David Steven Cohen [Interview]

 

Emmy-winning writer/producer David Steven Cohen began his career working on television projects with Steve Martin. Later credits include Pee-wee’s Playhouse, ALF, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Living Single, Comedy Central’s Strangers With Candy starring Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert, and Steven Spielberg’s animated feature Balto. David was head writer of Cartoon Network’s cult classic Courage the Cowardly Dog and received a Writers Guild Award and two Emmy nominations as executive producer of Nickelodeon’s musical series The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. Also Emmy-nominated for PBS’s Arthur, David holds the #1 and #7 spots on WIRED’s “Fifteen Geekiest Episodes of Arthur”. He recently won an Emmy for his writing on the PBS series Peg + Cat.

Also a lyricist and composer (songs performed by Elaine Stritch, Megan Mullally, Lea DeLaria, The Cat in the Hat, others), David was thrilled to have his work featured in Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. The New York Times hailed his libretto for the opera Lilith (Lincoln Center, 2001) as “a haunting contemporary parable.”

David has served as executive producer of the Writers Guild Awards in New York, with hosts including Tina Fey, Alan Cumming, and John Oliver. His collaborations include TV projects co-written with Chris Rock and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. David lives in Brooklyn Heights with his wife and, depending on circumstances, a son or two. www.dstevencohen.com, @CohenDS (Twitter)

So Folks, please enjoy some wonderful words from the brilliant David Steven Cohen!

When did you first realize that you had a passion for storytelling? What inspired you to jump into this world to make a living? Was it a deep-rooted ambition, or did you just find yourself doing it one day?

I can’t remember not being passionate about storytelling. It was never an “ambition”, it just… was. Doing it professionally was a natural evolution. A few memorable highlights of my formative years:

I was probably about 3 when I decided to illustrate a tale I was conjuring – by drawing on the wall next to my bed. Rather than punishing me, my mom put glossy erasable paper on the wall so I could draw stories as much as I wanted to. My parents indulged and encouraged any and all creative endeavors, even messy ones.

Second grade offered me a new approach to crafting stories. We’d have weekly spelling tests. A related assignment was to write a story using all five words, none of which had much to do with the others except that they were on a second-grade spelling level. It was like connecting dots that had no numbers and I loved it. This would turn out to be great practice for my career. We’re often tasked with writing stories from someone’s idea of good story elements that are as randomly combined as those spelling words. Weaving disparate elements into a coherent story is challenging, but it’s a game I love. 

I kind of saw my future when I was about 8 years old. The Dick Van Dyke Show was in syndication by then, and I’d watch it daily. One night, I dreamed an episode: It was time to set the clocks ahead an hour. Rob sets the kitchen clock ahead. Then Laura does. Then little Richie does. (None knew the others had done this.) Rob gets up in what he thinks is the middle of the night and goes to the kitchen for a glass of water. He sees the clock and thinks he’s late for work and hurries out. When he gets to the office, no one else is there. It’s dark. Rob is very confused. Okay, it was more of a set-up than an episode, and a thin one at that, but I was 8, so back off.

And I have to mention high school. I think it was Martin Mull who said that show business is high school with money. I agree. I went to a huge Brooklyn school, surrounded by brilliant, inspiring teachers and students. It was a creative playground. During those years, I discovered how much I really did want to be in the arts, to write stories and songs, to create images, to perform – and to share the glorious experience in collaboration with like-minded pals and colleagues – and then to celebrate it all with the unvarnished elation of teenagers after a school show. 

What was your very first gig in the world of television writing? And how did that job impact your career and way of thinking in the business? Does it still have an impact on your work today?

Steve Martin hired my (former) writing partner and me to write an episode of a TV show he was producing, an anthology series called George Burns Comedy Week. (Burns did the intro and outro, and each episode was a stand-alone half-hour single-camera comedy and pilot for its own series.) The story we came up with was about a guy who wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic playwright, but to his dismay, he (inadvertently) becomes famous for a cartoon series he (inadvertently) created, The Honeybunnies. Aaaaand… he’s miserable about the whole thing despite the millions he’s making. 

