The first episode of the new season of Mad Men struck comedic gold, every situation a laugh riot straight out of the best bedroom farce and classic satire. The fire alarm interrupting Don's and Sal's trysts in the hotel, Pete and Ken in the elevator, each thinking the other is congratulating him on the promotion, Sally Draper finding the stewardess's wings in Don's pocket and asking if he'd brought them back for her---these were scenes worthy of Feydeau, Wilde, and Shaw.
Too bad none of them were played for laughs.
But this has always been one of the most maddening things about Mad Men. It's a comedy with all the jokes removed.
Last Sunday's episode, Out of Town, is a perfect illustration. Except for the opening, Don Draper's bizarre vision of "Dick Whitman's" birth, the whole episode could have and should have been funny. It wasn't just that drained of humor the situations I listed were flat and lifeless. They were also without point or purpose. More than that, though, they were without sense. Played as they were, as naturalistic drama, they came across as mere constructions for construction's sake, there simply to give the actors things to do and say. But a character like Shelly the Stewie only makes sense as trouble for the philandering male lead in a farce. The point of her being there is to give us reason to laugh at the man who's foolish enough to pursue her. She doesn't exist as a character except in the act of causing laughter for us and embarrassment for the man. Any line of dialog she's given that isn't a variation of "Coffee, tea, or me?" reveals her not as a person but as a fantasy, and a not particularly imaginative fantasy at that. Take away her jokes and what you have left is a pretty actress acting her heart out to bring a stick to life.
Written and played as comedy, the point of Don's outrageous lies about his top secret work for the government and Shelly's falling for it would be that Don was talking himself into trouble, again. The joke would be on him. In Out of Town, the "joke" is on Shelly. She's not a stock company dumb blonde bringing out the worst in Don. She's a fool made more foolish by her own lust. When, as she's doing her little striptease at Don's command, she tells him that people often ask her if she's done any modeling, she comes across as pathetically vain and insecure. This is actually something that Shelly has in common with Don's wife Betty. Betty spends a lot of time trying to convince herself that she is beautiful and attractive. It's likely that her idea of foreplay with Don includes some form of a demand that Don reassure her that she is both. Given that the actress playing Shelly resembles January Jones, who stars as Betty, this could have been a moment when Don realizes that he's in the process of seducing his own wife by proxy and that it's Betty he really wants at the moment. But the situation won't allow that. This is farce not drama, and the fire alarm is going to go off.
The farcical basis of the scene prevents any realistic drama from playing itself out. But without the laughs, there isn't actually any farce. So what's the point? Don's a jerk? I think we know that by now.
And of course Sal's scene with the bellhop was farcical too and should also have been played for laughs.
There was more in the episode that should have been funny because the situations and the characters derived from farce and satire. The two new Brits at Sterling Cooper, the totally humorless and unflappable Lane Pryce and the fussy male secretary John Hooker, are comic types, caricatures, but only if played as such. Played as if they're well-rounded characters, they're just stereotypes, cartoons. Burt Peterson's temper tantrum after being fired could have been a deleted scene from Office Space. And even the minor, throwaway scene at London Fog, where the father and son team who run the company don't serve any purpose except as representatives of themselves, could have gotten laughs by doing something Dickens did all the time---find the humor in people just being themselves.
Played straight, as drama, Burt's tantrum looked like bad acting and the scene at London Fog looked like, well, pretty much likefour actors sitting at a table staring at each other while they all try to remember what line comes next.
But this is SOP on Mad Men. Go back through your memories of the first two seasons and think of all the bizarre, lifeless, seemingly pointless moments and then try to imagine them with jokes. Suddenly they make sense, don't they?
Well, most of them. Mad Men also has a habit of being deliberately opaque. What Jim Wolcott said about Sunday's episode can be said about almost every episode:
...these and other mysteries will go unsolved for several episodes, when more minor mysteries will be introduced, which will also go unsolved.
