He gave the audience a peek inside the writers’ room of the longest-running primetime series ever, with over 500 episodes produced, the show has just embarked upon its 23rd 22-episode season.
Cohen self-deprecatingly shared a little background about himself, his first degree in biology debunked the myth “that chicks dig biologists”, so he went on to pursue a second degree at another Canadian University – “you may be surprised to hear that Canada has more than one."
Having worked for the Canadian film company that brought us Leprechaun, and a stint in international ad sales with Turner Broadcasting, Cohen went on to be a writer on live-action sitcom Suddenly Susan.
Freedom from network bureaucracies, he said, has been a key factor in The Simpsons’ success.
“It has been described as ‘the show that built the entire Fox network’ – for that we apologize profusely,” he said.
In between perfectly-timed deadpan gags of his own, Cohen shared an anecdote about a writers' block incident at which an impasse had been reached on the right ‘blow’ – or punchline – to a storyline. “Then one of the team stood up and said ‘let me just play devil’s advocate for a moment.’ At that point we all knew what the blow should be – Homer stands up from the couch and plays on a pinball machine named 'Devil’s Advocate'."
Cohen talked about stimulating and fostering creativity by encouraging all ideas – good and bad. “In our team bad ideas are generally referred to as ‘Joel’s ideas’, but no-one is scorned for having a bad idea. Because bad ideas inspire good ideas.”
He said they take the improvisational theatre approach, so successful for shows like Saturday Night Live, of the continual “Yes and…”, a layering of ideas one upon the other.
Cohen touched on the importance of being relatable, saying it’s good to know when to draw the line and pull a great idea if it’s out of context.
One of the greatest ideas that never ran, he says, saw Homer harpoon a whale, get snagged on the rope, get pulled into the water, then drag down the whale and drown it. “We realised it just wasn’t relatable to that particular episode.”
He summarised all his points with eight key words, “If you’re having difficulty remembering them – happily they make up the handy acronym ERGFLNCA,” he said, “which I’ve copyrighted by the way.”