Interview: Composer Jonathan Wolff (Pt. 1)
This interview is a perfect example of why I love this newsletter: because there’s no other outlet where I could watch a show, satisfy my curiosity about the creative team behind the music on the show, reach out to a member of that creative team, and then do an interview with that individual the very next day.
Also, talk about an interview that serves as a perfect encapsulation of the newsletter’s mindset: I wanted to talk to Jonathan Wolff because he did the music for Square Pegs, and he’s, like, “Absolutely, just as long as you don’t mind talking about my soundtrack for Seinfeld that’s finally gotten a release.”
That’s right: this is a guy who wrote the themes for Seinfeld and 40+ other TV series, and I want to talk to him about working on Square Pegs!
So did we talk about Seinfeld, too? Well, obviously. He also offered up a hilarious story about having to tell Larry David that he wasn’t going to be doing the music for Curb Your Enthusiasm. In addition, we had a relatively in-depth conversation about the work he did on the movie-industry sitcom Action, and he also discussed his profound pride in an opening theme that he penned for Double Rush, a short-lived CBS bike-messenger-themed sitcom created by Diane English.
First, though, it’s Square Pegs all the way…and, okay, maybe a little bit about the oft-forgotten Dreams, too.
It's crazy that I was re-binging Square Pegs yesterday, got inspired to check IMDb to see who did the music for the series, found your name, and then within 24 hours here we are doing an interview.
Here we are!
I know you've got this Seinfeld soundtrack out, but it seems wrong to start anywhere other than with what led us here, so let me ask you how you found your way onto Square Pegs. Because that was really early in your career, wasn't it?
It was! Now, first of all, just to clarify, because I knew that this was going to come up, I checked on IMDb just to remind myself for nostalgia's sake who the other department heads were that I worked with...and the IMDb entry for Square Pegs is a disaster.
I am shocked - shocked and stunned - to hear that something on IMDb is inaccurate.
I mean, it's worse than I've ever, ever seen. There are, what, eight composers listed for this show? And it says for me that I did one episode? Man, it is messed...up! So just to clarify, I was the credited composer on all 20 episodes. And except for the guy listed named John E. Oliver, nobody else was. Wait, no, I'm sorry, I take that back: I did not write the theme, and I did not write the end credits. That was a Tom Scott thing, because Anne Beatts was friends with Tom Scott and Paul Shaffer and those guys. But as far as the episodic, it was me and John E. Oliver, who was my business partner on some projects. He was an old-school Hollywood guy, one of the old-crony boys of Hollywood, so he had a lot of connections in old-school Hollywood. So I had a deal with him that anytime he could get me onto a show, he would do the business, he would do the contracting, and I would create the music, I would keep the fee, but we would split the credits and the royalties. And it was a pretty good deal for both of us.
Now, to your question. For the first 10 years that I was in L.A., I did chores. I had not yet earned the title "full-time composer." So the studios were happy to treat me like a Swiss Army multipurpose utility tool for their musical chores, and I was happy to take their calls. [Laughs.] I did whatever smelled like music, and I was a utility guy on lots of different types of jobs. Square Pegs... The show runner was Anne Beatts. Anne...was fearless. Her comedy was unfiltered, she had a style, she had a very clear comedic voice in writing, she was naturally funny... All those things are true. But not everyone is able to make the leap successfully from being a brilliant writer to being a showrunner. And she was one who failed at that.
Square Pegs was constantly in chaos pretty much due to Anne and her buddies, who did not know how to run a show and refused to get along with the suits. [Laughs.] She was so counter-establishment that she would openly mock the network people and the studio people and would ignore them. And for those of us who were accustomed to being ruled by budgets and schedules and airdates, it kind of exploded our little heads, because she refused to conform to those kinds of restraints...and the story I'm about to tell you has to do with that.
I am listening with rapt anticipation.
So she had all these buddies from her Saturday Night Live days, and these are amazingly talented people. Well, this is a story about her relationship with Paul Shaffer, for whom I only have respect, and this story I'm about to tell you... None of it is Paul Shaffer's fault. None of it. He was oblivious and unaware that any of this stuff was happening. This was all Anne and her chaos and her [being] drunk with power...and drunk with booze.
