Late Night with Kevin Curran

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The man you see before you is Kevin Curran. If that sentence seems familiar, it’s because it’s the same one I used to open the piece I wrote for this site upon learning of his death during the last week of October.

At the time, I offered up a story that followed Curran around throughout much of his career, as well it should have, given how awesome it is. The following day, I contributed an additional piece to the A.V. Club, one in which I offered a brief sketch of Curran’s career, after which followed a collection of quotes from several of Curran’s colleagues on The Simpsons. I felt like the obituary was the least I could do for him, given what a wonderful interview he’d given me, and yet after I’d wrapped it up, I still felt like I wanted to do something further to pay tribute to his writing career. The next thing I knew, I was in the process of putting together a new piece, this one involving a look back at Curran’s time as a writer on Late Night with David Letterman. Additionally, I decided to follow in the footsteps of other great writers by making a terrible financial decision and post the piece on my own site, which means I’m not getting paid for it. But, of course, I didn’t do it because I wanted to get paid. I did it just because it felt like something I should do.

Given that all the contributions were from former Late Night writers and most were sent via email, I didn’t really have to do much in the way of heavy lifting to turn it into a piece, but as the memories and anecdotes began to come in, I found that the quotes flowed together with remarkable cohesion, so I decided to try utilizing one of my favorite formats and see how well it would play as an oral history. I think it works. I also think it helps tell a bit more about a guy who wrote a lot of great comedy, so I hope you walk away feeling like you’ve gotten a bit of an education as well.

[Special thanks to Bill Scheft and Merrill Markoe, who helped steer me toward a couple of the contributors, and Gerard Mulligan, who gave me a great anecdote, only to realize at the last minute that he’d been wrong and that the anecdote was about another writer, not Kevin. Hey, at least he realized it before the article went live…]

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Steve O’Donnell (Late Night writer, 1982-1993): Kevin Curran was a great sardonic commentator on the world in the mold of a Michael O’Donoghue or an Ambrose Bierce or an H.L. Mencken. Very smart, but also very giddy and silly, so it’s not quite enough to say he was cynical and skeptical. He loved a good dark take on things, but he was always extremely amusing.

Fred Graver (Late Night writer, 1984-1990): I first met Kevin at the National Lampoon. He had just come out of Harvard, where he’d been at the Harvard Lampoon, and I had been working in book publishing, editing humor books. I got hired at National Lampoon essentially because I could copy-edit. I could correct punctuation and actually edit something—as opposed to just being funny—and I eventually worked myself in to a position where they said, “Oh, you could be funny!”

Nell Scovell (Late Night writer, 1982-1983): Fun fact! Kevin was house-sitting for National Lampoon’s Animal House writer Doug Kenney when Doug died in Hawaii.  Okay, maybe not that fun.

Fred Graver: The Lampoon was…not quite closing down, but it was in its last days. We had a friend who was a freelancer there who called us up at Kevin’s house—it was at, like, five or six in the afternoon—and he’s miserable. He’s, like, “Ugh, I had this terrible interview with Letterman, and it lasted about three minutes. It was terrible!” And we hang up the phone, and we’re, like, “What?! They’re hiring at Letterman?” And I think we literally tracked our agent down in a restaurant where he was eating, walked in, and he’s, like, “What the hell?” And we’re, like, “You’ve got to get us in there!” And that was that: he did.

When we went in for our interview, it was after the show taped, so it was like seven o’clock at night, maybe 7:30, and on our way there… This was in the days of New York when guys would have blankets on the sidewalk with shit on them that they’d stolen, to sell, and there was some guy selling some cheap pair of walkie-talkies. And Kevin and I were, like, “Oh, we’ll buy those for Dave!” It was like a $10 pair of walkie-talkies, which he accepted with some kind of surprise and delight, and we later learned that he plugged them in and—this was a happy accident—he could hear the cabs talking on their radios down below him on 6th Avenue. And he spent hours going, “Breaker, breaker, good buddy,” trying to talk to the cabs! Plus, we ended up spending like 45 minutes with him. Everybody was going, “I can’t believe you spent that much time!” But that was that: we got the job.

Adam Resnick (Late Night writer, 1986-1990): I began my tenure at Letterman as an intern in the writing department, and like most interns, you always remember the people who were nice to you. Kevin made me feel like I was part of the room.  He was friendly, generous, engaged me in conversation… In short, he didn’t treat me like an intern. In contrast, I specifically recall a couple of writers who were insufferable pricks; full of themselves, condescending (not to mention physically repulsive-looking), who walked around the joint like they were doing Dave a favor by being there.  Asshole comedy writers!  Is there anything worse?  But Kevin, he was a prince.