So Mr. Honeybunny, as he’s come to be known, wants to get rid of the Honeybunnies. He arranges for production of a “special clip” from the “upcoming Honeybunnies Easter special”. On a talk show, he rolls the sneak peek: We see the Honeybunny family hopping across the tracks of the Carrotland Express. But it seems Mr. Sun had warmed the tar on the tracks to a sticky goo, which traps the sweet bunny family… and – OH NO! – here comes the 9:09 barreling down the tracks. The reflection of the train grows larger in the eyes of the terrified bunnies. The reflection of the bunnies grows larger in the eye of the horrified conductor. Closer and closer: Bunnies. Conductor. Bunnies. Conductor. Bunnies. And… cut to black. Coming back from the clip, the alarmed show host asks how they get out of this. Explains Mr. Honeybunny: “They don’t. They’re dead.”

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. We had Mr. Honeybunny, finally rid of the profitable-but-pesky creatures, go off to Sweden to write his bleak plays. Steve had only one note on the story: Mr. Honeybunny would not be able to shed his adorable identity and would have to learn to live with it. That was when we realized we had sorta kinda written the Steve Martin story, the Wild and Crazy Guy who also wanted to be taken seriously for his dramatic plays (and much more). And he was exactly right, for himself, for Mr. Honeybunny, and, as it turns out, for my partner and me. 

That was the first bit of animation we ever wrote: the Honeybunnies getting mowed down by a train. Together and, then, separately, we haven’t escaped our Honeybunnies. We hadn’t intended to continue writing animation, but, amid all the prime time shows we were working on, there were animation projects. To this day, no matter what else I do, no matter how dark or adult, I’m still wedded to children’s animation, as a writer and songwriter. This was not my plan (not that I ever had a plan). I’ve had to learn to live with my Honeybunnies – sometimes happily, sometimes, well… Let’s just say there are moments I hear the Carrotland Express in the distance, getting closer… closer…

You worked with our old friend Mitch Rouse on a show that I would argue to be one of the greatest of all time, Strangers With Candy. I am curious to know what it was like during the time you were making this now cult classic program? Did you realize at the time that you were creating something special?

Comedy Central wanted someone with a lot of experience writing full-length stories and scripts to help shape the episodes. I’m pretty good at getting inside someone else’s vision and helping in the storytelling process. Strangers With Candy was an amazing place to do that with stunningly inspired people. The show was psychedelic, bizarre, and brilliant. I loved it. (Hell, Amy Sedaris could make faces at the camera for a half hour and I’d be riveted.) 

It felt like a nascent cult classic, but I really don’t think much about the potential success of a project while I’m working on it. I’d start to worry about the wrong things. The only thing I want to be thinking about is the story in play. Once Strangers was on the air and I could take a step back, I knew it would live long in the cultisphere.

And the show that really brings it all home to me, one that I absolutely adored as a youth, was the amazing Living Single. As somebody who worked on the show in both a writing and a producing capacity, I am curious to know what you believe sets Living Single apart from the other classic shows that were coming out in the same time period? I know why I loved it as a viewer, but what are your thoughts?

Yvette Lee Bowser created the show based on people and relationships in her life. The characters felt real in a basic, honest way. Their relationships were tangible and, often, moving. When I first saw the pilot, I smiled throughout (and laughed plenty). I knew these were people I wanted to hang out with. (And they lived in my beloved Brooklyn.) My affection for the characters extended to the cast. And the staff… Wonderful people – and a beautifully diverse group: many distinct voices and experiences filtered through the show’s specific character constructs. 

Working on Living Single changed me in ways I’ve only come to realize in more recent years. I feel more comfortable with cultural fluidity in my writing. It showed me how diversity can reveal similarity as much as it does difference. Khadijah, Regine, Max, Synclaire, Kyle, Overton… I miss those guys, but they still live in me. 

I’m thrilled that the experience of working on Living Single translated to the screen, and that the series was embraced by a diverse audience. It was really an honor to be part of it all. And in the show’s first holiday episode (Living Kringle), written by my partner and me, we got to sing Winter Wonderland on TV with Kim Coles, Kim Fields, and Queen Latifah! And, hey, look… Here’s photo evidence. (I’m the guy in the hat and beard.)

