Matthew Weiner is the creator of the best show on television. It is called Mad Men. Before it, he wrote on another “best show on television.” It was called The Sopranos. Before that, he wrote on Becker. (Between these jobs he also wrote briefly for the comedy nerd respected Andy Richter Controls the Universe but Becker was his first steady job and he spent significantly more time working on it.) If you haven’t seen Becker, it’s the type of sitcom that was created around the turn of the millennium, when comedies weren’t necessarily expected to be great but were expected to star people like Ted Danson. It was fine, solid even, but not the type of show you’d expect future geniuses to make their bones. However, for fans of that now present-day genius’s show, Mad Men, this background shouldn’t be a surprise. Mad Men, whose finale airs this Sunday, is obviously a serious, even dry show but it’s also very funny and it’s this sitcom indebted humor that make it what it is.
(The Spoiler Alert starts now. Do not click to read more if you haven’t seen the last episode because I’m going to ruin it in the first sentence. Seriously.)
Remember when Lane Pryce totally killed himself? (See, I told you so.) It was devastating and tragic and dramatic and quite funny. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise; Lane seems like a character who would commit suicide, as he is, well I guess scratch that, was a coward whose ego had a tendency to run away with itself. So when he lost his job, and ostensibly to him everything, death seemed like a logical plan of action. Of course he’d do it in the new Jaguar his wife bought him. The poetry of it was not lost on Lane and wouldn’t have been on the audience. He performs all the steps necessary to let the audience know this is one of those car asphyxiation things, breaks his glasses, turns the key, flips some old-timey car lever (pronounced leeeeever because he’s British), and presses the ignition. The car stalls. As Lane grows more frustrated and dejected, it’s hard not to laugh. It’s absolutely comical. It’s like watching a cartoon character try to roll a barrel up a hill. (Don’t believe me? Watch this video of a cartoon trying to roll a barrel up a hill.) When he then tries to fix the car, holding half of his now broken glasses up to his right eye, the scene becomes damn near Looney Tunesian. I thought at any moment Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” would play and there would be a montage of harebrained schemes. Yes, this is dark but that’s why it works. There is a tension that builds, so when crying doesn’t happen, laughing seems like a worthy alternative. In many ways this character’s entire arc was moving towards this comedically tragic end – he is the man who fashioned a belt buckle out a T-bone steak. And yes, Lane does manage to end his life and it’s appropriately sad but before doing so he was used to tell a joke that when boiled down sounds nearly Borscht Belt perfect, nearly multi-camera ready: How unreliable are Jaguars? So unreliable, the British suicide rate has dropped. (Punchline needs works but you get it.)
Mad Men is inherently lacking in physical action. Deaths are rare, so to use them as more than a moment of seriousness, asserts a confidence in one’s specific voice and Weiner’s is that of a former comedy writer. Watch this scene, in which Don learns that his elderly secretary, Miss Blankenship, has passed away. “My mother made that.” Classic. It’s a scene that could’ve been in The Office or a Marx Brothers film. It also was fitting for that character, who existed solely as comic relief. (Watch this montage, if you want to be reminded of this hilarious astronaut.) She isn’t the only inherently funny character, though she might be the only character who was exclusively used for comedy; there is also Peggy Olson, Harry Crane, and Roger Sterling. Peggy is not as much laugh out loud funny as she is a bit silly (she did do this), with a dash of Liz Lemon. Harry Crane is a classic buffoon. Roger Sterling is an actual funny person both on the show and in the show’s reality. This is especially the case when he’s with the perfect straight man Don Draper. As Bert Cooper put it in the very darkly funny episode “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”, “Everybody wants Martin and Lewis.” These are characters that if you take away their affairs, unwanted pregnancies, and divorces could fairly effortlessly slide into a sitcom.
Also, because Mad Men tends to focus more on studying all of its characters as they exist than moving a grand plot forward, the show is actually structured much more like a traditional sitcom than a serialized drama. Let’s go back to this season’s premiere. Watch these clips:
Those are sitcom beats. They even did the fairly hack trope of having a character talk about a person that is actually standing right behind them. And it was wholly necessary, as moments like this have always been for Mad Men. Partly these passages save the show from becoming too weighty and flatly dark. However, it’s also a bit bigger than that. Mad Men is a slow show. It’s a sssssllllllloooooooooooooow show. As Matthew Weiner has pointed out before, Mad Men isn’t pulsing with action – no one is getting killed. This is something that separates it from basically every very critically acclaimed drama of the last 15 years: Homeland, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, even Friday Night Lights had those football scenes. I’m not saying those other shows are humorless, because they aren’t, but humor was far from essential. Mad Men uses jokes, awkwardness, and even farce as its substitute for action. Funny is its violence.
This hasn’t always been the case. The show had a mystery that sustained much of the first three seasons: Who is/was Dick Whitman? However, after Betty found out and asked for a divorce, this lie didn’t matter as much and Dick rarely got brought up again. Then who is Don Draper? He is the lead of a television show. He’s this charming yet damaged guy (a real Jeff Winger-type) with a sexy and younger French Canadian wife, an ex-wife who’s in a fat-suit, and a Jack Donaghy/Liz Lemon-like protégée and mentor relationship. He works at an office with a crazy cast of characters: Roger, his wisecracking sidekick– Bert, the in the clouds old guy – Pete, the weasel – Harry, the buffoon – Ken, the (very sci-fi) sci-fi writer – Stan, the overzealous bro – Ginsberg, the archetypal manic Jew – a secretary, Dawn, whose name sounds identical to his – and Joan, the human Jessica Rabbit. I’d watch his show. It sounds pretty funny.
Jesse David Fox is a writer, cat person, and Jew (in that order). He thinks of himself as a cross between Michael Ginsberg, Ida Blankenship, Rachel Menken, Dr. Faye Miller, Ginsberg’s dad, Abe Drexler, half of Jane Sterling, those Manischewitz executives from a few episodes back, and Kinsey’s beard from season 2 and 3.