Fred Graver: Kevin was extraordinarily supportive to women writers or to women on the staff. He just was. He was just really great with them, and generous and professional. Comedy shows in general have a reputation for being a boys club, but Kevin was just really wonderful with women. I think he just genuinely liked and respected them, and he was incredibly supportive.

Nell Scovell: Kevin was special because he had high standards for comedy but wasn’t a snob about who could be funny. It didn’t matter if you were an intern… or a woman… or a mole person. If you made Kevin laugh, he treated you like an equal.

Fred Graver: There were a few people on Letterman who were making money for the first time—most of us—and another writer on the show, a guy named Sandy Frank, who has also passed away, discovered this store called Beau Brummell on Madison, about two blocks away from the office. Sandy started buying nice clothes there, so Kevin went there and…there was just this day where Kevin started wearing nice suits—like, really nice suits!—and taking great pride in them. The only deal was…Kevin would rumple a suit just by putting it on! So he had these beautiful suits, and I’ve seen pictures of him in the later years where he actually looks terrific in them, but in those days he really did look like he had balled it up somewhere. Maybe he had. Maybe he had balled it up in some gym bag and then decided to put it on. But I think for the rest of his life he took quite a bit of pride in wearing really nice suits.

One time, he and I decided that we’d never been to the horse races, so we decided to go to the Meadowlands one Friday night. The two of us are there, and we both kind of wore coats and ties. I don’t know if I wore a suit, but we looked nice. And they put at us a long table with a bunch of Jersey guys who kept referring to us as “The Professors.” It was funny! I think at one point we actually tried to work it into a screenplay: a couple of guys called “The Professors” were trying to bet scientifically. And the guys kept asking us, “Who are you betting on, The Professors?” And there was some law that if a horse was on Lasix or something else, they had to disclose it in the betting form, so we said, “Oh, we only bet on horses that are on drugs!”

Rob Burnett (Late Night writer, 1988-1993): What I remember most about Kevin was all of us eagerly waiting for his Top 10 jokes to be read at our 4 pm meeting.  His were consistently the weirdest, most inventive, silliest, and – most of all – the funniest. During that part of my career as a writer on the show, I remember actually having the recurring thought, “What would Kevin Curran write?”  It pushed me to think beyond the obvious.

Steve O’Donnell: While several Letterman staffers had a hand in creating the Top 10 Lists, Kevin wrote the very first one that appeared, and the premise was so ridiculous. It wasn’t complaints about [Donald] Trump or anything from current events: it was “Top 10 Words that Almost Rhyme with ‘Peas.’” And they were ridiculous. They were things like…”nurse.” [Laughs.] They weren’t even close to rhyming with peas! And that was the delightful kiddie side of Kevin that so leavened and enriched his dark, sardonic side.

Jeff Martin (Late Night writer, 1982-1990): Kevin’s specialty was the hilarious joke from way out of left field, which made him maybe the best writer ever of Top 10 Lists.  I remember doing “Top Ten Duties of the Sexiest Man Alive” back in 1987, the year People magazine gave Harry Hamlin the honor.  We were batting around some fairly conventional ideas, when Kevin suddenly blurted out, “Journey to the center of the earth to judge World’s Sexiest Mole-Man contest!”  That was Kevin.  You would be simultaneously laughing and wondering, “Where did THAT come from?”

Rob Burnett: I still remember my first ever Top 10 meeting.  I was about 25 and terrified.  Our head writer, the brilliant Steve O’Donnell, was as usual running things.  It was getting late and we needed more jokes.  I don’t remember the topic. Steve was guiding us as was his wont, and at some point as the time pressure mounted, he blurted out, “Think! Think!”

And Gerry Mulligan said, “What?  You want us to take a drink?

And then Fred Graver said, “You only hear what you want to hear.”

And then Kevin ended it by saying, “Then why am I hearing you?”

And I remember thinking to myself, “You don’t belong in a room with these men.  When you get home, let’s take another look at law schools.”

Steve O’Donnell: I will quote Kevin in a brief incident that happened at the Letterman show that really amused Dave Letterman. This was all off-camera, this had nothing to do with the show. We had taped an anniversary show in mid-air – the idea was to tape a show on an airplane – but we landed in Miami, and…we did some pre-taped bits there, we didn’t do any shows there, but we were there for a few days, and a couple of the writers and Letterman got to go out on this big sailboat.

And there was some sort of local Chamber of Commerce Miami booster type along with us, and she was anxiously and excitedly shouting, “Oh, if you look over there on the horizon, you’ll see some flying fish!” And without turning to look, and with great theatrical iciness, Kevin Curran just said, “How naïve do you think we are?” And I remember that getting a good laugh from Dave and from everyone on the boat. And that was characteristic of him.

