What about the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates?
I’d never heard of it. It was given to me by an executive at AMC after she read the pilot, and I’ve said this before, but when I read Revolutionary Road, it was like, “Hey, there’s a Beatles album you’ve never heard and it’s got 40 new songs.”
Do you see advertising as a good metaphor for dramatic irony?
The advertising thing was amazing, because the period that I picked was another thing where I said, “Oh, here’s an interesting thing about this year, about 1960” — the all-knowing reflected authority of advertising sort of starts to crumble away and become more subversive. Coincidentally, as Jews and Italians become more prominent in the business.
And Greeks, don’t forget about George Lois.
George Lois is a tough subject for me, it really is. I always say I’ve never heard of him. He wasn’t working when the show started, he wasn’t even interested in what year it was, and then there’s this man’s ego — I keep trying to remind people that he is not Jonas Salk. George Lois was really good at selling shit, and also, apparently, a big credit hog, according to the This American Life story.
Have you dealt with him?
They asked me to talk to him when the show was coming out, and I was like, “Sure,” and then it became very obvious that everybody who was from the period was like, “You don’t really want to — he’s the Tony Soprano of advertising. You do not want to owe him or cross his path — you do not want to be on his radar.”
What other reactions have there been from the real-life admen of the 1960s?
The thing I always found so amusing from the beginning is the men who were there, who survived, I’d say 50 percent of them were like, “We didn’t drink that much, we didn’t smoke that much, that’s not true,” and 50 percent of them were like, “Oh, my God, it’s 100 percent accurate.” Bob Levinson said, “You have a time machine.” The women, 99.9 percent said, “Oh, my God, that’s exactly what it was like.”
If only 10 percent said it, then you created your own universe.
It wasn’t my problem. It’s not a documentary, it’s not a history lesson. I work in TV.
It seems like such an incredible lightning bolt of inspiration to set the series in the advertising world of the 1960s. David Chase said The Sopranos was about lies people tell themselves and others to justify themselves, and he set it in the world of the Mafia as a parable. Was that your thinking?
As consumers, we think of advertising noise, as these messages we don’t want to hear. But the people who make it, the ones who know what they’re doing, are holding up a mirror, and they’re saying, “This is the way you wish you were, this is the thing you’re afraid of,” or, “Here’s something new that’s better. I know you will like it.” A really, really good advertising person is like an artist, channeling the culture. Don Draper, especially in the Fifties, reflecting an idealized version of ourselves.
Of the main characters, who do you think you identify with the most strongly?
Philosophically? This is all wish fulfillment and fear: They all behave in ways that I’m embarrassed to behave in, and they all have qualities that I wish I had. There’s no doppelgänger there. I am a mixture of Roger, Peggy, Don, Pete, Joan, Betty. I wrote a poem about George Orwell once and how I was never going to need a fake name, and I never had the desire to be unknown. Then I’m embarrassed because I literally want to get undressed in front of everyone. There’s the shame that goes along with needing that much attention and having to trumpet your own horn. So for me, to construct this world in a period with all these people, to talk about everything that I’m interested in about myself, which is what all writers do — that has been my realization. That’s what Mad Men is about: It’s a construct for me to talk about how I feel about the world, for me to talk about my family, my parents, my fantasies. To see my wish fulfillments, trash my enemies, vanquish my fears or see them played out — even just for a lesson.
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