No more boring interviews: Q&A with Randy Cohen

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In an interview you should ask a movie star about her movies, an author about his books, a musician about her latest album. But Randy Cohen, the original New York Times Ethicist, hopes to bypass all those boring questions on his radio show “Person Place Thing” and find out what weird passions people of note are really harboring. In a talk at TED@New York — one of the 293 talks given as part of the 2013 Talent Search — Cohen explains why the structure works so well.

If you knew nothing about a person and you were told to interview them, what’s the one question you would ask?

What kind of toothpaste do you use? Or why are you wearing that shoe? If the interview is about the person’s work, you can always go to that. But what we’re doing on our show bypasses all of that. It turns out people have stories that they’re carrying around in their heads that no one ever asks them to tell.

What made you come to this idea?

I have no idea. I never know. Do you know? Where ideas come from? I was thinking about this years and years ago and pitched it around as a TV project and no one was interested in it at all. Then when I lost my job, I went, “Oh wait, you know what would be fun to work on?” I recognize a precursor to it in Desert Island Discs. It’s been on British radio for like 50 years. You come with seven pieces of music that you would take to a desert island. People are boring when they talk about themselves. If you want a biologist to talk about what she’s doing with monkeys, this won’t get you there. But if you want to know what she’s like as a person, I think this is pretty good.

What is your Person Place Thing?

It would vary day-to-day, I hope — so I’m not just a completely dull predictable old blowhard, because I fear that. Because I probably am. But today I think Samuel Johnson would be my Person, because I revere him and he’s the greatest. Place: Do you know River Road? It’s fantastic! Cross the George Washington Bridge and go south half a mile and cut back toward the river and there’s seven miles of two-lane blacktop. This is State Park, and that’s where cyclists go. You’re two minutes from Manhattan and it’s like you’re in the country. You see eagles there! It’s spectacularly beautiful, it’s right along the river. You’re up and down and the cliffs protect you from any noise or traffic, so once I’m there I guess the Thing would be my bicycle.

This brilliant invention hasn’t changed that much except maybe mine’s carbon fiber. In the 1890s there was this huge vogue for cycling in Manhattan, especially amongst Manhattan women. It became associated with feminism, because it was kind of an independence of motion that became associated with motion in the larger sense. Those people I think would recognize what we ride as bicycles. They would think we’re pretty cool, with our carbon fiber and our 20 gears, but it’s the same object essentially, and there’s so much joy packed into it. And when you cross the bridge and ride like that you see thousands of your fellow New Yorkers enjoying the day. So I think I would go with Dr. Johnson, River Road, bicycle. But ask me next week and I hope I have three different things.

Watch out for more Q&As from the TED@NY event throughout this week. Head to TalentSearch.TED.com to watch and rate these talks, as well as those from the 13 other stops along the TED2013 Talent Search tour.