Netflix’s edgy and contagiously hilarious animated series Big Mouth, a tribute to our gross teenage years, earned composer Mark Rivers his first Emmy nomination. Even though ‘Totally Gay’ (episode 3, season 1) lost in its category (“Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics”) at the Creative Arts Emmys last week, the song most definitely stays a Score It Magazine favourite: we are huge Queen fans and we cannot resist a fake Queen song that is so masterfully written, produced and sung. Absurd, outrageously funny and penned to perfection, ‘Totally Gay’ reflects Andrew Glouberman’s doubts on his blooming sexuality. And could there be a better role model for a teenage boy who’s “going through changes” than the ghost of Freddie Mercury to show him the way?
Mark Rivers is a music and comedy veteran who is behind some of your favourite hits from your favourite TV shows. He’s the mastermind behind Andy Dwyer and Mouse Rat’s ‘The Pit‘ and ‘Catch Your Dreams‘ from NBC’s Parks and Recreation. His work can also be heard on other comedy classics such as Mr. Show with Bob and David, Kroll Show, Moral Orel, to name just a few.
Score It Magazine had the opportunity to have a great, funny and casual chat with the very likeable musician/comedy writer/Michael Stipe impersonator (yes, I had a bit of a live impersonation but that’s the interviewer’s privilege) about the creation of ‘Totally Gay,’ the work on the series and how he found an amazing Freddie impersonator. He also gave us a few information on season 2 that will drop on October 5, 2018.
Score It Magazine: First of all congrats on your Emmy nomination for ‘Totally Gay’! (Editor’s note: the interview was conducted at the end of August.)
Mark Rivers: Thank you! It’s pretty weird, huh? The song has its edgy qualities I guess. It’s dirty for sure.
What was your initial reaction when Nick Kroll came to find you and said ‘Oh we’re doing a Netflix animated series and we’re going to talk about all the gross teenage stuff adults wish to forget’?
He didn’t really described it like that. The frankness of the language was revealed to me as I read the first script. When I went to the first table read, I was like “OK, wow!” They were using some terms I am not sure I had heard on TV, but I didn’t think it was so shocking. Oh, we do have shows like South Park. There are other shows that sort of go on that territory. I mean not so specifically as teenage puberty but I don’t think it was so unique to use that sort of language. But I got excited when I realised that this is a show that talks about puberty this way, so I thought it was a great idea with a great concept.
Is Nick Kroll a long-time collaborator of yours?
Not as old as some others but I did work with him for his previous Comedy Central show, Kroll Show. I worked briefly as a writer on it but I was also doing music. I sort of had a foot in both. Then ultimately, I was just writing songs for the show. And he brought me on board for Big Mouth.
You have done many genres with the songs in Big Mouth, from jazz to pop to even more precise references – the Queen-inspired song ‘Totally Gay’ and the R.E.M./’Everybody Hurts’ spoof. Which, of all the songs we hear in Big Mouth, was the hardest to achieve?
Let’s see… Well, I’ve done a few for the upcoming second season that are very ambitious… It wasn’t so difficult to write it but the production gets very big and you’ve got all the characters and we need to provide their vocals. Everybody is recording on different days and I’m trying to get it all together, make it all work in the songs. The actors are not singing together necessarily. Not from a writing standpoint but from a logistical one, those can be challenging. When I hear “OK, it’s going to be a big cast number” I’m like “OK, here goes!” Multiple recording sessions are longer processes but those are ultimately really fun!
Brendan McCreary does an amazing performance as Freddie Mercury. How did you meet him?
When they said that they wanted to do a Queen song sung by the ghost of Freddie Mercury, I though “Oh dear, how am I gonna pull this off? First I have to write a Queen song and produce it as such, that’s a challenge. And how am I gonna get a guy who sings like Freddie? Because if I don’t it’s going to sound stupid (he laughs).” Luckily, a few years ago, a friend of mine, Brendon Small, had put on a live show that was a tribute to Queen, here in Los Angeles, at the Roxy Theatre. He did a show called Metalocalypse and he’s a very good guitar player and comedy writer. He’s also a huge Queen fan and he put together this band and decided to do a one night only. The singer of the band was Brendan McCreary and he wasn’t really doing a Freddie Mercury impersonation that night. He was just singing as himself which is sort of in the ballpark of Freddie Mercury but not a convincing Freddie impersonation. So I thought that maybe he could do it. He had the range. So I called him and I was put in touch by our mutual friend. His first words were “I’ve never really tried to do a specific Freddie impersonation but I’ll take a stab at it.” And he nailed it. We were floored. The funny thing is, Brendan and I never met until just a few days ago.
Really? How come?
I recorded my version, with all the elements in place, with me doing the lead vocals, as a temp track. He has a studio across town. I said “Listen to it, we’ll get together and record it.” The next thing I knew he was sending me files! It was great, well recorded, it was practically usable. I put them in the track and there was no need to get together. We would email, text, talk over the phone. But we hadn’t met until we did an interview for a radio the other day and we finally got to shake hands! Queen never had it so easy!
I’d like to come back on ‘Everybody Bleeds.’
