did with Advertising Age, he was guarded. He didn't come off well, and he didn't even mention the names of the agency's top clients. So clients are angry. The firm's senior partner, Bert Cooper, is angry, too.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. ROBERT MORSE (Actor): (As Bertram Cooper) I'm going to have to get you another interview, The Wall Street Journal

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) And what do I do differently? I told them the truth. Who gives a crap what I say anyway? My work speaks for me.

Mr. MORSE: (As Cooper) Turning creative success into business is your work, and you failed.

GROSS: "Mad Men" is nominated for 17 Emmys, including Best Drama Series. Matthew Weiner is nominated for Best Writing for a Drama Series. Before creating "Mad Men," Weiner was an executive producer and writer for "The Sopranos."

Matthew Weiner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, you really decided to shake things up at the end of Season Three: Don and Betty's divorce, Don starting a new agency. You know, everyone seemed to be ending a part of their life and starting a new part of their life. So I almost thought, gee, is the series ending? This all seems so consequential to me.

And then I thought, maybe Matthew Weiner has another contract and he's holding out, and he doesn't know if the series is really ending yet or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MATTHEW WEINER (Creator, "Mad Men"): Actually, this is the first -in between the Seasons Three and Four was the first time that I actually knew that I was going to be coming back at the end of the season because I do sort of blow the story out.

And you know what, from the beginning of the season last year, I said this is going to be about change. And I really felt, story-wise, well, some of it's about the rules of television, like this marriage is the crux of the series, but Don had this secret and it was being kept from everyone, including his wife, and that had to come out in a way. And I feel like he was self-destructively making that change.

And the challenge for this was to take all of this away from Don and see if there was a way to make that feel like there was a new beginning. And it was a commitment to that that I made from the beginning of last season, that the marriage would be over and that the agency would be over, and people don't usually do that on TV shows because you need to pay millions of dollars for a new set, and you lose cast and all these other commitments.

But I always felt like the stakes are so human on the show. There's not - there's no murders. There's no explosions, you know, that you have to have a different kind of stakes, and those are the stakes that we all know of in our lives.

And I think people coming back to it and seeing that I really committed to it, I didn't just move the agency over to another place, that I had the next stage in these people's lives and the next stage in the business. The most challenging part...

GROSS: And there's no turning back for them or you.

Mr. WEINER: No, no, and you - well, you could turn it back because people do fail and turn back. That's that the way life is. You know, how many people have gone out and on their own, you know, I'm going to start my own business, and then it fails, and they're back working for somebody else a couple of years later. That could happen.

But the real challenge was just emotionally dealing with the fact that I was going to be making this big change and that I would have to write a pilot at the beginning of this season. I'd have to have a new set, new home for Don and a totally new, you know, structure.

And as soon as I started working on the story, breaking the story, we just realized that if nothing else, the hierarchy had compacted in a way that the relationships were so different, business-wise, and that you started to see what I've always been interested in the show, which is you know the ages of all of my characters, and what is the next part of their life?

And that has nothing to do with the '60s. That has nothing to do with anything. You get married, this is the next part of your life. Your kids - you have kids, that's the next part of your life. They start going to school, and you start being friends with those people, that's the next stage of your life. You get a promotion and, you know.

And for someone like Don, who has this secret identity, to lose that as a tension in the show and say, okay, now he's going to be front and center in this agency, well, what's that going to mean to him in his life? Guess what it means. He's going to have to actually wonder about who the person he is without using the person that he created to hide himself.

GROSS: And this is introduced in the show right at the start, as we heard, when he's doing an interview with Advertising Age, which is the big advertising magazine, still in business. And of course, the first question is: Who is Don Draper? And first of all, somebody who does interviews and who has been interviewed, I can say that's an unanswerable question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's absolutely an unanswerable question, but for Don Draper, it's very unanswerable.

Mr. WEINER: I didn't say he was a great reporter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, no, no, I know. I know, but for Don Draper, it's a very unanswerable question because who he really is is a secret that a couple of people accidentally discovered. But do you want to just explain his kind of secret identity?

Mr. WEINER: Don's secret identity is a construction of two things. It's about a man named Dick Whitman(ph) who is raised in very inauspicious beginnings by people who aren't his parents, in an abusive home, runs away to war, has an opportunity to switch identities with a man who is actually responsible for this man's death. And that man is Don Draper.

