Laughing at the hard times with Adam Blau

Chad White

Comedy composing can be a tough job. One minute your characters are flying high, participating in wacky antics; the next they’re slipping down a dramatic path of no return. This is especially true of the recent growth of half hour comedies. It takes skill to navigate those choppy waters.

But Adam Blau seems to be able to hang. This talented songwriter has a packed resume and the skill to go along with it. He’s worked on several shows but the main crux of his work comes with FXX’s You’re the Worst. He’s able to go with the proverbial comedic flow as Jimmy, Gretchen and their friends deal with every day and out of the ordinary issues. Plus he wrote the theme song to Billy on the Street. That's rad. I recently had a conversation with Blau about his work.

The reason I wanted to talk to you is because of all the work you do on You're The Worst. How is working on that show?

Adam Blau: I absolutely love working on the show. Not just because of the material but because the people are an absolute pleasure to work with. Stephen Falk, the creator of the show, and I have a long history. We both enjoy working together, which is fantastic. Over the course of the show, I’ve had a chance to work with not only a lot of the crew but the actors as well. There have been song numbers throughout the show so I’ve gotten to work pretty close with some of the actors to teach them the music.

Stephen and I write the hip hop song that Jimmy (Chris Geere) sang this season and the speakeasy. All that kind of stuff. It’s been a lot of fun. As a composer, [we] don’t often get to go to set and get to work with the performers. We’re just hold up in our studios after everything is all shot. To be able to go and work with the crew and work with the performers is a blast.

When you went to set to teach everybody these songs, what’s it like? Do you hand them the lyrics and give them the beat?

Blau: I’d say it varies. I try and make it as pain free as possible for the performers. They have a million things going on. They go to fittings and memorize lines. I try to do as much prep work as possible. I’ll ask for the scripts at the beginning of the season and a specific list of the songs to see if there’s any moments we need to cover in advance. I’ll go through and log if there are any song moments.

In this season, “Twenty-Two” had a sort of a soft rock, a yacht rock type song. I know Stephen likes to write lyrics for all of the lyrics for those kinds of things himself. We’ll work together. I’ll put a sketch [of the song] together in advance and we’ll go back and forth. Once we have a good demo of what that could be, I’ll try to get that to performers as quickly as possible. For the hip hop songs, for example, I’ll put a beat together. Then Stephen and I would go back and forth with recordings of Stephen rapping back to me -- which I think he’d throttle me if they ever got out in public.

[laughs]

Blau: Then we pass them along to the performers and they have a chance to look them over them early the day of or if I get the chance to work with them in advance. I worked, for example, on two karaoke songs – one at the end of the first season, one at the end of the second – with Kether [Donohue] and Allan [McLeod]. I would rehearse with them and make sure everyone is comfortable doing what they’re doing. Sometimes I’ll make little videos. We had Mageina Tovah – the woman who played Amy last season – she had to play the mandolin. I put together a little video showing her how to play the mandolin. They’ll have a little chance to work with it beforehand. Hopefully, by the time we get to set, it’s smooth sailing.

With a show like You’re The Worst, there’s these shifts in tone – especially this season particularly when Jimmy’s father dies. Aya Cash has to hide this truth from him and she eventually lets Kether in on it. What’s it like to work your music into that sudden shift to drama from straight comedy?

Blau: First of all, it’s really interesting as a composer to be able to do that. A lot of times in comedy, it’s just stings and bumpers and punchlines. It’s really important to Stephen and the rest of the team that [the show] not feel like a traditional sitcom necessarily. For me, it’s exciting to be able to actually put a fair amount of emotional depth behind something and to highlight some of the genuine tonal shifts that are in there. It’s a little tricky because you want it to feel of the same world; you still grab from the same instrumental pallet you have throughout so it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a totally different show. I’ll try and grab from some of that language.