Adam Resnick: When I think about Kevin, the obvious thing that comes to mind is how funny, unique and somewhat crazy he was. Crazy in a thrilling, unpredictable, semi-dangerous way, made all the more worrisome by the fact that he was generally a quiet guy. With Kevin, you always sensed some sort of inner turmoil…which could quickly be converted into rage. But I can honestly say that, based on my observations back then, anyone who was the recipient of Kevin’s rage probably deserved it.  A writer interjecting his lame idea during a late night in the writers room? That same writer re-pitching his idea a third or fourth time? Kevin didn’t suffer squawky time-wasters gladly, and when his little kettle cap could take no more — KA-BOOM… a frightening yet thrilling spray of verbal pyrotechnics.  That’s what made him endlessly endearing to me: he seemed to be a guy just looking for a little peace and quiet.

Steve O’Donnell: Kevin would also appear from time to time in “Viewer Mail” bits and other features on the Letterman show, and he was very effective in his verbiage, but he was a quiet guy.  But he could have a presence even without speaking. I remember him – just because we brought him back several times in this character, though I don’t believe he ever spoke – as this sort of sullen-looking conquistador who was often doing bizarre things. You know, if we needed something to sometimes tag a piece or we’d do a Thrill-cam bit and the Thrill-cam would sail all around the studio and then come to light on some odd visual, and at least on one occasion it was Kevin Curran as the conquistador. I remember one visual of him spray-painting a big stack of broccoli silver. And it was, like, “What’s going on here? What is this conquistador doing? And why is there a giant bunny there?!” [Laughs.]

There’s also a very funny conquistador-related clip that I think you can find if do search “Bill Murray kicks out conquistadors.” I wrote a bit where we had finished the act-one “Viewer Mail” where there’d been a clown, a mermaid, a midget, and all kinds of colorful sideshow-like characters. And Bill Murray, in his sort of showbiz-booster way, decided that he would call all the “Viewer Mail” people back out after the commercial break so that they could take a bow for all the good work they did. So this crowd of costumed characters came out, but…the conquistador was one of them, even though he hadn’t taken part in “Viewer Mail.” In fact, there were two conquistadors: one was Kevin, the other was Larry Jacobson. Bill Murray singles them out: “You two were not in the bit. You come out here, trying to get love, trying to get credit you don’t deserve…” So he kicks the two conquistadors out, and he actually gave them some good, solid kicks in the ass. [Laughs.] I think at least Larry had some black and blue marks!

So, yeah, that was a funny moment, and it was also another case of Kevin playing it somberly throughout the whole thing. And I think anybody who wasn’t paying close attention would think this was a somber and sane person. But, in fact, there was a spectacular, hilarious inner life going on there in his writing and in his conversation that we all delighted to.

Fred Graver: Many writing teams fall into that archetype of the dray horse and the genius, and I was definitely the dray horse in our team. I was the guy who just made sure stuff got in on time, typed things up and made them look nice, and Kevin was the one who’d just pop his head up and say something amazing. I remember one time we were just standing around in a bar with a bunch of people, talking about the advertising people at the Lampoon or something, and Kevin just pops his head up and says something like, “You and your air-conditioned Nixon… I have no use for you!” I was just, like, “Really?!” I look back and I think, “What the fuck was he doing with me?” I think the ringing endorsement of whatever career I’ve had is that Kevin stuck with me for eight years. I was just lucky that he let me be his horse, because it was just a delight to work with him.

Steve O’Donnell: He was just a terrific guy. Like many artists, he had demons he struggled with, but I think he struggled with them in a very respectable way. Not respectable like the Joneses next door, but like something worthy of respect. And you could respect how mellow he became as time went on. He became a father, and a husband of sorts. And he was always a wonderful, kindly friend. He led a salon of a kind. He had these frequent lunches, and they were places where I got to meet people who worked on National Lampoon and then people who were on podcasts. It spanned the whole comedy universe…which is probably overstating it. It was a bunch of goofballs in Converse sneakers. But he was a wonderful guy.

Adam Resnick: Eventually Kevin moved out west, as many of the Late Night writers did, and we fell out of touch. The last time I ran into him was many years ago on a flight from LA to New York.  I was reading a newspaper or something when I sensed someone standing over me.  I glanced up and there was Kevin, smiling at me like a long lost brother.  He waived the traditional salutations and chit chat, instead silently extending his arm and handing me a wrinkled, somewhat soiled Band Aid. (Still in the wrapper; he wasn’t a lunatic, after all.) I politely thanked him, we both laughed, and he went back to his seat for some much needed peace and quiet. What a guy.

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