in conversation with Joel H. Cohen
Joel H. Cohen is a Canadian-born, Emmy award-winning writer and producer for The Simpsons — which for the record is the longest-running scripted American primetime television series ever… I’m pretty sure you’re familiar with it. On top of that, he’s also a runner and the author of the book “How to Lose a Marathon: A Starter's Guide to Finishing in 26.2 Chapters”. I reached out to Joel to talk to him for this week’s Possessed Magazine about how he got into running, his first 5K, being Canadian, seeing yourself get better at things, predicting the future, wearing velour, preparing for your first marathon, failures, Los Angeles, trying new things and of course The Simpsons. Ay, caramba!
Hey Joel, how are you doing?
I’m doing fine, just staring into the computer. Good times, good times.
Like we do. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and honestly being so accessible. That was cool. So, what initially got you to start running?
Basically, I had always seen people that love running and I'd read about people who love running but I had always hated running. I thought “Alright there’s clearly something I’m missing if so many people are into this.”
Did you play sports growing up?
Yeah, I grew up in Canada so I played hockey.
My Mum is Canadian.
Oh cool, from where?
Oh wow, not too far. I’m from Calgary, which is just a province over. That’s awesome. I played hockey but I was never any good at it. I also played little league baseball but I’m not athletic. I love sports but I’m just not good at any of them. I can tell you for a fact. I just wanted to try running because I’ve always seen that this was a thing that people love. I loved reading about it. I read the book Born To Run [by Christopher McDougall] and I was captivated by it. So I said to myself I gotta try it and then I just had to take the first steps off the driveway.
What do you like about running?
What I liked about it, first of all, was the feeling of accomplishment. I got better at it. I like any sport I get better at. I tried snowboarding and had the same experience. Where at first I super suck and then I find out I can do it. Then it becomes a little bit of a personal challenge. Well, can I go further? Can I go faster? And then of course, because I’d read a lot of books about running, there’s these big iconic events like the New York Marathon and other marathons. I sort of set the goal and then just kind of powered towards that. Through the feeling of accomplishment, is my short answer - from my long boring answer.
Yeah, just seeing yourself get better at something….
So once you stepped off the driveway and started running, how long was it before you ran your first marathon?
It was pretty quick. First, I did this thing in Santa Monica called the Santa Monica Classic. It’s a 5K. Again, I’d never run an organized race in my life and I just wanted the chance to feel that vibe of what it’s like to grab a cup of water from a stranger and drink it. It was cool! Running with maybe a thousand people in that event, even though it only takes 20 minutes or whatever it takes, but it was just fun. Then after that I was just like, “Well, can I run a marathon?” The marathon was four or five months away and I just signed up, made that a goal and committed.
How would you advise a beginner runner to prepare for something like that?
Literally my only resource was the Runkeeper app. I now know there are better options out there, but Runkeeper is a very good one. They had little programs inside there where they teach you how to run, how to train for a 5K, a 10K, a marathon, whatever. You basically just do whatever they tell you to do every morning and there’s a little bit of nerdy satisfaction being able to complete that task in the morning.
Runkeeper’s a great free resource that’s available to people that wanna set a goal of any length. There’s lots of apps, I’m not endorsing that one, although it is the one I used and enjoyed. But I think, just set a goal. Especially for a small bite-sized one like a 5K, you can literally run one, two or even three weeks after you commit to it. Of course if you wanna get faster and better you can go to another one. I think it’s cool to try something that has a beginning and an end to it and finish it. Even if you walk the whole thing, I think it’s an accomplishment. If you wanna get better, do it again.
That leads to my next question, is it ok to run slow?
Oh yeah, 100 percent. I think anyone committing to any form of exercise or a challenge that they don’t know that they can accomplish, is itself a crazy huge accomplishment. So I do endorse people that walk the marathon. There’s every version of everything. I just think, Look, they’re not sitting on their couch and they’re not staring at their stupid computer, so I think it’s great. Just getting off your ass in any capacity is a great thing to do.
Can you explain what the “Oprah Line” is?
Well as I got into running and I was trying to understand what my pace was and also what a goal should be, I found out about all these celebrities that had run marathons. Some of them perhaps surprisingly fast and some of them predictably slow. But with Oprah it seemed, at least to me, that I should be able to run a marathon as fast as her. Read into that whatever you’d like. She ran it at about four hours and thirty minutes. So that felt like a pretty good benchmark for me, and actually if you tell a lot of amateur runners that they'll say Oh wow that’s really fast. And it is a good time, I think, for anyone running their first marathon or for any marathon. It’s a good goal, so I just made that my goal. I found that I fell into about a ten minute a mile pace which calculates out to be just under 4:30. Spoiler alert: I finished at 4:26 my first marathon.
So you beat Oprah?
I did, yeah. And I’m sure when Oprah reads this she will be heartbroken and will now try to beat the Joel time in her next marathon. I just want to wish her the best of luck.
How has your life changed since you’ve started running?
