I had only been in the union for three years and a full music editor for fewer than two in 1989, so saying it was my best year ever in show business might not be saying much … but let me tell you about it and then you be the judge.
Spring – I wrapped up a year-and-a-half of non-stop work on WAR & REMEMBRANCE. What an incredible experience working with and learning from two crafty old vets, Dan Curtis and Bob Cobert, recording the music with a 65-piece orchestra on the FOX Scoring Stage, and earning my first EMMY nomination.
Summer – I worked on two very enjoyable TV movies: POLLY, a musical remake of the Disney film that had originally starred Haley Mills as Pollyana and THE RETURN OF SAM McCLOUD starring Dennis Weaver reprising his sheriff-in-the-big-city role. Then I packed up and headed off to Munich for two weeks to score and dub MOON 44, a feature film sci-fi thriller directed by a then-unknown (in the U.S.A.) Roland Emmerich.
Upon my return from Germany, Roy called me into his office and told me about Skip Lusk’s offer to work on THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW and the eventual spin-off of the “little cartoon show”. What a thrill it was to show up on the FOX lot for my first day on TRACEY, meeting James L. Brooks, Sam Simon and composer Richard Gibbs.
I had never worked on a show with a live audience. On filming nights, if there was a musical production number in the show I was on set to make sure that everything went down technically according to plan. Richard Gibbs conducted a live orchestra for the first take of the number which was recorded to 24-track tape, then for each subsequent take or pick-up (a shot that covers only a portion of the number) the tape was played back for the actors to perform to so that the tempo and orchestra performance would be the same in every filmed take. This allowed for intercutting between multiple film takes into a final performance that didn’t have any jarring jumps in tempo or sound quality. In addition, Richard would have a traditional scoring session to record the various score/bridge cues for the rest of the show. I could see why Suhail wanted to handle just dialog on the show. Two standout musical guests that we had that year were Carole King and the late, great Clarence Clemons.
Barely two months had passed when I got a phone call from Michael Schoenbrun, Executive in Charge of Production for Gracie Films, telling me that the first music spotting for THE SIMPSONS would be on November 22, 1989. The meeting would be in Sam Simon’s office with James Brooks, Matt Groening, TRACEY composer Richard Gibbs and Supervising Producers Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky. We spotted the first two episodes that were going to air: 7G08 “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” and 7G02 “Bart the Genius”.
Sidebar: I have no idea how the studio arrives at the episode numbering scheme. There seems to be a little sense to it, but not much. Our first season episodes all started with 7G. Our second season had episodes starting with 7F (we’re moving backwards through the alphabet?). Then we stuck with that scheme for a few seasons. Seasons 3-9 were 8F, 9F, 1F (why not 10F?), 2F, 3F, 4F, 5F respectively. In season 10 we switched yet again to the numbering scheme that we’ve stuck with since: AABF – PABF (IABF and OABF were skipped, I assume, to avoid any confusion with the I being mistaken for a one and the O for a zero). The shows are produced in order (e.g. NABF01, NABF02, NABF03, etc.) but do not necessarily air in that order for myriad reasons including production issues, FOX wanting to air certain episodes during “sweeps” periods, and last-minutes shifts in FOX’s broadcast schedule.
I was skeptical of turning the little, 30- and 60-second featurettes on TRACEY into a full-fledged, half-hour show. All that went out the window as soon as I saw the first two shows. The wit, the audacity, the Simpson family (both their look and their sound) were all utterly unique compared to anything on the air in 1989 and to any animated TV series that had gone before. I asked, “When does the first episode air?” I was told the Christmas episode would be airing in about four weeks on December 17. I had a hard time concealing my surprise. Not at the fact that there were only four weeks until air, but that there wasn’t a year until air. I’m an animation history buff. I’d read volumes of books on the method as it was developed by Disney, Warner Bros., The Fleischer Brothers, and Hanna-Barbera in their MGM days before TV. In all of animation history, the music was recorded before animation began so that the action could be tightly synchronized to the music. Well, we were going to handle THE SIMPSONS just like any other comedy or drama by shooting and editing the picture first, then adding the music in post. The fact of the matter was, and still is, there isn’t enough time to compose and record the music in advance of animation on the very tight primetime television schedule. A Disney feature, for example, is produced over a period as long as five years with the end result running about 90 minutes when completed. THE SIMSPONS produces twenty-two episodes that each run about twenty-two minutes (that’s over 240 minutes) in the span of about one year.
