Maybe this says more about who I spend my time with than anything else, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t watch Mad Men. There are times I have to step away, like when my Facebook news feed is filled with post-viewing chatter by friends who’ve changed their profile pictures to cartoon versions of themselves as characters from the show. When the hype becomes too much, or when I realize I don’t want to know what kind of trouble a little girl is getting into in the world of episodic television when I’ve got an actual little girl of my own in the actual world. I’ll tune it all out and let a few days go by, but such is the allure of Mad Men that I’m back in front of the television again, feeling like no matter how much I groom myself I’m still comparatively slovenly. Everyone I know watches Mad Men. Well, not everyone. Not my father.
My father and I get along incredibly well. Sure, it hasn’t always been that way. I was a gigantic pain in the ass when I was a teenager, and we’ve had the odd disagreement here and there in the intervening years. For the most part we really get along, but when it comes to television, well…. Last Thanksgiving, during a visit to the home he shares with my stepmother in Palm Springs, my father made it through about five minutes of the pilot of Arrested Development, a show I’d tried in vain to convince him was a comedic work of art. The ensuing conversation didn’t go well, and it wasn’t the first time that sort of thing has happened, either.
And so after nearly four full seasons of not even mentioning Mad Men to my father, I finally had to ask. It’s not because I’m a fan of the show, or at least that’s not the only reason. I wanted to get the opinion of my father, not as the opinionated curmudgeon who’d burned me up over Arrested Development, but as an expert. My father was a Mad Man.
Gary Kott was a writer and Supervising Producer on The Cosby Show from the second-through-sixth seasons, the ones where the show was #1 in the ratings. I was a high school kid at the time, and it held a certain cache with some of the girls in my class to be able to say that some stupid thing I’d done had become some stupid thing Theo Huxtable did on television, even when that was mostly untrue.
My father wrote scripts for Remington Steele, Fame, The White Shadow and Hotel. He’s won a Peabody Award, a Writer’s Guild of America Award, a People’s Choice Award, an NAACP Image Award and was once nominated for an Emmy and twice for the Humanitas Prize. But even today, he still feels like some of his best work was done on Madison Avenue.
My dad at Ogilvy & Mather
In some ways, my father’s story in advertising is not unlike Don Draper’s, beginning by writing catalog copy for department stores and ending in offices high above the grit and grime of midtown Manhattan. My father became Vice President and Creative Director at the legendary Ogilvy & Mather, worked on huge campaigns for Young & Rubicam (on whose carpeted floor a much younger version of myself threw up) and had a hand in doing in real life the kinds of things Don Draper and his creative team try to do on television. My father was there in the ‘70s, so while some of these guys were still around, the world outside was very different. And with his long hair, leather jackets and blue jeans, my father made sure it looked a lot different inside the offices as well. Even so, I thought I’d ask.
He hadn’t seen the show, of course. He’d heard about it—how could he not?—but hadn’t actually watched any episodes. So, with my father in his home in Palm Springs and me in mine in Brooklyn, we set up Skype and watched the pilot together. Every few minutes, we’d pause the episode and chat, and nearly two and a half hours later we were through.
Set in 1960, the Mad Men pilot—“When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—brings us back to a world that almost seems quaint by comparison, where everyone smokes and drinks and cavorts with sexism and sexuality in equal measures. Much has been made of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s attention to detail, and it was after seeing Draper sorting through an ad pitch on a bar napkin while ordering another drink that my father first paused the episode.
“That’s what we used to do, write campaigns on napkins,” said Dad. “I worked on so many campaigns, I’d come up with them on the subway on the way in to the meeting so many times. One of the skills good advertising people have is amazing quickness. Just the quickest, brightest human beings on the planet, and they all know how to pull stuff out of their hat. And good stuff.”
The bar itself had a certain familiarity to it as well.
“Across the street from Ogilvy & Mather was a bar called Ratazzi’s, and it’s where all the advertising people hung out. They served these huge martinis and it was packed every night. They finally closed it and there’s a plaque, a permanent plaque there, I think it’s on 48th between 5th and Madison, and it’s actually an historical site now.”
As the action followed Draper to the crash pad apartment of his beatnik fling Midge, my father wondered about whether the show was going to turn into a soap opera, a question I’ve often found myself asking.
“So, now they’re making the show like Desperate Housewives goes to Madison Avenue, all affairs and flings,” he said. “If you worked for a big ad agency, you weren’t worried about who you were schtupping. No one cared, no one gave a shit.”
As Don and Midge discussed the government’s crackdown on cigarette advertising—a storyline that runs through the entire episode—my father recalled the first time he came in contact with the product as a copywriter.
“The only advertising campaign that I ever turned down is when I was at Young & Rubicam,” he said. “They were pitching Liggett Meyer, and they asked me. I went, ‘Well, okay. I’ll give it a try.’ This was probably sometime in the early ‘70s. And they handed me a report, a top secret report from the government: The Health Findings of Cigarettes. I read it, and I smoked at the time. And not only did I quit smoking, but it was the only time in my life when I went in and said, ‘I cannot work on this product.’ I was so horrified by that report.”
Restrictions were nothing new to the advertising world by the time my father became part of the scene, but there were always ways around them.
“The Food and Drug Administration had already started to clamp down, so we had a lot of restrictions we had to work around,” he said. “But there were guys at the agency that had worked during the days of no restrictions, and it was really quite amazing what they got away with. The stories were unbelievable. They’d show you the historical reel, and what they used to do with toys, kids walking in, they’d get a plastic submachine gun and they’d show them sneaking into the room while their parents were sleeping and they’d machine gun their parents to death. These commercials went on and on.”
Later, when Joan Holloway shows new secretary Peggy Olson the ropes, my father stopped the show again.
“I started in ’69 and was at Ogilvy in ’72,” he said. “These days were already long gone. These secretaries were thinking, ‘I’m gonna be creative director.’ That attitude had changed. They weren’t coaching each other on how to screw their way to an apartment in New York.”
When I explained that Olson actually did work her way up the chauvinistic ladder to become a copywriter, my father said that it seemed realistic.
“Ogilvy was very strange back then,” he said. “There was a no nepotism rule. You couldn’t be a relative of anybody, and you certainly couldn’t be a wife of somebody, or you couldn’t be the girlfriend. They were really on the lookout for that. If you were a copywriter, you really had to earn your way in. There were a couple of secretaries that got promoted to advertising, but we all saw the process that they had to go through, and it wasn’t easy. They had to do spec portfolios like we all did and present them. And it was actually better for them once they got their first copywriting jobs to leave the agency so they didn’t have that hanging over them.”
With a pitch to Menken’s Department Store looming, firm partner Roger Sterling asks Draper, “Have we ever hired any Jews?” My father, a Jew, had already asked if the topic would come up during the show.
“There were no Jews in ad agencies,” said Dad. “Ogilvy & Mather was very British, very Harvard, very preppy. I don’t know if there was ever a Jewish guy in the creative department, and then one that looked like me.”
Later, when Sterling introduces David Cohen – who he found in the mailroom – to Rachel Menken as a member of the art department, my father laughed.
“That’s very funny,” he said. “That just happens to be good TV. It was an exaggeration, but it’s good writing. That’s good TV. Their whole handling of the Jewish situation was good. It’s funny that I brought it up, and it was a subplot of the first episode. It really was rare.”
The topic led him on a tangent about other firms, including one that produced some work that not only showed up in later episodes of Mad Men, but which convinced my father that advertising was where he saw himself.