On Sunday, February 19th, Fox TV will broadcast the 500th episode of The Simpsons, the longest-running prime time animated series in television history. Along with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, composer Alf Clausen and his ingenious scores have been along for every episode (actually 483 episodes – he was not hired until the second season). Without doubt, The Simpsons’ episode 500 (titled “At Long Last Leave) is a major milestone for Clausen and his 35-piece orchestra. ASCAP Film & TV staffers attended the scoring session along with officials of Local 47 of the Musicians Union, on hand to celebrate Clausen’s keeping their members gainfully employed for so many years.
Clausen, who was honored at the 2011 ASCAP Film & TV Awards Dinner with the ASCAP Golden Note Award, was best known, pre-Simpsons, for scoring the hit 1980s programs, Moonlighting and ALF. Each of those shows lasted only four seasons, quite an accomplishment in their day. The Simpsons, now in season 23, is clearly Clausen’s magnum opus and one he takes great pride in. Clausen recently sat down to speak about being the creator of all the music that punctuates the lives of the denizens of Springfield, USA.
You started working on The Simpsons after Moonlighting and ALF had run their course. Was an animated show something you were looking for?
No. When I interviewed, I told the series creator, Matt Groening, that I did not want to do an animated series for two reasons: first of all, animation is too difficult, and secondly, I considered myself a drama guy, coming off Moonlighting, and I really wanted to extend my drama career.
What is it about scoring animation that is more difficult?
For the most part, animation is cut more closely and more intensely. The requirements of normal animation scoring are that a lot of the action points need to be caught by the orchestra. It involves a lot of mathematics and a lot of timing study, and a composer can’t make very good progress on a day-to-day basis. It just takes a lot of time. But the main reason I did not want to do animation was because I wanted to work on drama.
What made you change your mind?
Matt Groening said to me, “Well, consider this – we look upon our show not as a cartoon, but as a drama where the characters are drawn and we would like the show to be scored that way. Could you do that?” I thought about it for a second and a half. I said, this sounds intriguing. Let’s give it a shot. I had not yet seen The Simpsons. So I had to make a judgment based on what they were telling me. Once we got past that explanation from Matt, I said, “Why don’t you give me my first episode and let’s see how it works out.” We did music spotting for that first show, Treehouse of Horror I, and found that it had 42 music cues for 25 minutes of animation. I told them that I am not going to be able to record this many music cues in a single session, and that I needed a double session. They said, “Whatever you want.” I recorded that score with a 35-piece orchestra and have been there ever since.
As I started getting into the weekly series, I began to realize how special the show was, and I thought it would be an interesting run. Nobody had any expectations at the beginning, we just made episodes to see how it would go, and it turned out the public grabbed onto it and Fox got behind us 100%. I thought, “What a blessing to be able to do a show with this warped sense of humor.”
Do you make musical jokes to go along with the action?
Well, sometimes yes, but mostly no. In my seminars with young composers, they ask me how I approach scoring a show like The Simpsons. I tell them what a trumpet player friend of mine told me a long time ago; “You can’t Vaudeville Vaudeville”, which means if the situation is funny, you can’t score it with funny music or it’ll detract from the funniness of the scene.
The characters get into all kinds of situations and travel all over the world. You must have to do a lot of research to come up with appropriate music.
I think one of the reasons I’ve stayed there as long as I have is that I have a pretty good backlog of musical styles that serve the show well. I don’t have to do much research for styles anymore because I’ve done almost every style there is to do in 500 episodes. But once in awhile they’ll throw me a situation, like with a recent Persian-themed show, so I had to go digging for information on Persian instruments and samples, and then I hired a woodwind specialist.
What is the hardest part about doing the show?
The schedule, just trying to keep up. It gets to be very physically demanding. In the fall, it’s not too bad -- I have about two weeks between episodes which is wonderful, so I can live a relatively normal life. I can shut the door to the studio at 6 pm and spend some time with my family. But in the spring I get about a week’s turnaround, so I end up working very long hours, 80-90 hour weeks to compose 30+ cues. It’s very intense
The creativity must have to come pretty fast as they throw the episodes at you.
Yeah, I just look to the heavens for inspiration when I’m thinking “Get me through another one of these because I’m not sure what I’m gonna do with this one”. It all comes together, but there’s no room for being sick, or ‘hitting the wall.’ If I get stuck, I back up and work on a different cue or go for a walk, or do something to free my mind up again.
So how does it compare to working on Moonlighting?
It’s actually more relaxed than working on Moonlighting [laughs], where the schedule was absolutely insane. Normally we would spot an hour episode on Tuesday for the music scoring session Friday night, and I actually had one week when I had 16 hours to compose the score. So this is a walk in the park.
You worked on The Donny & Marie Show as a musical director, conductor and arranger. Has that variety program experience been helpful in scoring the big production-style numbers on The Simpsons?
Absolutely invaluable. Composing for variety shows is very much like composing songs for The Simpsons in many ways because the choreographer and the special material writer were my masters. The complicated dance routines they came up with were a wonderful training ground for shifting gears “on a dime.” Now, my master is the lyric. I always compose our songs to the lyrics in the script.
What’s the most fun you’ve had doing The Simpsons?
If I can look at a scene in an episode and find the answer to it musically, compose it the way it should be composed, and then go to the studio and record it with my crackerjack 35-piece orchestra so that the recording sends chills up my arms, that’s the most fun! If I watch the episode ten years later, that cue will still send chills up my arms. It doesn’t get much better than that!