It seems only fitting that musician and songwriter Jonathan Coulton began his relationship with Robert and Michelle King, married co-creators of CBS’ The Good Wife—and its CBS All Access spinoff, The Good Fight (with Phil Alden Robinson)—because of a legal dispute. A 2014 Good Wife episode drew inspiration from a real-life wrangle between Coulton and Glee over its use of a folksy version of the rap hit Baby Got Back—a cover remarkably similar to Coulton’s own. Colton never took the matter to court, but when he heard the Kings had made a parody of his complaint, he connected with The Good Wife’s writers’ room via Twitter, and they invited Coulton to make a cameo appearance on the show.
Subsequently, Coulton would come to write songs for The Good Fight, to be turned into animated shorts for the series. And one of these pieces, “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”—his incongruously peppy primer on impeachment, written for Season 2 episode Day 450—even landed the songwriter an Emmy nomination in 2018. In a recent conversation with Awardsline, King and Coulton recapped this story, and the way in which Coulton’s songs became more of a fixture for The Good Fight in Season 3.
There was step in between Coulton’s cameo on Good Wife and his involvement with Good Fight. Can you explain?
Robert King: We have always loved Jonathan’s work, and that Glee situation seemed to be an injustice. And so we get in touch with Jonathan and have him on the show playing a drunk, which was fun. And then I sat down with Jonathan and said we are going to be doing this show for about a year called BrainDead. We knew that it was going to be heavily serialized, and I always hate those “previously on” [segments]; they’re so awful. So, we asked him if he would compose a song that would start every episode that would recap what had happened up to now. That was a lot of fun.
That led to your asking Jonathan to write “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” for Good Fight Season 2?
King: We asked Jonathan if he could do a song that was a version of the “School House Rock” genre about modern issues; in that case, impeachment. Because A, it’s textbook educational, and B, it’s kind of satirical fun. And it went well. Not only was it nominated for an Emmy, but Jonathan was the only one of anyone on our show that was nominated for an Emmy that year.
Jonathan Coulton: So then after that, they came to me and said: “We want you to do one of those for each episode of Season 3.” I was delighted, because writing that impeachment song was so much fun. And because of my experience working with the Kings on BrainDead, I knew that they like to break the rules.
King: We decided that this year, Coulton’s songs would explain some legal nicety within the plot, so the audience would learn while [we were] still being satirical.
The subject matter of the songs relates to the legal issues in each episode, but each one also stands alone as Jonathan’s composition, and his personal opinion. Is that deliberate?
King: We let Jonathan, and then Head Gear Animation [in Toronto], in collaboration with each other, basically guide the politics of these little one-minute, 30-second cartoons. They are not necessarily the point of view of the show, they are an interruption of the show. This is the same thing we did on BrainDead.
Coulton: I think that’s a real rarity when you are working for television or any other larger piece—for somebody to say, “I don’t want to get in the way of what you want to say.”
The most controversial song was one that didn’t make it to the air, right?
Coulton: We did this song and video about censorship in China, and how it affects American companies, and how because there are certain things you can’t say in China, American companies will sometimes change the content of their movies and television shows. We got all the way through to the end of it and then Standards and Practices at CBS decided they couldn’t put the cartoon in the show …they eventually came to the idea of this compromise where, instead of just neatly clipping the cartoon out of the show entirely, CBS would display a card [saying]: “This has been censored by CBS.” I ended the song saying: “I hope this song is banned in China.” It was the irony of ironies. And in fact I will never know because it’s not in the show.
Did you post the song anywhere online?
Coulton: No, [CBS] asked me and Head Gear not to post it anywhere online and I have agreed to do that. The way it was explained to me was that they had safety concerns, there are CBS executives in China…it might make Chinese officials angry in a way that would endanger [those] people. I take them at their word.
What can we expect from your songs going forward?
King: This year we did an episode or two involving the actor Gary Carr who was on Downton Abbey. We had him on the show and he played himself. The Lucca character played by Cush Jumbo starts to gain a crush on him and looks for footage on what he did on Downton Abbey online, and we could not get [rights to air] the clip. So instead of dropping the scene, which we loved, we asked Jonathan if he could take care of [the scene] through a song and a cartoon. Head Gear did a great job of drawing the cartoon version of our character. I think we would veer toward that next year with Jonathan and Head Gear, if they agree to come back—more fluidity between the film narrative and the cartoon. Not in every episode, but we’ll see how it goes.
To view “Russian Troll Farm,” the animated short that King and Coulton submitted for Emmys consideration, click above.