She informed everybody that Paul Shaffer was creating the music for the show, including the first episode after the pickup, which was "A Cafeteria Line." A musical! [Laughs.] Great! And with Paul Shaffer? That's a get! That's wonderful if you can get Paul Shaffer to do that! And people knew that she had a relationship with him, so nobody really questioned it too much. Well, Paul was in New York, and my job in L.A. was to wait for him to send the compositions, the songs for the dance number and one that Sarah [Jessica Parker] is singing, and there were a couple of other numbers in Janis Hirsch's script. So my job was to receive the compositions, arrange them, orchestrate them if they needed to be, hire the musicians, book the studio, produce the music, deliver it to stage, music supervise the production of it, teach it to the actors, work with the choreographer... Everything but compose the music. And I was okay with that, because that fit squarely into my description as the utility guy, the chores guy. It was just another job for me.
So I'm waiting for this music, and I've got a bunch of other work. I worked a lot. And I was working on the same lot, so I would stop by every day and check in. "Anything from Paul Shaffer?" "Uh, no. We were hoping you had it." "Nope, I don't have it yet." I did that every day, and I went ahead and booked the session for the latest possible moment I could and still get all the music recorded and still get it to the stage on time for them to rehearse and learn. So I gave Paul as much time to create the music - he's a busy guy - and for me to do the music prep on it.
Well, at a certain point, we started to doubt that this was legit. And the more sober producer types, like Ron Frazier and director Kim Friedman, were getting nervous. They knew. They're, like, "This is the first episode that we're going to start back with after the pickup. We need the music before we rehearse and shoot it. We don't want to have to cancel production on our very first episode. That would just be humiliating, not to mention a real sign of bad faith between the show and the network!" So it came down the day before the session, and they had sent out search parties for Paul Shaffer.
Now Paul, he's a busy guy, he puts out a lot of product, and he takes vacations...and he was on one. I don't know what he was doing, but I know he was somewhere remote, and he was surprised to hear that he had this deadline. [Laughs.] This was all something between him and Anne, and clearly Anne got it wrong, because Paul is very much accustomed to deadlines. He lives in the real production world...and Anne did not. So when it came down to the day before the session, I just kind of put my hand up and said, "I haven't done my job because I did not get the raw materials to do my job. Sorry!" And I'm the room with all these angry people! And Anne's defensive. She says, "Oh, no, he'll come! He'll show up! Believe me, he will!"
The end of this story is that Kim Friedman, who's a pro... You can look her up: she's done a zillion directing jobs. It was the only time I ever saw her mad...and I worked with her on a number of shows. But she was really angry. Because it made her look bad, too! She wheeled and just blew up at Anne and said, "I'm so tired of this shit! Every department has this stuff going on, and it's all because of the chaos of you trying to run it with your buddies in altered states!" And she turns on me and says, "What about you? Are you a composer? Can you take over this?"
And you said, "Uh… Sure?"
Yeah! [Laughs.] I said, "I'll do my best. I mean, I should've had more time, because it's an actual musical, but... Sure, I'll do this." Now remember: this is before computers doing music. So this is in the afternoon, and I went back to my house and started writing, and they kept couriers going back and forth between my house and the Universal music department to write out all the parts and stuff, and by the end of the night I'd written the songs and had it done! And - I think at Anne's insistence - I used some of the words that were attributed to Paul Shaffer. So his name legit belongs on that episode as contributing some music. But that was the last he was ever associated with the show!
So I finished the job, I made it to the studio in time, recorded everything, showed it to the choreographer, who signed off on it, and taught the actors the songs...and everyone - even Anne - was happy with me! And she did not like the idea that we wouldn't just postpone for a week so Paul could do it. [Laughs.] But even she had to admit, "Yeah, this is all good. You did a great job."
So I'm in the aftermath, and I'm tired because I haven't slept, and I'm sitting there on the floor, my back again the wall of the stage, my feet out... And Ron Frazier, the line producer, wakes me up by kicking my feet and says, "Hey! Congratulations, kid: you're now the composer on Square Pegs." And that's how I got my first series of my own, one that every week at the end of the show listed me as the composer, even if IMDb does not. So that's a long answer to your short question! [Laughs.]
