Scoring “Dark Knight Court”

Sidebar: Before start this post, I wanted to say “thank you” to everyone who has stopped by to read the blog in the past week or so. I have gotten quite a bump in page views since posting about the “Homer Shake” couch gag and my small tribute to Sam Simon. These two recent posts seem to have touched a nerve – a good nerve apparently – with my audience. Also I’d like to point you toward Scott Clausen’s blog post about working on the “Homer Shake” phenomenon (a hair under 26 million views as of this writing). At the bottom of his post, he points you back here. You can just keep clicking these two links forever and stay in our endless loop of Simpsons fun! OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

It’s been a very busy couple of weeks in Simpsons Music Land.

On March 1, 2013 we music-spotted RABF10 “Dark Knight Court”, written by Billy Kimball and Ian Maxtone-Graham. The title is like a “before and after” puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune”. The “Dark Knight” part referring to our parody of “The Dark Knight” movie series; the “Knight Court” part referring to the TV show “Night Court” and the B-story this week where Bart goes on trial with a jury of his student-peers while being represented by Lisa, and the trial being adjudicated by former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno in a guest-voice appearance. Bart is accused of yet another prank on the townsfolk of Springfield, but this time he swears he didn’t do it.

I’m very excited for everyone to hear the score for this episode. At spotting it was clear that Ian & Al Jean wanted the score to evoke the same emotion and drama as the scores for the “Dark Knight” movies. This would mean a lot of music and a big orchestral sound. I think we pulled it off in every way possible. In a nice bit of serendipity, the scheduling worked out in such a way that we scored this episode on the Warner Bros. scoring stage (Warner Bros. produced the “Dark Knight” movies) and we were able to take advantage of one of the best sounding stages in the music business.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m very careful not to give away secrets or surprises ahead of the air date, but recently FOX created their own YouTube channel where you can see classic clips and sneek-peeks of upcoming episodes across their entire Sunday Animation Domination lineup. So, since it’s not a secret anymore, here are a couple of clips from this Sunday’s episode that feature our fabulous score. Turn up the speakers as loud as your boss will allow, or on Sunday night, especially if you are lucky enough to have a 5.1 surround-sound home theater setup, crank it up and enjoy. (RABF10 “Dark Knight Court” airs on Sunday, March 17, 2013 on FOX)

SIDEBAR: Apparently, FOX doesn’t plan to leave their video clips up on their YouTube channel indefinitely. As you can see, the clips below are no longer available. I apologize, but I have no control over these clips. Guess you gotta watch ’em while they’re fresh!

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Sam Simon

I am saddened and moved by the news that Sam Simon has terminal cancer. I would love to share stories with my readers about the madcap adventures Sam and I had during the early days of THE SIMPSONS but the truth is, I interacted with him very little. Those first couple of seasons we were both deeply immersed in our corners of the production – he: writing, producing, character design; me: music – that the only minutes we spent together were during music spotting or dubbing, and he wasn’t at all of those meetings. Two-and-half years in to the series’ run, he resigned and told people he wasn’t enjoying the work anymore.

What I do remember is that he was very funny off the top of his head, he laughed heartily at things he thought were funny, and he was seldom without a cigar between his teeth. I also remember that he didn’t quite know what to make of me – my job, really – as his TV producing experience to that point had been exclusively on sit-coms. Music for sit-coms isn’t the same type of scoring (no offense to sit-com composers) in that music is rarely used to convey an emotion during a dialog scene. Sit-com cues are almost entirely transitions or bridges to take the viewer from one scene to the next. Scoring THE SIMPSONS was like scoring a mini-movie every week and I approached the job as I had all my prior jobs. I think Sam found my method a bit intense with all the questions about character motivation, precise start & stop points for the music, subtext, etc. None of these questions were raised in his sit-com experience to date.

