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Simpsons writers share their memories of the late Kevin Curran

Kevin Curran, longtime writer-producer for The Simpsons and an alum of Late Night With David Letterman and Married... With Children, died yesterday at his Los Angeles home after a long illness. His death was confirmed by Antonia Coffman, publicist for The Simpsons. He was 59.

Like more than a few other members of The Simpsons’ creative team, Curran was a Harvard man, serving as both a writer and an editor of the Harvard Lampoon before graduating in 1979. It was at Harvard where Curran first met Al Jean, who—in addition to working with Curran on the Lampoon—would go on to become the showrunner of The Simpsons.

“Most of us at the Lampoon weren’t perfect fits for Harvard, which is why we joined the Lampoon,” Jean tells The A.V. Club. “Here’s a college story you might like: Kevin lived in Dunster House, where someone had meticulously created a large, cutesy gingerbread replica of the campus which was displayed in the lobby. One night, no doubt after a beer too many, Kevin came in and smashed the gingerbread house to bits. Today it would be a micro-aggression at least, but back then, I admit I really laughed when I heard what he did.”

Curran’s big TV break came in 1984, when he was hired as a writer for Late Night With David Letterman. Although he spent five years on the show, sharing three Emmys for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program during his stint, it’s arguable that Curran’s greatest accomplishment during the course of that half-decade was (can we have a drum roll, please, Anton?) writing the very first Top Ten List: “Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme With ‘Peas.’”

In Brian Abrams’ eBook AND NOW…An Oral History Of “Late Night With David Letterman,” 1982-1993, Curran offered a simple explanation for that pioneering list: “I wanted to do a really silly one.”

After leaving Late Night, Curran landed at Fox’s Married... With Children, where—in addition to his efforts as a writer, story editor, and supervisor producer from 1989 to 1996—he also gave voice to the Bundy family’s long-suffering canine companion, Buck.

“I consider myself a working writer,” Curran told the Christian Science Monitor in 1991. “I don’t think of what we do as art. It’s one step above seals juggling balls on their noses. I always hoped someone would just pay me [half a million dollars] to drink beer around the swimming pool. I’m very disappointed I have to do anything at all.”

If Curran wasn’t kidding, then he did a very bad job of trying not to do anything. During his tenure at Married...With Children, he also served as an executive producer for The Good Life, a short-lived sitcom starring John Caponera and Drew Carey. With fellow Late Night alum Jeff Martin, he also co-created Hardball, a baseball-themed sitcom featuring a cast that included, among others, Bruce Greenwood, Dann Florek, Joe Rogan, and Rose Marie.

Curran also became something of a hero to his fellow TV writers during this period thanks to his failed Fox pilot Circus, which revolved around an alcoholic clown (played by Roger Rees) and his fellow traveling circus misfits—including ringmaster Philip Baker Hall. Despite having already begun production on the series, the network made a snap decision to pull the plug on Circus after a tense exchange between Curran and a Fox executive, one that Curran detailed in a 2013 interview with AntennaFree.TV.

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! 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. 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.

“I’d heard of Kevin and seen him on the lot but hadn’t met him yet, and that story is pre-internet, but it went around town so damn fast,” Mike Scully, writer-producer for The Simpsons, tells The A.V. Club. “Every writers’ room in town was talking about it. He lived our dream.”

Following Married... With Children, Curran also spent some time as a writer and producer on The WB’s Unhappily Ever After, but when he finally joined the staff of The Simpsons in 2001, he found the place where he would spend the remainder of his career. During his run on the series, Curran added three additional Emmys to his mantel, this time for Outstanding Animated Series. He’s also credited with a number of episodes, among them “Rednecks And Broomsticks” and “The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed”—the latter earning Curran a Humanitas Prize nomination.

Several of Curran’s fellow Simpsons writers reached out to The A.V. Club to offer their memories of his time there:

John Frink, executive producer-writer, The Simpsons: “I worked beside Kevin for many years on The Simpsons. Through those many years, I have only known three people that I have considered unique voices in that yellow landscape: legends George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, and Kevin Curran. He will forever be remembered for his absolutely odd and effortless additions to this long-running show. I took extreme pleasure in witnessing others, new to this writer, stare at him bewildered, bemused, sometimes frightened, and most times completely blown away by his brilliance. He wasn’t ‘on’ all the time, but when he was, he left all of us wishing we had his ability to conjure up lines that had never before been heard of on this earth and lines that will forever be quoted.”

Matt Selman, executive producer-writer, The Simpsons: “Kevin did not suffer fools gladly. He made the fools suffer.”

Michael Price, co-executive producer-writer, The Simpsons : “Even before The Simpsons, Kevin was legendary for all his work on Letterman and Married... With Children, but he was a great guy, very witty and kind of caustic, but always very nice to everyone. He was one of the funniest guys ever, and I’m grateful to have known him.”

Joel H. Cohen, co-executive producer-writer, The Simpsons: “I worked with Kevin for almost 15 years. I don’t have any real specific stories, but I will say he was, at least to me, a comedy legend. When I first met him, I had only been writing for a year or two and Kevin had worked on [Late Night With David] Letterman and Married... With Children, and as impressed as I was by his credits, he was even more surprising and quick and funny in person. He invited me once to play poker at his house and Kato Kaelin was there, living as Kevin’s house guest. That alone is a hint of the interesting, colorful life he led. Kevin was generous, mercurial, sentimental, smart, classy, and fascinating, a loving father, and—above all—a really solid guy.”

Mike Scully: “Kevin was working on a new Simpsons script until shortly before his death and it’s very funny. Despite his weakened condition, it was very important to him to leave one last episode that his daughter and son can enjoy on TV a year from now. Instead of lying in bed watching the Dodgers get eliminated or yelling at Trump, he was hunched over a computer, working right to the end to make his kids laugh and provide for them. What more can a dad do?”