The man you see before you is Kevin Curran. As you may suspect from the familiar characters in the background of this photo, he has a connection to The Simpsons: he’s credited with co-producing almost 300 episodes of the series. He was also the voice of Buck, the Bundy family’s dog, on Married with Children. To me, though, he’s the guy who provided me with one of the greatest stories that anyone has ever told me during my career as a pop culture journalist. Granted, it was a story that had made the rounds for years, and it was one that had made him a legend of sorts among his TV writer peers, but he’d never actually told the story to a journalist until he told it to me a few years ago – at the behest of fellow Simpsons producer Michael Price – for “Pilot Error,” a recurring column I was writing for the now-defunct site AntennaFree.TV.
A few minutes ago, I received an email from Michael Price. He took my breath away for a moment when he revealed that Kevin had passed away, but even with that terrible news, I still suddenly found a smile when Michael asked if I could steer him toward that piece I’d written about Kevin, because it immediately reminded me of Kevin’s story.
Unfortunately, since AntennaFree.TV is defunct, the piece isn’t readily available for viewing, but in honor of Kevin and his story, I decided that the best tribute I could possibly offer would be to post the story on my own page, so everyone can read it for themselves. If you’re mourning the loss of Kevin, this won’t make it any easier to take, but it’ll at least provide you with a few moments of levity to raise your spirits.
My sincerest condolences to Kevin’s family, friends, co-workers, and to anyone who actually knew him…as opposed to, say, just having interviewed him one time. I can at least say, though, that while it may only have been one interview, as far as I’m concerned it was one for the ages.
And with that said, let me ask you a question: did you ever hear the one about the network executive who said “Nelson” when he meant “Hirsch,” and the executive producer whose reaction to the error lost him a series?
If you’re a TV writer, you may very well have heard this story. It’s a tale so tremendous that it seems as though it must surely be apocryphal, especially since it’s one that always seems to appear second-hand. The story first seems to have made it into print in a 1992 article by Laureen Hobbs in the late, great magazine Spy, and it was later offered up by John D. Brancato as part of his contributions to the book Tales from the Script: 50 Hollywood Screenwriters Share Their Stories. Brancato managed to deliver the punchline to the story without naming names or even citing the project, but Hobbs was somewhat less discreet, so it’s not like the identity of either is difficult to find…if, that is, you know the right words to Google.
The pilot was called Circus. The executive producer was named Kevin Curran. You may not be familiar with the former, but if you’re a Simpsons fan (or a Late Night with David Letterman fan, or a Married with Children fan), then there’s a good possibility that you recognize the latter. Thanks to one of his fellow Simpsons scribes, I was put in contact with Curran, who—for the very first time since the shit went down lo these many years ago—agreed to tell his Circus story on the record.
The punchline to your experience with Circus is well-documented amongst TV writers at this point, but that’s really the only bit about the pilot that’s made the rounds, so I was hoping you could help fill in the blanks a bit. First of all, what was the premise?
Well, it’s interesting that I later ran into trouble with the premise, even though it stayed exactly the same as it had been when FOX bought it, but…it was about an alcoholic misfit clown and a bunch of other misfits at a circus, and then a young wannabe clown who was kind of innocent. And there was a bitter dwarf, a drunk fortune teller, and, y’know, these kind of shady characters. At the time, FOX was doing these things called presentations—which was like a staged version of the show, where they wouldn’t film it—and based on that, they picked it up for six episodes.
If I’ve got my timeline straight, then Circus would’ve been made right around the same time as Shakes the Clown, correct?
Yes! [Laughs.] Yes, exactly.
That’s some incredibly bizarre parallel evolution.
I actually don’t remember which pre-dated which, but the original inspiration for Circus was a sketch that was on (Late Night with David) Letterman—‘cause I used to work on Letterman—called “Flunky the Clown,” where Jeff Martin was this cigarette-smoking bitter clown.
Was the presentation actually done with the intended cast?
Yeah, it was mostly the people who made up the cast. I mean, as with many pilots, there were some replacements. It was actually easier to replace cast members when they did presentations, because the original actors weren’t even on film! [Laughs.] So that was probably in January of 1992 that we did the presentation. But by the time May or June rolled around, of course FOX had completely forgotten what the show was about, because they had no physical reminder at all.
All they had were their spotty memories from the presentation about what it was. At that point, it became a really grueling process where, at one point, there were all these censor notes, and they’re saying, “Well, there might be a slot open at 8pm, so it has to be a family show.” [Laughs.] It’s a show about an alcoholic loser clown! He’s the main character!” I mean, that’s not really very helpful…
Yeah, that really screams “family-friendly comedy.”
[Laughs.] Yeah! So there were unusual tribulations like that, and there was…I’d say there was a breakdown in communications between the different people, like Columbia and FOX and myself. And I was very much committed to doing the show that I wanted to do, and they were very committed to, y’know, whatever they thought of that week. [Laughs.] So we started filming in June or July, and we had done the pilot plus two episodes. We’d just done the table reading for the fourth episode, and it went really well. You know, the cast and crew, they were having a really good time, and it wasn’t that hollow, false laughter you hear so often. It was really legitimate amusement. But the FOX and Columbia people decided they’d had enough. They were not going to smile at all, and they marched in just like a military court, really. It was just a very frustrating experience.