Sidebar: One of my favorite memories is during the dubbing of 7G10 “Homer’s Night Out” and it involves Richard Sakai. He came from a similar sit-com background and had the same skepticism about my role as Sam did. During the scene where Gulliver Dark sings, there happened to be a trombone note that stuck out of the mix a little bit and Richard thought that it had been put there intentionally to make a goofy sound during the scene – a definite no-no in THE SIMPSONS’ music mission statement. I argued in Richard Gibbs’s defense that that was not the case and that it was just a coincidence. I don’t think Richard had ever had a music editor speak for a composer to him that way before and he tartly queried me: “Who are you? The musical advocate?!” I was silent for a beat, then quietly answered: “Yes, I am.”

Sam gets a lot of the credit (rightfully so) for setting THE SIMPSONS on its path to glory. In turn, Sam gets my thanks for doing his job so well so that I could do mine and have the amazing opportunity to work on this show these past 24 years.

Of course, with Sam not a part of the day-to-day operation on THE SIMPSONS, I don’t think about him very often, but I laughed pretty hard at a recent inside joke in our show that was all about Sam … but first, a little background.

As you may know, Sam still receives Executive Producer credit on the show and as part of his severance deal with Gracie Films and FOX, he receives a piece of the show’s profits that has earned him hundreds of millions (!) of dollars since 1993. When the show started back in 1989, he was married to the actress-turned-pro-poker-player Jennifer Tilly. They divorced in 1991, and while I have no idea what their settlement terms were, suffice it to say Jennifer was in the right place at the right time.

Jennifer appeared as herself in PABF16 “Gone, Abie Gone”. Homer has put Lisa’s college fund on a poker website and Lisa watches a Jennifer Tilly instructional DVD to learn the finer points of the game and money management. Jennifer’s opening line is: “Use your Simpsons money, use a little girl voice, and take ’em for everything they’ve got!” I nearly fell off my chair when I heard this at music spotting. The casual or new fan of THE SIMPSONS probably let that line just zip right past. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

It’s been a tough week for me personally where cancer news is concerned. In an earlier post I told you about my mother being the “travel agent to the stars” back in the day. One celebrity client I forgot to mention in that post was Valerie Harper. She, too, has terminal cancer. She recently did a guest voice for us in RABF03 “A Test Before Trying”

I’m not an old guy (not yet, anyway), but events like these will cause one to stop, look around, assess, reassess, and learn not to ignore or take for granted the gift of time we’ve been given.

Again … thanks, Sam.

Couch Gags

In the last month, I’ve put in a lot of extra effort on our couch gags.

I remember seeing the first couch gag way back in late 1989 as part of the opening for episode 7G02 “Bart the Genius”. It was clever and funny, but I had no idea what the long-term plan for the couch gags was until I went to music spotting for episode 7G03 “Homer’s Odyssey” and noticed that there was a different gag in the Main Title. I asked Matt Groening and Sam Simon if the plan was to animate a new gag every week and they told me yes. I was amazed that on top of everything else that goes into producing a weekly animated series that they were going to put fresh content into the Main Title every week (of course this also included new smart-alecky things for Bart to write on the chalkboard every week). If you haven’t seen it in a while – or maybe ever – here is couch gag #1.

We do about two-thirds new and one-third recycled couch gags each season. I don’t have an exact number (maybe an über fan will help out in the comments), but this would mean that to date we’ve done about 350 different couch gags. But even the reruns aren’t always verbatim repeats of what aired previously. There will often be small tweaks of sound effects or music, or if there was any dialog in the gag, it might be changed. Hyper-observant fans of the show are rewarded for their attention to the details.

I wrote in great detail about a recent couch gag that was slipped in at the last minute and how I had to come up with a score for the gag using just library music. You can relive that tale here, if you’d like to. Well, the couch gag that was pulled from episode RABF03 back in January will finally get to air on FOX this Sunday, March 10, 2013 at the opening of RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”. Normally, I wouldn’t tell you much about it in advance, wanting to keep the details a surprise for everyone, but FOX put the couch gag up on YouTube this morning. So here it is and I’ll talk more about it after you’ve watched it.