And he comes back and sort of starts to make a life for himself, and as the series has gone on, we've seen that his ideal of who that man is is what we saw when we first started watching the show. It's a guy in a suit who is very slick and very good at his job. And he has a certain amount of empathy for subjects, and that's made him a good advertising man.

And throughout the seasons, we've seen him get closer and closer to being that idealized man in the suit with the house in Westchester and the beautiful wife and the two kids and the contract at the agency and some fame.

But it always felt to me that he could never be front and center because he has this secret identity. How much fame could he really get? What is his ambition? So, now we're at a point in the show where if he goes out on his own, he is the star of the business, and he has to step up and basically claim this success.

And to me, having all of these secrets, sort of - the people at work know who he is. His now-ex-wife knows who he is. So what is he hiding? That was interesting to me.

GROSS: In the opening scene of the new season of "Mad Men," when Don Draper is interviewed by the reporter from Advertising Age, at the end of that scene, the reporter's wooden leg kind of falls, it kind of moves out of joint, and he has to readjust it, and everybody's kind of shocked to see he has a wooden leg. He lost his leg in the Korean War. Why did you do that?

Mr. WEINER: I was basically hoping that on some subconscious level, people would understand that this was Don's life, that what's left of his life is a phantom limb.

My grandfather, one of my grandfathers, my dad's dad, had diabetes and had lost his leg, and he always used to ask me to scratch his toes on his leg that wasn't there. And I learned about this phantom pain. My father's a neurologist. I learned a lot about it. And I loved the idea that Don's wife, his house, his kids, his whole persona, was this ghostly thing that he could still feel that wasn't there anymore.

GROSS: Did it scare you that your father didn't have a leg, and yet it still had sensation because of the phantom pain?

Mr. WEINER: My grandfather?

GROSS: Your grandfather, I mean.

Mr. WEINER: No, you know what? I - yeah, my grandfather, he had the leg removed. We lived in Baltimore, at Hopkins, and he came and stayed with us while he was recuperating. And it didn't bother me at all. I used to tie his shoe for him. He was a shoe salesman. He had good shoes on, even on the fake leg. And I used to - he would walk around on crutched, and as a kid, you know, you love your grandpa. It doesnt mean anything to you.

But it did - I was fascinated in the most gruesome way with the idea that he could feel his foot and it was gone. I'm telling you, it's embarrassing to reveal. People think that I'm constructing this universe out of thin air, and when I just tell them that it's basically a scrapbook of my life and my friends' lives and my writers staff's lives, it may be disappointing.

GROSS: I don't think so. My guest is Matthew Weiner. He's the creator of "Mad Men," which just started its fourth season on Sunday.

So a new thing that we've witnessed about Don Draper, he's having a relationship with a prostitute, and he likes to get slapped in the face while they're having relations.

Mr. WEINER: Yes.

GROSS: And I thought, like, where is that coming from because, like, I didn't know that side of Don Draper before.

Mr. WEINER: You know, it's interesting that you ask me that. I don't know why it seems so strange to people. He had this relationship in the second season with Bobbie Barrett, the comedian's wife, that was completely sadomasochistic.

He tied her up. He said, stop talking. Don has a carnal force inside him and it's almost self-destructive. And I don't know if he's doing it to reaffirm his mortality, immortality or what it is, but I feel like part of it's that he's adventurous, and part of is that he probably feels he needs to be punished.

And how those things work psycho-sexually, how sadomasochism figures into the pleasure thing, people have written volumes on it. I can't even begin to describe it...

GROSS: Did you read volumes on it? I mean, did you...

Mr. WEINER: No, no, I don't have to read anything about that. It's not that that's my particular taste, but I don't care what anybody says. That's part of human proclivity. So I always sort of take that seriously, without any judgment or any politics at all, and say this is the place where Don Draper is living right now.

And what was most interesting to me is that if he was married, he had a much better chance of having casual sex with women because there was no chance of a commitment and the woman would know what she was getting into. And he was very successful with this, and maybe with his mistresses.

GROSS: Oh, there you go, okay.

