An Upright Citizen

How does an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer end up as the authority on ethics for "The Paper of Record"? "It's been a long journey full of idiotic missteps," says Randy Cohen, otherwise known as "The Ethicist" for The New York Times Magazine. Indeed, Cohen's path to the ethical pedestal has been anything but conventional.

After pursuing a graduate degree in composing "some of the ugliest music you've fortunately never heard" in California, Cohen wrote humor essays and stories for newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker. Then he landed a job writing comedy for the "Late Show with David Letterman," where he went on to win three Emmy Awards. He won a fourth for his work on Michael Moore's show, "TV Nation."

"You could make a case, if you were desperate and self- serving, which indeed I am, that working for [Letterman] was an essentially moral enterprise," Cohen says. That experience, he says, taught him a critical lesson in comedy -- and ethics. "It was unacceptable to attack someone for who they were. Only for what they chose to do, what was volitional. There were very clear, implicit guidelines -- a sense of right and wrong."

It served him well. Cohen's irreverent moral advice has been provoking arguments over Sunday brunch for more than four years now. As "The Ethicist," Cohen receives 150 letters per week from his readers. "About half are new questions, and the other half are notes from people pointing out how wrong I got it in the column last week." Cohen, who's also a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "Weekend All Things Considered," says he doesn't mind the criticism. "The critical mail is written in an incredibly generous way. There's a sense that we're all in this together, looking at these fascinating questions." And besides, he adds, "I'm addressing them in very little space. Really, my job is to oversimplify."

Cohen brings the interactivity of his column to his speaking engagements, which he says have increased in number because "so many of the news stories that include the word 'ethics' include the word 'jail.' " He devotes a large portion of his stage time to question-and-answer sessions in which attendees are invited to share their questions -- either anonymously (in advance) or live on the spot. And even in person, he says, his readers still take him to task. "It's amazing to discover that people have read the column and actually harbored grudges," he says.