When Jon Hamm last hosted “Saturday Night Live” in January, his monologue traced his supposed pre-“Mad Men” career, featuring clips of him – looking and acting very much like buttoned-down, hyper-self-controlled 1960s ad man Don Draper – in roles ranging from QVC host and to “Def Comedy Jam” comic.
“Have you seen them? You know what I’m talking about. Those roundaway girls with their big booties,” a deadpan Hamm/Draper tells the “Def Comedy Jam” audience, clad in a gray suit, scotch in hand.
The bit worked because the funny and self-effacing Hamm played to type in settings decidedly against type, spoofing a character that notched icon status almost from his first drag on a cigarette in the 2007 debut of AMC’s “Mad Men.”
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Now the lead mad man is being lampooned all over the Internet – all because Hamm’s character broke character last week by doing once unthinkable: the mighty Don Draper cried.
Within a couple of days, someone started a site on Tumblr called “Sad Don Draper” where folks can download a screenshot of Hamm’s face contorted in grief and easily Photoshop the image onto other pictures.
Many of the mashups are derived from pop culture (Draper crying about “Titanic”), while others tap into current events (Draper weeping at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally). Some irreverently invoke moments in history (Draper tearfully witnessing the Hindenburg disaster) while a few are even far more tasteless (you’ll know them when you see them).
The viral gag, which has spurred scores of pictures (we particularly like the Internet meta joke of Draper weeping at a double rainbow), shows the clout of the Web in quickly spreading a humorous, do-it-yourself meme.
But perhaps more significantly, the meme, even as a satire, represents a virtual fan-made advertisement for Don Draper’s status as an icon – and for the growing influence of “Mad Men” on the popular culture.
The crying scene, in which Draper breaks down after learning of the death of the only person who fully knew about and understood his secret life, wasn’t easy for many of us – and his protégé Peggy Olson – to watch.
Sometimes the discomfort of witnessing unexpected, outsized outbursts of emotion, even by a fictional character, can trigger strange reactions – including humor.
The scene also showed how "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner and his team are dedicated to pushing the program ahead after three Emmy-winning seasons. While the latest season moved a tad slowly in the beginning, we can see now Weiner was building up to this moment, the most striking evidence yet of Draper’s decline.
His marriage is dead, his kids are a mess and so is business. The man who kept two lives straight by keeping tight command of himself and those around him is out of control, in his drinking and, now, in his emotions.
Perhaps most telling is how the once-golden boy is out of touch with the rapidly changing world around him: Draper bet Liston over Clay, scoffed when Peggy wanted to hire handsome young rookie quarterback Joe Namath as a pitchman and he can’t understand why the firm has enlisted a shrink to tap into the psychology of the masses (even if he's hot for the shrink).
“Mad Men,” while set this season in 1965, is very much a show of its time thanks to the realistic examination of the interplay between image and the psyche. This is a TV show also made to play well on the Internet – and not only because of gimmicks like the "Mad Men Cocktail Culture" app or the “Sad Don” meme. Every episode spurs online armchair analysis that Draper – who, until he started a diary in Sunday night's episode, had steered clear of introspection – probably would roundly mock.
The meme, in some respects, is reminiscent of the scores of homemade parody videos inspired by the German drama “Downfall,” in which a furious Hitler explodes at his commanders in the Third Reich’s final days. Only in the takeoffs, the Fuhrer rants about everything from Jay Leno to the iPad, via goofy subtitles.
The ongoing gag is funny not because there’s anything remotely humorous about Hitler, but because of the juxtaposition of the epitome of 20th Century evil and our current, often mundane popular culture. The “Sad Don Draper” meme feeds off of a juxtaposition not anywhere near as extreme, but derives force from the stark and sudden change in iconography of perhaps the most complex and most discussed TV character since Tony Soprano.
As silly as most of the doctored “Sad Don” pictures are, the fan-created ads-of-sorts suggest “Mad Men” has done a very good job of selling itself. That’s something even an old-school ad man like Don Draper would appreciate.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.