Humor writer Max Cohn talks about the chance encounter and the right story pitch that landed him writing credits on a recent episode of The Simpsons.
Since you graduated from Oberlin, you’ve been a contributing humor writer for McSweeney’s and the New Yorker. Tell us about your career trajectory since you left Oberlin. How and when did you get your foot in the door?
I got in the door through loud and persistent banging.
I received many rejections from both publications before my first acceptances. I remain grateful and amazed that Emma Allen and Chris Monks—the brilliant humor editors at the New Yorker and McSweeney’s, respectively—still considered my stuff after politely passing on my first 50 or so pieces. That number is not an exaggeration.
But at last McSweeney’s ran my first piece in 2015, which imagined Frank Sinatra as an awful screenwriter penning an awful movie. Then the New Yorker accepted something from me in 2017, called “Millennial Prenup.” I still submit to both all the time.
You recently wrote an episode of The Simpsons. How did you get involved with the show, and what was that process like?
I’m still in disbelief about the whole thing, but yes. The episode is called “Gorillas on the Mast” and it aired in November 2019. Though I actually wrote the script almost two years ago. (It takes a long time to produce an episode.) And it was through an Oberlin friend that my writing got in front of The Simpsons in the first place. Thanks to that introduction and a miracle of good timing, I met two of the executive producers in Los Angeles while I was out there visiting friends and family.
A couple weeks later they invited me back out to pitch episode ideas. I didn’t get a lot of sleep leading up to that meeting. But I was relieved when they reacted to this one pitch—about Homer buying a boat and marooning himself on a garbage patch. Over the next couple hours I listened and took notes as they charted out a whole episode. It was an amazing afternoon that I will certainly tell my grandkids about, once I have kids and then they have kids.
I returned home to New York and wrote the script. The next time I saw it was six months later at a table read. Seeing and hearing the voice actors play their parts in person was incredible to behold. It’s hard to fully appreciate how many different characters each actor plays. For instance, there was a scene between just Homer and Grampa—I remember looking up and seeing Dan Castellaneta straight up talking to himself. A year later an episode about Homer buying a boat aired on FOX and had my name on it and gave my parents a nice opportunity to kvell.
Are you still working full time at Comedy Central? What is your role there, and what projects have you worked on?
I am. I work as a writer for Comedy Central’s brand creative department, which is the network’s inhouse ad agency of sorts. I help come up with campaigns and write promo scripts/taglines/various copy for just about every project and show—from South Park to The Daily Show to the Roast of Alec Baldwin to a holiday stunt with NBA all-star Blake Griffin to Awkwafina’s conductor announcements on the 7 train. The job feels most rewarding when I get to write something very stupid for a very famous person.
You were a writer and editor of The Grape, Oberlin’s alternative student newspaper. How did that experience influence your writing ambitions?
My time at The Grape taught me a lot. Namely that I’m a terrible editor with atrocious judgment when it comes to my own writing. I also learned that staying up all night in the Burton basement with the other editors to finish an issue made me happy. What made me less happy was watching a student open that issue to the centerfold, assess the naked bodies of their peers for six seconds, and then throw out the entire paper without reading a single article. We just pulled an all nighter to make that! I learned I would rather have somebody read an article of mine and dislike it than not read it—and that statistically my writing is a lot less popular than boobs.
As you reflect on your time at Oberlin, what other experiences (be it academic, student life, etc.) made an impact on you?
Oberlin blessed me with great mentors. Most notably Laura Baudot, DeSales Harrison, and Dan Chaon. Dan Chaon’s TV Writing course taught me everything I know about writing episodic—and allowed me to buy the screenwriting software Final Draft with a student discount, which was great. The best surprise decision I made was taking Economics 101 with Hirschel Kasper. He’s one of the most enthralling and hilarious storytellers I’ve ever heard.
What other projects or goals are on the horizon?
I’m working towards getting staffed in a TV writers’ room. And I’d love to make something with my extraordinary, younger filmmaker sister Emily Cohn ’17. But most recently I adapted one of my New Yorker stories, titled “The Haunted Apartment,” into a half-hour pilot. It’s about a neurotic guy navigating late twentydom while sharing an apartment with an overbearing ghost family. I would like to sell the show somewhere, have it renewed for 16 seasons, get it syndicated, and then retire—at which point I can finally sit around telling long-winded stories to all my hypothetical grandkids.
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