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.
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.
“Advertising was pretty bland through the ‘50s,” he said. “It was all things to all people, big, luxury convenience, girls in crinolines, jingles, taglines. There were two giants of advertising thought, and I worked for one of them, David Ogilvy. And then there was this new agency called Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach. That’s probably who they were talking about as catering to the Jews. David Ogilvy landed the Rolls-Royce account and wrote these stunning ads, they were poetry. Later, they got the Mercedes account. But Doyle was a small agency, and they got this account called Volkswagen. You’ve got to remember in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the idea was big luxury American cars. And here was this frickin’ car from Germany, of all places, called a Beetle that looked like something you’d put in your pocket. And on top of it, it was the dream child of Adolf Hitler. How can you sell that in America after the war? Giant luxury cars, beautiful women driving down the street, handsome men, ‘See the USA,’ Dinah Shore, blah, blah, blah. Doyle, Dane and Bernbach said, ‘Let’s go the opposite.’ And they came out with an ad, and the headline said: Think Small. Think Small to Americans, and this little teeny picture of this little Bug, and that one ad revolutionized advertising. When I saw ads like that, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That started the new school of advertising, this minimalist, sharp, clever thoughtful campaign.”
Other campaigns by the firm were just as revolutionary.
“The idea was to boast that you were number one. So Doyle, Dane, Bernbach gets Avis. Hertz was the number one car rental of all time, and if you were not number one, you sure didn’t want to advertise it. So, Doyle comes out with this headline that says: Avis – We’re Number Two, But We Try Harder. So bizarre, and Americans loved that.
“And then they got the Alka Seltzer account, and how do you do anything with such a cruddy product. And they started this campaign: Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz, Oh What a Relief it Is. And that led to commercials like, ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’
“When I saw ads like that, I thought forget about the old school of advertising, that’s what I want to do. So here, not only was I with the long hair, the leather jacket, but I wanted to do advertising that these agencies had never done before. And they sort of let me do it. They fought me all the way, though.”
The show wasn’t a total hit with my father, especially when it came to the quality of the advertising.
“This is the problem, probably, with the show so far,” he said. “The idea is great, but the advertising sucks. If this guy is a creative genius and that’s the kind of advertising he’s approving, this guy would be out by 1973. If this is the best he could do, and these are his advertising instincts in 1960, my guess is he’d own a bed & breakfast in Vermont by 1973. I saw a lot of these guys go down quick. To me, it’s like saying, you’ve set up a show about the greatest football player that ever lived, and then you see him throw the ball and he can’t even grip it.”
The episode featured art director Sal Romano showing a print sketch of a man in a hammock with the word ‘Relax’ as the headline, and later Draper enthralling the board of Lucky Strike by pulling “It’s toasted” out of thin air. Neither of these impressed my father.
“When you think of, ‘It’s toasted’ saving the day, compare that to ‘Just Do It’ for Nike,” he said. “Enough said. That’s saving the day. It’s the weak part of the show, the actual advertising, because it’s hard.”
He acknowledged that because if his professional experience, that sort of thing might bother him more than the average viewer.
“I wrote a doctor show (The Cosby Show), and I just threw in some medical jargon,” he said. “I’m sure some doctors watching were like, ‘Hey, the patient’s gonna frickin’ die!’ Cliff Huxtable was a doctor, and Clair was a lawyer, and I’m sure lawyers were going, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ But that is a really bad ad agency. And I’m sure America doesn’t care, just as if I was watching a show about Nascar, whatever they tell me is fine, I’m not going to know the difference. But right now, that ad agency is going to have to get better because I’d have a hard time watching it. A show about advertising, you would hope that they got sharper, because none of these people would survive so far. It’s the worst ad agency I’ve ever seen, and they’ve got to get to work.”
That last point was also something of an issue for my father, a man who worked absurdly long hours in advertising, and then continued the practice while writing and producing television. As the younger staff members of Sterling Cooper begin to file out just after 5:00 in the afternoon, my father was stunned.
“Time to go at 5:15? You saw the way I worked. 5:15, you’d say half day,” he said. “At Y&R, we all worked weekends. The saying was ‘If you don’t show up Saturday, don’t bother to show up Sunday.’ We’d be there hour after hour after hour hammering out ideas locked in our offices. So years later, Ogilvy takes me back, and they were going to make me a Vice President and Creative Director out in L.A. So the first day they introduced me to my group, the art directors and the copywriters. And at about ten after five, a couple of them knocked on my door, stuck their heads in and said, ‘We’re really glad you’re here, can’t wait to work for you, see you tomorrow.’ And they got on the elevator. And I started laughing and laughing. Someone came in and said, ‘What’s so funny?’ I said, ‘These guys have such a great sense of humor,’ and I kept looking at the elevator doors waiting for them to open. And they never opened up. Five minutes later, three more people from the group walked in and said, ‘Gotta go, I’ve got a volleyball game today.’ And the whole group was gone by twenty after five. I sat there stunned. It was at that moment where I knew it wasn’t going to work out for me. Going home at five o’clock at night? I’d never heard of that. Five o’clock was when it got quiet and you could do good work. That’s the way it was, and I said, ‘I’m going to get out of here. I can’t work with people like this.’”