But you’re right, there are moments – what is it? The second episode I think – when Gretchen opens her mail and it’s this big moment of triumph for her and there’s this fun music going on and she opens it and gets news that Jimmy’s dad dies. It’s just a dramatic shift right there. You don’t want it to feel like you slammed on the breaks and you’re on a totally different series. We go back and forth tonally on that. I’ll try and get the cut early. Especially if we’re doing a new situation, a new tone or a new scene like we did with Gretchen and the depression last year and with Jimmy’s dad dying this year. I’ll ask for cuts earlier than I would normally ask for them…I’ll try and get a director’s cut. I’ll throw some sketches up against it and send it over to see what they think, Stephen and the director. We’ll work it through and lock in a tone for that. We develop that throughout the season. Jimmy’s dad scene came back a few times. We set it in a contexts as well as Jimmy was going through his own bouts of self-deprecation and all that. Once we lay down the groundwork, it opens things up and we develop it from there.

And then there’s the other part of your resume with Billy on the Street and the canceled Mulaney. How were they different from working on You’re the Worst?

Blau: Billy on the Street and Mulaney as well were relatively one off kinds of things. I worked on the theme song with Billy Eichner for [his show]. I’ve done a lot of work with Funny or Die over the years. I’d gotten called when they were first putting the show together. Billy had an idea for the theme song; he said he wanted it to sound like Showtime at the Apollo.

[both laugh]

Blau: And so we threw the pitches from there. Billy had a very singular idea of exactly what he wanted without a question about executing that vision. That was a lot of fun to do. Aside from the fact that I totally love that show, I think it’s completely hilarious. And for Mulaney, I didn’t score that show; I was brought in to do some special songs. There was a scene for a Halloween episode I think where Nasim Padrad had to sing a song like she was in a Disney movie, a Little Mermaid type of a song.

I was brought in to do that kind of a spoof and then work with Nasim and put it on its feet as well. For each of those projects, it was a this clear [notion] that I was brought in for those type of things as opposed to setting a tone for the show, generating from scratch, and following upon the arc of the season. It’s something that I’ve done for a long time, writing songs that are over the top ridiculous or ridiculous enough to where you’re not sure if I’m serious. [laughs] It’s two different skill sets to be sure but I definitely like working on both of those.

I also read that, since you’re working with Funny or Die, you’re working on the new Brockmire show on IFC. That show is not even airing you; it’s airing in a month or so. How soon do you get to put your music to the episodes?

Blau: That’s all done at this point. With that one, it was a very quick turnaround. It was a very quick process for scoring it. I actually had two duties on that one. Not only was I composing for that but I was also helping them find some production libraries as well, which is prerecorded music from libraries. There’s a fair amount of it in the show because of the nature of what the show is. It was sort of a music supervisor-ish role I played in that.

As I said, it was a very fast process. I was working on basically the first four and second four episodes all at once. It’s one of those things that happens so fast. I blinked and I missed it! In terms of when I put my music to the scenes, they had already done a pretty detailed cut of it. They sent it my way. And then they were just locking versions of the episodes. We would then go through and figure “is this a scoring spot? Is this a song spot?” If it was a scoring spot, I’d take care of it. But if it was a song spot, we would go through the library [of music] and work with the editors and producers to find the music that would fit each [spot] best.

When you do something for Funny or Die, like a three minute short, do you have your own studio? Do you go to their studio? Do you have to make it alongside them? What happens in that process?

Blau: Every project is unique. I did one with Rufis Wainright where he was doing Rufis Wainright styles of chewing gum jingles. So I took all these famous chewing gum songs and made them into jazz trio type things. I’d do the arrangements and went to a set to work with them to get the musicians to look like they were playing it. There were other things like with Billy I did the Glitter and Ribs song which was a Taylor Swift take off. And, again, Billy has a very clear vision of what he wants to do. He came to my place, we worked through the song. Each thing I do with them is its own thing. Even on Brockmire, most of it was done at my place but then there was a moment that required some singers so I went to their place and we recorded that bit. It’s whatever the resources and time allows.

Follow Adam Blau on Twitter, listen to his Soundcloud, check out his website.