How does one of the funniest shows on TV come up with its musical numbers? Creator Loren Bouchard and writer Nora Smith walk us through the process for this week's "Happy Crappy."
Photos courtesy of FOX/Bob's Burgers
Bob’s Burgers is one of the most beloved TV shows on air right now. The FOX series centers on the Belcher family—Bob (Jon Benjamin), his wife Linda (John Roberts), and their three children Gene (Eugene Mirman), Tina (Dan Mintz), and Louise (Kristen Schaal)—and their perpetually struggling burger restaurant. Its sweet, filthy, butt-obsessed comedy, deep sense of compassion, and one of TV’s all-time great teen girl characters have all contributed to the show’s cult following. But one of the things that makes Bob’s Burgers really special is its music, which has grown from short little original songs by obsessive performer Gene in the first season to moments as ambitious as a full-blown 80s mashup musical in “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl.”
In last night’s episode, “Late Afternoon in the Garden of Bob and Louise,” Bob gives Louise’s nemesis Logan a job at the restaurant in exchange for a plot at the local community garden (run by Logan’s mother, Cynthia). The middle of the episode finds Bob ecstatic at his freedom to grow vegetables for his burgers, while Linda and Louise are alternately frustrated by Logan and Cynthia. The three burst into song, with Bob valorizing the garden and Linda and Louise bemoaning the state of the restaurant. Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard and writer Nora Smith sat down with Noisey to break down how a Bob's Burgers musical number comes together and, specifically, to explain the writing process for “The Happy Crappy Song.”
Step One: Make Room for a Song
The Bob’s Burgers songwriting process varies based on where the track is supposed to end up—as Bouchard puts it, “there are a couple of models that have organically evolved.” For example, Bouchard and Smith will often write a song to fill out the ending credits, for what Bouchard calls the “Bollywood Effect”: “If you leave ‘em dancing, if you have a little snappy number at the end of the episode, it has a powerful, almost effect. It tricks you into liking the show more than you might have otherwise.” That slot has been the home for songs that tend to be a bit more focused and often evolve from dialogue, like Linda’s diarrhea song or the “Waits-ian” “Gene’s Snake Song.”
Some episodes are written with an eye toward big musical numbers: In particular, season three’s “Topsy” produced the immortal “Electric Love,” which Bouchard describes as himself and Smith writing a one-song musical. Others are excuses to collaborate with specific people, like writers Lizzy and Wendy Molyneux using their friend Megan Mullally as the “Tori Amos type” for the food truck festival episode.
But in this case, “Late Afternoon in the Garden of Bob and Louise” was written, the animation had been returned, and the script was going through a last rewrite when the writers decided to include a song “to kind of tell you where the characters are at and kind of lift up the middle of the episode.” The closest analogue to this process was “This Is Working,” Bob and Linda’s duet from season three’s “Lindapendent Woman.”
Step Two: Brilliance Strikes
Several members of the Bob’s Burgers crew can get the ball rolling on a song. Besides Bouchard, there are composers in Los Angeles and New York—John Keith and a duo called The Elegant Too, respectively. Members of the cast even occasionally improvise music—particularly John Roberts, who “freestyles” songs in-character as Linda, with results like the Thanksgiving song that was later covered by The National. Kristen Schaal came up with the quick, but much-beloved musical-existential PSA “Buckle It Up (Or You’ll Die).”
Usually when Bouchard and Smith collaborate, “one of us might have an idea and we would work on it together and share the load lyrically and melodically,” Bouchard explains. But Smith, along with Jon Schroeder (the credited writer of the episode), pinpointed where the song needed to go in the episode. Bouchard left the office, and “by the time I got home there was an email from [Nora] in which [she] sang the song, completely conceived,” something Bouchard describes as “miraculous.”
Nora's Original Recording:
Smith, who claims to know nothing about music composition, “was just kind of making up stuff while I was on the way home and then recorded it.” Most of the off-the-cuff songwriting on Bob’s Burgers—Smith’s in particular—comes from just puzzling through, as she puts it, a loosely “musical-y” approach to the material. The bones of the song are there, but it needs work.
Step Three: Flesh It Out
The writing of “The Happy Crappy Song” was unusual because the melody emerged fully formed from Smith’s car. Bouchard's role, then, “was just to figure out what the chords were underneath her because she didn’t write that down in musical notation or whatever.” This was less work than music usually takes on the show—for this season’s epic “Work Hard Or Die Trying, Girl,” Bouchard and Smith spent a night writing snippets of 12 different songs in an effort to get everything ready for the animatic stage, which is sort of the animation version of a completed rough draft.
Step Four: Record a Temp Version
In order to have “Happy Crappy” ready for the animatic, Bouchard and Smith recorded a temporary version of the song so that the storyboard artists could figure out what Bob, Louise, and Linda would look like singing it.
This version, Bouchard says, is “just piano and voice” and, Smith adds, “a little bit of pitch correction.” This recording has some correction, done by Wilo Productions’ Tim Dacey. “When we do it for a temp song, we like to say we’re doing it to help the actors hear the real melody,” Bouchard says. “But of course we have feelings too.”
