By Stacey Harrison
On The Simpsons, the characters never age and time pretty much stands still. But for Alf Clausen, all he has to do is look at his son to take in the true scope of the passage of time.
“The thing that keeps coming back to me is the fact that my younger son was 11 when I started doing this show and he’s now 34,” he says.
That’s 23 seasons of creating the music that has become an indelible component of The Simpsons legacy, a concept on everyone’s mind now as the show approaches its 500th episode, “At Long Last Leave,” on Feb. 19. Clausen is responsible for the weekly musical score, as well as putting music to the lyrics of some of the series’ most indelible Broadway-style musical numbers.
Clausen, who also worked on series such as Moonlighting and, yes, ALF, took some time to talk about his work on the show, and share his memories about helping to create some of TV’s most memorable music.
Channel Guide Magazine: What are your thoughts as you approach the show’s 500th episode?
Alf Clausen: I was thinking about that this morning as I was starting to work on the cues for the week, and the thing that keeps coming back to me is how quickly time has passed, and the fact that my younger son was 11 when I started doing this show and he’s now 34. That gets my attention, because when we’re on a production schedule, we work very hard and very long hours and really don’t have much time to think about what we’re doing other than the requirement of the moment. Then, all of a sudden, another year has gone by. It’s quite remarkable.
CGM: Given how quickly you have to work, do you ever find yourself wishing you could go back and fix things?
AC: Every once in awhile that happens. Not very often, but every once in awhile. I try to watch every episode on the air after they’ve done the dub so that I can see how I did for the week. Every once in awhile, I’ll say, “Wow, if I only would have had four more hours to think about that, I probably would have done that differently.” But it works fine the way it is. The creative process is very interesting that way when you have to operate with one foot off the edge of the cliff.
CGM: Explain the process for the songs a little bit. The writers do the lyrics, then you create the music, correct?
AC: Yes, it’s always the lyrics first. The scriptwriters write the lyrics, and normally as part of the script to advance the story. Then they give me the script pages and I write the songs from there. I normally do demos of the songs in the studio with a rhythm section and studio singers. That gives producers an idea of how the song should go from my perspective. And then we record the cast voices to those tracks and send a mix of those tracks to the animators. The animators animate to those songs.
Then, the animation comes back in final form, animation-wise, and I get one last chance to finesse the music. I dump the rhythm section track and re-record the background with a full orchestra, and that’s what gives us that Broadway vibe. That’s quite a different procedure than the underscore, which is always done about two weeks before air.
CGM: Start to finish, how long does your contribution to each show take?
AC: Well, my contribution is twofold. First of all, it’s the songs, and the songs are usually done anywhere from seven to eight months in advance of air because the animators have to animate to the songs. From the underscore perspective, I will see an episode on a Friday, usually record the music for that show the following Friday, they will dub it on Monday and Tuesday, and it will air the following Sunday. So it’s pretty tight.
CGM: Over these 20-plus years, do you have a personal favorite contribution that you’ve made to the show?
AC: Oh, my goodness. That is a tough one. I figure that I’ve written over 100 songs for the show, and it’s hard to pull a favorite. But I think one of my favorites is “Señor Burns” with the Tito Puente orchestra. “El diablo con dinero.”
CGM: Do the lyrics ever have to be changed after you’ve written the music?
AC: Yes, that happens every once in awhile. When I get the lyrics I’ll scan them to figure out what they can mean songwriting-craft-wise. Once in awhile, when I set the rhythmic pacing of the song, it turns out that maybe the first phrase is of a different length than the fourth phrase, which really, from my perspective, should lock up.
I’ll call the lyric writer and say, “I’m having a little trouble with this one. Can you either tell me the rhythmic pacing of what you intend this to be, or can I give you the rhythmic pacing that I’m intending it to be and can you write a few more words? Or a few less words?” They’re very cooperative that way. So it’s a collaborative process. It’s good.
CGM: OK, now, I’d like to just walk you through a few of the show’s most memorable songs over the years that you’ve written, and have you tell me what you remember about their creation.
