One of the subplots to the season six premiere of Mad Men — timed to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays at the end of 1967 — placed one of Peggy’s ad campaigns in peril thanks to a stand-up comedian’s performance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
The comedian in question is never named; in fact, nobody at Peggy’s agency seems to remember his name or find a transcript of his act. All they know is that Phyllis Diller was guest-hosting for Johnny, and that the comedian joked about how G.I.’s in the U.S. Army had cut off ears from Viet Cong soldiers and fashioned necklaces out of them. Meanwhile, Peggy’s print (and upcoming TV) campaign for Koss headphones was running with the tagline: “Lend Me Your Ears.” Shakespearean tragedy? Not exactly.
I wasn’t the only person running to the Internet to find out which comic Mad Men creator/writer Matthew Weiner referenced in the episode. TV critics who received advance screeners of the episode tried — Slate’s David Haglund even emailed comedian David Steinberg to see if either he was the stand-up in question or knew who it was — and failed to find an answer before Sunday night’s airing.
Because the Internet still doesn’t have an accurate listing for many things that originally happened before the Net begat the WWW, especially if those things happened on a TV show. Even more so on a talk show. Just try verifying when someone was a guest of Johnny Carson’s chat show or anyone else’s before 1980 and see how well that goes.
CONELRAD – All Things Atomic was first with this find: “If you’re wondering who the comic was who did the Viet Cong ears joke referenced on Mad Men tonight, it was likely Milt Kamen. According to NewspaperArchive.com December 22, 1967 was the episode that was guest hosted by Phyllis Diller. Kamen was the only comedian on that night.”
That’s not exactly true, either. A librarian at the Library of Congress informed Haglund just this afternoon that Soupy Sales also appeared on that night’s telecast.
Either way, it’s all incidental?
The blurring of fiction and reality — for let’s remember, Peggy’s not based on a real woman and Don Draper’s ad agency never existed, so even though their clients represent real products, it’s all a parallel universe or a metaphor — extends also to this comedic reference.
As Matthew Weiner explained to TV Guide’s Michael Schneider, the name of the Tonight Show comedian is left out because it’s a made-up scenario for someone to comment on what really was happening in Nam at the end of 1967.
“I hope it’s not disappointing to people. This is based on reality but the scenario is not real. The court martial really happened and there really was this event. And there were quite a few instances of comedians talking about the war on The Tonight Show and clients being very upset.”
Weiner wanted to emphasize how important The Tonight Show‘s late-night discourse was for the following morning’s watercoolers. “We actually had a line, cut for time, in which Peggy asked her co-worker if Phyllis invited the comedian to sit over on the couch,” Weiner told Schneider. “I can’t even explain it to young people what a universal experience it was [when] people watched [Tonight].”
And yet, symbolically this week again, comedians and the media still are trying to explain the significance of The Tonight Show to young people.
P.S. If you’re curious about Milt Kamen (pictured above), friend of the site Kliph Nesteroff wrote about Kamen a few years ago on his site, Classic Television Showbiz. Kamen’s nephew, Mark London, also offered some more personal memories of his uncle Milt — and notably how a more famous “Uncle Miltie” once stole Kamen’s material.