by Dan Goldwasser
It's not usual that a show will be "un-cancelled" because it ended up being a phenomenal success in syndication and on DVD, but that's exactly what happened with the Fox animated sitcom, "Family Guy". Focusing on a somewhat dysfunctional family living on Quahog, Rhode Island, the show's irreverent brand of humor (including an alcoholic dog that speaks, a baby that has plans for world domination, and many other unique characters) the show was nominated for three Emmy awards, winning two. One was for actor/creator Seth McFarlane's voice-over performance, and the other was for a song by composer Walter Murphy. A large aspect of the show was its music, provided by Murphy and Ron Jones - the two would score different episodes, depending on what Seth needed. "There is a difference between one composer approaching the story, unifying and developing themes and the group approach," explained Jones. "Seth values what each of us bring to an episode and he casts us by what he feels it needs."
Seth McFarlane with Walter Murphy and Ron Jones
"Seth loves big-band swing and action-orchestral," said Murphy, when asked about the musical style of "Family Guy". "So, this is a combination of the two." McFarlane is definitely hands-on, as well. "Seth is the most informed and savant person I have ever worked for. He knows and appreciates the role of music and composers," said Jones. "Because he knows how to use the tool of music he creates an optimal situation for good things to happen."
Walter Murphy examines a cue
Unfortunately, those good things didn't last too long. After the team had produced nearly three seasons of the show, it was unscrupulously cancelled in February of 2002. Fans were disappointed, but soon thereafter, the show appeared in syndication (along with another Fox cancelled animated show, "Futurama") on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. It was an instant smash. When the DVDs were released, they immediately became best sellers. Fox realized that it might have made a mistake, and in a turnabout, "un-cancelled" the show and ordered new episodes. Meanwhile, McFarlane had moved on to another show idea, "American Dad". Fate would work it out in such a way that both shows would premiere at the same time: May 1, 2005.
The pilot of "American Dad", which focuses on CIA agent Stan Smith and his family, contains the same brand of humor, but is much more grounded in reality (unlike "Family Guy" which could have hilarious and absurd jump-cuts at any moment). It aired just after the Super Bowl, with music by Ron Jones and a main title by Walter Murphy. The pilot will re-air with "Family Guy" on May 1.
"Threat Matrix" is the second episode of "American Dad"
Both composers have returned to "Family Guy" as well. And so it was that on Monday, March 14, 2005, after over three years, Walter Murphy, Ron Jones, and Seth McFarlane returned to the scoring stage at 20th Century Fox. Murphy was there to record the season premiere of "Family Guy" - an episode called "North by North Quahog", and Jones was there to record a theatrical teaser for "American Dad". Musically, it sounded like Murphy was putting on a comfortable pair of slippers - the jazzy style established back in 1999 was back! As evidenced by the episode's title, there are a few Hitchcock references in the season premiere - made all the more clear by the orchestra recording an arrangement of Bernard Herrmann's music from North by Northwest.
Peter Griffin in "North by North Quahog"
Murphy's style of working is quite laid back and charming - he's always friendly, and is constantly thanking the orchestra for great takes. He doesn't conduct the music himself; Jonathan Elg has those honors. Sitting next to score mixer Armin Steiner, Murphy calls out changes and direction from the mixing booth. As is typical with animation, many of the cues are brief and short - they might last only three seconds! Combined with the professionalism of the session players, contracted by Murray Adler, the time passes by quickly.
Jonathan Elg conducts "Family Guy"
On average, "Family Guy" and "American Dad" have 40 cue starts per episode. Depending on the show, that could range between 3-10 minutes of music. That isn't to say that everything was flawless though; a faulty computer shut down the Pro Tools rig during the session for the second episode ("Fast Times at Buddy Cianci High"), causing a delay, but Steve Hallmark took care of it quickly and they were back up and running in no time at all.
Ron Jones conducts "American Dad"
Musicals are always fair game; Murphy and Jones had written a lot of songs for the first three seasons, and the fourth will certainly have its fill! From karaoke numbers, to brief musical interludes to full-on sequences, fans will have a lot to look forward to this season. From sneaky spy music to some soft dramatic moments, there is no genre left unturned. The fourth episode in production, "Blind Ambition" contains variations on the "Family Guy" theme, big action cues to rival any Hollywood feature, and even a few musical nods to classic films.
The "American Dad" mixing team
"American Dad" has a different musical approach, one that is more militaristic and patriotic, "but they're still cut from the same cloth", said Murphy. Jones agreed: "We are just starting the journey of 'American Dad. It looks like we won't be jumping all over the map musically - it has it's own personality and dynamic range. The music will reflect that essence. I would say it is a bit more orchestral, and less bouncy than 'Family Guy'. But we might surprise you from time to time."
Armin Steiner at the mixing board
Describing the lead character, CIA Agent Stan Smith, Ron Jones explained, "Stan is more in-your-face, but his son gets to be more sneaky." And that's where Jones, a veteran of such shows as "Star Trek: The Next Generation", gets to write more nuanced music cues. He also conducts his material, putting him out on the stage with the musicians. This means that there are more playbacks at his sessions, so he can hear the final mix.
Mike Lang at the piano during "American Dad"
The "Family Guy" brass section
There is a lot of "Family Guy"-related stuff going on. Earlier this month, McFarlane and the rest of the cast performed "Family Guy Live" in Los Angeles, and New York City. Geffen Records is coming out with an album "Family Guy: Live in Vegas". It's not a soundtrack to the show, but rather takes the form of a live variety hour performance much in the vein of the Rat Pack from their glory days. Humorous (and foulmouthed) songs are co-mingled with straight-up numbers and comedic interludes. It remains to see how successful the shows will be, but if the DVD sales and recent flood of events are any indication, Fox might have just fixed one of its worst mistakes in recent years. Now if only they would re-approach "Arrested Development"....
"Family Guy" and "American Dad" premiere on Sunday May 1, on Fox. Special thanks to Ron Jones and Walter Murphy for their assistance with this article