The Geekification of TV

Comedy writer and Futurama co-creator David X. Cohen on the growing influence of science on TV and the value of writing physics jokes no one gets

To look at his academic résumé, you wouldn’t think David X. Cohen was funny. The son of two biologists, Cohen left his hometown of Englewood, New Jersey, in 1984 to major in physics at Harvard University. He followed up with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley and was on track to earning his doctorate. Then came Beavis and Butt-Head. Cohen had been an amateur comedy writer since Harvard, and in 1992, one of his scripts landed him a job writing for the now-classic MTV animated series. That was the end of grad school. The next year, he was hired to write for_ The Simpsons_, and by 1999 he had co-created his own show, the Emmy Award–winning science-fiction comedy Futurama, which begins airing new episodes this fall.

Cohen spoke with us about the growing popularity of science in popular culture, the similarities between writing and research, and why real science and entertainment don’t mix.

Q: Have television audiences become more science-savvy since Futurama first aired nearly 10 years ago?
A:
As far as technology jokes, people are much more likely to get those now. Viewers today are of the generation that grew up with a videogame in the crib.

Q: How do you decide how much science to put into the show?
A:
Early on, [Futurama’s co-creator] Matt Groening and I wrote down in marker: Science shall not overrule comedy. That said, we write a lot of jokes about science.

Q: Some of them are pretty obscure. The horse race that comes down to a quantum finish, for instance. What percentage of viewers do you think gets those?
A:
We use what I call the 1 percent rule. We’re going to commit to doing a joke that only 1 percent of the audience will get, but we do it in a way that won’t derail the show.

**Q: Futurama’s 31st century has smell-based telescopes and alcoholic robots. Where do you get your vision of the future?
A: I read a lot of scientific magazines because it helps alleviate my guilt for leaving science. But a lot of our technologies come from science fiction.

Q: Where does TV get science wrong?
A:
Something that really bothers me about the portrayal of mathematicians is that they are usually shown having magical powers. I’ll point to A Beautiful Mind, which I found difficult to watch. How do you show someone doing math? They have floating numbers and things like that, and it looks like magic. And I think that discourages kids because they think, “Aha, he has a magic power that I don’t have, and that’s why he’s good at math,” not, “He worked really hard, and I could get good at math the same way.”

Q: Any overlap between research and scriptwriting?
A:
Comedy writing tends to be a very collaborative process—peer review on the spot. The peer review in the writers’ room is, people laugh or they don’t.