Ron Jones, a former Hanna-Barbera composer, and Walter Murphy, whose A Fifth of Beethoven was a hit record, are the two veteran songsmiths who bring MacFarlane’s musical vision to life on Family Guy and American Dad! “Seth finds these crazy musicals everywhere,” laughs Jones. “I mean, he finds the most obscure musicals and musical references. Each show has about 22 different styles, so one minute it’s a reggae thing, and the next, it’s a Broadway musical or a takeoff on Grease, then back to underscore.”
“This is the most fun I’ve had writing music for television ever, and I’ve been doing it a number of years now,” says Murphy. “I have so many various musical interests that there hasn’t been one particular assignment where I’ve had the chance to utilize all the different kinds of music. I mean, where else on TV could you write all this crazy stuff from orchestral music to opera to big band, jazz, swing, electronic?”
MacFarlane says his parents raised him on a musical diet of the Great American Songbook, Broadway shows, musical films, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rogers and Hart. “Those are the songs that endure in a way that what is being written now will not,” says MacFarlane. “They are genre free.”
Jones and Murphy are often called on to rearrange the standards or create parody songs or sound-alikes. “We know how to write so that we’re not borrowing someone’s music,” says Murphy. “If it sounds like the real thing, they bought the rights to the music.” Due to the huge success of Family Guy, airing its seventh season and marching past 135 episodes, it has become easier to license famous pieces of music.
MacFarlane loves throwing challenges at the composers. “For our 100th episode, Ron took a Gilbert and Sullivan song from the Mikado and arranged it as an MGM showtune. It was genius,” boasts MacFarlane.
Family Guy writers, including head writer MacFarlane, create the witty lyrics to fit the show. “Lyric writing is a craft,” explains MacFarlane. “You have to respect the mathematics of it. You can’t jam an extra syllable in there. You have to find a way to do it with the exact number of syllables and the right cadences. It’s better to have the lyrics sing smoothly than to be clever but clunky.
“Ron and Walter are such a vital part of the comedy of Family Guy. They both are really locked into the sensibilities,” continues MacFarlane. “At the same time, we do want it to be great music. We do want it to be legitimate music, music that if you were listening to it independently of the show would be a great listen.”
The admiration is mutual, as Jones says MacFarlane knows exactly what he wants from the music for every episode. “It’s rare to find a producer who has the ability to know all the different types of music, to be able to sing, to be able to write. I mean, the guy is so multitalented, it’s off the scale,” he remarks, pointing out that MacFarlane drew and created all of the Family Guy characters and voices many of them as well.
The role of the music on Family Guy is to be the straight man, explains MacFarlane. “We have the composers play the score straight, as if they were scoring a dramatic show, which adds to the humor,” he says.
All the attention paid to the music on Family Guy has paid off. Ron Jones has twice been nominated for Emmy Awards, while MacFarlane and Murphy won an Emmy for Outstanding Music and Lyrics. Now that’s something to sing about.