Mr. WEINER: And now that he's out there dating, you actually have to put in the time if you expect to have any kind of serious relations with anyone who's serious. Even now, even in our post-sexual-revolution society, when there is value to the relationship, men and women both will hold back and put in the time and have some kind of courting.

Well guess what? Don wants to satisfy his sexual urges. He has these needs and paying for it just takes all of the complications out of it for him. I mean, there's no doubt in my mind that that's where he would go. And certainly men of that generation are much more comfortable with it than - well, I dont know. That's something - men do not talk about this, no matter what women think. Men do not talk about this particular aspect.

You see it in the movies that a bunch of guys go into a bordello and they're all slapping each other on the back. I know that it's a big business, and I know that men do it, but I never hear anything about it.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. WEINER: And people tell me their secrets, and I never heard anything about it.

GROSS: Do they? People tell you their secrets?

Mr. WEINER: They really do. It's - I dont ever want it to stop. It's a burden sometimes.

GROSS: Was it always this way or is this because you wrote for "The Sopranos," and you created "Mad Men"?

Mr. WEINER: No, this has been something that's been in my life. I talk a lot, and it's probably mystifying to people that I ever let anybody else talk, but I'm a very curious person. And maybe there's some kind of biological thing there or something, but people do tell me their secrets, and they want to. And now that the show is there, Ive become a repository for strangers, even. But so much of the show...

GROSS: Secrets, I'm sure, you've used in story lines, probably, right?

Mr. WEINER: I always say to them: You do know that I may use this? I never said it a long time ago, but at this point, I always say that, you know, there's a chance that I'm going to use this. And sometimes I forget.

GROSS: So without betraying who told you the secret, can you tell us a story line that came from a secret that somebody confided in you?

Mr. WEINER: God, yeah. The best example I can think of is Bobbie Barrett, the comedian's wife in the second season, kind of forces a sexual situation with Don, who is trying to be good. And they have sex in the car, and then she calls him and sort of says, well - they're sort of defining what the relationship is going to be. And she says to him: I like being bad and then going home and being good. And someone said that me on an airplane.

GROSS: On an airplane.

Mr. WEINER: A woman told me that story, yeah, on an airplane, while we were grounded on the ground. And it kind of blew my mind. And it never fell out of my head. I was like, God, that's just, that's the whole thing, isn't it?

GROSS: If you confide in somebody on an airplane, like, you don't have to worry about ever seeing them again. Your secret is safe in that respect because it's so anonymous.

Mr. WEINER: I don't know if you've noticed it, but Don is constantly interviewing strangers. And even the first scene in the pilot of him talking to the busboy in that club about smoking, I am...

GROSS: About what kind of cigarettes he likes and why, yeah.

Mr. WEINER: Yeah, that's Don's research. And I am that person. I've always done that. When something's on my mind, I can usually get to the heart of it and present people with a problem or a question, and then, now that the show is there, now I have people just coming up and telling me things, and some of it I don't want to hear, but I don't ever want it to stop.

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner. He's the creator of "Mad Men," which just started its fourth season Sunday. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men," which just started its fourth season.

So I want to play a scene from the new season, from the first episode. Don Draper's life has changed professionally. It's also changed personally. His wife has left him, in part because she discovered that he had this secret identity, that he changed his name and took on, like, a new identity.

And so she's continuing to live in the house that she used to live in with Don Draper, but now she's living there with her new husband. And Don is living in a sparsely furnished, kind of drab apartment in Greenwich Village.

Mr. WEINER: I got to say, you know, I do think for a man, I don't think that apartment is as depressing as - a lot of women keep saying to me how depressing it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: I honestly think that that, believe it or not, is the way a lot of men would like to live. There's comfortable furniture. The television is there. There's a kitchen. It looks like it was decorated by Edward Hopper(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny. So anyway, so he's taken the kids for the day, and Betty, his wife, has said you have to bring them back by nine. And he's really kind of annoyed with that, but he gets them back by nine and only to find that, like, Betty and her husband aren't home yet. They're not even there.

Mr. WEINER: Yeah, and there he is, sitting in the home that he owns that she's living in with this other man, waiting in his den with his dog for his wife to come home with her husband.

GROSS: Okay. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) It's almost 10. I thought you said...

