The Calculus of Comedy: Math in The Simpsons, Futurama, and The Big Bang Theory

October 25, 2017



J. Stewart Burns is a television writer and producer who’s spent most of his adult life at The Simpsons and Futurama. Desperate for change, Burns got into video game writing, where he surprisingly landed jobs developing The Simpsons Tapped Out and the Futurama video game.  He has a B.A. in Mathematics from Harvard and an M.A. in Mathematics from UC Berkeley, because he considers math to be an art not a science. Like everyone else on the panel, he also wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.

David X. Cohen has written for The Simpsons and served as the head writer and executive producer of Futurama. In high school, Cohen was a member of the school’s state champion mathematics team.He graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in physics, and UC Berkeley, with a M.S. in computer science. After three years of graduate school, Cohen took a leave of absence and started writing sample TV scripts. This led to a job writing two of the earliest Beavis and Butthead episodes.In 1993, Cohen began working on The Simpsons, writing or co-writing thirteen episodes. Nearly five years later, Cohen would team with Matt Groening to develop Futurama, where he served as writer or co-writer of seven episodes and executive producer and head writer of the series’ entire run. Cohen has won four Primetime Emmy Awards: Two for Futurama and two for The Simpsons.

Al Jean is an American screenwriter and producer. Jean has received eight Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for his work on The Simpsons. In 1997, he and Mike Reiss won an Annie Award in the “Best Producing in a TV Production” category for the Simpsons episode “The Springfield Files”. In 2006, the duo was given the Animation Writers Caucus Animation Award which is given by the Writers Guild of America to writers that “advanced the literature of animation in film and/or television through the years and who has made outstanding contributions to the profession of the animation writer.” Jean went to Harvard University when he was sixteen years old and has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics.

Eric Kaplan has worked on Late Show with David Letterman, Flight of the Conchords, Malcolm in the Middle, The Drinky Crow Show, Zombie College, and Futurama. He has a PhD in philosophy from UC Berkeley where he wrote his dissertation on humor in the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard.  His philosophy book Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation was published in 2015.  He is a contributor to the New York Times philosophy column The Stone.   He is currently an executive producer on The Big Bang Theory.

Ken Keeler is an American television producer and writer. He has written for numerous television series, most notably The Simpsons and Futurama. According to an interview with David X. Cohen, he proved a theorem which appears in the Futurama episode “The Prisoner of Benda”. Keeler studied applied mathematics at Harvard University, then earned a master’s degree from Stanford in electrical engineering before returning to Harvard for a doctorate in applied math. Keeler worked for a while at AT&T Bell Laboratories, but soon left the job to write for David Letterman and subsequently for various sitcoms. Keeler was instrumental in the creation of Futurama. He served as a co-executive producer in its first three years, and as an executive producer in its fourth year. He was one of the show’s most prolific writers. Two of his episodes won Writers Guild Awards.

Jeff Westbrook is best known for his work on The Simpsons and Futurama, for which he is a three-time winner of the Writer’s Guild of America Award. Prior to becoming a TV writer, Westbrook was a successful algorithms researcher. After majoring in physics and history of science at Harvard University, he earned his PhD in computer science at Princeton University. He then took a faculty position at Yale University, later becoming a researcher for AT&T Laboratories before leaving research for Hollywood. Westbrook’s Erdős number is three due to his research collaborations with Tarjan and others.


Sarah J Greenwald is Professor of Mathematics and faculty affiliate of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at Appalachian State University. Her PhD in mathematics is from the University of Pennsylvania in Riemannian geometry. She investigates connections between mathematics and society, such as women, minorities, and popular culture. Andrew Nestler and Greenwald created the educational website  Her interactive mathematics lecture is a 25-minute DVD extra on the Futurama movie Bender’s Big Score. She has won several teaching awards and a Library Journal “Best Reference” for the Encyclopedia of Mathematics & Society.


Simon Singh is a popular science author. His written works include Fermat’s Enigma (1997), The Code Book (1999), Big Bang (2004), Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial (2008, co-written by Edzard Ernst), and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets (2013). He went to Imperial College London, where he studied physics. He then completed a PhD degree in particle physics at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and at CERN, Geneva.