simpsonsmath.com
Mathematical Backgrounds of The Simpsons' Writers


by Sarah J. Greenwald

You can browse Episodes of The Simpsons by Writer

J. Stewart Burns graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 1992. His senior thesis was on "The Structure of Group Algebras." He received his master's degree in mathematics from UC Berkeley in 1993. He began writing for The Simpsons in 2002 after working on Futurama.

Alf Clausen has been composing music for The Simpsons since its second season: ``I had a math minor in college. I was originally a Mechanical Engineering major, but music won out." See also d'oh!-re-mi- North Dakota makes music for The Simpsons

David S. Cohen (David X. Cohen) graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University in 1988. He received his master's degree in computer science from UC Berkeley in 1992. He published the following article with Manuel Blum: On the Problem of Sorting Burnt Pancakes. Discrete Appl. Math. 61 (1995), no. 2, 105--120. A longtime writer for The Simpsons from 1994-1999, and Co-executive Producer from 1997-1999, he left to develop Futurama. His comments about his career as a scientist can be found below and in A Futurama Math Conversation with David X Cohen.

Al Jean graduated cum laude with a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University in 1981. He has been involved with The Simpsons in some way or another since the beginning of the show in 1989, except from 1993-1996. Al Jean is the current Executive Producer and head writer.

Ken Keeler graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from Harvard University in 1983. In 1990, he received his Ph.D. in applied math from Harvard University. The title of his doctoral thesis was Map Representations and Optimal Encoding for Image Segmentation. He also published the following article with Jeff Westbrook: Short Encodings of Planar Graphs and Maps. Discrete Appl. Math. 58 (1995), no. 3, 239--252. Ken Keeler wrote for The Simpsons from 1994-1998 before leaving to write for Futurama. His comments about his career as a mathematician can be found below and in A Futurama Math Interview with Dr. Ken Keeler.

Bill Odenkirk has a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1995. He worked on Futurama before The Simpsons.

Matt Warburton has a bachelor's degree in cognitive neuroscience from Harvard University in 2000 and has written for The Simpsons since then. His senior thesis incorporated statistical methods.

Jeff Westbrook majored in physics and the history of science at Harvard University and he received his Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton University in 1989. The title of his doctoral thesis was Algorithms and Data Structures for Dynamic Graph Algorithms. He was an Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at Yale University and also worked at AT&T Labs before writing for Futurama. He began writing for The Simpsons in 2004. He published the following article with Ken Keeler: Short Encodings of Planar Graphs and Maps. Discrete Appl. Math. 58 (1995), no. 3, 239--252. His comments about his work can be found below and in A Futurama Math Conversation with Dr. Jeff Westbrook.

Also see Futurama πk - Mathematics in the Year 3000

Excerpt taken from Can't Get Enough Futurama Interview with Ken Keeler reprinted with permission of Marc Wichterich March 10, 2003
Can't Get Enough Futurama: Executive Producer David X. Cohen said in an interview that you have a Ph.D. in Applied Math and a Masters in Electrical Engineering. How does one go from there to writing for TV shows?

Ken Keeler: Short version: when I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, there were many, many new Ph.D's applying for very few research and academic jobs; meanwhile, people I knew from my college comedy-writing days were getting great TV jobs. So as a crazy form of bet-hedging, I applied to the old David Letterman show (in those days you didn't need an agent at Letterman). Before hearing from them, I got a great research job at Bell Labs -- and then got contacted by the Letterman people with an offer. I felt like if I didn't try writing now, I'd regret it the rest of my life. So after a year at Bell Labs, I went to Letterman. I've regretted it the rest of my life.

CGEF: Did it ever pay off to go through all these years of education?

Ken: Well, sure. For example, Bender's serial number is 1729, a historically significant integer to mathematicians everywhere; that "joke" alone is worth six years of grad school, I'd say.

Excerpts taken from frontwheeldrive.com's interview Futurama's Head (in a Jar) David X. Cohen reprinted with permission of Tom Georgoulias January 29, 2002
frontwheeldrive: You have degrees in both computer science and physics, yet you are the executive producer of a satirical, science fiction cartoon. How did this happen?

David X. Cohen: Ah, the same question my parents asked in reference to certain piles of tuition money that went out the window. I always planned to be a scientist. Both of my parents are biologists and my favorite subjects in school were math and physics. (Go math team!) At the same time, I liked to draw cartoons (which I would force my sister to buy for a penny -- the beginning of my professional writing career), and I wrote the humor column for my high school newspaper, and later was a writer for the Harvard Lampoon Magazine. At some point, I had a sudden panic when I realized that there was the option of trying to write professionally, and that I had to make a choice. But I didn't -- instead I took a year off and worked at the Harvard Robotics Laboratory. (I realize that my answer to this question is meandering... sorry. I'll try to buckle down.) Finally, I decided I should go to graduate school before I forgot everything I knew, with the idea that I could try writing later if I wasn't sure I had made the right choice. After three years of graduate school, I felt I wasn't enjoying it as much as I should, and that there was no end in sight, so I took a leave of absence and began writing sample ("spec") TV scripts. After a year or so of unemployment, this got me a job writing a couple early episodes of Beavis and Butthead. Later I got hired at The Simpsons, and about 5 years after that, Matt Groening asked me if I wanted to work on Futurama with him. Which I did, of course...
Taken from the Season 2
Futurama DVD 2ACV06


frontwheeldrive: What influences do you draw upon in creating both the stories and science & technology for each episode?

David X. Cohen: ...Now and then, we [at Futurama] throw in some pretty obscure science references when and where we think they won't distract the casual viewer... Our hope is that, although such material will fly by most people unnoticed, it might make die-hard fans of the people who do appreciate it. I should also mention that we have several genuine ex-scientists on our writing staff: Ken Keeler has a PhD in Applied Math and a Masters in Electrical Engineering; Bill Odenkirk has a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry; and Jeff Westbrook has a PhD in Computer Science. I'm actually somewhere in the middle of the pack, educationally! It's really a privilege working with such knowledgeable and interesting people. I think it helps me keep my sanity, since outside of our writing room there isn't such a high concentration of scientists in the TV industry. And I do still consider myself a scientist by nature.
As mentioned in Futurama is History by Kevin Williamson, David X. Cohen still belongs to a math club: "I scheduled something else -- a meeting of my math club... This group of TV writers, we're interested in math and we get together to talk about it."



Excerpt taken from Home page for Westbrook Jeff Westbrook: I completed my PhD dissertation, Algorithms and Data Structures for Dynamic Graph Algorithms in 1989 at Princeton University under the direction of Robert Tarjan. Since then I have worked on algorithms and data structures for various on-line problems. These including dynamic graph problems, in which the goal is to maintain connectivity and planarity information about graphs that are growing on-line, and various problems that can be attacked with competitive analysis... I have studied the problem of robot navigation in an unfamiliar environment, with coauthors Dana Angluin and Wenhong Zhu, both of Yale.



Dr. Sarah J. Greenwald, Appalachian State University

Please send additions or corrections to greenwaldsj@appstate.edu

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