The Sherry Bobbins songs (from “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(D’oh)cious”)
AC: Well, that was really fun because it’s obviously the homage to Mary Poppins. We always walk a thin line about how closely we can do those homages, and whether the people who have done the original songs are going to take umbrage with them or not.
Interestingly enough, I ran into one of the Sherman brothers [who wrote the original Mary Poppins music] at a Christmas dinner a couple years ago. I introduced myself to him, and he says, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Boy, you do great work.” I said that I’m the one who wrote the parody songs for Sherry Bobbins and he says, “Oh, I know. You did a fabulous job on that.” I said, “I’m really glad to hear you say that, because I was hoping you weren’t angry with me.” He was very gracious and appreciative.
“Stop the Planet of the Apes I Want to Get Off!” (from “A Fish Called Selma”)
AC: (laughs) “Can I play the piano anymore?” “Well of course you can.” “Well, I couldn’t before.” I love that! What can I say about that one? It’s just hysterical.
CGM: It’s kind of a combo, where you’re not only parodying a style, but within that you’re parodying specific songs, like “Rock Me Amadeus” becoming “Dr. Zaius.” Does that change your preparation at all?
AC: Not really. The mechanics are the same, and I just have to make sure I get the intent of what the lyric is supposed to be and what the mood of the song is supposed to unfold. But the procedure is pretty much the same.
“Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?” (from “Homer and Apu”)
AC: Oh, yes, that is a gem. That has to do with the fact that Apu comes and lives with the Simpsons. He’s basically saying, “I don’t need the Kwik-E-Mart anymore in my life. You guys are fulfilling everything that I need, etc.”
It has one of the greatest payoff lines of all time, as far as I’m concerned. Apu finishes the song and disappears and the family, along with Homer, is saying, “Everything really wrapped up just perfectly now. Everything is absolutely wonderful, blah blah blah.”
All of a sudden they hear this sound on the roof, and they go outside and see Apu sitting on the roof. He’s singing, “Who needs the Kwik-E-Mart? I do.” And Homer’s payoff is, “Hey, he lied to us through song. I hate it when people do that!” I could hardly speak when I heard that I was laughing so hard.
CGM: Does it make your job easier when you respond to a joke like that?
AC: Oh, I don’t know if that has much bearing on it. I do what I do, and the requirements are kind of the same. I just appreciate the payoff a lot more, because we’ve had a few of those over the years. You probably remember the one, “Singing is the lowest form of communication.” That was good.
“We Do” (Stonecutter’s Theme) from “Homer the Great”
AC: That was one of my favorites as well, and still is to this day. Homer gets an invitation to join the secret society in Springfield called the Stonecutters. It was very reminiscent for me of my early days in high school, because I was a member of DeMolay during that time. We had meetings that were very much like the Stonecutters meetings. I didn’t even realize what was going on at the time. But Homer was just thrilled to be a member of this society, and I am very, very proud of that song. I love the way it all unfolds.
CGM: Something about some of these songs that catch on is how they stick in people’s minds, but, when you go back and watch them on the episode, they’re less than a minute long.
AC: What kills me is that I’ve seen many, many comments on the Internet about how “Streetcar!” is one of the greatest musicals ever written. I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Every song in ‘Streetcar!’ is eight bars or 16 bars long and that’s it.” It’s funny what happens to people when they listen in the micro. They tend to get pulled into the musical strength of the moment and in their mind they enlargen and imagine that they’ve heard a complete song when it’s only been eight bars or 16 bars. I see that comment a lot. It’s a head-scratcher.
“La Maison Derriere” (from “Bart After Dark”)
AC: The story was, of course, that the townfolk wanted this house of ill-repute torn down, but Homer didn’t want it torn down because Bart had an after-school job there.
That was interesting, because I think it’s the longest production song we’ve done. If I remember correctly it had 17 characters in it, and it was a real challenge to be able to write the song to include all of those different character voices.
