Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mad Men: Perfect Pitch

Mad Men -- why do I love this TV show? Let me count the ways: The literate script; the ambrosial cinematography, the brilliant acting, the percussion-driven opening theme song that leaves you wanting more. Ad exec Don Draper, the show's central character, is played by handsome Jon HAMM. Thanks, Jon, for the cluing relief. Crossword regulars Mia and the Toy Story piggy bank can take five.

But I especially love Mad Men because it gives puzzlemakers an opportunity to clue STENO as "Mad Men extra."


What's so special about a boring clue like "Mad Men extra?" Nothing. That's why it's special. For years, puzzlemakers have stretched STENO cluing to varying degrees of cuteness: "Pool party"; "Recording artist"; "One employed by a dictator." We see court stenographers in the courtrooms of Foley Square ; but the office STENO has pretty much gone the way of the crossword MOA ("Extinct bird"). . . it is no mo-a!

"Mad Men extra" is a time-travel clue that calls upon our historical literacy skills. We're expected to remember that the show is set in 1960s America, specifically around a New York City advertising firm (a steno's workplace).

Mad Men story lines also provide refreshing cluing angles for: beehive hairdos, '60s fashion, chain-smoking, alcoholism, adultery, racism, homophobia, sexism . . . the things that make crosswords so wholesome.

There's attractive wordplay in the show's title. Put an "M" in front of AD MEN, you get MAD MEN, and a direct reference to crazy, hard-driving Madison Avenue advertising execs. Their mission, to paraphase Diana Vreeland, is to sell us what we never knew we wanted.

My first working experience with real-life Mad men started with a lunch invitation from an ad exec here in Manhattan. The details, now a few years old, are sketchy. I recall a multi-martini lunch and vigorous ideating between the exec and his associate. Then, in a lightbulb moment, he turned to me and popped the question: "Can you make a banana-shaped crossword puzzle?"

"Ah, what an a-peel-ing idea," I shot back, trying to win them over with fruit humor. Either the joke bombed or the guys were too bombed get it. No matter. I later learned that their fruit-importing client loved the puzzle. Vindication! The banana-shaped commission was a career milestone. You have to have skin in the game.

When I'm Grand Central Terminal these days, it's easy to time-travel, Mad Men-style: I can imagine Don Draper as he rushes to catch the 7:51 pm train to Ossining. On his commute home, he'll pull The New York Times from his briefcase, turn to the puzzle page and fold it into quarters. He'll light a cigarette (it's 1960, remember?) and start doing the crossword, edited by Margaret Farrar. The constructor? Any one of Farrar's pool of contributors* which once included the man who hired her -- NYT publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger.


*For more on Margaret Farrar, see Michelle Arnot's excellent book,  Four-Letter Words


pmerrell said...

Liz, we've received mere snippets of your clever thoughts over the years, with a blog comment here or there. It's great to get a good, heaping dose of them in your musings here! She creates crossword puzzles. She plays the viola. She does needlework. She writes!

Elizabeth said...

It's an occupational olio, but you make it sound legit. Awwwww, what nice words! My hat's off to you daily bloggers -- you do the heavy lifting every day. Thanks for stopping by, Patrick!