Mr. CHRISTOPHER STANLEY (Actor): (As Henry) She didn't.

Ms. JANUARY JONES (Actor): (As Betty) I waited for you plenty of times.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Henry, do you mind?

Mr. STANLEY: (As Henry) Betty?

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) It's okay.

Mr. STANLEY: (As Henry) Does that mean I should stay or not stay?

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) Stay.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) When are you moving out?

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) I don't know.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Well, you were supposed to be out a month ago.

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) We haven't found the right place for the kids.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Well, either do as we agreed, or I'm going to need to collect rent.

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) What?

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Or you could just buy it from me if you want to.

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) I can't believe you.

Mr. STANLEY: (As Henry) Don, it's temporary.

Mr. HAMM: (As Draper) Believe me, Henry, everybody thinks this is temporary. Good night.

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) He has some nerve.

Mr. STANLEY: (As Henry) I know you don't want to hear this, but he's right.

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) Haven't the kids been through enough change already? I can't just uproot them with no place to go.

Mr. STANLEY: (As Henry) You're not even looking.

Ms. JONES: (As Betty) There's nothing out there, and he doesn't decide.

GROSS: That's a scene from the new season of "Mad Men," and my guest, Matthew Weiner, is the creator of the show. Did you always know that Don Draper's marriage to Betty would end badly?

Mr. WEINER: Yeah. I didn't know when it would end, but I did not think -and there was always some discussion about how many people really got divorced then. There's some preconception that divorce is such a taboo, and certainly it is a taboo to be a divorced woman, but it's - divorce is skyrocketing during this period.

And I always felt that he was holding onto it, but if she ever really knew who he was, and we investigated this last season, I always felt that she would, even if she understood that everything was okay, she -he was not the man that she married. And she is somehow above him, and forgetting about the humiliation of being lied to all that time, that the substance of who Don was suddenly so much less sexy to her. I think she...

GROSS: You mean because he's from a poor family, a poor background?

Mr. WEINER: Yeah, I think the minute he said that his mother was a prostitute, I think she was, like, whoa. She's from the Main Line in Philadelphia, and yes, he was mysterious, and there's a little bit of that - I always felt it was like part of that great movie, "A Kiss Before Dying," that there's always this sort of feeling of - I don't know if it's the title of the one I'm saying, it's been remade a bunch of times - but that she had married this guy who was the perfect guy, and part of his mystery is sexually exciting to her, but she does see them as the couple on the top of the wedding cake.

And to find out that he is from such low status and such - and a hillbilly and a different person, I think that was just too hard for her to take. I think she didn't love him - she didn't love him. It was his worst fear: If anyone really knew who he was, they wouldn't love him, and he was right.

GROSS: Now, you've kind of turned her into a pretty bad mother, I think. She's very self-centered. She offers no comfort to her children when they really need it. She doesn't really take their needs into account. She's so - she really so self-absorbed.

Mr. WEINER: Well, we're not seeing everything that she does, and she may be better - I have to tell you, I don't - I have kids, and I obviously think I'm a little bit better mom than her, but I think she's doing the best that she can. And I think that she is self-centered, and she is a little childish, and she probably shouldn't have had kids, but she is trying.

GROSS: Yeah, I was wondering if you thought that in another era, she wouldn't have had children. She would've had the choice, and maybe she wouldn't have had children.

Mr. WEINER: I think that's - I don't know what her profession is because she was a model, which is - already to me so much of her existence is tied up in her beauty. And we know that from the season, that this is her - beauty is her profession on some level, and that's a very certain kind of personality.

It may be a created personality by society and by moms and dads, but that's who she is. But I can't even speak to what she would have - the hypotheticals are too hard for me. But I do feel like she's - some of the things she says to her kids do - they're very parenty to me.

They sound really harsh, but this is a whole generation raised on go watch TV. So I dont know why everybody is sort of judging it that way. But she's very self-centered, yeah. And to me, I think that ironically the part where people really start to see that maybe she wasn't in touch with her kids was how in love she was with his new baby.

We started seeing all this affection and kindness and smiling and, you know, it's part of the narcissistic personality that, you know, until the baby says no, they're perfect. And then when they start expressing themselves, it gets very hard for them. And Bobby and Sally - Bobby's trying to be a good boy, and Sally is - I don't know if she's like her father or her mother, but that's very hard for Betty.

