Before Jeff Richmond composed for hit television sitcoms like 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, he worked at The Second City in Chicago. The Second City has seen some of the most well-renowned comedians make their way through its doors. John Candy, Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, and Jason Sudeikis are just a few who have left their mark on the main stage.
Richmond, whose wife is frequent collaborator Tina Fey, wrote music for the comedy writers at the theater before moving on to Saturday Night Live, where he composed and wrote music for the show’s segments. He made the jump composing music for SNL to episodic television and has even stepped into the Broadway world writing music for the show Mean Girls. Richmond and Fey, acting as executive producers, are back at Peacock with the new streaming service’s hit show Girls5eva, which just got renewed for a second season.
The show is a quirky comedic hit from creator Meredith Scardino, showcasing the rise and stumbles of a Y2K pop girl group, Girls5eva. The girls (played by Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell, and Renée Elise Goldsberry), now in their 40s, suddenly find an opportunity to claw their way back into the limelight after their old song is sampled on a rap hit. Meredith Scardino’s intuitive sense of comedic timing coupled with Jeff Richmond’s musicality makes Girls5eva an irresistible blast with one of the most undeniably catchy soundtracks to date.
Awards Radar spoke to Jeff Richmond about getting into the Y2K pop scene and more.
Niki Cruz: What was your process of signing on to Girls5eva? Do you and Tina talk about projects over dinner at this point?
Jeff Richmond: Yeah, we talk about projects over dinner, over morning coffee, I’m trying to think of something more mundane because we talk about work a lot. One of the things you do is that you encourage the writers, and say, it’s time for you to write something and do a show. So Meredith [Scardino] had this idea and it seemed like a fruitful idea, and of course Tina and I were ready to jump in and help whenever we could and pull it under our shingle, and see if we could pull it off with Meredith who’s just a joy and a joke machine and so much fun to be around. On the other side of that we’re always talking about, how can we work less? Why are we working so much at this point? So, it’s a conversation about both things.
NC: I imagine it’s a dream to have artists like Titus Burgess (Kimmy Schmidt) Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Andrew Rannells sing your work as opposed to someone who maybe kind of sings.
JR: Yeah, there is no doubt that I’ve had such luck working with people who have incredible vocal talent. Even on 30 Rock, we had Jane Krakowski who’s an incredible Broadway actor and TV actor, so we were often digging into her canon of talents to pull out songs, and certainly on Kimmy Schmidt to have Titus there willing and playing a character who did want to sing, made me happy all the time. Then getting into this project, when we knew Sara was signed on we were elated to have another person in the room who wasn’t just an extremely talented performer but someone who’s very funny. Renee is powerful and can sing anything, Busy is a surprise, she can sing extremely well, and once again Paula Pell, my old pal, seeing those funny performances we can get out of Paula including her dance stuff, like the Excelsior kick. When Meredith was writing that kick in, we all thought, boy is it going to be funny to watch Paula to see what her kick is.
NC: Is it typical that you get to collaborate with so many departments, especially when music is at the center?
JR: Yeah, certainly whenever you’re working in episodic television you’re working with every department in some capacity, and it’s not just sound, it’s wardrobe, hair and make up, but with this particular show, because I’m also an executive producer on the show, it was working with every art and visual department because we wanted to make sure that we weren’t just making sure that these songs from the 90s sounded authentic but we wanted to be sure that when we were flashing back to those periods it looked correct and fun, and that the people who have been through those days recognized that time, so yeah all the departments are running full speed at all times.
NC: I came of age during the TRL and Making The Band era. I loved Nsync, Britney Spears, Spice Girls. You don’t seem like the obvious demo for this music. Were you a fan of 90s and Y2K music back when it was blowing up?
JR: It’s really true — when that was all happening and hitting, I was listening to it as a fan because I liked it, but I was also listening to it because I was at SNL and we were jumping into those groups. You need to be listening to everything, especially something that was current because we’re asked to try to emulate a particular artist or sound very quickly. You had to have a real vocabulary and be aware of everyone’s toolbox so you can get those sounds pretty quickly. You’re right, as someone who’s my age, it wasn’t my go-to track on my party playlist, that’s for sure. It’s also a reason why when we first started the production of the show, I wanted to make sure we had a big enough staff like an arranger, a mixer, so we could write songs right out of the gate. If you have weaknesses you have to know what they are and make sure you have all your bases covered. I think we did for this show.
