The Media Column: How Ken and Curtis evolved from bald piñatas to beloved morning drive personalities

Alex Reimer
January 10, 2019 - 11:25 am

I always thought Ken Laird and Chris Curtis held the most thankless jobs in sports media. They would wake up in the wee hours of the morning for the privilege of being berated by two psychopaths for various failings –– such as not finding specific pieces of sound on a whim or letting a bad caller on the air for 30 seconds. They were bald, sleep-deprived piñatas who made less money than most grocery story checkout clerks.

But now they have big new contracts, so I don’t feel bad for them anymore. 

WEEI’s morning show always interacted with its producers. “Chach” and “Iggy” were fixtures, with the latter often serving as the liberal foil for Gerry during “Headlines.” I feel a kinship with him. 

But Ken and Curtis –– or the “Real K&C” –– have evolved far beyond the “Baba Booey-lite” roles that morning show producers emulate across the country. It started with their daily recap podcast, where they would pick apart every morsel of that day’s show. It was a real behind-the-scenes look at the inner-workings of the highest-rated morning show in Boston, complete with scathing reviews of each day’s “Casting Couch” contestant. It enflamed the palace intrigue that “Kirk & Callahan” rode to tremendous ratings success.

The podcast’s production value was also top-notch, thanks to Ken’s brilliant, if not slightly perverted mind (in a good way). All of the show’s best clips were dispersed in hilarious fashion throughout each episode, often in a way that would make us look like complete fools.

These days, Ken and Curtis are legitimate morning-drive personalities, and judging by social media reaction, far more beloved than either Mut or Callahan. They attribute their bond to years of working in the radio trenches, dodging ad hominem attacks and trying to manage some utterly bizarre situations –– such as simultaneously negotiating to leave and stay in their current jobs after Kirk departed in November. 

“Throughout this process, anyone else –– I think –– would’ve had a major issue in their relationship,” Curtis told WEEI.com. “Both of our hosts split up and we were being pulled in multiple directions –– each having phone calls with Kirk and Gerry almost every day. We showed up and did our job and worked together and there’s just an underlying trust I have with him that I’ve never had with anybody else in radio. I don’t think we’ve ever been stronger.”

At various points, both Ken and Curtis were in talks with Kirk to join his new show on RADIO.COM. But they re-signed with WEEI this week, affirming their partnership for multiple years. 

It wasn’t always this smooth, however. Ken, who started working for WEEI on a part-time basis while still hosting a daily talk show in Pittsburgh, was thrusted into the dysfunctional “Dennis & Callahan” family in spring 2016, right when Curtis left to combat his alcoholism (though nobody knew it at the time). For a couple of months, Ken produced with Paul Chartier, who ran the board. Ken didn’t start his foray into playing fart noises and taking Glenn out of context until Curtis came back to the show that summer. 

They got off to an uneven start. 

“It was awkward, because it was a complete role switch for me,” Laird told WEEI.com. “I was not the audio guy. I was the show booker, the rundown guy, the idea guy. But they brought Curtis back into that role, because Kirk and Gerry knew him. So it was a little awkward. And then he did that famous podcast with Kirk, where he declared he was the ‘lead producer’ of the show. It was like, ‘Alright, who’s this guy?’ It wasn’t a bad start, but I made fun of him for it. It was a feeling out process.”

It’s easy to forget now, but Curtis’ return to the program was not met with critical praise. Kirk and Gerry lambasted the gaunt version of their now-tepid producer, accusing him of getting lobotomized during his time away. They did not know he underwent treatment for alcoholism until he told his story in July 2017. (Ken knew long before that, which Curtis says is the genesis of their bond.)

“The first couple of months, I was a fish out of water,” Curtis said. “I constantly thought they knew I was drinking, or somebody had known, and that was going to come up. It was sort of this weird, odd feeling. Being away as long as I was –– three months doesn't sound that long, but when you're actively producing and every day not in that routine –– and then you come back after totally cleansing yourself of everything you did, it was sort of an odd adjustment period for me.”

Curtis says his breakthrough moment with Gerry and Kirk came in November 2016, when the program dedicated more time to the most contentious presidential election in recent history that any other sports show would dare. Seemingly every day, there was breaking news regarding Trump’s craziness, including the Patriots’ ties to him. Curtis was on the scene.

“The real time when I turned a corner in Kirk and Gerry's eyes was the day after the (presidential) election, I went to City Hall. I got some on the street sound and interviews from these people –– the people saying we're going to be in concentration camps, the 'LGBB,' all of that,” Curtis explained. “That week, I also got the (Tom) Brady voting story. The shows were excellent. We had some really good shows. My producing turned a corner both confidence wise, and the guys were like, 'This is the guy we wanted back.’”

Curtis underwent an on-air evolution over the ensuing year –– first as Mut’s “Battle of the Brainless” nemesis, and then as the host of “Headlines,” because Kirk didn’t feel like doing it anymore. In Kirk’s absence, Curtis has morphed into the show’s fourth voice, taking gratuitous jabs at the hosts and sometimes passionately arguing his viewpoint on polarizing issues, such as addiction.

