Unpackaged, Contextualized: An Interview with Mad Men Unbuttoned’s Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Kevin Nguyen talks with Natasha Vargas-Cooper about her new book Mad Men Unbuttoned, earning a blog-to-book deal, and her lost dog.

In a way, Natasha Vargas-Cooper reminds us why we love Mad Men. Her blog, The Footnotes of Mad Men, is dedicated to providing historical and cultural context of the show, from the ’60s world of advertising and design to Mad Men‘s larger political and societal themes. Since she started it last August, Vargas-Cooper has turned Footnotes into a book — Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America, a handsome paperback featuring 86 new essays on the show.


Photo by Nikola Tamindzic

Photo by Nikola Tamindzic

The Bygone Bureau: I’m curious how you watch Mad Men. Do you watch it with friends? By yourself with pen and paper? Do you watch it twice before you write about it?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: I cannot watch it with anybody. When it would happen on Sunday, it would be like church. I had a whole ritual. Mad Men does something to me emotionally, and that’s what inspired me to write about it. It flipped some emotional triggers.

And then I sit with a pad and paper. It’s just like being in a lecture class. I’m basically taking notes the whole time. After that’s done, I look at my notepad. On one side I have what I think is the big theme of the episode, like any major historic reference, and on the other side, I have more passing references — things that aren’t overtly said. Like [someone is] driving a specific type of car, or Betty is serving frozen food. That’s not quite taboo now, but that’s what a lazy mom does now. But then it was completely fine and not looked down upon.

Then I sit down and I work off and prioritize that list. What’re the key things? Then I just go from there, and just spend the week working my way down from those.

For the blog, and probably for the book too, where do you do most of your research?

Oh my god. So the book was much different beast than the blog. I actually thought, how hard can it be to write a book? Please. But that shit is hard!

For the blog, I try to do it instantly. If it airs on Sunday, that shit should be up Sunday night, at the latest Monday. That’s just the cycle of the internet, which is fine. With the book I wanted something lasting, and something that works beyond the ephemeral. So I did a lot of research at the UCLA library and their archives and at the Cal Arts library. They have a really great art and animation school. So you have a lot of 1960s early design that was coming out of California.

I spent a lot of time with a lot of the ad guys who were big in that era. They all wrote autobiographies, and they’re all amazing. Each autobiography had a scene where it was like, “I walked into the room and I was gonna do something great. But my boss walked into the room, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna do something great,’ and the boss was like, ‘I don’t believe in it,’ but he was like ‘you do it it kid.’ ” It’s all really swagger-y, but they’re all copywriters, so it’s all really quip-y. But I read about seven autobiographies.

At what point after you started the blog did you think, “Oh, this would work as a book too.”?

It didn’t even occur to me. After about four weeks into when I started the blog, I got a phone call from Harpers that said, “Do you want to turn this into a book?” And I said, “Uh yeah, okay!”

(laughs)

So I didn’t pitch it. It didn’t even occur to me. It was just something I did for kicks. And then it opened a whole new world.

The one exception I can think of is BLDGBLOG, but it only seems like really gimmicky blogs get approached for book deals.

Yep, I’d say that’s right. Hold on, I’m lighting a cigarette on the stove.

(lights a cigarette on the stove)

Sorry, say that again? Gimmicky blogs get book deals?

Yeah, it just seems like that’s the trend. Stuff White People Like, Look at This Fucking Hipster

I think that what’s been so strange about the recent blog-to-book deals is that… I don’t know why you’d want [those books]. I mean, I have a ton of jokey, silly books. Not that the joy of LOLcats — which does have a tremendous amount of joy — [doesn’t matter], but it’s user-generated stuff and you can see eighteen of them a day, and they’re changing and you can see the nature of memes and these community blogs and there’s constant, by-the-minute input. And to translate that into a book turns it into an object, right? It’s something people flip through on occasion. It’s surprising how few books there are from blogs that have one real person with a real voice, so things like A Continuous Lean and (one that I love) called Ivy Style, where it’s one or two people burying down on a subject — they’re like investigative reporters.

But hopefully, that’ll be a trend. I don’t lump myself in with those [gimmicky] books, because I actually wrote this book. I wrote a lot.

So how come the name change from Footnotes of Mad Men?

Oh, that’s just one of those marketing things. I like Mad Men Unbuttoned. One of the things we were playing with was something that made it sound more active and rolled off the tongue and had a little bit more sexiness to it. Also, something that isn’t as tertiary and secondary. The idea of footnotes is that they are a side note — if they’re a “footnote in history” they’re not a primary issue. I’m really glad with the name change because the book is full of self-contained essays.