GROSS: My guest, Matthew Weiner, will be back in the second half of the show. Hes the creator of the AMC series "Mad Men" and has written many of the episodes, including last night's season premiere. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Matthew Weiner, the creator of the AMC series "Mad Men." He also wrote many of the episodes, including last night's opening episode of season four. "Mad Men" is nominated for 17 Emmys, including Best Drama Series. Weiner is nominated for Best Writing for a Drama Series. The series is about the professional and personal lives of the men and women in an advertising agency.

Last season of "Mad Men" ended shortly after the Kennedy assassination. Now it's 1964, and advertising is starting to change. And I think we see that reflected in the opening of the fourth season. And I want to talk to you about the campaign that Don Draper comes up with for Jantzen, which is, among other things, a bathing suit manufacturer - still in business. And I remember Jantzen bathing suits from the '60s. And this company, Jantzen, as you describe it in the season premier, they're afraid their competitors are taking away their business by making these really skimpy bikinis. And Jantzen defines itself as, like, a family-oriented company. They make two-piece bathing suits, not bikinis. Bikinis are underwear you wear on the beach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. WEINER: That was true, by the way. They did call it a two-piece. You were not allowed to call it a bikini there.

GROSS: Okay. So Don - there's a whole bunch of advertising companies that are pitching them, and Jantzen's going to decide who gets the campaign. So Don has pitched them, and once he realizes how, like, family-oriented and how kind of shy they are about anything, he realized that he's never going to get this campaign. He's angry that he's wasted his time, that the meeting was even set up. But he comes up with a campaign for them.

And the campaign is there's a picture of a woman wearing a Jantzen two-piece bathing suit, but we don't see the top of the bathing suit because it's blacked out. And across that strip that's blacking out the top of the bathing suit and her breasts, it says: So well built, we can't show you the second floor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I want to play you this scene where Don is unveiling this ad campaign to his potential clients at Jantzen.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) What separates a bathing suit from underwear? Cut and the print of the cloth, and some sort of gentleman's agreement. So well-built, we can't show you the second floor.

Unidentified Man #2: I think that's a little suggestive.

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Good. That's what I was going for. A wink, but it's not a leer.

Unidentified Man #2: We don't want a wink. I think I explained, our product is for modest people.

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Modest people want to be stimulated, too. This draws them in in a way that will make your competitors seem crude and obvious. Plus, they'll be dying to see the suit.

Unidentified Man #2: And they'll be dying to see the girl. And for all we know, she's not even wearing a top.

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) You'll get them into the store. Isn't that the point?

Unidentified Man #2: It's not wholesome. It's not - did I tell you we're a family company?

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) I think I know what you're looking for: a couple of women bouncing a beach ball, a little girl in front of them building a sandcastle. Your competitors are going to keep killing you because you're too scared of the skin that your two-piece was designed to show off.

Unidentified Man #2: Well it's somehow dirtier not seeing anything.

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) You need to decide which kind of company you want to be: comfortable and dead, or risky and possibly rich.

Unidentified Man #3: All I know is we don't want that.

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Well, gentlemen, you were wondering what a creative agency looks like, there you have it. Hope you enjoyed looking in the window.

GROSS: So Don Draper's basically firing his potential client and...

Mr. WEINER: Yeah.

GROSS: And I think he did this intentionally to alienate them and make a reputation as a company that's really on the cutting edge.

Mr. WEINER: I don't think so.

GROSS: You don't think so?

Mr. WEINER: I actually - no, no. I...

GROSS: Well, you know, better than I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: Well, you know, I don't. I mean, people fire clients all the time, and clients tell you that you - that they want something, and we all deal with this. This is, to me, is, like, a great example of dealing with the truth, which is they make a bikini. They can't even call it a bikini. They're competing in the bikini world and, yes, the world has become cruder. But for them to pretend like it's not a bra and panties, they can't sell it that way. There's nothing that differentiates you in the marketplace. There's nothing unique about what you're doing. There's nothing unique about your product.