This stage is the most important part of the process for the visual look of the show. “We have a responsibility to get something down for the artists to work to,” Bouchard says, and it’s enormously helpful for the artists to have actually heard each version of the song as it progresses. After all, “Whenever possible, you kind of want the rhythm and the basic structure of the track to be in place” so that the artists can create visuals that most effectively conform to the audio.
Step Five: Get the Actors in the Booth
The cast finally get in to sing their lines. Musical bits are usually recorded at the end of sessions with the actors—“It’s always nice to kind of sing your way out,” Bouchard says. Usually, this is done individually, although certain “chant-like” songs,like “Buckle It Up (Or You’ll Die,” have been recorded with most of the cast in the room.
Bouchard and Smith’s recording might have been meant to get the actors on track with the melody, but that doesn’t mean that the final version is an exact replication of their cut: “The cast, whether they’re singing or just saying their lines, they’re a little bit like wild ponies that are going to go where they want to go, and your job is to kind of let them have their head a little bit,” Bouchard explains. “So I don’t know if these notes are what we expected or just what we got.”
That chaos is okay, though, because Dacey can stitch the best parts of each take together, down to single syllables and inflections, before adding more pitch correction. The great thing about the cast, Bouchard says, “is that they are not self-conscious about missing notes at all. Their job is to just sing with gusto, and they don’t really have to hit the note. In this day and age the computer can fix a note, and they are happy to let us do that.” In fact, Dacey says, “If I remember correctly, I created the harmony at the end of this song by tuning one person to a note that they didn't sing at all, just to give it some flavor.” This produces the first version of the cast recording.
“So now we’ve got Bob and Linda and Louise singing together,” Bouchard says. “Three-part harmony!”
Step Six: Add Instrumentation
Continuing the trend of Bouchard being hands-on with “Happy Crappy,” he saved the additional instrumentation for himself, adding to the original piano track, which he describes as “just bang, bang, bang, bang, very simple.” This step also often serves as a justification for buying more instruments. Practically Bouchard’s entire array of musical equipment has been purchased for songs on the show, including a vibraphone originally acquired for a running gag with Mort the Mortician that was deleted from “Weekend At Mort’s” and “Hamburger Dinner Theater.”
The final piece of the puzzle for “The Happy Crappy Song”? Bouchard son’s drum set. Recording at home, Bouchard had to contend with his four-year-old son, who “thinks that he owns the microphone.” After a brief argument, the backbeat was ready to record. There are probably some sounds from his family in another room, but Bouchard doesn’t seem to mind. “There’s an acceptable amount of background noise that’s subliminally on Bob’s Burgers.” With that in mind, “the finished track sounds a little something like this.”
Step Seven: Review And Tweak
Finally, the crew listens to the entire episode on “big, fancy speakers” to review how it sounds—the music in particular. There’s a separate version of the song that gets a little extra percussion to run over the ending credits. Occasionally, the crew will add vocals at this stage. This happened with this season’s “Speakeasy Rider,” where, at the last second, they nailed down “Racing With The Road.” Bouchard has some regrets: “I have to say, I wish I had just one more day with that one. It came out only okay. But considering we sang it in my office an hour before we had to mix it and deliver the show, I guess it was okay.”
Before “Late Afternoon in the Garden of Bob and Louise” actually airs, the track just needs minor adjustments, particularly to the bass. But once that’s all finished, the episode is ready to go. And that’s the story of “The Happy Crappy Song.”
Step Eight: The Track Takes on a Life of Its Own
“The Happy Crappy Song” fits extremely well into the overall narrative of “Late Afternoon in the Garden of Bob and Louise.” It comes at a point in the episode where Bob, Linda, and Louise’s motivations, are clear, and the song both expresses their desires while letting viewers “kind of take a break from their tone,” according to Bouchard. “It sort of lightens up what could otherwise be a grumble-y sort of episode.” As the show has settled into its fifth season, it’s been able to “stretch out” with songs like “Nice Things Are Nice,” which brings in a whole host of other characters besides the Belchers.
Though it might not be “The Happy Crappy Song,” Bouchard hopes that some song from the show will be used by other musicians. In additional to The National covers of several tracks, the team has collaborated with St. Vincent, and a French duo recently asked Bouchard for permission to sample “Oil Spill,” which he enthusiastically gave. “I keep having a fantasy that I’ll hear a Bob’s Burgers sample in a hip-hop track. I would love that, if people just freely sampled it.”
Is there anyone he’d like to cover any Bob’s Burgers songs? I throw out James Murphy as a possibility for “Lifting up the Skirt of the Night,” which Bouchard enthusiastically endorses, so long as Yo-Yo Ma joins in. “I’m asking him. Please, cover 'Lifting up the Skirt of the Night.'”
Bob's Burgers airs Sundays on FOX at 9:30 PM.
Eric Thurm is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter.