Created by by Nick Kroll, Jennifer Flackett, Andrew Goldberg and Mark Levin, the raunchy and heartfelt series centers on teenage friends who find their lives turned upside down by the good, the bad and the ugly of puberty—and as one might expect, Big Mouth has given Rivers the opportunity to craft songs you might not hear anywhere else. Receiving his first Emmy nomination in 2018 for the Queen-inspired tune “Totally Gay”—with Brendan McCreary providing the Ghost of Freddie Mercury’s pipes—Rivers has since gone on to write four songs for the series’ second season, and three for My Furry Valentine, a Valentine’s Day special released ahead of Season 3, with titles like “I Love My Body,” “Sex on A Lady Song” and “Who Needs A Boy When I Got You.”
For the songwriter and composer, a principal challenge on Big Mouth has been to craft satisfying pieces—in a variety of genres, and sometimes featuring a large ensemble of singers—which fit within a compressed amount of space. Coming in between a minute and a half and two minutes, each of the comedy’s songs needs to “leave people wanting more,” without sounding “awkwardly short.”
Below, Rivers discusses the tricks of his trade, which have allowed him to deliver, time and time again, as well as what’s to come in Season 3.
You have a unique background, as a writer of both comedy and music. Has Big Mouth been a unique opportunity to work in both at once?
Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve been doing both of those things over the years, and often I’m doing one or the other. I think people who know me as a comedy writer thought of me only as a comedy writer, and people who knew me as a musician, composer, songwriter, thought of me as that. You get pigeonholed.
I had worked with Nick Kroll on his previous Comedy Central show, Kroll Show, and I had done a little bit of writing, but mainly we were doing comedy songs, so we sort of established that as the way we liked to work together. So, when this show came up, he gave me a call, and I was initially just excited to work with Nick again. He was the only established relationship I had coming into Big Mouth, other than John Mulaney; I had worked with John Mulaney years ago, as a writer on the Demetri Martin show, which I think was his first writing job. But then, when I got to know the other creators, and the whole tone and concept of the show, I fell in love with it.
Big Mouth’s songs are spread out throughout each season. Where do the ideas for your songs come from? Where does the songwriting process begin?
They come up with song ideas in the writing process. As they’re breaking the scripts, they find certain moments that are like, “Well, this could be a fun little spot for a musical set piece. This is a great setup for a song.” In some instances, the song actually advances the story, and those can be a little more challenging, because you’re not just trying to nail it, musically and comically—you’re also trying to include what the story needs, and to do that clearly. It’s another layer, another challenge. When it’s something like “I Love My Body,” clearly, nothing happens after the chorus of the song, other than the girls come around to Connie’s way of thinking. But when there has to be a turn, a pivotal moment within the song, that can be a little trickier.
Do the writers approach you with a strong sense of the genre each song should fall within?
Yeah, they give me some ideas, which is extremely helpful. I think a lot of songwriters and composers might not like to be directed in that way, but I prefer it. If they’re hearing something a certain way, I’ll always say, “Tell me what you’re hearing. Try to describe it,” because it’s a very useful shortcut. Obviously, the Queen song [“Totally Gay”] needed to sound like a Queen song. But even within that, actually, after I’d written it, they were like, “Oh, we were hearing more Queen rocker, like ‘We Will Rock You.’” I had gone down the path of a “Somebody To Love” kind of Freddie Mercury piano song, and they were like, “Oh, this will work.” As much as they do give me examples and try to pin down the genre from the outset, there’s always a bit of finding it afterwards. Sometimes it works perfectly, but you can never expect it to work seamlessly.
Could you elaborate on your personal approach to songwriting, and the general flow of the process on Big Mouth?
Usually, they’ll call me and we’ll talk through it. They’ll describe what they’re thinking about; they’ll clearly walk me through what’s happening in the story, and which character or characters are going to be singing. They’ll send me a script, so I can really get a sense of the context—how it should be set up—and see how the song plays in the story. Then, I’m off and running, and I’ll usually either start singing something in my head, or I’ll sit down at the piano or pick up the guitar, whatever the genre is, just kind of shuffling around, singing, trying to come up with one or two good key lines, and a melody for them.
I’ll go out and walk my dog, and I probably look like the neighborhood crazy man, singing to myself as I’m walking my dog. Once I have a few key lines and a general sense of the melody, it’s just sort of this back and forth. I’ll sit down and start working on lyrics to fit my form, and that whole process can generally take about five days. Then, once I get it to a point where I feel pretty comfortable with it, I’ll record a demo for them that’s fairly well produced. Especially if it’s something like a heavy metal song, you can’t just do an acoustic guitar demo and expect people to like it.
