Marc D. Allan

Back when he was writing for Late Night with David Letterman, Randy Cohen came up with the idea of the Monkey Cam and the 360-degree revolving TV show.

"It was a complete treat to work someplace where they would let you do those sorts of things and encourage you to do them and reward you for doing them," he said.

These days, Cohen's work is more serious: He writes the hugely entertaining column "The Ethicist" for The New York Times Magazine and also answers ethics-related questions on National Public Radio's Weekend All Things Considered (heard on WFYI-FM 90.1).

On March 5, 7:30 p.m., as part of the Block Forum Lecture Series, Cohen will speak at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (6501 N. Meridian St.), where his audience will include his second cousins from Kokomo, Frank and Ellie Stein. (Call 317-255-6647 or visit blockforum.com for ticket information, $20.) His topic? Ethics, of course.

"We assume there's a general consensus about what constitutes virtuous conduct," he said in a telephone interview. "We probably think you probably shouldn't steal a lot and you should keep the killing to a minimum. Then the interesting question becomes: If we know what right and wrong are, why don't we do it?"

Here's what else he had to say:

NUVO: Your bio says that you won a fifth Emmy due to a clerical error and you kept it. Is that ethical?

Cohen: No. But I didn't have this job at that time. Plus, it's not an obligation of my job that I be particularly virtuous.

NUVO: So there's no pressure on you to be perfect?

Cohen: Well, I'm Jewish. I hear my mother's voice in my head constantly. So in that sense, yes. But it's not job-related.

NUVO: Do you have a backstage at Late Night story?

Cohen: I once had to fire Richard Roundtree. I fired Shaft. I had done a show, the idea of which was to dub the show from English into English. I took an episode that had aired and stripped all the audio off it and then hired skilled actors. I had transcribed it and they relooped it and put every single word back in, but with different voices. Not comical voices. Just perfectly plausible voices. It made every one of our hacky mannerisms reveal themselves just by skewing the show slightly out of context like that.

And so, the next step I thought was to do that visually. I transcribed another show and recast it. We were going to shoot it word for word, but with different actors. Larry Pine, this wonderful New York actor, was Dave. And Richard Roundtree was Paul. We were going along taping this in small chunks. On the elevator one day, Dave said he didn't like it. The upshot of this conversation was, I had to fire Richard Roundtree. Not fun.

NUVO: Is the ethics glass half full - meaning it's good that people want to be ethical - or half empty - meaning that it shows how low we've sunk that we need someone to advise us?

Cohen: I admire the earnestness of the people who send in questions. I think they're interested in doing the right thing. That's entirely to anybody's credit that they see their ordinary conduct as having a moral dimension, which means they're aware of the effect of their actions on others. That's all to the good.


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