As a television show, my father found Mad Men more hit than miss, though the repetition began to wear on him a bit.
“The writing is so inconsistent,” he said. “They just keep hitting the same beat and the same beat and the same beat. This guy is good, I’m not knocking him. It’s really impressive that a guy would tackle an era he had nothing to do with. But I’m 30 minutes into the show, and they’ve articulated the same problems five times. In 30 minutes, you’ve covered cigarettes five times and talked about this girl’s legs seven times.”
While Account Services Executive Pete Campbell is presented as a threat to Draper, my father didn’t buy it, especially after the former’s disastrous “death wish” pitch to Lucky Strike.
“The evil character, the Darth Vader kid would just get blown out of the water,” he said. “The great thing about Steven Spielberg, when he did Jaws, he didn’t say, ‘Oh my god, there’s a shark and it’s eating all the people.’ He showed the fucking shark. And he just showed it for about 30 seconds, and it just fucked everybody up for the rest of their lives. You can’t say in a corporate office that there’s guy nipping at my heels, you’ve got to show they’re formidable. You can’t have a guy get up and give a speech saying we’re all going to die anyway. You’ve got to have this guy coming in with amazing shit, because that’s the fear. Advertising is like baseball. You’re having a bad season, and they bring in a rookie, and he starts hitting line drives off the fucking wall, your job is really in jeopardy. So you’d better start taking steroids. This guy has no competition yet in that agency. In the ad agencies, the competition is grand. There’s always people nipping at your heels, and I’d be nipping at his heels. And he’d feel it. I nipped at all these guys. I always had guys coming after my jobs constantly. And I’d say, ‘Okay, try to get it. You’re better than me, you deserve it.’ And you know what, they couldn’t find that person.”
My father said he understood that if the show was four seasons into its lifespan, the characters probably developed much further than the “stick figures” he saw in the pilot, and the advertising might even have improved. But after 45-plus minutes, it was all about Don Draper.
“What makes a TV show ultimately is the characters, and so far it’s just the pilot, but you’ve got one good character, Don Draper,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s very one-dimensional and repetitive.”
But that was only part of the picture, and my father said that when the writing was good, it was very good. He liked the premise, how careful Weiner and the producers were with conveying a period in time and with setting it in what was effectively the Wild West in the Big Apple.
“It’s very clever what this guy has done in setting it back in the early ‘60s when there were no rules to life. I mean, everybody smoked. They smoked in the office, they smoked on airplanes. And they drank.”
Though he said the drinking wasn’t nearly as over the top as it might have been in 1960, my father remembered the offices as being a bit more lenient in his era than they might be today. He remembered a fellow copywriter from his early days at Ogilvy & Mather.
“She got hired two weeks after me, and she would come in still drunk from the night before,” he said. “She would slam her door shut and say, ‘No calls!’ She’d black out on the couch, wake up at about 11 and I had to take her down for coffee. She was very funny.”
My father also enjoyed the show because it gave him an opportunity to talk about his past, both in advertising and in the eventual move to writing for television.
“These people all wanted to be vice presidents, but that was a sad day for me,” he said. “I was 30 years old, Vice President, and it depressed me. But what it also did was it gave me permission to leave the business. I was way younger than any of the other creative directors. I didn’t really want to supervise other people, and I didn’t care about corporate pie charts. I was not motivated to have the corner office, and there were guys in there who wanted that dream.”
Instead, his relocation to Los Angeles with Ogilvy & Mather gave him the opportunity to break into Hollywood.
“It was The White Shadow and Bruce Paltrow” he said. “Hollywood did not care about advertising people, and Marc Rubin had gotten the head writer job through Paltrow. They had a pickup for five shows, and Paltrow wrote one, Rubin wrote one, I think Paltrow wrote another and Paltrow’s friend Steven Bochco came in and wrote number four. They only had one script assignment left, and Paltrow said, ‘Who do you want to write it?’ And Mark said, ‘Gary Kott?’ Paltrow said, ‘Who’s Gary Kott?’ ‘He works in an ad agency,’ and Bruce Paltrow hits the roof. ‘I have my choice of any writer in Hollywood? What do I care about an ad guy?’”
We continued to talk about my father’s career long after “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” fell into the credits, digging through my own hazy memories of visits to ad agency offices and commercial shoots along the way. We also covered some of what happened over the next few seasons of Mad Men, with my father guessing more often than not how certain events in and out of the world of advertising might have been handled on the show. It made me wonder how other people in advertising both past and present see Mad Men, or how doctors see shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy or even The Cosby Show. And then I got back into Mad Men itself, watching the season’s penultimate episode like pretty much everyone else I know. Everyone else but my father.