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Interview: Talking ‘Family Guy’ With Composer Walter Murphy

Composer Walter Murphy’s career has spanned more than five decades, from 70s era classical–disco fusions like “A Fifth of Beethoven” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” to providing music for shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Wiseguy, The Commish, Profit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Looney Tunes. 

He has had a long-running partnership with Seth MacFarlane, composing music for his films and TV shows such as Family Guy, The Cleveland Show, American Dad!, Ted, and Ted 2. We talked with Walter about his work on Family Guy, his writing process and working with MacFarlane.

First of all, graduations on all the success of Family Guy. 

Thank you. It’s definitely my dream gig because I like to write so in many different kinds of styles of music. Over the course of 21 years, we’ve definitely gone from soup to nuts.

You don’t often get to write like something like The A-Team theme nowadays. You’re doing everything from Mike Post to Tommy Dorsey. 

I have a short attention span, so it’s perfect.

I’m curious about your process, because, between writing and scoring with the live orchestra, you actually create a demo, which, from what I’ve heard, is pretty good in itself. Can you talk about the process a little bit?

Sure. First, it makes it easier for the producers to hear exactly what the score is going to sound like. I have an assistant take my demos, and lay them back against the QuickTime video, and they make comments or let me know if they want me to move something or start a little sooner or make it whatever. I can make these changes before we go to the studio with the orchestra, which saves time and ultimately saves money, rather than me dictating changes to the orchestra while they’re sitting there drinking coffee out of those paper cups. That way we only hire as many people as we need, and it keeps the budget moving along the process.

How long does the demo process take? 

Well, the producers have always been very kind to me. I get at least a week or 10 days to turn a show around, and it usually takes all of that time to turn the show around. But I’m not a last-minute kind of guy, I figure out how many minutes I have to write. And that’s what I do every day so I can go to sleep at night and not worry that it will be finished. I have a big orchestra pallet of samples, and I basically play all the parts, then I print out the notation window from my digital performer, and then I mark it up and I give it to my assistant who puts it in the Finale program.

If Fox came to you at some point and said, ‘You know, we have to cut the budget, and the first thing to go is the full orchestra,’ could you pull off the scoring by yourself? 

Yes, but it wouldn’t quite sound the same. Of course, we have the technology to be able to do that, but actually, the real challenging thing was more than a year ago when COVID hit, and we couldn’t do a full orchestra, I had to quickly figure out how to do this with remote players. So, I’d write it out and send it to a trumpet player, who would play three parts, send me the audio files and I’d combine them, and the trombone player played four parts send me the audio files, and I’d combine them. It was tough.

I spoke with Michael Giacchino last year to talk about his new album, and he talked about recording piecemeal. He said he doesn’t think he’ll go back to a live orchestra anymore. He said the process gave him more freedom because every musician would give him like four or five different takes to choose from. 

And you get ultimate control, right? You can mix it later if you want to change something. You can manipulate anything you want.

There are not too many animated shows that are using full orchestras anymore. 

I know. The Simpsons stopped using an orchestra. They do it electronically with some live players, but they don’t have a whole orchestra. Seth’s shows are the only ones left.

You and Seth hit it off immediately. Family Guy is known to offend equally across the board. Did you know the type of humor that Seth was going for when you guys first start talking about the show? 

Oh no. When I met him, he asked me if I could write a tune to his lyrics. I said, ‘Well, I’ll take a shot at it. So, he gave me the lyrics to the Family Guy theme. He described the show’s opening in complete detail before one frame was animated; the husband and wife sit at the piano like Archie and Edith Bunker, and then the characters come in one by one and join in and then the back wall flies up and they’re on the stage with tails, like on the Broadway. So, I wrote a Broadway version of it, and he liked it, but he asked if I could it swing? I took it back home, and I did another arrangement, and he loved it.

You never re-recorded that, correct? 

No, we didn’t. That was tough because Fox hadn’t drafted up a budget for the show’s music. So we did it with one trumpet player playing multiple parts, and the trombone player and a sax player, and I played everything else, and we got some background singers to come and sing. And I gave Seth and then he recorded the voice actors and himself. After the show got rolling, and we started working with a whole orchestra, I said, ‘You know, for season two, let’s record the main title again. Seth said no and that it is perfect the way it is.

It’s been performed with a full orchestra since then, though.

Yes, but it was never re-recorded for the show. We did it with a full orchestra for the “Family Guy Live in Vegas album” and we’ve played it at live gigs from time to time, but not for the opening of the show.

I have to ask you about the song “Down Syndrome Girl.” Given its context, were you surprised that it got nominated for an Emmy?

I was very surprised, but actually, the song has nothing really do with that subject. It’s Stewie chastising Chris for being kind of a jerk. I think it you know, rankled some people. But it’s very catchy and Seth sets performed the heck out of that song. It gets faster and faster and faster as it goes and he did in one take.

I tried to hear if he catches his breath at any point, but it doesn’t sound like he does.

I don’t think so. It’s an amazing performance.

Like you said earlier, there are several genres and styles of music in the show, and your background is pretty varied as well. Do you find yourself navigating towards any particular genre of music? 

No. Well, I mean, for myself I do, but not for the show. I think that’s what’s fun. It’s always challenging, interesting. Sometimes there are things that I have to research to figure out how to do, so that’s wonderful. We’ve had so many different kinds of things that we’ve done. We did Romeo and Juliet with a traditional lush Tchaikovsky kind of score. Last season, there was an episode called “High School English,” where each act was the Family Guy take on some book that you probably read in high school like The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Of Mice and Men. So, I did three completely different stylistic approaches; Gatsby was 20s-inspired music and Of Mice and Men was sort of Americana, Aaron Copland-esque. The same year we did the Terminator, which was completely electronic. 

When you’re writing, do work things out on a piano?  

Yeah, I have a piano, and I do use electronics to sketch things out. But I’m pretty much old school. I’ve been trained to write on paper. It’s kind of a visual thing, too. When I spot a particular scene, I figure where the accents are and where the hit points have to be, and I can figure out a tempo and then mark it on manuscript paper.

Was it your decision to put A Fifth of Beethoven in the show? 

(laughing) No, they surprised me with that. I went to spot the show with the producers, and I said, ‘Oh my god.’ No, they didn’t tell me that.

That’s pretty funny. Your version of “Rhapsody in Blue” has gotten a bit of a second wind thanks to HBO’s Watchmen

Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Yeah, it’s in one of the episodes. There’s an episode where Dr. Manhattan who is blue, is in a bar and you can hear it playing in the background. So, people are starting to talk about it again. 

Boy, well, you know, if you hang around long enough.

What can you tell us about next season? I understand it’s been greenlit already. 

Yes. In fact, we get to start scoring in August. But with animation, we’re always working on something.

Jeff Heller

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Written by Jeff Heller

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