Episode 38- Building An Iconic Sound with Jonathan Wolff (Part One)
Jerry made it clear. This is an extraordinary show and the music Ford will be very important. Described to me a sound design problem. He wanted a catchy recognizable signature. Music theme would play along with his comedy monologue. But that would not interfere with the audio of his standup material. In the late eighties theme music was kind of generic sampling. Technology was in its infancy and I was eager to be on the bleeding edge of that instead of using drums. Percussion trumpets or whatever. I tried to capture that Quirky New York energy using digital samples of finger snaps tongue lip noises to accompany him kind of like this in. That became the voice the. Sonic brand of Seinfeld Day for the sound marketing. Podcast I have the pleasure of speaking with Jonathan Wolf. He wrote the theme song for the show. Seinfeld Game-changer he's on my opinion so welcome to the show. Jonathan thanks gene. Thanks your kind words. So let's just Kinda dig right in. I have listened to several different recordings of you talking about how the show came about how the being came about. But I I would love for you to kind of delve into that and tell the story of of how you came up with this iconic sound that matched this iconic. Show my good buddy comedian. George Wallace told me to expect a call from his Buddy Jerry. Seinfeld yes in real life Jerry Seinfeld and has a best friend named George. It's George Wallace and and Jerry's first phone call to me. Jerry made it clear. This is an extraordinary show and the music for it will be very important. They had already done a pilot for Seinfeld or at the time. It was called the Seinfeld chronicles and the composer did not hit the ball as hard as he should have and so they were looking to change the music so in Jerry called. He described to me a sound design problem. It wasn't so much a music thing he envisioned the Oakland credits of his show to center on Jerry Performing Standup comedy relating to the story. Line of the episode. He wanted a catchy recognizable signature. Music theme it would play along with his comedy monologue but that would not interfere with the audio of his stand up material now. Gina. In the late eighties theme music was kind of generic. There was a Lotta says. He's sexy phones and a lot of melodies and silly lyrics guilty. I created a lot of that kind of music's but I knew it wasn't GonNa work in this case that combined with my adopted philosophy about that time of getting out of the pile you know. There's so many composers in La and they're all so good. This is like a pile of us if you went into anybody's office at the time. People had demo cassettes demo. Cd's and they be on these offices in piles representing pilots and people. So I decided I get out of these piles and one of these piles was a creative pile that I just described sampling technology was in its infancy and I was eager to be on the bleeding edge of that so I had this phone call from Jerry Seinfeld. It was not a big job. They only had four episodes four episodes my entire career. I never heard of a show only having four episodes. That's not an order. That's an insult. Some of his comedy material and notice the Jerry's delivery has a unique funny rhythm to it the pacing of his words phrases inflections. He has a musical quality and I based the rhythm of the Seinfeld theme on the rhythms of his speech patterns. You know how good rapper has certain rhythms in speech pattern. So does Jerry. His voice became the melody of the theme and I built the rest of the music around him instead of using drums and percussion trumpets or whatever. I tried to capture that Quirky New York energy using digital samples of finger snaps tongue. Let noises to accompany him kind of like this. Organic nature of these sounds helps them to blend well with the human nature of Jerry's speaking voice. I wanted to be homogeneous as if the music was just part of his performance the prominent baseline of the seinfeld theme in theory. It's principles are in an audio range that do not compete with his human voice since his standup comedy was going to be different. Tweak HIS MELODY. Each week would be a variation on the theme voice. Jokes tells would be different so the theme had to be adapted each week to fit his routine. I- architectured the music to be manipulated bull in a modular fashion to match the timing of Jerry's lines the Seinfeld music components those elements remain basically the same from week to week but since the monologues were always different each week. His human voice melody was like a variation that I had to accompany now. After a few seasons we abandoned the opening and closing monologues. To give more time for the episodes but I was still able to use that quirky seinfeld music and it was still recognizable as Seinfeld. Even though we didn't have monologues anymore the bass sound itself in the late eighties slap bass had not yet achieved celebrity status as a Solo Instrument. It was buried in FUNK MUSIC. I brought it forward. Put It on. The table illuminated it and made it a solo instrument in that became the voice. The sonic brand of Seinfeld. I think that that's the that's the really brilliant part was that you came up with a theme but the theme was altered every episode and innate came and recurred in between like changing scenes. I just I think that that right. There is the heart of the idea of creating a sonic brand foundation. And once you have that as long as you keep those elements somewhere in the midst of things you have so much freedom to floor and that sound can just take a life of its own and it really truly becomes. I think a character in the show. Well thank you if it's done right and given enough time to speak his voice a good thing. We'll do that and I used that notion a sonic branding as a marketing tool for myself to get out of other piles. I was not always the best composer in the room. There were times when I was competing for an I met with composers who I considered my superiors so I did not want to compete just simply based on our musical superpowers. Yeah you have superpowers superpowers. How am I gonNA get this job instead of you and sometimes this would work? I would tell the exact producer was interviewing me that I see. You're looking at these other folks and they're excellent composer view. Just want good music. Hire one of them. You'll be happy I do something completely