It’s one thing to just write the song and write it to the lyric and let it fly and record with whomever’s going to sing it. In writing this song, I had to analyze the voice ranges of every one of those characters and write the phrases they’re going to sing in their register so they can sing it easily. There was a lot of detail to that.
“See My Vest” (from “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds”)
AC: That was our homage to “Be Our Guest,” the Disney song. It had to do with Mr. Burns bragging about his new vest that’s made from all sorts of interesting things. He’s a bizarre guy. That’s another one of those where I was walking the fine line, hoping I wasn’t going to be arrested. (laughs) It seems like everybody really enjoyed the parody.
CGM: Well, with parody you’re pretty much protected, right? Were you speaking legally you were hoping you wouldn’t have trouble, or that you thought people might say you were disrespecting the song?
AC: I always think more legally, because there are always people out there looking to give folks a bad time. But from a creative standpoint, I’m always hoping our efforts fall on the ears of the original creators with the intent that’s been put forth. We make fun of everyone eventually. We kid, because we love, as Krusty says.
CGM: Has there ever been any legal trouble then?
AC: No, I don’t think so.
“Hank Scorpio” (from “You Only Move Once”)
AC: That was our James Bond-ish rendition. That was a long time ago, my goodness. There’s an interesting story about that … when I got involved in writing the song, they said, “We want a girl singer to sing it like the James Bond girl did.”
I said, “Well, there’s a wonderful woman [singer] in England whose voice is very reminiscent of the main title theme singers in the original James Bond films. Her name is Cleo Laine. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get Cleo Laine to sing it?”
Turns out she also has a home in [California] with her husband, woodwind artist Johnny Dankworth. So the casting director reached out to Cleo and asked if she’d be interested in singing a song, and she turned us down, which was really interesting because that doesn’t happen very often on The Simpsons.
I think it was probably one of those situations where she didn’t understand what The Simpsons was all about … or maybe she did understand. (laughs) But I was surprised, because normally we don’t get turned down. I often wonder if she’s become a Simpsons fan.
CGM: Can you recall any other instances when someone turned you down?
AC: The last story about that I know of was the Tony Bennett story. Right before I came on the series, it’s my understanding that he was contacted to sing a song for the show and he turned them down. His son, Danny, who is a big Simpsons fan, said something like this to his dad, “Dad, you really want to do this. This is going to resurrect your career. You’re going to have a whole new listening audience with all the young folks.” …
So Tony agreed to do it and he sang a song that Jeff Martin wrote called “Capitol City.” The temp part of the song came back from the animators just as I came on the show. So I was able to get the arrangement written and record the final track for Tony Bennett singing “Capitol City.” So that was really cool. A whole new audience discovered Tony Bennett.
“The Garbage Man” (from “Trash of the Titans”)
AC: That was a wild day, let me tell you. That song was written for U2. We knew they were coming in to do the show, and I got a chance to actually produce the track with Bono and the guys singing “The Garbage Man.”
There must have been 50 people in the booth at the recording studio watching this process go on. All the legal folks on U2′s side, the legal folks on FOX’s side, the business affairs people, the publicity people on both sides, the production people on The Simpsons. I’m producing U2 singing this song and I’m thinking, “Holy crap, this is quite an honor. This is quite an amazing thing.”
So we did the first take of the song and Bono did a really good job of it, but there were a couple things that I knew could be better. He and I got along really well, we bonded from the moment we met. So when he finished the first take I got on the talkback to him out in the studio and I said, “Boy, that was really good. But, you know, I think you can do a better one.”
And I hear 50 people behind me collectively gasp! They couldn’t believe that I was telling Bono that he could record a better take than the one he had just done. But he and I were used to being in the recording studio and accustomed to the process involved in doing recordings. We understood we were there to get the best take and he was fine with it, and I was fine with it. We had a great time together. But it was like the air was being sucked out of the room temporarily. Wild! I’ll never forget that day.
Photos: (Alf Clausen) Credit: Jim Hagopian; (“Bart After Dark,” “You Only Move Once”) ©1996 FOX BROADCASTING; (“Trash of the Titans”) © 1998 FOX BROADCASTING