A “Mad” World: Life After “The Sopranos” Series Finale

We’ve said our reluctant goodbyes to Tony, Carmela and the Family … so now what? Luckily for fans of The Sopranos, AMC is filling the void with its new drama series Mad Men, which premieres July 19. Following the professional — and sometimes decidedly unprofessional — antics at Sterling Cooper, a 1960s advertising agency, Mad Men brings a stylish and surprisingly cutting-edge new world to your TV. But what, you might be asking, does a 1960s advertising agency have to do with HBO’s wildly popular mob hit? Only the fact that the Mad Men script is what got writer and executive producer Matthew Weiner (who penned the scripts for classic Sopranos episodes including “Sentimental Education,” “Luxury Lounge” and “The Blue Comet”) his job with David Chase and Co.

Now that he’s got some time on his hands, Weiner is bringing that dream project to life — and a whole bunch of his Sopranos pals are coming along for the ride. Last April, I visited the show’s New York set during the filming of the pilot, and sat down with several of the principal castmembers, plus had a nice, long chat with the charismatic and much loved Mr. Weiner. My account of the visit will appear in our July issue of Channel Guide Magazine, but I decided that after the “end” of Tony, you all shouldn’t have to wait for the “Mad” stories we didn’t have room to print. In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my interviews with series stars Jon Hamm, John Slattery, Christina Hendricks, Vincent Kartheiser and Elisabeth Moss, but let’s kick things off with the man himself, series creator and writer Matthew Weiner.

How in the world did you go from writing “Becker” to writing for “The Sopranos?”
I wrote [the Mad Men script] six years ago, and had my agents give this to David Chase, hoping that he would help me get it made, and in the end he did. He basically hired me on his show, and gave me the prestige and the association with that, and he’s been so supportive; he’s basically let me out of the show for the period to make this pilot, and he had no reason to do it. It’s been one of the joys of my life to have someone be that supportive to me. I’ve tried to follow the rule – it’s part of the reason we do get along and why I’ve been useful to the show and why he likes what I do, is [that] we both believe in one thing, which is that above all else, with all of the intellectual ideas, with all of the comments and what you want to say about society and the girl who rejected you and who you want to make fun of in the script, and the teacher that you hated that you want to make fun of, and all of these personal, petty things, the rule above all else is be entertaining. So that’s what I’m trying to do, is to do something with a little bit of sex, and a little bit of nostalgia, a lot of irony and a sense of humor.

So where did the sex, nostalgia, irony and humor of “Mad Men” start out?
This idea started – I’ve always liked this period. It was a bunch of things going together, as a lot of ideas are. The professional part of it was, I was at a job that I was frustrated with. I was writing a sitcom at that point; I was good at it, and making a very nice living, but I was just kind of frustrated with the sort of – I’m spoiled! I wanted to express myself in a more direct way – a less collaborative way, to tell you the truth. Television is very collaborative; the joke is that TV writing’s for people who hate being alone more than they hate writing.

The other thing is, [my wife and I] had two children, were very happily married — my wife is a wonderful, creative person — but I started understanding a little bit about the next state in my life, and what it meant to be in your 30s. I was kind of thinking about American men, and it’s a complex job to be a male in the United States right now – as it always is. It’s weird because you’re in power, and you have rights to everything, but people are very confused and they behave badly. So that sort of went together; this personal understanding of a certain passage of where I was in my life and where I had been, this professional frustration, and a love of this period

What do you love about this era?
[The 1960s] had so much style and so much formality to it. The way it’s been portrayed is with a tremendous amount of innocence, and when you study history and get into it, it’s always been the same – people are always the same. Human emotions don’t change. The system may change, and the rules may change and the language may change, but … it’s exactly the same as it ever was!

How did you translate that into the show?
I approached it with [the] feeling that it’s been metabolized by our society as being very innocent. The truth is, in 1960, which is the year I picked, a couple of key things happened: One is, like most decade years, it’s the peak of the period. It’s the most 50s there is, but things are changing fairly rapidly. The prosperity has given people in advertising particularly [a situation where they] could really do no wrong. The advertising agencies that were failing, it’s miraculous, because people were buying so many packaged goods and so much that there wasn’t a lot of science to it.

Interestingly enough, a revolution happened at that time, also, which I think is related to things politically. We think of Eisenhower and that era and how it changed into Kennedy – well, those people didn’t come from nowhere. [People think,] “Kennedy comes along and liberates the world,” but no!

How did you get beyond that metabolized image of the 1960s to something more gritty?
It was hard, because you really have to dig. I started being interested in the men, because the men sort of have this life where fidelity was not really an issue. A lot of them were veterans, and they were really living in an existential way, without any concern for rules. A lot of it came from having survived the war, [and having an attitude of,] “Let’s drink, let’s live for now, let’s smoke as much as possible.” But there was also a tolerance, and advertising in particular is a lot like television in the sense that creative people are indulged. So it’s one of the few businesses where you can show up at 10:30 and they won’t do anything. You can work all night, and nobody cares about your family, and television is a lot like that. Especially in half-hour comedy. They really grind you. The job comes first, but you’re a creative person – they can’t really stick their foot up your butt because you don’t get any results.

How do the women of Sterling Cooper fit into that equation?
What I really found was, when I started out focusing on the men, the women sort of just came to the forefront. Most of that had to do with technological invention, which is that the birth control pill and Valium both came out in 1960. So … the wives were getting Valium to deal with the fact that they are overqualified for their new job, which is being a housekeeper. As one of my friends, Bob Shaw, our production designer, pointed out, instead of freeing people up, all they started to do was clean more.

Clean up with more Mad Men scoop from Weiner in “Mad” World: Vol. 2, posting in a couple days!