The Dark Vietnam Subtext of the Mad Men Premiere

Slate's Culture Blog
April 7 2013 10:51 PM

The Mad Men Premiere’s Dark Vietnam Subtext

zippovietnam
A Zippo used in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.

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Was the risqué, Vietnam-referencing stand-up routine discussed on tonight’s Mad Men premiere performed on a real-life episode of The Tonight Show?

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Since AMC sent out the episode ahead of time, we had a week to look into the question—and we’re still not sure. Failing to turn up any mentions of it online or in likely books, we asked David Bushman, television curator at the Paley Center for Media. Unsure himself, Bushman forwarded our inquiry to Jeff Sotzing, who runs Carson Entertainment, which “licenses Tonight Show clips for broadcast and releases DVD compilations for the consumer market.” (Sotzing is also Carson’s nephew.) “Unfortunately,” Sotzing replied, “that’s during that period when the shows were erased.” No one was able to locate for us any episodes from December 1967 guest-hosted by Phyllis Diller, as the episode described on Mad Men was. I described the routine in an email to David Steinberg, a long-time comic and a bit of a comedy historian, who did stand-up pretty regularly on The Tonight Show in the late ’60s. He said it wasn’t him, and the joke about soldiers wearing necklaces made of human ears didn’t ring a bell.

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Now that the episode has aired, perhaps someone else will have better luck digging up the routine than we did. Though I have my doubts: The comment from Peggy Olsen’s colleague that there was no tape or transcript available—and his inability to remember the possibly fictional stand-up’s name—makes me think that this storyline was based on a hazy memory of Matthew Weiner’s, and that he had no more luck tracking it down its source than we did. (Update, 11:49 p.m.: On Twitter, Bill Geerhart tells me that the comic in question is Milt Kamen, who, he says, appeared on The Tonight Show on Dec. 22, 1967, with guest host Phyllis Diller. We’ll look into it! Second update below.)

But whether or not any comic actually made jokes on The Tonight Show in December 1967 about American soldiers wearing necklaces made of human ears, it would have been an apt time to do so. That year, the brutality of the U.S. war in Vietnam reached a new pitch, and included instances of decorative savagery. “For seven months,” the so-called Tiger Force, a group within the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, “moved across the Central Highlands” of Vietnam, “killing scores of unarmed civilians—in some cases torturing and mutilating them,” as the Toledo Blade reported in 2003. “As the ground troops swept through, in many cases they gunned down men, women and children,” according to the New York Times, “sometimes mutilating bodies—cutting off ears to wear on necklaces.”

The Toledo Blade report was headlined “Rogue G.I.’s Unleashed Wave of Terror in Central Highlands,” but three soldiers told the New York Times that the term rogue was inaccurate. Tiger Force members “had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing.” Also disputed was just how unusual the Tiger Force campaign was. Nick Turse, author of the recent book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, told the Times that the incidents reported by the Blade “really didn’t stand out” from many other atrocities of the period. Rion Causey, a member of the Tiger Force unit, told the paper, “A lot of guys in the 101st were cutting ears.”

“In life we often have to do things that just are not our bag.” That’s the inscription on the Zippo that Don Draper inadvertently takes from a soldier on leave in Hawaii. Inscribed Zippos were popular among American soldiers in Vietnam; a few years ago the University of Chicago Press published a whole book about them. And the phrase that Don finds on the back of Pfc. Dinkins’ lighter appears on at least a few such artifacts. Zippos lit more than cigarettes in Vietnam; at an early meeting of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, soldiers spoke of “Zippo inspections,” “preparation for burning villages.” After that meeting, John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that soldiers in Vietnam “shot cattle and dogs for fun.” Pfc. Dinkins asks Don if he’s ever seen what serious artillery can do to a water buffalo.

Dinkins talks as though he conducted such experiments for fun, but he is not convincing. He’s death-haunted, like everyone else in this episode. Just before Don picks up the Times and reads the real-life headline, “World Bids Adieu To a Violent Year; City Gets Snowfall,” the doctor who lives in the Drapers’ building offers him some thematically convenient wisdom. Don’s job, he says, is to “think about things” that people “don’t want to think about” (i.e., death), while his, as a doctor, is not to think about them. All so people can “alleviate their anxiety.” If the rest of the season premiere is any guide, the source of that anxiety is not some vague force like “social change” or “the ’60s.” It’s the war in Vietnam.

In his own take on the episode, Seth Stevenson notes that the My Lai massacre is just a couple months away. But that event was not unique. “Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,” David H. Hackworth, the decorated colonel who created the Tiger Force unit, told the Times 10 years ago, not long before he died. “There were hundreds of My Lais.”

Update, April 8, 1:15 p.m.: Rosemary Hanes, a reference librarian at the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress, sent us an NBC “Analysis File” confirming that Kamen was on the show that night, with guest host Phyllis Diller. He was not the only comic on: The occasional trouble-maker Soupy Sales also appeared. NBC’s master book doesn't provide details on what exactly transpired during that taping, but David Bushman thinks Kamen is an unlikely culprit for such potentially controversial material. “Kamen was SUCH an old-style comedian,” he said in an email, “and a joke of that sort would have been completely out of character for him.” Neither Hanes nor Bushman could find anything confirming that such a joke did in fact occur, so for now the inspiration behind the routine remains a mystery.

2:13 p.m.: Weiner tells TV Guide that “he doesn't actually have evidence of a comedian on that Diller-hosted Tonight Show making such a joke about the war.” “This is based on reality but the scenario is not real,” he says, adding that “there were quite a few instances of comedians talking about the war on The Tonight Show and clients being very upset.”