But a great one!
Well, look, I'm counting on you to make me sound lucid! [Laughs.]
You come across more lucid than you think you do. I promise.
And I should also say that it all worked out. Anne and I got along fine, and she liked to sentimentally say, "Hey, it's like the relationship I have with Paul. Now I have one with you, and we're gonna work together forever!" That never happened, by the way. [Laughs.] But the funnest part - and I think you saw me make this comment on your Instagram post - was writing those Johnny Slash songs. I think the band was called Open 24 Hours, because that was a sign in a window. And by the way, if you go back and watch those episodes where the band is performing, I'm the keyboardist.
Nice. There'll be a screenshot worthy of posting, I'm sure.
Actually, there might be a better screenshot in "A Cafeteria Line." [Laughs.] I'm, of course, the piano player accompanying Vinnie when he sang "New York, New York," and when Johnny Slash auditions to be on the stage crew, he taps me on the shoulder and takes the piano bench away. [Laughs.] So if you're looking for a screenshot, that one might be a good one, too! But they actually made me kind of a little character on the show, because I was really young, and I had braces, so I looked high school-ish. And I was down there a lot. It was my first show of my own, so I wanted to be really present and have a lot of facetime. There was a lot of music on the show, so I was down there a lot. I prioritized Square Pegs over my chores.
And that photo I sent you? Some of the kids - the actors - came from other places to be on Square Pegs.
Well, I know that Sarah Jessica Parker had a Broadway background, having done Annie.
Yeah! Although she's not from there, I don't think. She's from Chicago, maybe? But Amy [Linker], Jami [Gertz], none of them were from L.A., so they didn't have a lot of friends, they didn't have much of a life there, and they were stashed there at the Oakwood. And I was not that much older than they were, and I had a pool, so they used my house as the hang. [Laughs.] And Jami, who I believe was a little bit older than the other two girls... I think she was 17, and Sarah and Amy were 16, so she drove. She had a car.
Oh, yes, I knew that, because - and I'll send you the link - I interviewed Jami for the AV Club, and she talked about how, when Bill Murray guested on the show, he let her use his car.
Because I was from Chicago, he called me “Chicago.” And I had just gotten my driver’s license, so he threw me the keys to his car at lunch one time and said, “Let’s go!” And I got in the car, and we just started driving around. We went to In-and-Out Burger in Norwalk, California, and I think they started looking for us, because he had absconded with a minor! [Laughs.] But I was like, “Mr. Murray, I know how to drive!” So he threw me the keys to this, like, Mercedes convertible, and we were just driving around for an hour during lunch. We came back to, like, “Where the hell were you?” And he’s like, “She just learned how to drive!”
What a wonderful presence he was on the stage when he played the part of a substitute teacher. I loved that Bill Murray was on our set! But, yeah, the girls just decided to make my house their kind of weekend hang, and it was perfectly fine. And sometimes, as you saw in the photo, more of them came. The only ones who did not come and hang out at my house were the ones from L.A.: Tracy [Nelson] and Claudette [Wells], who was older than they were, and she'd been in L.A. for awhile. So they had a life. They didn't need to come over to my house on the weekends. So, anyway, that's how that photo happened.
When I saw how messed up IMDb was, I looked at the Wikipedia page, and it's all messed up, too...and I suspect I know who wrote it. But there was a flurry of journalism interest about Square Pegs concerning drugs on the set. There was a TV Guide cover that said, "Drugs on the Set of Square Pegs!" Because it was a hit show. It did really well for CBS. And I remember when that TV Guide came up, and I think just the three of them came over - Jami and Amy and Sarah - and they were so distraught. They were so upset. They were crying. "Who would ever want to work with us? They think we do drugs, because our picture's on the front!" And it was not them. They didn't even know... I mean, we talked about it. "What does it feel like to do drugs?" [Laughs.] Because they'd seen sketches on Saturday Night Live of people who were high or whatever. Those three were complete innocents...and kind of sheltered! The rest of them, not so much. But just to clarify, Jami, Amy, and Sarah were not using drugs. That was all Anne and her little circle of cronies and friends.
