Emmys 2012: Matt Weiner on the Secrets of 'Mad Men's Success

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"Artists aren't supposed to be of their times. They're supposed to look at it," says the creator of the AMC drama, which received 17 nominations Thursday morning.

Mad Men creator Matt Weiner had a good Thursday morning -- his show got 17 Emmy nominations, and now he could become the first auteur in history to win five consecutive outstanding drama Emmys. But the night before, he was all nerves.

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"I totally forgot that I don't sleep the night before [the Emmy announcements]," Weiner tells The Hollywood Reporter. "To not be able to sleep for a couple years is kind of cool. It's a slightly embarrassing thing to like, give a shit. But I do. I can't believe we ever got nominated or won. The concept that we're the frontrunner or the show to beat or the oldest show there is a very strange idea to me. Because we are the show from basic cable that had like, a 900,000-person audience the first year. Even saying the words 'season five' is weird. I never ever expected any of this. I can't get over it. If we had gotten one nomination, we'd have the same party we're going to have tonight. That's not a lie, that's really true."

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Weiner says he knows what sells the show, to Emmy voters and viewers alike. 

"I think Mad Men is very traditional entertainment in a strange way, but it is a very peculiar sort of story and the genre is undefined. It doesn't even have the positive qualities of a soap opera. I was very lucky to work with David Chase and Terry Winter [on The Sopranos], and they were -- David especially was -- philosophically attached to the idea of trusting the subconscious. That's where the entertainment was. When something is a hit, that's the part of the show that people like. You look at something like American Horror Story, that's not just genre that's paying off there. It's hitting a certain nerve. Modern Family is hitting a certain nerve, and you can't put into words what is funny about it, what's right about it, or everybody could do it. What can't be put into words is the beauty of it. That's why it's not radio."

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Weiner has a mind so deeply sinuous that when he thinks he's written something utterly straightforward, his staff (and wife) often have to tell him that the obvious point he thought he was making entirely eludes everyone else. Yet that very elusiveness attracts viewers -- and makes them project their own subconscious onto his characters.

"There are times where I do get misunderstood, and it starts to be something else for the people who watch, and that's been strangely magical. I think it works in my favor sometimes, because people think I'm smarter than I am. They see connections,  thematically woven things that were not intentional. This season people started talking to me about suicide motifs. Every week we've had a guy jumping out a window in the opening credits. I didn't know that was something new. But then when I heard them talking about it, I guess there has been a pall of depression and self-destruction in a different way in the new season, and I guess it must have been on my mind and the writing room's mind. But it wasn't on purpose."

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Maybe Mad Men succeeds because it's not just about the '60s, it's about today's zeitgeist.

"Artists aren't supposed to be of their times, they're supposed to look at it. We've done 65 episodes, and it's an organism of hundreds of brains, so it's hard to say what's being channeled. But we do try to keep it interesting to us. The show took six years to come on the air. No one wanted to make a period show. It was a waste of money. Then, right before the show came on the air, I did see a resurgence of interest, not in the '60s in particular because it had been forgotten, but an interest in looking back and saying, 'How did we get where we are?' And I remember saying, 'Wow, this is an incredible coincidence.'"

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Weiner adds that the show's universal qualities make it relatable.

"The thing that I'm proudest about the show is that it has a context that is about a more universal view of human experience which is unrelated to a period. Every show that any of us have ever liked, including the ones that are nominated this year and a lot that weren't, live in that world of actual human activity that we recognize, not some sort of amped-up wish fulfillment."

The Mad Men crew intend to celebrate today's big Emmy wish fulfillment. "We don't let anything pass without a celebration -- even, like, a Friday," says Weiner. "Tonight there will be many taxicabs called."