And especially with sex, it's such a strange thing to me. And part of the story of the show is that things are become cruder and more - you know, this is a very modern ad that Don shows there. It is part of the creative revolution. It is in that style that is humorous and a little risque and breaks a little bit of boundaries. And not to say that there wasn't ads - that there weren't ads like this in the '20s, but it definitely, in the '50s, it was - there was - a lot of this was sanitized, because that's what the public was about. And the hypocrisy of being in the business - it's just like, you know, selling alcohol. To pretend like alcohol is not about drunkenness, it's really, really hard to sell it.

And so I think that Don actually thought that he was giving them a rather genteel version of what they wanted. It is blacked out. It is censored. It's the best version of what they can do. It shows that they have a sense of humor about themselves. And in the end, they don't want anything. They don't want anything cutting edge, and they don't really want to sell bikinis. They just want to be in the presence of Don Draper and say that Don is doing their campaign. And Don's standing up for the work - which creative people are allowed to do, even though he's not turning it into business success - is, to me, the same as him kicking Betty and Henry out of the house, or trying to. It's just saying, like, you know, what? This is what it is. Why are we pretending?

GROSS: In the premier of the new season, we find out that Don Draper has become pretty famous for a campaign that he did for Glo-Coat floor wax. And you want to briefly describe that commercial that he's done?

Mr. WEINER: Yeah. The commercial is a Western style. It's sort of got a little "High Noon" vibe to it, and David Carbonara wrote some sort of Frankie Laine-sounding music behind it. And there's a little boy in cowboy hat, and he looks like he's in jail. And then, as we pull out -he's saying let me out of here, let me out of here. And as we pull out, we see that he's actually under the kitchen table with the chairs turned upside down, and that the mother is there because the floor is wet and he's in prison, basically. And then the mother comes out and says Glo-Coat dries fast.

And the way that ads - what's been explained to me and what I've been able to read and what the advertising consultants really helped me with is okay, so here's the benefit, you know, whatever, that it dries fast. This is how it works. What came to me is Don's childhood, and partially my childhood, of being locked in our basement, looking through the crack under the door and watching my mother wax the floor. And I don't know if she just wanted an hour to herself, but we would basically sit there on the steps and watch the mop go by, and then we'd be by ourselves.

And I loved this idea of it being Western. And also for that period in television advertising, you'll see a lot of ads that start to come along at this time that feel like movies. And it's very cinematic. They were discovering television. They were discovering that ads needed a story. So it's very period.

If you go on YouTube and look at some ads from the period, I don't think you would be able to tell the difference between what we're doing. But what I really loved about it is that you've got Don, who we always associated with the cowboy, and I think he associates himself with that. You've got this sort of slightly deprived childhood. I didn't have a deprived childhood, but certainly the loneliness of childhood. And then you have him selling floor wax, which is, you know, to me, it felt like the creative revolution there: personal, humorous, ironic and, in the end, it's just floor wax.

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of the AMC series "Mad Men," which started its fourth season last night.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of the AMC series "Mad Men." He wrote last night's episode, which opened season four.

So when Jon Hamm was on "Saturday Night Live" for the first time, they did this really funny parody of a scene from "Mad Men." And the scene was Don Draper pitching Kodak, a campaign for its new slide projector, and the slides were in a circular rack. And so they were calling it the wheel. But Don Draper, in his pitch to them, said, no it's not a wheel. It's a carousel.

People are nearly in tears by the end of it. So the "Saturday Night Live" parody of that campaign is two really, like, dumb clients walk in, and they have this new product that they want Don Draper to come up with a campaign for. It's a hula hoop with suspenders.

Here's the campaign that Don Draper comes up with.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) True, this hula hoop with suspenders doesn't do anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) But nowadays, we're expected to maintain our jobs, our families, our bodies and our mortality. Isn't doing nothing the ultimate luxury? We spend our lives jumping through hoops. Isn't it time we relaxed, inside one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) 'Cause none of us are angels, but don't we all occasionally deserve a halo? Gentlemen, these suspenders aren't holding up some plastic ring. They're suspending reality. They're suspending our childhood. And this isn't just a hula hoop. It's a circle of life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: I love that sketch. What did it tell you about your writing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: I have to say, you know, I was a comedy writer for 12 years before I got my job on "The Sopranos," which I still considered a comedy. And I wrote jokes for a living, and it is so flattering to be made fun of that way. I loved it. It was insane to me to see that, and also to think that I had this style or that Don had this way of talking about - the scene is so heavy in the show. It's actually the scene that makes men cry, and it's also - you know, it's a very serious scene.

