Mad Man

It was the biggest moment on “Mad Men” last season when the show’s main character, Don Draper, presented an advertising campaign for Kodak based on nostalgia, showrunner Matt Weiner ’83 said. Draper projected slides of family photographs to accompany his campaign idea.

It was only 26 years ago when, as a high school junior, Weiner was sitting in his Harvard School art history class, absorbing a projected slide of the classical Greek statue “The Dying Gaul.” Weiner said former art history teachers Carl Wilson and Karl Kleinz defined nostalgia as a pain from an old wound.

“The show is a product of my education—everything about it,” Weiner said. “It was so amazing the way they taught that class. They had this thesis at the beginning about historicity, trans-historicity and meta-historicity,” Weiner said.

With “Mad Men,” Weiner creates and writes of the world of advertising executives working on Madison Avenue during the 1960s. With an Emmy award for Best Drama, “Mad Men” has just finished its second season, but Weiner gave birth to the idea for the show eight years ago, he said.

He first worked on various sitcoms, a profession he said he “had sort of fallen into.” After a year at the sitcom “Becker,” Weiner decided to quit, even though he was offered contracts to continue.

“I realized this was not what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Weiner said.

While without a job, Weiner began researching the 1960s and advertising. The research became his sort of therapy, Weiner said.

While writing the show, he focused on the concept of history versus reality that he also remembers learning at Harvard, specifically as a senior in David Waterhouse’s history class.

In Waterhouse’s class, Weiner said he picked up “The Glory and the Dream” by William Manchester, a book that has become like “a bible” for the show. The book, Weiner said, focuses on the gap between how history gets processed and how things actually happened, a concept relevant to “Mad Men.”

“Having lived through some things like 9/11 and seeing the reality—I don’t think history will remember that everyone was back in the mall by Halloween,” Weiner said. “It was a devastating moment that completely changed the culture, but in terms of everyday life, people were back in the mall – and that was something I learned in high school.”

With his written pilot for “Mad Men” as his writing sample, Weiner landed a writing job for “The Sopranos.” Working with its creator, David Chase, was another important learning experience, Weiner said.

“The show would have been very different if I had never worked with David,” Weiner said. “He taught me to indulge my imagination.”

With confidence in his own imagination, Chase taught Weiner how to appreciate his.

“If I thought something was good or interesting, it didn’t need to be explained and I also got to see him come up with these stories,” Weiner said.

Chase was also interested in making the show’s story “go deeper,” which inspired him to create an internalized and very personal show, Weiner said.

“Whenever something gets complicated, they go, ‘oh its very internal, it should be a novel,’” Weiner said. “But [“Mad Men”] has managed to express the internal state of the character.”

More than internalization, other factors that make up the show’s basic premise are the characters’ compartmentalization, duplicitous natures and loneliness – things he thinks youth can really identify with.

“If I were a teenager I’d love the show because it’s very honest about having one life on the inside and another on the outside,” Weiner said. “There’s a longing for love, for acceptance, to communicate with another person. And people blame it all on hormones, but it continues the rest of your life.”

And more than being an important audience for Weiner, youth also plays a key role in the show, which Weiner says resonates with the economic and social situation today.

In the 1960s, Weiner said, a lot of younger people were creating their own professional paths. Some dropped out of school and started businesses at young ages, and the older people depended on them, and Weiner says that resonates with the social situation today.

“We’re counting on them to vote this time, for example. We’re counting on them to fix a lot of these problems,” Weiner said.

While he hopes that those in ninth grade and younger, including his son Marten, a seventh grader at Harvard-Westlake, will wait to watch the show, he still hopes that the show can communicate with youth.

“I hope that this show is there for them, to peek into their grandparents’ and parents bedrooms and that they know— whatever they’re seeing in there that they identify with is deliberate,” Weiner said.

“All of the feelings that you have about how you judge people and how you are in a social situation and what you want for yourself, and what you’re entitled to – that doesn’t change. And that’s what the show’s about.”