So what happened was, the guy who was the vice-president of FOX, he and I were talking, and he said, “You know, we have serious problems with the show, and we don’t think we’re going to pick it up beyond six episodes.” And I said, “Well, that’s interesting, because it is the show that you bought.” And he said, “Well, we don’t want that anymore!” And what happened then was… There was one moment when he said something, and I was trying to think of an answer, so my eyes kind of drifted. And he said, “When I talk to you, I want you to look me right in the eyes!” And…I came very close to picking up a television and clobbering him over the head with it…and this was when televisions were, like, 400 pounds. [Laughs.] But I didn’t do that. And the discourse became more civilized, as we were trying to figure out what exactly we could both live with and what kind of compromises would have to be made by both parties.
So we’re going along this route for awhile, and…they still weren’t pleased. [Laughs.] I mean, they really weren’t pleased. They were not cracking a smile. It was like they’d been done an injustice by the show. It was, like, something about this poor little innocent show they saw as like having a gauntlet hurled at them. So, anyway, we’re talking about different ways to do the show, and one of the vice-presidents of Columbia said, “Well, I think you’re spending too much time on the minor characters. You should spend more time on the two main ones.” And I said, “Well, if you look at a show like Taxi, each of the first six episodes, the main story was about the main character, but the B story sort of introduced different members of the cast.” And then this guy said, “Well, there’s a difference: Taxi had Judd Nelson.” And I said, “It was Judd Hirsch, you fucking moron!” And then everybody kind of looked at their shoes. And then they just got up and left. The boat had, uh, pretty much sailed with that. The next day, we came in and they were taking down the lights and packing up the entire show.
Just to clarify this scenario, exactly what was your inflection when you said, “It was Judd Hirsch, you fucking moron”? Was it in a “ha, ha, how silly of you” sort of way, or was it angry?
Oh, no, it was angry. [Laughs.] It was definitely angry. I’d just reached my breaking point. Yeah, the vice-president of Columbia sort of got what was deflected from the vice-president of FOX when he said that “look me in the eyes” thing, which really, really got under my skin. But I let that pass, so the explosion had a lot more to do with that. I mean, it was just someone making a simple mistake. In fact, not even a mistake, just a misspeaking!
So who was set to be in the cast of Circus?
Oh, Roger Rees was Kelso, the alcoholic clown. And there was Philip Baker Hall, who was the owner of the circus. There were other people who weren’t as famous. Kim Walker, who was in Heathers, was the lead girl, and there were different clowns played by John Nesci and other people. Yeah, it was a really nice cast, a really nice show. Everyone really kind of liked each other and was on the same wavelength.
If you were doing the table read for the fourth episode, I presume you had a writing staff by that point.
Oh, yeah, we had a writing staff. We did the presentation around January, and we put together the writing staff somewhere in June.
Who was on the staff?
Well, the most famous person is Greg Daniels. I believe that was his first sitcom job, if I’m correct. I know he wrote on SNL, and then…I think he did a show out in Los Angeles, but I don’t believe it was a sitcom. Yeah, he was an executive story editor at the time…and he has wildly surpassed everyone else involved with this tale. [Laughs.]
What was the reaction from everyone else involved with the show when they found out the reason why the plug had been pulled? Or did they just kind of accept that, because of how the network felt about the show, it was always going to be a short-timer, anyway, and move on without issue?
The immediate reaction of the other writers who were in the room was stunned silence. Everyone kind of looked down into their notebooks. As far as the writers were concerned, within weeks three of them—Jace Richdale, Greg Daniels, and John Collier—had joined The Simpsons. Maybe (the title) Circus wasn’t too far off the mark. The production staff was kind of shocked, but they knew there had been a lot of squabbles. I think one of our PA’s summed it up best when he drew a kitchen pot on a chalkboard with the single line, “Too Many Cooks.”
So what did you think when word about the punchline of the story, as it were, started to make the rounds?
Oh, I was very proud of it. Whenever writers hear it, I’m momentarily their hero. Because, y’know, you have to put up with so many contrary and ridiculous network and studio notes, and you just have to kind of swallow your pride and do it. This time, it was, uh, a little bit of a different ending. [Laughs.]
Yeah, Michael Price is the one who suggested that I talk to you about your experience with Circus, but I didn’t really know what the experience was until Bill Oakley Tweeted me the advice, “Go and Google the words ‘It was Judd Hirsch, you fucking moron.’ The first three hits will tell the tale.”
[Laughs.] That’s right!
And yet all those hits involved someone else telling the tale. So you’ve never gone on record about the experience before?
No, I haven’t, actually. It was written about in Spy Magazine, but I didn’t participate in it. This is actually the first time I’ve ever actually said anything about it myself. So you’ve got an exclusive about a failed sitcom from 1992. Congratulations! [Laughs.]