You know, in all of our lives hopefully we have the chance to experience pride. Some of the things I was most proud of, if I really looked at them, I realized they were the result of a team effort. The thing about the marathon I really liked was that it was an effort solely done by me. It’s impossible for people to really help, except to coach you I suppose - but I just used the app. I really took a sense of pride in knowing that I had, for the first time ever, accomplished something purely as an individual. I guess it gave me a good sense of pride that if I really set a goal, I could accomplish it. And that’s a weird thing to find out about yourself when you’re forty five, but I did. That was a real big thing I took away from it. It was totally new to me.
Since then I’ve sort of ventured out and tried a lot of different sports that I never thought I’d try. Things like rowing, and I failed miserably, but tried. I then took up tennis, I still play that a lot. Things I just never thought I could get better at, I did. And that’s a good thing to discover later in your life, at any point in your life, but certainly later in your life.
Yeah that’s cool. Do you find there to be a connection between running and creativity for yourself? Does it help you with ideas?
I always heard the thing about people running Oh man that’s when I get my best ideas, my mind is so clear, I can think so clearly, but for me that was never the case. My thing about running is I have to trick my brain into thinking it is something else. So I would just pound my brain with podcasts and audiobooks. So as far as creativity goes, I’m gonna say no!
I listen to a lot of great podcasts, maybe that’s helped with creativity. But running itself, no. I love the early mornings, I love the solace of just being maybe the only guy out there on the road. The quiet and watching the sun coming up. But I don’t know that I’ve felt a creative return. A lot of cool peaceful moments but nothing creatively that I would point to.
Do you have any recommendations for podcasts that people should listen to on runs?
None of my recommendations have anything to do with running.
There’s one called How I Built This by Guy Raz, who talks about businesses you’ve heard of and basically the journey they went through. It’s always a struggle so that’s always rewarding to hear. I always listen to Conan. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend is a great podcast, very funny. Alec Baldwin surprisingly, or not, has a podcast that I enjoy.
Do you have a good “Moving to Los Angeles to Make It” story, being that you’re from Calgary?
I don’t know how good it is. I moved here and my brother is a bit of a writer/director as well, so he introduced me to Kathy Griffin, who is of various levels of fame and infamy. She was a great ally of mine and I wrote jokes for her, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and all these little awards shows for a few years while I tried to find any connection I could. I’ve written for every crappy awards show that you’ve never watched on TV and maybe even a few you have. Then I got onto my first TV show, which was a show Kathy was on called Suddenly Susan. Which, if anyone has ever watched I apologize, I owe your brain twenty two minutes.Then from there I got on The Simpsons, and I’ve been on The Simpsons twenty two years. Started with a little help to meet Kathy but then literally did any writing job I could get. Some of them were sitting backstage in Vegas writing jokes for Carrot Top or something like that.
Haha, that’s a funny image. What did you think of Los Angeles at first?
I’d been here a lot, my brother lived here. LA is beautiful. The weather is amazing, you can do things like I mentioned earlier: tennis, rowing and running everyday without even thinking twice.. There’s gorgeous parts of the city and there’s less gorgeous parts of the city, like any city. I like it but I don’t know that I love it. What do you think of it?
I love Los Angeles, it's my favorite city in this country for sure.
When people say LA I never know what you think of right away. I live near the beach which I love. I don’t love the ocean as much as I love the beach but I’m always on the bike path at the beach. I love the mountains, I go hiking all the time or trail running.
That’s what I love about it, there’s a lot of different LA’s. And we’ve got everything here: beach, desert, mountains.
Yeah and they’re great. I love Koreatown.
Everyone’s seen The Simpsons at this point and they probably have some idea of what it would be like to work at the show. But what is it really like working for The Simpsons?
It’s very cool. Taking myself out of the equation, it’s this room full of super smart, funny people just cranking out something that’s been, I think, really good for thirty something years. It gets harder because it’s been on for so long that it gets hard not to repeat ourselves. There’s the challenge to keep up the standard. I know people have seen it and have a lot of opinions about when it’s gotten better, worse, better again, whatever. As one of my bosses once told me, even the worst Simpsons episode has at least three or four amazing jokes in it. I always think about that and I think it’s true. So it’s been this home to some great writers and animators and actors but also amazing comedy for 35 years. I sometimes get jaded and then something happens. You could even just hear one joke or one story idea and you’re impressed all over again. Like wow, this probably couldn't be on a lot of shows on tv. It’s just impressive and I have to stop myself from being jaded, which I do all the time.
Do you guys ever talk about how you guys have predicted the future a bunch?
We joke about it because as I always say, if we got - let’s say - thirty things right we’ve also gotten five hundred and eighty million things wrong, but no one ever talks about those. But yeah, there’s some weird coincidences as there would be with any show that has seven hundred and fifty episodes or whatever we have. Some weird coincidences, but lots and lots and lots of things we got incredibly, horribly wrong.
When you first started working there was it intimidating working with a room full of all those really funny people?