And I think to see them, you know, the satire of putting the high and low together like that, it just made me laugh. And to have Jon actually doing it - I didn't know it was that easily defined. I didn't know that I was actually doing something in that way, but I loved it. It's weird to think that you have a style, you know? Part of being a TV writer, a successful TV writer, is being a mimic. And part of the reason that I was able to work for David Chase, even though, you know, he...

GROSS: On "The Sopranos."

Mr. WEINER: ...on "The Sopranos" - even though, you know, you get rewritten thoroughly by the show runner, as do the people on my show -was that I was able to imitate what he does. And that's your job. So then to see that somehow this has emerged, that you have your own thing, that was kind of flattering. But to me, it's just so funny that enough people would even know what the scene was to laugh at, it made me thrilled. So...

GROSS: You know, the show's become kind of iconic, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: Right.

GROSS: It might not have the biggest audience of any TV show, but it's really made an impact on popular culture.

Mr. WEINER: We've been helped by the fact that even though our audience is small, everyone else - our audience is growing while everyone else's is shrinking, and we're going to meet somewhere in the middle around...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Really.

Mr. WEINER: ...somewhere around anemic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Weiner, the creator of the AMC series "Mad Men," which just started its fourth season.

So I want to play one of my very favorite scenes from last season.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: Sure.

GROSS: There's a character who is not in it at the moment, and I hope you bring him back. But the character's name is Sal, and he at least was the art director. And he's a closeted gay man who's married to a woman. And Don Draper accidentally discovered that Sal is gay. And Sal, during this scene, is working on a campaign that's for a new diet drink. And the campaign is basically borrowing every move that Ann-Margaret makes in the film "Bye Bye Birdie" when she's singing the song "Bye Bye Birdie," except the jingle is about Patio, this new diet beverage.

And so, in this scene, Sal's in bed with his wife who doesn't know that's he's gay. She finally says I know that something's wrong. What's wrong? And he denies it. He says there's nothing wrong. He says, but, you know, but this campaign's really been on my mind. I'm worried about it. I really want to succeed. And then he starts describing the campaign and the song and the dance, and he does every Ann Margaret move for her. And by the time this is over, this look of horror is on her face, because she realizes her husband is gay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So I'm just going to play an excerpt of that scene. We won't see him, but we'll hear what's going on. And this is right after he's explaining to her that what's wrong is that he's worried about this campaign.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Mad Men")

Mr. BRYAN BATT (Actor): (as Salvatore Romano) I don't want to fail. Just a single mistake, the entire shot is ruined.

Ms. SARAH DREW (Actor): (as Kitty Romano) So what? I've seen the movies, take two, take three, do it again. Action.

Mr. BATT: (as Salvatore Romano) It's one shot. The whole thing. It's the beginning of "Bye Bye Birdie."

Ms. DREW: (as Kitty Romano) I'm trying to remember.

Mr. BATT: (as Salvatore Romano) She starts singing against a blue background, and her voice is very girlish.

Ms. DREW: (as Kitty Romano) Oh, yes. Yes, I remember that.

Mr. BATT: (as Salvatore Romano) And she's opening up a can of Patio. And she's on a treadmill, but you can't see it.

Ms. DREW: (as Kitty Romano) Mm-hmm. And she's walking back and forth?

Mr. BATT: (as Salvatore Romano) No. No. She walks towards you. The wind is blowing in her hair, and she sings about how Patio is low in calories. And then she extends her hand out, and she waves goodbye. Then we move back, too, but she stops, and she takes her dress in her hands and she runs forward as fast as she can. But then, she turns her back and looks seductively over her shoulder. The treadmill pulls her back again, and she comes towards you one last time, dancing right up to the camera. And she sort of pushes her shoulders together and leans over with the can, and she smiles. Hello, Patio. Something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It's a great scene. I wish everybody could see it and not just hear it. But what made you think of that as a way for Sal's wife to realize that he was gay? And what made you think of that whole Ann-Margaret campaign?

