Show’s writer glad for what degree gave him
Sheryl Wachtel photo
At first glance, Joel Cohen’s life has all the elements of a schmaltzy sitcom. He went from growing up in the Canadian Prairies to living in Los Angeles, where he landed one of the most coveted gigs in showbiz — writing for the not-so-schmaltzy sitcom The Simpsons.
As one of 15 full-time writers at the helm of America’s longest running cartoon, Cohen is also an executive co-producer, helping the iconic show surpass its 400th episode mark just this year. “I don’t think I’ve even had 400 episodes in my life,” Cohen deadpans.
Maybe not, but he’s certainly come a long way from Calgary to Springfield, with several scene changes along the way. He went to the University of Alberta, worked in Toronto as a film distributor, sold ad space and had a stint with NBC’s Suddenly Susan. Oh, and when placing his recently-won Emmy on his mantle place, he may have had to first move his MBA degree, which he got from York University’s Schulich School of Business.
Yep — long before Homer, Bart and Krusty the Clown, Cohen studied at one of Canada’s top business schools. While he admits he doesn’t use his degree much anymore, he’s still glad for what it’s given him. “It opened my eyes to approaches of business and life that I never really encountered before,” says Cohen. “In a way, it allowed me to be creative in a slightly different way — a creative, but practical way.”
Cohen also now gives corporate lectures to companies like IBM and Merrill Lynch in a talk entitled The Business Tao Of Homer: Lessons In Creativity And Innovation From The Simpsons. For Cohen, his career has given him lessons that could easily be taken from the writing room to the boardroom. “I can pick up on processes that my fellow workers are doing to be creative and I can show business people creative ways of getting around a problem,” says Cohen.
After all, fleshing out a good joke is a lot like surmounting a problem, he explains. A believable statement, considering that each episode takes about nine months to complete and about 200 jokes to fill (compared with just 40 to 50 jokes when the show first started).
Television comedy has evolved a lot over the 18 years The Simpsons has been around, and with up-and-comers like Family Guy and The Office swimming in the same pond now, it certainly takes a lot of innovation for Cohen and his fellow writers to stay fresh. Nonetheless, ratings continue to stay healthy and The Simpsons movie is soon hitting theatres. And in case things do go belly-up, Cohen always has his backup plan.
“There’s a very nice street corner that I saw in Toronto that would be wonderful for panhandling,” he jokes.