Yes, crazy intimidating. I sometimes tell this story, I almost didn’t speak for the first six months I worked there. They thought I was mute. And then my boss just said, “if you don’t start talking you are fired!” Then I just turned the exact opposite direction and started talking way too much and pitching way too much. I settled into what I like to call an annoying medium. But yeah it was super intimidating. My very first day was actually one of my favorite episodes. This episode called, Behind the Laughter, which won an Emmy in 2000. I remember we watched an early screening of it, and I thought this is hilarious, amazing, perfection, a masterpiece. And then we went back and talked about it for an hour and a half and people had all these ideas to make it funnier and tighter and better. And that was like people painting over the Mona Lisa, it was mind blowing. And now we do that kind of everyday, which is impressive to me.
That’s so cool. Do you have a favorite character on the show?
Homer is so great obviously. I love Moe. I love Ralph Wiggum. I love Chief Wiggum as well, he’s funny. I would say those are the top. Moe is fun to write for. Ralph is hard to write for but if you can nail it, it’s a really good feeling.
Is there a guest star that sticks out that was fun to have on the show or just that you were excited was there.
Yes. You might appreciate this because of your Canadian lineage, but we had Gretsky on the show. You probably know but Calgary, where I grew up, and Edmonton where he played, are huge rivals. So he was there hanging out and I came in and was like “Hey, I’m from Calgary.” Right away he was like “Calgary?” and just started ripping into me. Somehow I found the balls to rip into him and we were just insulting each other while all the other writers just stared at us wide-eyed like, Why is Joel insulting the greatest hockey player ever? But he was doing the same to me and it was all good natured, just the Calgary-Edmonton rivalry. But he was really cool, super nice and I took a bunch of pictures with him. It was fun.
And you worked at SNL as well?
No, that’s a Wikipedia error that I’m happy not to correct. My brother wrote for SNL for a year or two. But I would love to. If Lorne Michaels is reading this: Lorne, hire me.
The ball is in your court Lorne, let’s go.
How do you stay positive?
First off, who says I do?
I just mean, how do you not go crazy in these hectic times? Any tips?
I will say that the path of being a writer, a comedy writer, and I’ll even dare say, a person, is mountains of failures for nuggets of success. So I’ve kind of been through it enough that I’ve trained myself to know that it’s natural to experience failure and kind of wallow in it a little. I guess keep hunting because it feels pretty good when you have some little success or some little accomplishment in running, in writing, in anything. I keep trying to do stuff that will yield some nugget of success. And I’m not even just talking about running. Hey, even rowing, can I get marginally better? It’s like golf, you hit a hundred horrible shots and you hit five good ones. Hopefully you remember the five good ones when you leave. So, try to dwell on the good stuff and know that if you keep trying, inevitably the numbers are — just like some predictions — that you’re gonna hit something right. So, you know, do that!
What’s the best joke you’ve heard lately?
Wow, lately? I’m trying to think of a joke I heard today. I’m actually watching my colleagues work on Zoom right now as I’m ignoring them. This morning I saw an Emmy ad for The Trevor Noah Show and it looks like one of those drunk driving lawyer ads but it’s for the people that stormed the Capital on January 6th. It’s a law firm specifically for people who were part of the insurrection. The number on it is 1-85-OOPS-JAN6 to call. Then if you call the number you actually get a prerecorded message saying “If you stormed the Capital press 6! If you were sick that day but wanted to press 7.” It’s a solid joke from the print ad to the phone number to the recorded message, it’s all great. Well done on every level.
I thought his book was pretty decent.
Oh yeah, one of the best I’ve ever read. Learning about apartheid in South Africa in the 80’s was facinating.
Yeah, I liked the stories of when him and his friends were DJs at parties, pirating music and burning cds. I really related with that section of the book. Speaking of books, aside from your own, what is a book everyone should pick up and read?
Well that book is phenomenal, I recommend it all the time. Another book is a sports book called Boys in the Boat [by Daniel James Brown] which is a book about the 1936 Washington rowing team, your home state. I recommend the audio book because it’s this amazing narrator, who has since passed away, this guy Edward Herrmann. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever listened to and no one’s ever disappointed. The last one, which is kind of about business but also kind of about running, is Shoe Dog [by Phil Knight]. Which is the story of Nike, and talk about a failure, failure, failure, failure, success. That’s a great book. I love it.
What is a piece of advice you would give to your teenage-self if you were able to do such a thing?
Stop wearing velour. The teenage me wouldn’t listen, he looked so good in velour and he knew it. I would just say, like everything, take the longview if you can. We all get wallowed down in the moment, I have teenagers myself. Being a teenager is traumatic and it’s hard. But take some solace in that every person you’ve ever known or ever looked up to has been a teenager at one point and has had a million failures. Remember we only see their successes so just try and keep a longview and try to not get too bogged down by inevitable failure. Cuz it happens all the time to everybody, it’s not just about you. Just keep pounding, that’s what I would say.
Any last words?
Anyone that tries anything new, I applaud and admire you. If it’s my book, I really admire and applaud. If it’s running, that’s great too. Running is a thing you can do kind of for free. Any new effort, try it. If you hate it after a little while, then bail. But try it, that’s what I say. You gotta try stuff — that would be my message to the world.
Cool, thanks for talking to me Joel.
Interview by Travis Keller.