“There are days when I feel like a trumped-up Dear Abby,” says Randy Cohen, better known to readers of the New York Times Magazine as the author of “The Ethicist,” the weekly column that dispenses erudite, sometimes acidly funny advice to readers who write in for solutions to their everyday moral quandaries.
The questions range from the relatively trivial (Should I have asked if the bike I bought on the street for $75 was stolen?) to the disturbingly serious (I am innocent of the crime for which I am serving a life sentence, but to be granted parole, I must show remorse. Should I lie?).
Cohen’s thoughtful, measured replies are often spiked with delightful, well-aimed barbs. Addressing the matter of the undoubtedly stolen bike, Cohen ends his response thusly: “Incidentally, that three-card monte? A poor way to invest your aged mother’s life savings. Magic beans indeed!”
The ethicist has already endured a full day of phone interviews to promote his new book, The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations (Doubleday), an entertaining collection of Ethicist columns surrounded by essays, second thoughts, counter-arguments by “guest ethicists” like novelist Dave Eggers, editor and sex columnist Dan Savage, and the author’s own mom. But Cohen, who calls himself an “accidental ethicist,” is talkative and self-effacing, in contrast to the stern personage you imagine pens the column, perhaps with quill in hand. That image is inspired by Cohen’s pithy replies (“I try to write vigorously,” he explains), and the Christopher Niemann illustration that heads the column, a dour, pointy-chinned icon Cohen calls “the Betty Crocker of the column.”
“My job is to make a case,” Cohen says. His Times columns are short, only 600 words including the question. “I’m obliged to give a clear answer, to say, ‘You should do this.’ It’s a weird feeling to have to state your views unequivocally.”
Cohen began writing the column in 1999, when editors at the Times approached him with the idea of an ethics column written by an ordinary person, not by some dreary pundit or professor. Cohen qualifies as “ordinary” only by virtue of having no professional credentials as an ethicist. “I wish I had been a philosophy major,” he laments, though he allows that ethics isn't all that arcane. “Ethics is the rational determination of right conduct. It isn’t physics.”
Ordinary people, though, tend not to have backgrounds in television comedy writing, which Cohen did. In 1984, he was writing freelance humor articles and heard that David Letterman was looking for a few good writers. Although Letterman’s show had been on the air for two years, Cohen was one of the few people in
who had never seen it. “It was on really late,” he says, “and I went to bed early.” He set his alarm clock one night, woke up to watch the show, and wrote a spec script. “It wasn’t very good,” he says. Even so, a week later he was offered the job. “I was dumbstruck. It was more timing than anything." America
It had to be more than that. In seven years with Letterman — “I did 950 shows” — he earned three Emmys. Why did he leave? He repeats: “I did 950 shows.” It was, he says, “a lovely place to work,” and marvels about the efficiency of the Letterman staff. “They knew how to get you anything you needed. You need a monkey? They’d ask: Do you want a rhesus monkey? Do you want the monkey to be funny?”
But even a glamorous job with a “damn fine paycheck” can get to be a grind. “The writers on the show are relatively powerless,” he reveals. “Ninety percent of what you write isn’t used. It’s gone. The waste is devastating. It’s not like some loss to humanity, but still, it took some getting used to. Dave did terrific stuff, but it ought not be your life’s work.”
After quitting the Letterman show, Cohen sank into despair. “It was a strange and weird transition. I hadn’t much in the way of a plan.” He wrote a play and some TV pilots that didn’t sell. He was co-executive producer of Michael Moore’s cable show TV Nation. Although he admires
Moore’s work, Cohen says he quit “for the same reason most people leave [ ’s] employ — because he’s a truly horrible man.” Moore
He wrote the “News Quiz” column for the online magazine Slate and published a short-story collection which, he says, “went out of print with unbelievable swiftness. It was so demoralizing.”
Maybe because of that experience, Cohen has a “feeling of onrushing doom” about the new book. “Your hopes are raised so high, and there’s the feeling that you might fail in front of your friends. But, it keeps you from getting stuck up.”
Cohen’s relationship with the Times is freelance — he writes in his apartment overlooking Central Park — and the editors don’t interfere with his work, though he’s heard that more than once, an editor was “apoplectic” about something he wrote.” “To their great credit, they never said anything to me. It’s a great place to work — it’s the New York Times!” he marvels, as if astonished by his own good fortune.
It is something of a burden, though, this taking on of other people’s burdens. Consider the doomed advice columnist in Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, who develops a Christ complex and is shot to death by a cripple whose whose wife has sought refuge in his arms.
“The hardest part," Cohen says, "is trying to say something that’s not embarrassing. I always wish I had written it better.”
The second hardest thing: the deluge of e-mails every week telling him how badly he fumbled a question. “I’m not pleased with the letters that start, ‘Dear Sir, I am appalled,’ and go on to attack my character. I’ve had to toughen up,” he says, sounding not very tough at all.
Cohen worries a lot, but not about whether his advice will lead some poor reader astray. “I take great comfort that people will utterly ignore my advice,” he says. “And they should.”
-- From March 27, 2002, Cleveland Free Times