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Mad Men main man is back home

by Jim Longworth

Steven Spielberg’s parents gave him a film camera when he was a little boy, and he grew up to make blockbuster films. Matt Weiner’s parents restricted his television viewing as a child, and he grew up to create unrestricted television. Go figure. Weiner, creator of AMC’s megahit “Mad Men” (about ad men on Madison during the 1960s) is on break from the series, and using his downtime to shoot a big-screen comedy here in North Carolina, starring Zach Galifianakis and Amy Poehler. Weiner is back on familiar turf because he spent several years of his childhood in Fayetteville when his Dad was stationed at Fort Bragg.

Matt’s success in television didn’t happen overnight, having toiled as a writer for “Party Girl,” “The Naked Truth” and “Becker” before being recruited by David Chase to join the writing staff of “The Sopranos.” That series and “Mad Men” are both groundbreaking dramas, so I reminded Matt of something our friend Stephen J. Cannell (“The Rockford Files,” “The A Team”) told me many years ago.

“It’s easy enough to go along and just do the next series, like ‘Friends,’ but it’s a lot harder to redefine the medium, because you have a lot of things going against you”.

I asked Matt if he agreed with the sentiment. MW: Yeah, as long as it doesn’t seem like I’m saying that I redefine the medium. I’m very proud of what we did, and I’m doing a TV show that I wanted to see…. I would call it respectful storytelling, that is, it is respectful of the audience.

JL: Cannell’s comment was made about his mentor Roy Huggins, but I think it could also apply to you.

MW: It’s a very flattering quote, that’s all I’m going to say.

But that’s not all the critics and the fans have to say when it comes to Weiner’s talents. To date he has won about a billion awards, including four Emmys for best drama series, making “Mad Men” the first basiccable show to garner that honor.

But for all of his groundbreaking success, Weiner remains successfully grounded, even to the point of refusing to do interviews about his new film for fear that he would look like a media hog. In that regard, Matt is a throwback to the days before 24-hour news and “TMZ,” and to an era of simplicity — the era of “Mad Men.” However, the early 1960s were not the best of times for many Americans, and “Mad Men” reminds us every week of the rampant sexism and racism which existed in those days.

JL: Is it good for society to have you open up old wounds?

MW: First of all, anybody who thinks this stuff is gone just because it’s against the law now, is a fool. And, I think the issues raised in “Mad Men” about how different we all are from each other, are not gone either. I also have to say it’s not my job to help society. I’m making an observation about how much has changed or hasn’t changed, but I do feel very strongly that we shouldn’t be arrogant about what HAS changed. We should not take these things for granted.

And while “Mad Men” takes place several generations ago, Weiner has managed to make it relevant to people of all ages.

MW: One of the things I’m proudest about the show is that people have conversations. Teenagers and grandparents, generations are sort of bridged, as they discuss what’s the same and what isn’t. And I’m very thrilled that there is a conversation at all outside of my television show, otherwise I’m just creating entertainment.

But in the beginning, not everyone thought “Mad Men” would make great entertainment. A number of networks and cable channels passed on the series because it was set in the 1960s.

MW: People said no to it for a long time, so when I saw “Pan Am” and “Playboy Club” picked up last year by those same people who told me I was crazy, that was kind of a vindication.

JL: But why Madison Avenue as your venue? MW: I was tapping into something I had seen in movies and TV which was this advertising executive who was seen as a rock star. And the other thing was the ultimate irony of having a job that’s about assessing what is human desire, and not necessarily creating desire, but certainly reflecting desire. So for me, I got to tell a lot about my character by setting it in that world.

Of course, “Mad Men” is no more about advertising than “Dallas” was about oil.

MW: I’m interested in advertising, but I always use it in the show to tell a story about the characters. I’m not trying to tell a story about advertising.

For now, Weiner is having a ball shooting his movie, but he has no intention of turning his back on the small screen once “Mad Men” is done.

MW: I love television. I think it’s an amazing thing.

I don’t see a hierarchy in entertainment. I love working in television.

Not bad for a kid who wasn’t allowed to watch much television.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)

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