different. I will create for you a sonic brand an earworm so unique that it will instantly identify your show like a signature people from the other room with their header greater. We'll hear this out on an a Pavlovian response will be. Let's watch that at and you don't have to be looking at the TV. You could draw somebody in from the kitchen. They're making a sandwich and they don't know what they're going to watch next but then they hear that Seinfeld theme they know exactly what it is and they're like oh I'm going to tune in or I'm not going to tune in but it will bring them to the device that because the company the production company wants you to go to. It's a great form of marketing being your listeners or smart so you know that what? I just did that little drama logue. I just did. Did you know their style? And their substance there was no substance. There was all shallow plastic artificial but in that moment gina in that Nanosecond I had successfully separated myself from the others. And maybe there's five people being considered. I'm one of them at that point. It's me or the others. So now I've got a fifty percent chance instead of twenty percent that I'd have it was just if it was equally divided so that was one trick that I use. I like I said I was not always the best composer but I knew how to close the deal theme music like you mentioned. It serves a number of functional and practical roles in the success of a TV show. And if you want we can talk about that. Well I did want to ask you because you made made a mention about that. The only Episodes that were picked up four episodes which is enough to joke. But I agree with you I live. I live in the L. A. Area. That is pretty strange that they would only be picked up. Four episodes and it would just like slowly stagger into more episodes. What made you take the job in? The first place was it. Because you're like here's an opportunity for me to you know. Put myself apart from all the other composers. That are out there. Was there something about Jerry? That was interesting to you. What was the draw if it was only four episodes? What was the draw? George Wallace and I are really good friends in. I knew about his best friend Jerry for for a long time. We had just never met but George put it to me like my friends in the music. Not Working. Can you help them out so it was? It was job I got paid for it and I was happy to have the job and you know obviously now. I'm really happy of the job at the time. It was not a great job. I was doing okay. I had a couple of hits shows on the air already. I was doing every week married with children. And WHO's the boss? I didn't really need a show that the network showed such little faith in that they only ordered force. I didn't really need this job but I was happy do it any friend of George is a friend of mine and he seemed like a nice enough guy called me on a Saturday and I pitched him the idea. That look we need to really treat your voice with a lot of respect otherwise if you have a really melodic theme it's a recipe for an audio conflict and he listened intelligently to that is as I work will come on over. I'm alone I'm here in my office. Come on over. A little work is up. You can watch and he did. He's he's really Nice Guy. Who's he hung around? The girlfriend brought us burritos. That was how I created the Seinfeld theme with him. They're going just kind of in amazement about that whole sampling thing and the lips in the finger snaps and I I mentioned to about lips and tongue noises can we do that is that legal is at music find out so that is why I really really wanted to take. This job is because of the relationship. I had and still have with George Wallace. I've also heard the story about how Larry David almost made you leave the room when they were out of a meeting through you out of a meeting because it seemed he believed in the theme song even more than you did at that point. What do you think sold? Larry David by the white your impression. David is awesome But what what was it that you think just sold Larry. This is it. We can't do anything else. What was it Larry does not like to be told what to do? That's more of the truth. Then he was in love with the music he'd there was a long list in the of the story. The please do. Larry wasn't even there when I created the theme. Jerry was there and Jerry's happy with it and I put it up against his comedy video that he had from an HBO special and it worked. Pretty well and Jerry called Larry on the phone and just held the phone up to the in the air so we can hear it on. The speakers. Injuries really liked us. Who Do you think Larry Larry said? Yeah Yeah Yeah. That sounds. That sounds funny. I liked that that was the entire approval process until we got picked up for another season season two. I think it was that Warren Littlefield had some notes he was headed an NBC. At the time by the way I love worn his greg. I did seventeen series with worn along fine. This not bad about Warren. He's just doing job and I was invited to. This meeting where Warren was going to give his notes that if you want season two this is what you're going to have to change. And the reason I was invited because they were given a heads up. That music was on the list Warren again. A Smart Guy articulate intelligent very successful. He knows what he's doing said to. What is this music is is it? What are those instruments? Can we not afford real music? It's it's weird. It's distracting is annoying. Pretty set the word annoying. Larry's eyes lit up a and that's when he decided he was gonNA defend a guy said to Larry and our boss was Glenn Pad Nick who is head of TV for Castle Rock. And I just we huddled with me and Laurean Glenn and I said look guys. I'll change the music. It's not a big deal for me. I no no events here I I just want the show to get picked up. GimMe a couple hours. And Larry was so mad at me that I would even consider caving end. Is this request. He started yelling at me and pointing at the doors. What get done here get out and I looked at Glen Glenn just kind of shrugged and said Look Larry. If you feel strongly about this Al Becca. I'll defended Israel for fruits move. Get Out in the meeting and the meeting ended with the music stayed in the picture by the way that long list of notes. I saw the list. I'm think Larry ended up changing any of it. I mean there's casting issues. Storyline Issues Wardrobe. I'll let you change anything. So