Joel H. Cohen, Calgary-born producer of The Simpsons (now celebrating 25 years on the air), has built a career on spinning a steady stream of lame jokes into Emmy-award-winning gold. Here, he shares his best advice on how to polish, refine and restructure bad ideas into something good.
“Every day, if I say 100 things, 93 of them aren’t going anywhere. Even if it’s just a steady stream of bad ideas, which is what I provide all day, there’s always a little piece that might inspire someone else. After five improvements, we might have a joke that’s script-worthy. It literally happens every minute on The Simpsons. Very rarely does something go right into the script without any improvement from someone else.
“I’ll give you an example. Homer is going to open his wallet, and we need some funny things in there. We’ll all go and write 100 funny things that could be in Homer’s wallet. And then we’ll present them to the executive producers, who might say, We like No. 2, No. 36…and we need another five, so go and write 100 more.’
“I like to think that in Season Three it was easy to come up with new ideas. Now, in Season 26, to find something that hasn’t been done in the previous 550-odd episodes is tough. So we just pitch a ton of stuff , and eventually we land on a fresh twist. Occasionally there are things happening in the world that you can draw from, but we’ve picked the world pretty clean.
“One guy I worked with calls this the puke draft.’ I live by it. People get stuck because they don’t want to write down something that’s not good enough. It’s very productive and freeing to realize you’re just going to write down everything the first time through. Then you go back and put in higher-quality ideas. When you go through enough iterations of puke, you’ll find something you are proud of.”