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Secret Science Nerds: David X. Cohen Brings Academia to Animation

Secret Science Nerds: David X. Cohen Brings Academia to Animation

The Simpsons recently celebrated their 600th episode and made television history by becoming the longest-running scripted series ever, thanks to a two-season renewal order. A huge part of the animated show’s success over the years has been writer and producer David S. Cohen, better known within the Simpsons and Futurama fandom as David X. Cohen. Those same fans might know that Cohen originally changed his middle initial to avoid conflicts with another member of the Writers Guild, but did you also know that he’s a card-carrying member of our Secret Science Nerds?

The son of two biologists, Cohen’s earliest interests in school were in math and physics. However, he also had a penchant for drawing cartoons and was blessed with a funny bone; he wrote the humor column for his high school newspaper and would later write for the Harvard Lampoon magazine. At Harvard, where he eventually graduated with a bachelor’s in physics, Cohen also worked in the university’s robotics laboratory for a year. It was then that he moved on to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a master’s in computer science. (If you’re interested, you can read his co-written paper in Discrete Applied Mathematics titled On the problem of solving burnt pancakes.) Despite the academic path Cohen had traveled to this point, his decision to test the creative waters of TV writing proved to be a life-changing moment:

I reached the point in graduate school where I had gotten a master’s degree and was at a dead end on what I had been working on as research, and I would have had to start on something new… It was a good time to think about what I was doing next. The comedy writing won out at that point and I gave it a try.

Cohen soon found success in TV comedy writing with early scripts for MTV’s Beavis and Butthead, followed by his most notable work on The Simpsons and, later, Futurama with Matt Groening. In Cohen’s own words:

One of the first rules that Matt Groening and I agreed upon for writing Futurama was, ‘Science shall not outweigh comedy.’ Still, we wanted to get in as much science as possible where it didn’t clog up the gears of the story. Obviously, a lot of our technology is drawn from ideas in science fiction rather than actual science.

And yet, Cohen still folds real-world science into his writing with the help of his own knowledge base and some friends in academia. He used his friend David Schiminovich, an astrophysicist at Caltech, to provide comedic particle physics diagrams for a chalkboard seen in the background of an episode, and the Futurama writing staff included Ken Keeler, who has a Ph.D. in applied math and a master’s in electrical engineering; Bill Odenkirk, who has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry; and Jeff Westbrook, who has a Ph.D. in computer science. The the science jokes were aimed at those who would both notice and appreciate the writing team’s attention to detail.

So while the science of Futurama may stretch the limits of reality, we love that there’s a real team of scientists behind the scenes using the medium of animated comedy to entertain and educate, with Cohen at the helm.

Now that you know that David X. Cohen is one of our Secret Science Nerds, who else would you like us to profile? Let us know in the comments below!

Image: Gage Skidmore

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