I’ll record a big enough version to sell the idea and email it off, and wait anxiously and awkwardly for a reply. Usually, they’ll come back with either, “Hey, this is great! We’ve just got a few notes,” or “Hey, do you have time to talk on the phone?” And that’s always sh*tty. [laughs]. That’s a bad one, like they’ve rethought it and want to go a different direction. It’s usually about a day and a half of waiting after I’ve sent something in, and that’s always an uneasy period, but it’s the nature of the gig.
The songs you write for the show are always fairly short, yet they’re lyrically dense, still managing to pack in a lot of value. What techniques have helped you tell a full story in very little time?
I discovered a few little tricks to do that. One is to get to the lyrics as quickly as possible. You don’t want a long lead-in as you would often do in a normal pop song, something that’s not going to be playing in a show. I’ve found the structure of verse, chorus, bridge, short chorus is one that works. It makes it feel like, “Oh! There’s all the elements of a song. There just wasn’t a second verse. It was a nicely truncated version of what seems to be a more complete song.” I’ve found these little formats that work for a minute and a half that maybe fool your brain into thinking you just heard a complete song.
You’ve said that “Shame Song” is your favorite piece from Season 2. What made that one stand out for you?
I don’t know. I loved that it felt like this sort of Beatles-y or David Bowie-ish pop song. [For] the dark orchestral bit, the note was to do something along the lines of a song from The Little Mermaid, the villain who sings the song in The Little Mermaid—“Poor Unfortunate Souls.” That was the direction, and then the idea to go into the poppy, Beatles-y chorus, it just sort of hit me as a nice way to break up that vibe and make it really unique. I was happy with that because those two elements felt like a weird thing to combine, but I think they ended up working. When you can do something weird that ends up working, that feels like a success.
Do you tend to write toward the voice of the actor who’s singing? In the case of “Shame Song,” were you thinking about David Thewlis, and what he brings to the table as an actor?
I kind of was, except that when I wrote the song, I hadn’t heard his characterization, so my temp vocal doesn’t sound like him at all. It was like Richard Harris or something. He did a great job, actually. It was just kind of odd when he started singing. I was like, “Oh, this is different than my version.” I had to adjust my ears a bit.
You’ve gotten to work with a lot of interesting performers on the show. On one end, there’s Broadway talents like Andrew Rannells, and on the other, you have Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, who lean into a vocal imperfection befitting their characters.
Over the years, I’ve learned that you have to see the big picture of servicing the character. When I sing something, I’m usually trying to sing it as on pitch and as perfectly as I can; I’m a decent enough vocalist. Now, when Mulaney came in to sing “Totally Gay,” it’s of course not pitch perfect, but it’s incredibly charming. You have to keep your musician’s instincts in check a little bit, and remind yourself that this needs to work for the character. This character is not a professional singer, and he shouldn’t be pitch-perfect and spot-on. It needs to be a little rough around the edges. That’s something I’ve gotten used to dealing with. But then, of course, you have someone like Maya Rudolph or Andrew Rannells, who just nails it, and it is pitch perfect. I’ve got no problem with that, either.
Could you discuss the Valentine’s Day special released ahead of Season 3, and the songs you wrote for it? “Valentine, St. Valentine” was among the biggest ensemble numbers you’ve written for the show.
That was the first of a handful of big musical numbers that I’ve done for them. I think that was one of the first ones that had a bunch of different characters popping up and singing parts, and that was pretty interesting because it was done over such a lengthy period of time that I slowly would get more vocals to put into the thing, replacing my temp vocals. They record everybody individually over the course of many weeks, so it was just sort of gradually frankensteined together, and finally came to life.
The “Who Needs A Boy” song, that was my first experience working with Andrew Rannells, and I was like, “Oh, he’s fantastic.” At that point, Jessi Klein didn’t care to sing, so we hired a friend of mine, Ileen Goldsmith, to be her voice double. Since then, I think Jessi’s come around to, “Okay, I don’t mind singing a bit.” But that was one bit of a cheat that we’ve done.
What have you enjoyed most about working with Kroll and Mulaney on Big Mouth?
They’re incredibly funny. I just think, as compared to some other shows I’ve worked on that shall remain nameless, their instincts are pretty great. Even when I get a note that means a lot more work for me or that strikes me initially as a pain in the ass, I’ve learned that their instincts are really good, and they always have worked to make the bit or the song better.
What can you tease about Season 3? I understand that the Hormone Monster will finally be leading his own song.
Yeah, that’s going to be a good one. It’s pretty funny, and it’s a rocker, as you might guess. It’s an ‘80s metal song called “Anything Goes In Florida.” There’s an episode that is set in Florida, and all kinds of crazy sh*t happens—because it’s Florida. So, Maury sings about it, and his voice sounds a bit like Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead. There are a handful of other songs I’m pretty excited about. Martin Short has a guest appearance in Season 3, and he sings a patter song about the spectrum of sexuality, which came out really great. Because he’s Martin Short; of course it did.