This was the first song I wrote for the show. I went in to meet the show runners, of course I knew Nick, but I did not know the other three creators (Jennifer Flackett, Mark Levin and Andrew Goldberg). We were talking about the songs and they had a book that they gave me, a book with more medical terms that I was familiar with. It explained what menstruating is and the entire process in very medical terms. My first reaction was “I know what this is!” And when I got into it I was like “Oh I didn’t know that!” (He laughs) It was probably a good things that they gave me the book, my writing was more accurate. The “shedding of the uterine lining” isn’t a line I would have come up with on my own! And it’s sung by a Michael Stipe tampon!
The best part of the episode. I was crying.
And I did the voice! It’s one of the vocal impersonation that I can do. I’m from Georgia as well, just like R.E.M., maybe that’s it! There’s Georgia in our common tones.
You haven’t heard from him?
No, I have never crossed paths with these guys.
I can imagine you worked closely with the writers while writing and composing the songs.
Well, it’s funny I don’t work closely with the writers. I work surprisingly in a bit of a vacuum. I used to go in and meet with the creators. We’d just talk through and go over what the song is about, they are as specific as they can be without them dictating the lyrics or the melody to me. They let me run with the lyrics and write all the lyrics myself, which I’ve always preferred. I come from a comedy writing background as well as music. I enjoy it and I think I do a pretty good job with it. But I feel like when you’re allowed to come up with the lyrics yourself, it makes a better song, it makes things more musical. So nowadays, they’ll just call, and we’ll do a conference call, they’ll talk me through what the song is about. Maybe they’ll get me a title, a context, a script, or they’ll tell me the genre, the field of the song… And then, I’m often running, shuffling around my backyard or walk my dog and I think about the lyrics. When it all comes together, I record a demo and send it off to them. Anxiously, I wait for their feedback.
Do they usually enjoy what you send off the first time or do they ask you to change a lot of things?
Mercifully, I’m pretty close on the first path. Only a couple of times has it been a complete rewrite. If the writers are too early in their writing process, their script will change and the needs for the songs will change. But usually, what I give them is pretty close. They can ask me to change a line or come up with something funnier here and there.
In addition to your work as a composer, you are also a prolific comedy writer. Can you tell us a bit more about it? When did you start writing comedy? How do you manage to combine both activities?
I didn’t move to Los Angeles with the idea of becoming a comedy writer. I fell into it. I have been playing music my whole life, I studied music in school, I played in bands. That was my first career into my thirties. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1997, I thought, well, I’ve done some TV work, I wrote the theme songs for HBO’s sketch comedy show called Mr. Show with Bob and David. I came out there and I got a few music gigs here and there, but a friend invited me to pitch some ideas for a comedy show and they hired me. It was a surprise. Many of my friends were comedians, I hung out with comedians in Boston, where I lived before. My band always worked and played with comedians. So I had one toe in the comedy world, it wasn’t completely out of the blue. I fell into this career as a comedy writer. And I kept pursuing it. Over the past 20 years I’ve sort of gone back and forth between doing the two pretty separately. I’ve almost never been on shows I’ve composed music for. Somehow, the two didn’t really fall together until I started working with Nick Kroll. I’ve worked on a show called Moral Orel, which is a Cartoon Network/Adult Swim show. I wrote a bunch of those episodes. I also did music for that show. That may actually be the first time the two really came together. It’s my favorite thing to do. There are frustrations I have as a comedy writer and there are rewards in that world that you don’t have when writing music and vice versa. Writing comedy music is sort of the perfect combination for me. I would love to keep doing this.
Do you have any revelations about Big Mouth‘s second season or will we have to wait until it’s on Netflix?
There are some songs I’m particularly proud of! There is a Maya Rudolf song called ‘I love My Body’ about women loving all their imperfections and eccentricities: from bony knees, to thunder thighs, to areolas that come in all sizes… It’s lines like that, a litany of all the different aspects of a woman’s body. It’s a strange thing to be writing about as a man but the song was ran by the women in the writers’ room. I made sure to write it with women looking over my shoulder. There’s also a song sung by this new character, the Shame Wizard, voiced by David Thewlis. He sings a song by the end of season 2 that justifies his existence, as he lives in the same realm of the Hormone Monster.
You are the mastermind behind Andy Dwyer and Mouse Rat’s hit songs ‘Lil Sebastian’ and ‘Five Thousand Candles in the Wind’ among others. Can you tell us more about your experience on Parks and Rec and Chris Pratt?
Writing the songs from Andy’s dim-witted point of view was really funny. He always gets things just wrong enough! Chris Pratt always sang the songs himself. This guy has zero ego, he’s very easy and enjoyable to work with. He was always apologetic like “I don’t want to screw up your song!” He was also very funny of course. I miss Mouse Rat and writing those songs. It always really fun when they would call me and tell me they had an upcoming Mouse Rat episode. I was the drummer of Mouse Rat! You can see me in the background, hidden behind the guitar player. You have to really be looking for me, which of course, me and my wife and kids always do! (He laughs.) Here I am! You might see me in the long shots. They finally gave me a line in a song in an episode!
The second season of Big Mouth will be available on Netflix on October 5, 2018.
Interview prepared and edited by Marine Wong Kwok Chuen and Valentin Maniglia.
Conducted by Marine Wong Kwok Chuen.