it wasn't so much that he loved the music he just didn't like being told to change the fact that the network had so little faith in this show and that there was only four episodes. I wonder if this is you. And everyone involved really like story wise musically everything gave you guys a freedom to try something that wasn't explored because no one was really telling you okay. Well we have to cross this t dot this I and you are correct to explore. You just met his correct. They really weren't paying that close attention to us. And Larry was able to make the show the way Larry wanted and I was able to make the music the way I wanted. And it all worked pretty well mostly because we were not a hit show and they other things to do there were people at NBC who believed in the show. They're individuals who did warn was one of them. Stu was one of them. But in general it didn't test well. It had no numbers and no viewers. It was where they weren't sure what to do with it. Where do we? What kind of a time slot to do we find with this? Because time sitcoms were not like this they were not conversational and is intricate as Seinfeld was so yes you hit on something important. It was a camelot era of being able to have certain freedoms for me that manteaux being able to be weird and quirky as a show went forward the base evolved more nasal more angular more wacky more twelve tone. The Basic Seinfeld baseline is just a one quarter. Four card is so sophomore and so simple that any nine year old complex and as it stands simple it does not really require meter to hold water. It could stop and start to make allowances for Jerry's jokes and in that way I was able to forget everything I learned about composition from the time I was seven and create very simple thing and sometimes got works. That's not always the case. Though you learn the roles so that you can break them. If you have to really really know the rules here let me here folks all the time trying to know be new and guy but you have to understand how human years work and how transient the at. The time broadcast transmissions had each network had unique algorithms for compression that they used okay so I had to get used to and I had. I chose on every network I had to mix differently defensively so it was still good on each of the networks and I made friends with those engineers that came up with the compression schemes so that I would know how to do it for example that base when you hear it in reruns on TV it. It's slaps out smacking in between the forehead. It sounds louder than dialogue. Because I use certain selective phase manipulations in it. And for before you do that you have to know the rules. Otherwise you might run into phase cancellations. Oh that sounds exhausting. The different okay I was. I'm a nerd and the dumb assuming you are too but they will need to to at least do something unique for that theme seems I always philosophically thought that were not given the Gravitas that they should. I should point out. I'm fully retired. Have no dog in this fight anymore. I'm not trying to convince anybody to pay me more money. You know. Seeing music among other things is a first impression sales tool to help pitch a new show to an audience. Sometimes it's important to the show's identity and in helps tell the story a theme like the fresh Prince of Bel Air which is not one of mine but it tells the story and bridge there in into the into the story of the fresh prince of Bel Air Seen has entertainment value as a presentation tool just like in the theater. The Voice Booming Voices Ladies and Gentlemen as the theater curtain rises the for the performance to prepare the audience for entertainment experience. A TV theme announces each episode. It heightens your sense of anticipation and draws you into that mind space. You visit while watching the show. Tv theme sometimes identifies location or historic period of the show for example my theme for saved by the Bell. The college years helped us transition the lives of those characters from high school into college in off of the theme not only reflects the show's sensibilities but also welcomes the audience by bridging the gap between the show set and the viewers living room alike. Here's another theme. I did not right. Kinda like the cheers theme does for each episode so beautifully it just welcomes you into that. Bar. You know one of my first teams that I really noticed in love and paid attention to and always young was welcome back kotter where John. Sebastian actually used the words. Welcome in it and it made you want to sit in that classroom. So in that way TV themes become woven into the fabric of our personal experiences like the soundtrack of our lives in familiar themes can also serve as pop cultural touchstones marking times and places in our lives for me. Those lifeline markers. Besides the one I just mentioned include like mission impossible and Pink Panther Sanford and son Dragnet Peter Gunn Beverly Hillbillies as I say these words people of a certain age are hearing that music in having warm Fuzzy Smith for younger people. Maybe for my kids age might be the friends theme song again which I didn't write people hold these warm fuzzy connections to TV themes in their memories. It's the reason why you get some rock bands recording covers. I hope you enjoyed part one of my interview with Jonathan Wolf. I believe that there is a very valuable lesson to be learned with the marketing of show. Where movie in comparison to marketing a brand this episode. I'm a huge fan of Jonathan's work and what he did on. Seinfeld is just too perfect. Example Diskette audio is power as I stated time and time again and we should hold value in what our brand sounds like. Remember we all make sounds? Let's make him on purpose for more of the marketing podcast. Don't forget to follow subscribe and share. You can find us on spotify. Google play iheartradio Pandora institure for inquiries on producing and developing your own podcast or for on. Sonic earning sonic granting consultation availabilities. You can find me at dreamer productions. That's D. R. E. A. An art productions dot Com Lincoln and facebook. You can also email me at Gina J. E. and an a at dreamer productions dot com all links will be provided in the show. This episode was produced Dreamer Productions and hosted written and edited by me Gina Item. Let's make this world of sound more intriguing more unique and more and more on brand.