The first thing made clear during spotting was that Matt and the producers did not want the overall tone of the music to be cutesy or jokey. The music should sincerely play the emotion of a given scene. They wanted the humor of the writing to stand on its own. Matt also knew that the look of the animation wouldn’t be top-drawer (like a Disney feature), so he insisted on having a full orchestra playing acoustic music to help elevate the production – no synth scores for THE SIMPSONS! He got his wish and to this day we record with a 35-to-40-piece orchestra, sometimes adding a dozen or more singing voices when we have production numbers. The music has truly become its own character on the show.
What follows are the first pages of my hand-written spotting notes (still years before my laptop) for each of the two shows I saw that day. I probably haven’t looked at them since 1990 and it’s a bit of a mind-trip to read them and be instantly taken back to where it all started.
Some notes on the notes:
- In the notes for 7G08, you can see in the first two lines that we would record the music for 7G02 first, at FOX on December 4, then record 7G08 at CBS/Radford on December 11, only 8 days before air (!) Now in our 32nd season, we often record the music only 9 days before air, but it’s a pretty well-oiled machine these days. To have cut it that close on episode #1 was pretty nerve-racking.
- In 7G08 cues 1M2 & 1M4, there are notes to “sweeten more vox” – this is music recording-speak for “add more voices”
- In 7G08 cues 1M5 & 1M7, there are notes indicating the the music to be “crummy, tinny stereo” and “electronic, cheeseball” – these instructions set a musical tone for the show that we still follow today. Virtually all source music in the Simpson’s universe is, to put it Matt’s way, “crappy”. This is partly a function of our favorite family living a middle-class existence and also a subtle way to elevate the elegance of the score with its full orchestra.
- In 7G02 cue 3M2 is the opera scene when the family goes to hear CARMEN sung in Russian because Bart has been proclaimed a genius and they want to help broaden his cultural scope. If you look closely, it also says “Russian Rec”. We did not hire an opera orchestra and chorus to record this cue. The FOX music department actually found and licensed an obscure recording of CARMEN sung in Russian on an LP! I cleaned that disc for a long time to make sure it didn’t have any pops or dust to give away that it was coming from vinyl.
- In 7G02 cue 3M5, another note that would shape the future of the musical approach to the show – “play tender and warm rather than heroic”. Homer is the most inept, bumbling, misguided father in the history of television. He also loves his family unconditionally. This quality, aided by the music, makes Homer not only tolerable but adored by people the world over. If we had played the scene as a “sports” scene it wouldn’t have said anything about Homer & Bart’s relationship.
Below are the breakdown notes for this cue. The notes don’t give much more illumination on the thought process behind the music, but are still fun to read and you get a little sense of history. (There are quite a few music-editing abbreviations in there including: “MX” = music; “EXT” = exterior; “CS” = close shot – a shot tight on the character’s face; “FS” = full shot – a shot of a character from head-to-toe; “EOL” = end of line – indicates where a character stops speaking the previously transcribed dialog; “B.G.” = background; “DISS” = dissolve – when the picture blends, rather than cuts, from one shot to the next; “L2S” = long 2-shot – 2 characters in the shot at a fair distance from the camera; “ESTAB” = establishing – a shot of a building or a house or any other prominent location to “establish” where we are; “INT” = interior; “CAM PANS RIGHT” = the view of the action as if the viewer were turning their head from left-to-right)
Going forward from that first meeting, Richard Gibbs and I would be working together on 13 episodes of THE SIMPSONS and the remaining 15 or so episodes of TRACEY. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe how many emotions I felt over the next six months. Fear was certainly high on the list. I was confident in my skills as a music editor but this was a lot of responsibility, taking on TRACEY, an established show on the still-fledgling FOX network while simultaneously nursing a new show in its infancy. A show that had yet to find its voice, its direction (both creatively and technically), or its place in TV history.
Next, I’ll write about the premier of the show, the amazing news we got after the second episode aired, the end of THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW, and big changes at the start of season 2 of THE SIMPSONS.