Now, again, I liked Anne. [Laughs.] She was fun and creative. I admired her spirit and certainly her talents as a writer. But it did not make it easy to work for her. You already know about the first recording session, but after that there was a follow-up session to do, and I think it involved recording the first Johnny Slash music. And I didn't need a big Hollywood stage, so I didn't need the Universal stage. So I booked this wonderful pop/rock/country place, a studio that had sync-to-picture, which was kind of new at the time for that kind of a studio, I called the musicians and let people know, and I let Anne know, "Look, if you want to be here, we're going to record the Johnny Slash song and some of the other material for the show."
She put out party invitations. [Laughs.] Booze, blow, food...at my workplace! That is crunch time. That is showtime for me. When I show up at the recording studio, the musicians are in place, the music's all prepped, we have X number of minutes to get it all done before I incur extra charges, because studio time was not cheap in those days... It's crunch time! There is no time to take bathroom breaks, there's no time for nincompoopery. That's when the job gets done...and then a party arrived.
And it didn’t just arrive. It spilled into the booth, to the point where I couldn't even communicate with the mixer behind the board. You know, through the glass, you listen through headphones and talk to each other...and I couldn't hear what he was saying! Because of the noise in the booth. And I was in a bad spot because, in a way, she's my boss. I had to call... Well, actually, John E. Oliver, my business partner, he was there! And he had no control over this, so he left the room, found a phone, and called Ron Frazier and said, "Uh, we're going to need to schedule another session. We can't work this way." And Ron totally understood. He got it, and he apologized. So I actually called off the session. The party continued for the rest of the time the studio was booked, but I came back in - and I did not tell Anne and her people when it was happening! - and I recorded the music the next day.
That was probably best.
Uh, yeah. [Laughs.] I mean, it was a throwback to the '60s' sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll thing, but...I was too young to really appreciate the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll mentality of the '60s. I was a working professional doing screen music. Anne somehow glorified that mentality and that era...maybe because she was part of it. She used to tell me stories about the rock 'n' roll stars she hung with.
I envision it as being an extension of Saturday Night Live for her.
Yeah. The difference is, Lorne was in charge at Saturday Night Live. Anne was never in charge at SNL. Her job was to be a brilliant writer, and she did it well.
I just figured that maybe she saw Square Pegs as her chance to be Lorne.
Except that Lorne was all about schedules and budgets.
Oh, I didn't mean she did it well. Only that maybe she envisioned herself that way. Even though she clearly wasn't.
Yeah, so there were a lot of headbutts on that show, and there was some turnover in the crew because of it. And there was turmoil. And she refused to step aside, and she refused to allow a co-exec to be assigned, to kind of reign things in and make things run more smoothly. And as a result, we got a successful show, a critically-acclaimed show, canceled after one season.
Which is still depressing even now.
Yeah, I know, that's a lot of negativity I'm throwing at you, Will, and I apologize for that.
Well, at least the music was good.
The music was fun! I had complete free reign on music. In that way, creativity-wise, she was really good to work for.
I will say that the song "Ketchup is a Vegetable" in "A Cafeteria Line" is what sent me to IMDb to see who was involved with the music for the show.
Thank you. Thank you for noticing that. IMDb probably has it wrong... [Laughs.] But I did write that song. "Creamed corn / Ketchup is a vegetable..." She admittedly said, "It's bad high school drama teacher writing."
Which reminds me: I found the high school's drama teacher - Craig Richard Nelson - on Facebook, so now we're Facebook friends.
[Bursts out laughing.] He was wonderful! He played that role beautifully. He was a cartoon character in there, but he played it really beautifully. Yeah, there were some really nice moments on that show. It was just that behind the scenes was... Oh, just mayhem.
When I posted online that Square Pegs was streaming, a buddy of mine asked, 'Is that the show that Devo was on?" I said, "You're damned right it is!"