The animation is by Bill Plympton who produced another brilliant couch gag for us last season. This isn’t a sequel to this first effort, just another new take on the characters. As we were watching it last week during dubbing, Matt Groening commented on how wonderful it was to see other artists’ visions of the characters. I understand there are plans to have more guest animators produce couch gags.

The decision was made to pull this couch gag off the show in January because the gun violence in it might be considered too insensitive in light of the still fresh (at the time) memory of the tragic shootings in Newtown, CT. I’m glad everyone will finally get to enjoy this very different look at our favorite yellow family.

But just a week earlier … DO THE HOMER SHAKE! At music spotting for RABF09 “Black-Eyed, Please”, Al Jean told me that we would need to have a knock-off version of the “Harlem Shake” music by Tuesday – that was only four days away. At that moment I thought, “How are we going to pull this one off?” and “What the !@#$% is the Harlem Shake?” (I hadn’t seen nor heard of the phenomenon at that point – now I’m a quasi-expert on the subject – kill me now!) The job fell to both Scott Clausen (Alf’s son) and me to come up with a suitable “Harlem Shake” score – two scores, actually … a 30-second and a 20-second version. The 30 would be for Internet viewing, the 20 would be inserted into RABF06 “Gorgeous Grampa” as the couch gag. Scott went off trying to compose something that sounded like “Harlem Shake” but was original. I headed off to music libraries to see if there were any cues that fit the general groove and mood and could do the job. All of Scott’s and my initial work was rejected as not being close enough.

Sidebar: Why not use the actual “Harlem Shake” music, you ask? All those videos on YouTube are using the original music without permission from the owners of the song. BUT, as is often the case with digital media these days, the owners don’t seem to be in any hurry to sue because of all the tremendous free publicity, and none of the YouTube posters are making any money off of their homemade “Harlem Shake” videos. THE SIMPSONS would be another story. We would broadcast the song on national TV, put it on a DVD someday, play it in reruns until dinosaurs ruled the earth again. Given the time constraints and the potential licensing costs, we simply could not make a deal to license the song.

So, after show runner (for this episode) Matt Selman rejected Scott’s and my first attempts and learned that the original could not be licensed, he came up with a pretty cool solution. He had Scott compose a sound-alike version that captured the spirit of the original while incorporating Danny Elfman’s SIMPSONS THEME into the work. This had the dual effect of protecting us from any infringement claims – it’s OUR theme – and gave us the creative freedom to parody the “Harlem Shake” and make it a SIMPSONS original. Then Dan Castellaneta was called in for an emergency vocal session where he uttered the opening line: “Homer Calarita!” (total gibberish), the middle line “Do the Homer Shake!”, and the closing pièce de résistance “Homer did a rip-off!”. This final bit of brilliance, besides being funny in its own right, clearly announced to the world that we were not doing the “Harlem Shake” but our own “rip-off”, seemingly dreamed up by Homer. Throughout the rest of the song, you can hear Homer in the background chanting a rhythmic string of “D’ohs”. Dan sang these “wild” – in music editing terms this means that he did not sing them to any rhythm guide or pre-recorded track. He just riffed to his little heart’s content. When I got Scott’s finished tracks, I cut all of Dan’s singing into the song and laid each “D’oh” into the groove with varying rhythms and syncopation.

The Internet version went “live” on YouTube on Friday, March 1, 2013 and, as of this posting, has been viewed 23.5 million times (!) Some people love it, some hate it, but, as you all know, there is no such thing as “bad” publicity. Click here if you’re one of the few who haven’t seen it yet.

What a fun, crazy ride on the couch it’s been since the start of 2013. I’m ceaselessly amazed that the show continues to spark the imagination of our writers, animators, and composers and, in turn, our audience. I’m still one of the proudest members of Team Simpson and how appropriate to sing the show’s praises today, March 7, 2013 – the day the cast sat down at the table read for the first episode of Season 25! Here’s to 25 more!