Tonight’s the night: Futurama returns with fresh episodes on Comedy Central, starting at 10 PM Eastern Time. Two weeks ago we featured our conversation with Billy West, the voice actor behind Fry, Professor Farnsworth, and other characters. Today, it’s executive producer David X. Cohen, who worked on The Simpsons before creating Futurama with Matt Groening more than a decade ago.
Cohen discusses how he went from scientist to comedy writer, the logic (or illogic) behind heads in jars, why things still don’t work in the 31st century, and how he sneaks math jokes into the show.
*Plus, read through to the end for some spoilers about the plots of some new episodes coming this season.
DISCOVER Magazine: I feel compelled to ask: Does the X stand for anything? Or is it like the Harry Truman S, and it stands for nothing?
David X Cohen: I’ll get that off my chest right off the bat: It’s a fraudulent middle initial, but there is a logic behind it. The reason for that is the writer’s guild, which has a regulation that no two writers can have the same name for on-screen credits. So, when you join the union, if your name is already taken, you have to change your name. Being named David Cohen—as you can imagine, there were several other David Cohens already in the guild, [and] one with my actual middle initial, S, for Samuel.
So, I decided to go for the craziest most sci-fi letter available, X.
DM: Both of your parents were scientists, correct?
DXC: Yes. Both PhDs in biology. I grew up in a house that was very science-oriented. The family activities we did were usually science-related—trips to the zoo or the museum of natural history in New York. So it was just taken for granted—by me at least—that I would be a scientist sooner or later. I tended to gravitate, though, more toward the physical sciences and math and computer science and physics, and I actually majored in physics in college. So, my undergraduate degree is in physics, and then I got a master’s degree in theoretical computer science as well. Before I derailed.
DM: How did you “derail?”
DXC: When I was growing up I just wasn’t really aware that there were careers such as writing cartoons. It wasn’t something that anybody I knew did and never popped into my mind. But then, when I went off to college, I worked on the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, and suddenly I did know some people who had the career goal of becoming writers, or specifically, comedy writers.
And after that, I was somewhat torn. Should I continue down my path to be a scientist, or should I pursue this thing which (I thought) I did for fun? Ultimately, [I decided] I would like to go to graduate school before forgetting everything I did as an undergraduate. I went to UC Berkeley and had a good time there, but got to the point where I had reached the end of the line of what I was working on, and I had to reevaluate. I decided I might rather try the other option after all.
It worked out. So, my leave of absence from graduate school is still in progress.
Next: Fermat’s Last Theorem, Star Trek, and suicide booths