One of my favorites was on Mark Rothko and another was on Frank O’Hara. And all they have to do with the show is that they’ve been mentioned. I think there are themes from those works that are reflected in Mad Men, but I really dug into those people as artists and writers. The idea of Mad Men Unbuttoned is that it’s, to put it another way, Mad Men Unpackaged or Mad Men Contextualized. But those are so stuffy and academic. And Unbuttoned sounds better than Unpackaged. So that’s where it comes from.

Have you gotten any feedback from AMC or people involved with the show for either the book or the blog?

Uh, no. I don’t think it has anything to do with [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner or anything, but AMC is incredibly protective over their brand. So the answer is no, and I don’t begrudge them at all. I sent out copies to everyone I know that knows someone at the show just because it’s a beautiful object, it’s a beautiful book. But this wasn’t a fact-checking book in the sense like “this was an anachronism” or “you got this wrong.” It was about everything the show does right.

So what would you do if you met Jon Hamm?

My first honest reaction is that my knees would buckle because I think he’s a miraculously good-looking man and a phenomenal actor. But I’m in LA, and I’ve met enough famous people to where I just know that it’s always better in my head. If for some reason I met Jon Hamm on a bad day — I’m too fragile! I don’t know what I would do.

I met Rich Sommer [who plays Harry Crane] and I was like, “Hi, I wrote a book… about… you.” And he was like, “Cool.” And I was like, “OK, great!” But what I want to say is that, “No, I’m not an obsessive fan girl. I’m a pop culture critic, and I’m a journalist and I take your work incredibly seriously.” But I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if someone said that to me, and I feel like I would just make them uncomfortable. So I’d rather like them from afar.

It’s not like it isn’t something that I haven’t thought about. All the time.

How many times do you think you’ve seen all three seasons?

I would say there are a couple episodes that I’ve seen six to seven times. The way the seasons are done is that you have a lot of… it’s like a moving in to a close up. The season generally starts with a panoramic view of what’s going on, what time they’re in. As time moves on, it hones in and gets more specific — the emotional issues, the family issues.

In the first couple episodes of every season there’s a ton of stuff, a ton of references. You want to go back and really nail those down. I’ve watched specific scenes over and over because there will be like ten references. Or they’ll be having a conversation about Volkswagen, so that means four characters have an opinion on this iconic ad. So you go down and parse that out.

But I don’t watch entire episodes that often because I do not want to ruin the magic of it for me. I’m like this with movies and TV shows I love. It’s a treat, it’s special. And I want things to remain special to me.

The reason why I started [the blog] was because even before the third season started, I had lost my dog and I was really upset. So I thought, “Fuck I really need something to keep my mind off it. Oh you know what, I’ll re-watch Mad Men.” I’d only seen season one and two once through and I really loved it. So I sat down and restarted watching and thought, “Oh this would make a cool blog” and so I started the blog.

Mad Men gives me comfort because it still feels very new… I’d much rather watch specific scenes to get specific details when I need them. But other than that, I like that it exists in the periphery a little bit. Like, I never watch the commentary. I never watch the commentary or the special features on any DVD because I grew up doing theater and I know how messy things are backstage. The second I hear that they were going to say this line instead of that line, that’s the only thing I think of whenever I see that scene again.

I purposely try to avoid watching it too much. I’ve probably only seen season three all the way through once.

It also helps writing about it because it’s not an obsessive Star Trek thing. It’s not “Beta Niner Twelve was referenced in this scene,” but it’s more of like I want to approach [Mad Men] like a visual novel, something bigger. Things I remember, I assume other people will also remember, and those things will stick out in their head. Like, there’s a passing reference to Bob Newhart, and they say “Oh Bob Newhart, he’s no Lenny Bruce,” and I’m like, “I KNOW ALL ABOUT LENNY BRUCE I WANT TO TALK ABOUT LENNY BRUCE!”

But it doesn’t really do anything for the show, it doesn’t matter.

Now that I’m talking about it, I realize I also do that to protect my own writing. I can fall very deep into the “Lenny Bruce hole” and I didn’t remember [the reference] until I re-watched an episode. So it mucks up my thinking. Whereas you just come away from season one with Lucky Strike, or season two, “What was divorce like?”, and it lets you focus on the bigger themes of the show.

So yeah, there’s a really long answer to that.

Did you ever find your dog?

I didn’t. But after I finished the manuscript, which was January 2nd, my dog had been missing for six months. And I thought, “Well, I want to a new dog.” So I went to the pound — I went a couple days in a row — and I kept seeing this one beautiful gray-and-white-haired Chihuahua, so I got it and named him Sterling. So that was like my gift of renewal.


Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America is published by Collins Design and will be available July 20.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.