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Author and columnist Randy Cohen tries his hand at public radio with WAMC’s Person Place Thing

by Shawn Stone on February 16, 2012

Randy Cohen


Ed Koch doesn’t want to leave Manhattan. Ever.

The former mayor of New York has spent his entire life in the city that never sleeps, and when it’s time for him to sleep the big sleep, Koch sees no reason why this should change. This is a tricky matter, not just because there is only one active cemetery left on the isle of Manhattan, but because of who owns this burial ground.

Koch explains exactly how he plans to accomplish this—and why it’s so important to him—to Randy Cohen. The author and humorist is probably best known for writing The Ethicist column in The New York Times from 1999 to 2011 and, before that, as a three-time Emmy-winning staff writer for NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman. (He’s also a 1971 graduate of what was then called the State University of New York at Albany.) Now, Cohen is the host of a new public radio show titled Person Place Thing, which is being produced here in Albany by WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Each 60 minute show features Cohen interviewing two notable personalities—each personality gets half an hour each—about a person, place and thing that, according to the program notes, “they care about passionately.”

“Ed Koch’s ‘thing’ is his grave in Trinity Cemetery,” Cohen says. Not at Trinity Church downtown, where the burial plot is all full up, but at their second location at 153rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

Koch loves Manhattan, says Cohen, “and that’s where he wants to stay.” The former mayor speaks forthrightly, and movingly, about balancing his determination to buried in New York—even if it’s in a Christian cemetery—with his Jewish identity.

Each installment of Person Place Thing, Cohen says, is full of such insights. It debuts tomorrow (Friday, Feb. 17) at 1 PM with guests Dick Cavett and Jane Smiley.

Cavett, who knows or has known seemingly everyone in showbiz from Groucho Marx to Janis Joplin, is one of the great raconteurs. Yet his “thing” is a semiautomatic pistol: the German-made luger.

The first season of Person Place Thing will air monthly through July. The lineup is Susie Essman and Dave Cowens (March 16), Michael Pollan and John Hockenberry (April 20), Rickie Lee Jones and Koch (May 18), Samantha Bee and R.L. Stine (June 15), and Dan Savage with Roger Bannister (July 20).

“All of the guests surprised me, in the most surprising ways,” Cohen says.

“I had this idea more than a year ago,” Cohen says. Reached by telephone at his home in New York City, he explains, “I thought of this, initially, as something to do live, on stage,” along the lines of the venerable lecture and reading series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y.

“One of the people I spoke to at the New York Council for the Humanities,” says Cohen, was interested in supporting a program that fostered a dialogue among New Yorkers. They suggested contacting WAMC.

WAMC’s Ian Pickus, who is the producer of Person Place Thing, says the station has an excellent collaborative relationship with the New York Council for the Humanities, so the match was made: “They supported the launch of this pilot series of programs.”

“It was clearly Randy’s idea and his vision” for the show, Pickus says. It was a happy collaboration, because Cohen “was never locked into one way of doing things.”

“It was great getting to work with him, and work out ideas with him,” Pickus says.

“It was just dumb luck. Every now and then things just line up.” Cohen is talking about the genesis of Person Place Thing, but it also applies to his varied career as an author, comedy writer and columnist. When he hears this career characterized as wide-ranging, Cohen laughs and counters with a different adjective: “haphazard.” When it is pointed out how interesting his various jobs have been, he laughs again and says, “not to my landlord.”

The humor pieces he wrote led to his stint with David Letterman, and, later, writing and producing on shows starring Rosie O’Donnell and Michael Moore (TV Nation).

Still, Cohen had to audition to become The New York Times ethics columnist.

“I think my ability to write a funny line helped me get that job,” Cohen says.

And this opened more doors, Cohen says: “Every time some athlete corked a bat, I went on the Anderson Cooper show.”

Still, he says, “each [job] seemed an outgrowth of the other.” The cultural commentary that underlies much of the humor of late-night TV fed into the skills he used for The Ethicist. And the wide range of topics covered in the column helps inform Person Place Thing.

Bringing it back to the radio show, Cohen is asked if there are any other surprises coming up.

“Dan Savage talks about 18th century British politics through his ‘person,’ Caroline Matilda, the sister of George III.”

Dan Savage not talking about sex?

“He seemed so happy, ” Cohen says.

Cohen hopes that this completed season of Person Place Thing will “earn some confidence with some listeners—and earn some listeners.”