NC: What were you listening to, to get you in that genre? Was it a lot of Max Martin? He was a superstar producer that produced so many hits in that genre during that time.
JR: I listened to TLC, Destiny’s Child, and Spice Girls. Those guys laid out the roadmap of what the songs are supposed to sound like, for everybody to write that kind of stuff. It was nothing quite as good as what they were doing but we tried to take that sound and make it our own so it was a little fresh as well.
NC: The soundtrack is filled with hits. How do you balance the quality of music with songs that are self-referential and funny?
JR: You have to start with the lyric, the words, and it’s something that Meredith is very gifted at. Not just in her comedic mind but in her writer-y brain, knowing that she could skew what was considered girl power stuff at that time, and getting that a lot of it was inappropriate and misogynistic. She’s very good at doing that and still making it funny. All you can do is make it sound as real and as legit as you possibly can so that people accept it as a truthful song but the words are just so hilarious. In television, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to do full-length songs because there’s not enough real estate so in the first script we just have a verse and a chorus, and then we expanded. At some point, we realized we could use the end credits to write full-length songs.
NC: It’s such a specific skillset. It reminds me of what The Lonely Island did for SNL.
JR: My favorites! They were people you could look to who were really astute and funny so their words and ideas and the hooks of their songs were so strong but each one of them had their own musical background. They had enough studio time that they were able to make them sound really good, really funny, really legit, and doing it really fast. I remember working with them at SNL and they would have an idea and crunch it out in their little office.
NC: My favorite line from Girls5eva is Dream Girlfriends, “All we have is a cool uncle who let us use his boat.” I crack up every single time. Do you have a favorite lyric?
JR: Hands down my favorite lyric, too! It’s so funny! Meredith is so funny. I know Tina helped with some of those lyrics and both of them together just crystalize a joke into a lyric which is very hard to do. Some people overdraft it and try to get every line rhyme perfectly, and I think sometimes the joke crumbles under the weight of all the musicality that you’re trying to give it, but in Meredith’s case, she knows what funny words tend to be — even the word boat is funny as the last word of the line.
NC: Who surprised you the most in terms of their singing abilities?
JR: What if I just say Sara isn’t as good as they say? That’s of course a joke! Sara is amazing. I was surprised at how quickly Busy picked up and came into her own as a singer throughout the process. She knew she was coming in with Sara and Renee, and Paula, who everyone knew had a decent voice, but Busy came in and said, “I have to sing with these guys in the booth?” But she really found her own along the way and that was an enjoyable process.
NC: When I spoke with James, the choreographer, she said Busy, too.
JR: Busy! And we worked with Busy before on another project and I wouldn’t say she’s an underrated actor because people know she can act but she’s really good. There’s a scene with Busy and Andrew Rannells, and it’s when she confronts him about a divorce, and I remember watching that scene and remember scoring it, and not wanting to put too much music under it because the acting was so good it didn’t need it. We assume that Summer is just stupid but she’s making these turns where we realize she’s not. She’s smarter than you think and has more emotional depth, and that’s because Busy is a really good actress.
NC: What does season 2 sound like for you musically?
JR: I’m gonna assume that we’re going to still go back in time and hear some of their old hits. We’ll also probably continue with them writing with the new voice, songs that sound like Dawn (Sara Bareilles) has written them. The fun thing with that is, I don’t think we’ve seen the character Dawn and all of her talent. When we think about the arc of the season, Dawn does come up with a song and that’s great but there’s still room for her to find new things to write about and to become a better writer and musician. I’m talking about this as if it’s not Sara, because she’s at the top of her game, but we’ll be looking to see that Dawn can write some songs that aren’t comical. I bet we start hearing from Boyz Next Door and Andrew Rannells stuff.
NC: Thank you so much for the chat. I could talk about this show forever.
JR: 5eva! [Laughs]
NC: I was going to go there but I think that would’ve been too much!
JR: I’m so glad you didn’t and so I felt like I had to.
Girls5eva is currently streaming on Peacock
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]