But Mad Men is one of the most relentlessly and deliberately humorless shows in the history of television drama. It goes beyond erasing the jokes from situations that have no reason for being except as platforms for telling jokes. None of the characters on the show has the ability to be funny or witty, which is very strange considering that most of them are supposed to be very smart and creative types working in a field in which humor is a highly prized commodity. (It's also weird that none of them are the least bit musically inclined either, considering that jingles were the favorite advertising tool of the period.) I get that Sterling Cooper is meant to be a bit old-fashioned and stodgy. But I don't get that they've been able to hire only old-fashioned and stodgy employees. It makes sense that Harry doesn't ever get off a good joke. He's scared that he's out of his league and he may be right partly because he doesn't have a sense of humor. But Ken and Paul ought to know how to deliver a good line. All they ever do, though, is trade "barbs."
Sal often seems to be witty, and he can be droll, acerbic, sarcastic, and ironic, but it's all tone. Very few of his "jokes" and witty retorts are actually funny. What they really are are announcements that he's gay. Everything "funny" he says can be rewritten as this:
"I'm a deeply closeted homosexual with a very different sensibility than everybody else in this room that I am compelled to express from time to time, but if you'll pretend you didn't hear me say that I'll pretend that I didn't say it and we'll all laugh and go on if it's just another case of Sal being Sal."
Now, as it happens, the same sorts of situations and characters that aren't at all funny on Mad Men were routinely played for laughs in the movies and TV shows of the time. The Apartment, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sex and the Single Girl, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson movie Day made without Rock Hudson, The Thrill of It All, Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys, quite a few episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show and even Bewitched satirized much of what Mad Men attempts to criticize and expose.
To the extent that Mad Men is about the period in which it's set---and I think that that can be over-emphasized; Mad Men is more about its characters' reactions to that period than about the period itself---its themes are obvious and unoriginal to the point of banality. Well, what do you know, before gay and women's liberation, before the sexual revolution, back in those days when men were men and women wore girdles, people were unhappy and life was hard for women and gays and black people! I don't mind this as a given. But it's annoying when it's pushed as if the writers seem to think these things never occurred to me before. And, I think, one of the ways they push this is by taking things that ought to be funny and removing every trace of humor.
Mad Men has always been at odds with itself. Theme and style work against each other, with style having the advantage, because this is TV and the show is a feast for the eyes, and the writers having to insist that we shouldn't be fooled by the pretty clothes and classy decor. "Nobody enjoyed any of it," is the subtextual refrain. "Nobody had any fun. They didn't drink highballs and martinis for a pleasurable buzz and to loosen up and have fun. They drank to anaesthetize themselves. They didn't dress that way to look good. They dressed up to disguise their real selves. The nice houses, the modern offices, the cool, shadowy bars were stage sets on which they acted out scripts they didn't write for themselves instead of real places where they lived out authentic and meaningful lives. So don't get the idea that anything you're looking at was a good thing. And above all, don't treat it as a joke. Whatever you do, don't laugh."
As I've said before, Mad Men has a very literary sensibility. Individual episodes are more like short stories than they are like episodes on other, more ordinary TV shows. But part of this literary sensibility is a habit of writing as a method of literary critique. I suspect that much of the comedy that isn't treated comically is a response to the comedy in the films and TV shows of the period.
It's as if the writers can't resist telling us over and over again that we were wrong to laugh at Rock and Doris because of what was really going on at the time.
As if those movies weren't actually telling us what was really going on at the time under the cover of "just" being funny.
As if the writers of Mad Men missed the whole joke behind Tony Randall's characters or think we have.
Nevermind that we can't watch those movies now without being aware of the irony in the fact that Randall was straight and it was Rock Hudson who was gay.
Please help keep this blog running strong by making a donation.
Quick post script added Sunday night: From some things said in the comments here and elsewhere, I have a feeling that I didn't make my point clear. I'm not criticizing the actors for not making their scenes funny. I'm criticizing the writers and directors for putting them in comic situations and then giving them nothing funny to say or do and having them play every scene tristezza. A little scherzando now and then is all I'm asking. It's not up to actors to make things funny by clowning around. Comedy needs to be played straight. Characters in comedies don't know they're in comedies. Comedy is a matter of timing, tone, touch, and pacing, and Mad Men is generally directed at the pace of a high mass during Lent back before Vatican Two.
I'm not saying Mad Men isn't good because it's not funny. I'm saying I think it could be better if Matthew Weiner and company trusted that their audience would know that these are sad stories even when we're laughing.