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Outside of talent competitions like Fox’s “American Idol” and ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” it’s hard to find much music on network television these days. Fox’s “Family Guy” is the rare exception. Its anarchic story lines send it veering wildly from Broadway-style production numbers to movie and TV parodies scored in the style of their original composers. The men behind the musical mayhem are Walter Murphy and Ron Jones, who not only compose and conduct the eclectic underscore, but also the musical backing for politically incorrect ditties such as “Prom Night Dumpster Baby” and “You’ve Got AIDS.”
“On a typical TV show, once they’ve established it, the music stays within an assembly-line concept,” Jones observes. “With ours, anything can happen. One minute they will be saying, ‘We need this thing to sound like Oingo Boingo,’ then the next thing is a Broadway thing or a Hollywood musical style from the ’30s. We tend to have 10 to 20 styles that we cover within the 40 to 50 cues we do within a (recording) session. And we read it down once and record it, so it’s not like we’re sitting in rehearsal. (The musicians) just have to nail it. It’s demanding to write it and frightening, but it’s also so rewarding when we pull it off.”
As Jones explains it, the music on “Family Guy” essentially plays the straight man to the wacky dialogue and visuals.
“We need to support the premise that this is a real all-American neighborhood, so if we tip our hand, then we’ve taken the potency out of the joke,” Jones says. “The characters are in crazy situations that the writers have created, like Peter is a ballerina, but if I play the music for the ballet trying to show how stupid it is, it doesn’t work. I have to play it like it’s the Bolshoi Ballet and correct musically. Obviously, everyone gets the joke of the characters trying to do a good job within that, but everything is extremely serious musically.”
Jones and Murphy have varied backgrounds that make them well suited to the show’s wild musical demands. Jones credits include everything from animated series like “DuckTales” and “Superman” to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” while Murphy earned disco immortality with the No. 1 pop hit “A Fifth of Beethoven” in 1976 before segueing into TV scoring with gigs on such shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Profit” and Warner Bros. cartoons like “Daffy Contractor” and “Badda Bugs.”
The show’s other key musical talent is creator Seth MacFarlane, who provides both the singing and speaking voices for father Peter Griffin, power-mad baby genius Stewie and alcoholic dog Brian, among other characters.
“He’s really a Renaissance guy,” Murphy says of MacFarlane. “He’s a wonderful singer and songwriter, a really good pianist, and then he has all this artistic ability. I mean, he’s created the characters, he’s drawn them, he’s done the voices, he can sing, in character, pretty much anything that Ron and I write. So it’s a dream situation for a composer to be involved with.”
Murphy recalls a late-night recording session for the 2005 spinoff album “Family Guy: Live in Vegas.” Murphy was ready to wrap up the evening’s work, but MacFarlane wanted to quickly record one last rough vocal.
“It was kind of a back-and-forth, question-and-answer kind of song, where one character had one line and the other character would answer,” Murphy recalls. “He sang every part in character and did it one take, keeping each character completely separate and didn’t make a mistake. I don’t know if that was the final vocal that ended up on the album, but my engineer friend and I just looked each other and said, ‘Oh, my God!'”
The musical workload on the series can inspire similar expressions of awe and wonderment. On any given episode, there can be from zero to half a dozen songs, in addition to the underscore. Typically, MacFarlane and the show’s other writers pen the lyrics, then hand them off to either Murphy or Jones (who alternate episodes) to come up with the music on their own.
“I just get the script with the lyrics and then I write the song and present it to them in a rough recorded version,” Jones says. “And they might say, ‘This should be up a little higher for Stewie’s vocal range’ or whatever — just kind of mechanical things. Once that’s done, the cast records it. Then a year later, we take those basic tracks off and leave the vocals and reorchestrate it.”
Although coming up with music to match the writers’ wild flights of fancy is exhilarating for Jones and Murphy, the pressure can be intense.
Says Jones: “It’s sort of like if Picasso was a normal painter and some guy had an Uzi pointed at him and said, ‘Just do crazy shit, or I’ll blow your head off.'”
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