This Monday, I want to be none other than Jeff Richmond, the man behind the music on 30 Rock. I’ve been watching some episodes streaming on Netflix lately (did you guys know that it now works on Intel Macs? I feel like they should have made a bigger deal out of this), and while I’ve always loved the music on the show, I feel that I’ve only recently had a chance to give it a considered listen. And damn, is it good.
According to Wikipedia, Richmond got his start writing for Second City, then went to SNL, and from there, headed to 30 Rock. I’m not sure if he was ever a comedian, or whether he just wrote funny songs, though I guess that anyone who can write “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” or “Muffin Tops” is pretty much a “comedian” whether or not that’s what he does for a living.
Anyhow, I’ve had a chance to sit with Richmond’s cues and episodic scores, and I’m so, SO into them. To start with, he uses an awesome group of musicians – the band is driven mainly by reeds, with clarinets and saxophones featured heavily. There are some great percussive high-notes, as well, usually coming from a set of bells or a mandolin, and he uses a jazz choir and brass section really effectively.
What’s more, the sound of his band is far from the uber-tight, “studio” sound that Hollywood is so capable of producing. The players play a little bit out of tune sometimes, but it actually adds to the casual, goofy energy and vibe of the performance. The band sounds like a bunch of old pros who’ve gotten together for an informal jam in the studio, and the playing has a busk-y quality that’s really appealing.
He does groovy things with the show’s main theme, too. In its usual form (like, during the credits), it sounds like this:
But, as each episode goes on, it’s remarkable the ways in which he twists and skews that theme. I’m not sure I can think of another show that uses a single musical motif in so many different ways (I’m not really counting the slap bass in Seinfeld). The most common of Richmond’s variations is whenever something is “brewing,” or someone is being “evil,” the low strings play the theme, but streeeetttched out, and loooow, and the result is an sneaky, slinking line that conveys “mischief” just perfectly.
Richmond does a fantastic job, as well, of keeping the rhythm of the episodes moving along. He does this both by interspersing his musical cues with some really swinging drumming, and by constantly modulating the music on the fly. Drums pepper so many scenes on the show – four on the floor, brushes on the snare, and as people talk, or walk and talk, the groove keeps things moving, and in between bits of dialogue, the horns and strings kick in and transition the actors from line to line. Standard stuff, as far as TV cues go, but really, really well done.
He’ll also step outside of his standard themes to come up with some episode-specific gems. I recently noticed a really good one in the season 2 episode “Greenzo.” I’m not sure if this theme had made its way into the show’s music before, though it’s since become a recurring motif.
Oh, man! I can’t tell you how much I dig that progression and melody. I’m sure that literally no one out there will sit down with their piano or guitar and play the above line, but if you can, I recommend it. It’s very, very cool. As the episode moves along, the band plays that theme, quickly modulating it up a half-step every time the scene changes. In the closing credits alone, the music goes from Bb to B to C to C# to D. Between the creative re-orchestrations and the constant key changes, the music has a sense of momentum that really, really works. Plus, it’s catchy as hell.
So, yes. This week, I wanna be Jeff Richmond. He’s a total pro, gets to work on one of the funniest shows on TV, and has a really, really good band playing his stuff. And I know there was another reason… hmm… something else… maybe something relating to his personal life? Maybe let’s look at the full version of that picture:
Oh yeah, that’s right. He’s married to Tina Fey. Some people have it pretty good, I tell ya.