 

You’ve worked quite extensively in the world of television geared toward younger audiences, from my favorite as a youth like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, to the more current Space Racers. I am curious as to what it is like to switch to shows like this from other shows like the aforementioned Living Single or Strangers With Candy? What are some similarities between the two genres that people may not realize are there?

Whether writing for 46-year-old boozer-loser-user high school freshman Jerri Blank in Strangers With Candy, or Pee-wee Herman, or an anthropomorphic space ship in a cartoon produced with NASA – or George C. Scott and Madeline Kahn as the President of the United States and his adoring sister-in-law (Mr. President, FOX, 1987-88) – it’s all about character and stories coming from characters’ passions, mistakes, obsessions, decisions. Crafting stories for any genre starts from the same place: human behavior. There’s lots of filigree to add, sure. But from that basic beginning, a project can go anywhere. 

The strangest juxtaposition I had of two disparate jobs was during the late 90s. I was executive producer of the first season of Nickelodeon’s The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. We did 20 half-hour musicals with Henson-built Seuss characters in a CG environment. It was intense work, but it was magical. 

At some point during my year on the series, a classical composer I knew asked me to write the libretto for an opera: a dark, neo-biblical, revisionist, feminist story based on the myth of Lilith. In Jewish folklore, Lilith was described as Adam’s wife before Eve, conceived as was Adam, not of his rib, but of earth. She was banished from Eden essentially for wanting to be Adam’s equal, sexually and otherwise. Lilith was cursed to an eternity of flying through the night, stealing the seed of sleeping men, and birthing demonic offspring. (And thus began the patriarchy. Ugh.)

Needless to say, the two projects could not have seemed more different. I began to have fever dreams with Lilith speaking to me in Seuss verse: “I meant what I said, I said what I meant: I’ll sow your seed, baby… 100 percent.” Still, the work of understanding the characters and how they move the story forward… that was the same, no matter how different the tone and intended audience. But it was a crazy experience. I wrote a piece about the weirdness of the whole thing. You can find it HERE.  

Having worked in the world of comedy writing for over 30 years, and having seen the world change so drastically in regards to technical advancements, I am curious to know what your thoughts are on the current wave of having so damn many ways to view entertainment? Has the plethora of options in this world of online streaming and more been a blessing in your opinion? Or is everything becoming a bit rushed and oversaturated? A combination of both, maybe?

It’s been interesting watching all this ongoing change. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is and we adapt. It can be overwhelming, but there has never been more excellent television than now. Writers and creators can go places they weren’t able to – I hate to say it this way – back when I started in the business. Styles and tastes change, social context shifts, technology and magic become indistinguishable… but when it comes down to it, for writers (or that clinical term “content creators”), it’s still about character and story. And that’s been true everywhere and always (or so I imagine; I haven’t been everywhere and I haven’t been always).

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

I frequently look back on my career thus far and try to figure out my professional “personality” in order to think about what might be next. From the wanton destruction of the adorable Honeybunnies, through Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the often surreal Parker Lewis, the musical Seuss series and the opera Lilith, through Strangers With Candy, four seasons as head writer of Courage the Cowardly Dog, and on to some particularly psychedelic episodes I wrote of the PBS series Arthur, my penchant for the strange and twisted is pretty clear. And with my passion for storytelling, songwriting, and comedy… I’m developing a project that incorporates all those elements. I’ll see where it goes. I hope you’ll see where it goes.

In general, I’ve gone with the flow of my career and will continue to do so. And I’m still learning to dance with my Honeybunnies, because you can’t get rid of those adorable bastards. 

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Besides tumbling through memories to answer your questions, yesterday I met a seven-month-old baby girl who just ignited me. Raye. Raye’s eyes were brilliant, eager, and immediately engaging, her squeals were tuneful communications, her quick laugh melted my heart. I told her stories using simple sounds and gestures. It was pure and basic. It was music. It was sheer wordless joy. 

And for a moment, all was well with the world. 

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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