Curtis’ shining moment at WEEI came Dec. 21, when he hosted a two-hour solo program in the wake of Josh Gordon’s latest indefinite suspension for substance abuse. The first 30 minutes featured a heart-wrenching monologue, in which Curtis detailed his own personal battles with addiction. He told one story about driving drunk down to Foxwoods and getting pulled over for a sobriety test. Somehow, Curtis passed, and his lucky escape prompted him to pound even more liquor before he hit Connecticut. 

“Since Kirk left, there's been an obvious vacuum in terms of the direction of the show,” he said. “I've had a much bigger role in the content overall of the show. I've sort of jumped in where Kirk left in terms of, 'What are we doing? How are we doing this?' Mutt and I really organize together what we're up to, whereas Kirk was giving instructions and we would follow. So now that I'm a bigger part in the direction of the show, I'm able to know where we're going, and what we have. I feel more engaged. The other thing is, Gerry, Mut and whoever else is in are much more receptive to it. I'm not saying Kirk wasn't, but it was just a different show. I sort of felt an opening and seized on it.”

Ken’s value has also become more apparent since Kirk’s departure. His production brilliance can set the tone for an entire segment, leading us into a certain direction or generating big laughs when the discussion becomes a little dry. It’s another way to fill the vacuum. 

“Sometimes Curtis will be like, ‘Let’s get out of this,’ and then I’ll try to play something disruptive –– we have the ‘WRKO Boston’ drop when it gets too political,” Laird said. “But I try not to pivot the conversation too much. I try to add to what’s going on. In the old days, Dino would have a cut sheet. He was a stickler. I didn’t mind it, but he would want the cut sheet, and he would be talking to Paul, and be like, ‘Cut 3 here. Let’s play Cut 4A.’ It was very regimented. Now I feel like I can skip that step with the hosts. Kirk and Gerry weren’t used to hosting, so I had to. If you wanted to get a piece of sound in, you just waited for the right gap to play it –– nothing too long, just get to the crux of it. That’s my way to chime in and stay engaged. It keeps me interested, and hopefully the listeners, too.”

In many respects, the drops are the show within the show. The embarrassing, and frankly, strange clips, serve as an oral history of “Kirk & Callahan” and now “Mut & Callahan” –– chronicling all sorts of on-air flubs and signature moments. 

While Kirk and Gerry always encouraged Ken to be active on the board, he says his participation was originally discouraged by station management. They thought there was too much sound, and it stomped over the show.

Hard to believe.

“It was an edict, and actually kind of a depressing conversation,” Laird said. “For a week, it became a thing on the show, where Kirk was like, ‘You want to play a drop there, but you can’t.’ They thought it was too noisy and too much –– some listeners did too, probably. It’s a risky thing.”

But like most draconian edicts, the show worked through it, and Ken was back to piping in Bill Belichick’s press conferences while Kirk and Gerry talked over them. That idea, like many of the show’s production elements, was Kirk’s brainchild. Ken says it’s been an adjustment working without Kirk giving him direction on how pieces of sound should be inserted. 

“Kirk is a great idea man. Unbelievable,” Laird said. “There would be five times per show where he would say something in my ear. We had good chemistry, where I would get it right away. He wouldn’t have to explain it that much –– for lack of a better example, he’d be like, ‘Fart noises,’ and you knew where he was going with the bit. Then I could do it. Now, I’m not getting that. Mut and I have worked together some, but he’s trying to feel his way. So I’m more on my own. Curtis and I need to be better generators of ideas, opposed to reacting, because Kirk knew where he wanted to go all of the time.”

Gerry and Mut are the pillars of “Mut & Callahan.” Their names are on it, after all. But Ken and Curtis aren’t far behind. When they were out one day this summer, for example, the show couldn’t even get on the air properly.

It was, to quote one of the most popular Mike Salk drops, really a fascinating metaphor.

————————————-

Tom Brady decline talk remains incredible cottage industry: Amazingly, we have not yet reached our saturation point with “Tom Brady is in decline” talk. Even though national writers have breathlessly published this parade of cherrypicked analysis since the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo, any schmuck who casts doom on Brady becomes Public Enemy No. 1 around these parts.

The latest person to capitalize on this cottage industry is Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier, who said earlier this season Brady’s arm resembles “overcooked fettuccine.” He published an in-depth statistical analysis on Brady, showing that TB12’s advanced metrics are way down from his career norms. It was a convincing read at first, but then I perused Michael Hurley’s rebuttal at CBS Boston, which shows that Tanier’s numbers are basically meaningless. 

All of this nonsense prompted another sterling round of Brady debate. He is the gift that keeps on giving, even if we’ve had the same argument for literally the last half-decade.

Boston is more of a college football town than you think: Boston has the reputation of ignoring collegiate sports. But the ratings show that’s not the case. 

Big Boston College football games –– the few that exist –– typically draw respectable numbers. And the major bowl games do even better. The College Football Championship between Clemson and Alabama Monday drew a 9.2 household rating in Boston, per ratings hound Chris Curtis. Celtics-Nets, for comparison’s sake, garnered a 2.5.

Maybe it’s time to rethink the “nobody in Boston cares about college football” conventional wisdom.

Dotcomination: There have been lots of pieces devoted this week to the Patriots’ history with the Chargers. But if you read one thing about it, to paraphrase that cheesy cliche, take a look at Ryan Hannable’s oral history of the 2006 Divisional Round classic. An undermanned Patriots team defeated a more talented Chargers squad. 

Can history repeat itself?

Related:

Comments ()