It was! Yeah, Devo came on, and...it started kind of by accident, but Anne kept saying, "I want the source music!" Because they would hang out in this... I guess it was a burger eatery place that was their go-to place, and she wanted the music in there to be really cool on the radio - cutting-edge new bands - and there were bands that were up-and-coming, and...I think for that first episode, or at least for one of them, I actually called up a couple of these artists and said, "Hey, do you want your music on Square Pegs? We're gonna need a Friends and Family master license on it, but you'll get on!" And then somebody else took over making those calls. There were a lot of stories like that, but Devo was a wonderful get. And the Stray Cats were on one week! This was before they were a big hit. Oh, and here's a useless bit of trivia...
That's my favorite kind!
After Square Pegs, I did another series with Jami.
Ah, yes, that's actually already on my list: Dreams.
Dreams! [Laughs.] Jami and I have wisely agreed to not discuss it further.
Yeah, in that Random Roles I mentioned, we only discussed it briefly, and she was pleasant enough about it, but I distinctly remember that she initially acted as though she didn't know what I was talking about.
Jami Gertz: [Hesitates.] Which one was that?
A.V. Club: Oh, come on, you can’t have forgotten being in a band with John Stamos. And if you have, there are clips on YouTube.
JG: [Laughs.] Oh, man, you had to remind of what the hell that was, too! Dreams was purely about making a living as an actor. It was a fake band, as you said, that was put together. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t play an instrument, but I had a blast doing it. A blast! I think we even cut an album, didn’t we? And we definitely made videos. And it was the go-go ’80s, so the style was, uh, fun. That was really what brought me out here at 18. I got my first apartment by myself; I bought my first automobile. So for me, it was really a pivotal time. That was what really brought me out to Los Angeles on my own. I became an adult on that show, and we had a blast doing it.
What's interesting is the range that she got to show, because we all know that Muffy Tepperman was a very narrow, cartoonish, ridiculous, tight character. Her character on Dreams was just the polar opposite: she was hot and beautiful and sexy, and it was about a band, so she sang, and she was the "It" girl. And she played that equally well! So good for her!
And by the way, there’s a tie-in between Square Pegs and Seinfeld besides me: Tracy Nelson guested as George's girlfriend who looked like Jerry, and Jami Gertz famously rocked "can't spare a square." [Laughs.] She just killed that part. She was awesome! Oh, and Principal Dingleman - Basil Hoffman - played a toupee salesman with Jon Lovitz in an episode! I always loved seeing former co-workers on the Seinfeld set. It was always nice to visit and catch up with them. Especially Jami, because she and I were kind of friends.
[A quick sidebar for anyone who’s seen the claim online that Jerry himself made an uncredited appearance in an episode of Square Pegs, allow me to cut that claim off at the knees by showing you a picture of the guy who’s supposed to be Seinfeld and the actual Seinfeld when he appeared in an episode of Benson right around the same time. It might be Jerry Zucker (spoiler: it isn’t), but it’s definitely not Jerry Seinfeld.]
I will just say one more thing about Dreams, and it's something that threw me for a loop almost a decade. I was working at a record store in the late '80s and early '90s, and one day we got in a CD by Electric Light Orchestra Part Two, which was basically ELO without Jeff Lynne.
I...don't remember a record called that, but okay!
You're not necessarily missing out. But the tie-in is that one of the songs they recorded for that album was "Kiss Me Red."
I remember that song…and just to clarify, it was not my song! [Laughs.]
Don't worry: you're not credited as such.
Okay, because I equally object to when I'm falsely credited for work that I did not do. For example, it was a bit of a battle when I cared - I don't care about IMDb anymore; I retired 16 years ago - because it bothered me a lot that I was listed as the composer for Mad About You. I thought that was really disrespectful to Don Was and Paul Reiser, and I didn't want them thinking that I was somehow trying to claim that credit that wasn't mine! But anyway, yeah, Dreams was short-lived, mercifully, and...you're the only one who remembers it!
By the way, some years back I tried to get John Stamos for an interview to talk about it. It was a no-go.
Oh, that's right, I forgot John was in on that. I ran into him a couple of times after that, and...he and I pretended we didn't know each other. [Laughs.]