Each month in Know the Score, writer and composer Aaron Gilmartin steps out of the scoring stage and explores, in detail, some important aspect of movie music. After all, film is as much about what you hear as what you can see.
Years ago I was an assistant on the FOX animated sitcom Bob’s Burgers—back when it was still a brand new and little-known show. After working there, I watched as Bob’s was renewed, year after year, for 10 seasons (and counting), garnering tons of awards and becoming a massive success. While there I worked with John Dylan Keith, one of two composers who create original music for the show, who was there when it all began and has watched as the quirky comedy has become a favorite of critics and viewers alike.
Starting as a smaller project and then becoming very popular, Bob’s went through many changes—and the music department was no exception. In this month’s KTS, I talked to Keith about some of the changes and the process of creating the show’s music.
For starters, the number of people working on the show has grown exponentially. In the beginning, the entire Bob’s Burgers production team started out as a small shop of just 5-10 people. Today it employs hundreds of people across the globe: all of the writing and creative content is produced in LA, but many of the animation processes are now finished up in Asia. Coloring and most of what viewers actually see onscreen is created in Korea, while the storyboard and final touches are done in Los Angeles.
Keith is a long time friend of Loren Bouchard, the creator of the show. As he tells me: “We were pals in high school. Decades before Bob’s, [we] had a band together that went nowhere. Actually, the band went nowhere, but one of the other members was Josh Clayton-Felt, who went on to some MTV success with the band School of Fish.” He continued. “Loren and I reconnected in New York in the early 2000s, and I worked on his Adult Swim series Lucy: Daughter of the Devil.”
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Keith played drums, piano, guitar, bass, percussion, ukulele and other stringed instruments. When he and Bouchard re-connected he was doing some film music, alongside web and new media gigs. He was also playing in bands and doing some audio editing and SFX work. Like a lot of composers at the beginning of their careers he was branching out to stay busy—and pay the bills.
Keith has been involved with Bob’s Burgers since the very first pitch to FOX. On the show’s proof-of-concept demo, he did sound the show’s design including doors, feet, farts and other sounds, all known as “hard effects.” Bouchard, who, aside from being the creator of the show, is also a talented composer in his own right, had done the music—including Bob’s memorable opening theme:
The presentation to FOX was in the spring of 2009, but the green light to actually make the show didn’t come until the day before Thanksgiving. Keith was on a New York City bus when he got the call that they’d been picked up by FOX to produce the pilot. “I’d been in New York for 11 years and was ready for a change. When I got the offer, making the move [to LA] for 13 episodes for [the first season] seemed good,” he said.
In the years since that first phone call, Keith has been able to remain flexible and prolific, even as expectations and workflow have changed dramatically. In the show’s first year, he did SFX and music. Originally, he was supposed to do the sound mix for each episode, but soon it became clear that that wouldn’t work.
On Season Two, production brought on a second team of composers: the Elegant Too, who created original music for some of the episodes. On the third season, the composing work was split evenly. Today, there’s a pretty steady workflow keeping each team busy.
Stylistically, the show’s music began with a very intimate sound but quickly began to include more ambitious “Hollywood”-style sounds. And after establishing this pallet, the production team remains focused on maintaining the tone—as Keith describes it: “A balance between some John Williams elements with more homespun sounds.”
Often, Keith will try to make things bigger and better while keeping the elements that maintain the show’s “homemade” flavor. In one episode, “O.T.: The Outside Toilet,” the kids from Bob’s Burgers find a luxury talking toilet that plays music and is also a bidet. A smart home voice played by Jon Hamm communicates with the kids.
Says Keith: “There’s a light homage to E.T. in the plot, with a Spielberg-style kids adventure to save their new friend [the toilet]. I specifically avoided listening to the E.T. score, because they replicate the iconic shot of Eliot flying on the bike in front of the moon with one of the kids carrying the talking toilet. I just went for a more sweeping film score sound, big brass, lots of strings.”
The show’s evolution has brought Keith some interesting new challenges and creative collaborations00including with performers such as Fiona Apple, Jon Spencer and El VY, a side project of Brooklyn indie band The National. When The National played, they asked to bring their band. The work could have accomplished by studio musicians, but it added some fun to the process bring in the band. The band has subsequently covered a few songs from the show, as well as contributing their end credits song.
Another way the show’s music has changed has been in discovering the hidden strengths and talents of its cast and crew. In the middle of working on an episode that required a song, actor John Roberts, who plays boisterous family matriarch Linda, belted out a spot-on Michael McDonald impersonation. With the knowledge they can always go in that direction, whenever the show now calls for an R&B moment they can call on Roberts to sing—just one example of the show’s pallet continuing to expand.
With a growing production unit—and with a feature film currently in development!—the Bob’s Burgers team now feels like they can take some chances. Not necessarily changing the show’s sound, but rather by bringing on more high profile guest stars. “It’s been a real privilege to work with people like that,” says Keith.
Bouchard is very passionate about story, characters, music and sound. Bob’s Burgers has a style flexible enough to incorporate new elements when needed while still remaining recognizable and intimate. And as someone who was able to see the process up close, it’s been an amazing to watch the show’s music continue to evolve.