Mr. WEINER: Well, first of all, I loved "Bye Bye Birdie." And it had so much energy, and I always wanted to do this story about them ripping off - the way advertising does, and a lot of this(ph) does - this huge success, and it failing because they forgot that the major element in it was Ann-Margaret, that you try to recreate something because you think if you get everything right, you get everything right. But it's the person and the substance of that person is what you're paying for, that magic that she's giving to that scene.

And then we started talking about it. Well, Sal's going to direct it. He's perfect for it. And the idea just came to me, because we were like, how does is wife not know? And he's had his first, I think almost, it's aborted, but first sexual experience with a man that we know of, he's almost had, and then there's a fire at the beginning of the season. And I think this has been on his mind. And we kept thinking: Like, how does she not know? She married him. He's older than her. But how does she not know?

This is no different than it is now. There are people who are closeted and people who aren't. And what is the substance of that? And then I had this idea that if he, basically - he's the director of this commercial, he did this for her, if his enthusiasm showed, his inner choreographer came out, that she would know. It was just a great way for her to know.

And it was very well received. And I don't mean in the scene. I mean that I got a lot of comments from formerly closeted gay men, from wives of closeted gay men. I had a lot of feedback on this that this was a great - you know, I'm always looking, storytelling-wise, for people to tell things to each other without telling them. It's very boring for me when someone walks in and says, you know, or she walks in and finds him with a man or finds a matchbook in his pocket. That's - none of that's fun to me. That's not - the stakes, as I said, are so small. That's not dramatic enough for me. So the irony - dramatic irony, or whatever, is we know Sal's gay. She doesn't know Sal's gay. He hasn't been having sex with her. She has desire, which is also always a surprise in the show, because for some reason, other people think it's because it's period that people didn't desire sex back then. I don't know what that's about. And then he totally reveals himself.

GROSS: So the new season of "Mad Men" is set in 1964, one year before you're born. So "Mad Men" is starting to catch up with your life. Is the world starting to look - is the world you're creating on "Mad Men" starting to look more familiar to you?

Mr. WEINER: You know, part of the reason I've been able to have such good recall on the details of the show is that I lived in Baltimore, Maryland until I was 11 years old, and it was basically exactly the way it was in 1960 or '59 until 1980.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER: So, the world never catches up to some places, and I am starting to see things. There were things that I've wanted in the show that didn't exist yet that I can put in now. Like there's a toaster that I wanted for the Drapers that I remember from my childhood, and they're like, that wasn't around yet. Bic pens have just finally happened, things like that. But, no. It doesn't look any more familiar to me.

I've always walked into the Draper bedroom - the set - and we have the furniture there and the pictures on the walls, and it smells to me like my grandmother's apartment.

GROSS: Does it really? It smells that way?

Mr. WEINER: It does. It's really old stuff. You know, the linens are new. The mattress is new, but all of the pictures and the furniture, it just has a smell of, you know, of like, you know, you will have a sense memory experience of your childhood. Certain things - the swinging doors in the first episode of the season that Don has in his dinning room, we grew up with those in Baltimore near our dinning room. I see those things, and they're evocative to me.

You know, I can't tell the things from my childhood if they were of the period or they were from, you know, 50 years beforehand. The Drapers have this rug in their - this braided rug in their living room. It's circular and kind of itchy, and everybody had that. That was very evocative to me. So I have no idea what the period is. It is weird, though, to think like this is - I would've been alive for this. I would've been the baby in here. It is a weird thing. But I try not to pay attention to it. It's all so abstract to me.

GROSS: Well, Matthew Weiner, thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR. I am so enjoying having...

Mr. WEINER: It's thrilling.

GROSS: ...the characters from "Mad Men" back in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank you very much.

Mr. WEINER: I hope you enjoy the rest of the season. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: I'm sure I will. Thank you.

Mr. WEINER: Sure.

GROSS: Matthew Weiner is the creator of the AMC series "Mad Men," and also writes many of the episodes. Season four started last night. Season three is nominated for 17 Emmys, including Best Drama Series. Weiner is nominated for Best Writing for a Drama Series.

You can find links to two earlier FRESH AIR interviews with Matthew Weiner on our website, freshair.npr.org. One of those interviews also features Jon Hamm and John Slattery.

Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews new recordings featuring alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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