'Seinfeld' composer on 'annoying' but iconic music: 'Weird kids in school, we all made funny noises. I found a way to get paid for it.'

Veteran screen composer Jonathan Wolff has written music for a whopping 75 television series, including Will & Grace, Who's the Boss?, Married... With Children, and some beloved cult favorites. (He’s the man who was inspired by the “synth revolution” to create snappy songs for Johnny Slash’s fictional new wave band Open 48 Hours on Anne Beatts’s sadly short-lived 1982 sitcom Square Pegs, and he even humble-brags that he once “recorded Charro singing ‘Physical’ for The Love Boat.”) But perhaps Wolff’s quirkiest, and certainly his most iconic, TV music is his slap-bass-happy work on all 180 episodes and nine seasons of Seinfeld. That oft-imitated score was arguably the sound of ‘90s television, and now, 23 years after Seinfeld went off the air, an official soundtrack album is finally being released.

“This album is for the fans. It’s just for fun,” Wolff, who retired in 2005, tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume from what he calls the “Hollywood Witness Protection Program” (i.e., his home in Kentucky). “People hear that music and it reminds them of a really fun, wonderful memory. There's no critical listening on this record. I chose music that played a role in the comedy and is part of a favorite scene for the fans. There's nothing obscure on this record.”

Interestingly, though, Seinfeld nearly languished in obscurity, much like that one-and-done season of Square Pegs, because the series wasn’t even a bona fide hit for NBC until its fourth season. “The initial order was for four episodes, which is not really an order — that's an insult,” Wolff chuckles. “But I took the job anyway. There was never a whole lot of the belief system in this show from the network, for them to order only four episodes, but there were some people at the network who liked what we were doing and recognized that this could change TV — that this could find an audience. We got an audience sometime in Season 4, when they put us on Thursday night after Cheers. And suddenly people were noticing this ‘new’ show, Seinfeld. In the long run, it's possible that the delayed popularity contributed to the unprecedented success that Seinfeld enjoyed, because we had three seasons of shows that nobody had ever seen before. So, it wasn't like they were reruns — they were new episodes to most people, and that made them more valuable in syndication. It turned out to be a magic bullet for us.”

The odds seemed against Seinfeld — and specifically against Wolff — in another way, when the skeptical executives at NBC didn’t quite understand what Wolff was trying to do musically. “Now, remember, late-‘80s theme songs were melodic, with a lot of silly lyrics and sassy saxophones. And, yes, guilty — I did a lot of that kind of music! But I knew it wasn't going to work here,” says Wolff, who was referred to Jerry Seinfeld by mutual friend George Wallace in 1989, when Seinfeld needed a theme song for his new sitcom (then tentatively titled The Seinfeld Chronicles). Seinfeld wasn’t happy with other composers’ submissions; he was looking something that would specifically vibe with the between-scene standup routines featured in every Seinfeld episode, and typical TV music just wasn’t going to cut it.

'Seinfeld' actors Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Seinfeld, and Michael Richards in 1993. (Photo: George Lange/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
'Seinfeld' actors Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jerry Seinfeld, and Michael Richards in 1993. (Photo: George Lange/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“Slap bass had not yet enjoyed ‘celebrity status’ as a solo instrument. I knew I wanted to use that. And in the late ‘80s, sampling technology was in its infancy, and I really, really wanted to use it as much as I possibly could to create new and weird genres of music,” says Wolff (who, incidentally, is a big fan of Duran Duran’s funky output). “When Jerry called me and described the problem that he was having with music for his show, his opening credits were Jerry standing in front of a crowd of people in a comedy club — he tells jokes, and people laugh. And he wanted music to go with those opening credits. And in that phone call, I told Jerry, ‘That sounds more like a sound design issue than a music assignment, because that's like a recipe for an audio conflict. We’ve got to be able to hear your voice.’

“So, I pitched Jerry the idea that Jerry's voice would be the melody of the Seinfeld theme. And my job would be to accompany Jerry in a way that worked organically with his human voice,” Wolff continues. “The human nature of his voice, I told him, would go well with the human nature of my fingers-snaps and lips and tongue doing stuff.” (Wolff then demonstrates that “stuff” for Yahoo/SiriusXM on the spot — yes, all those popping and beatboxing sound effects came directly from his own mouth.) “Now I had Jerry’s attention, because that sort of music was kind of from Mars at the time. And it was going to enable me to use those sampling technologies that I really wanted to use.”

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The following Saturday, Seinfeld visited Wolff at his Burbank studio with a videotape of one of his standup routines, and Wolff “built the music that would accompany that monologue, while he sat there and watched me work. The bass line was so simple, so basic and sophomoric. It did not require meter; it did not require four beats of the bar. He could stop and start to allow for the timings of his jokes and his punchlines. It was designed, it was architected, to be modularly manipulatable so that every monologue would be a variation on the theme. And I would record a new piece of music to go with each monologue. And that is how it was born. … It was improv, kind of like in the old vaudeville days when the drummer would improvise rimshots and accompaniment for the comics. That was part of my job, to set up the jokes and hit them hard afterwards. There was a lot of improvisation in each of those pieces of music for the monologue — and for me, that kind of ensured my gig! They needed me to recreate the music every week.”

But Wolff’s gig was not exactly ensured — not just yet, anyway. Wolff wryly recalls an NBC meeting at the end of Seinfeld’s first on-the-bubble season that didn’t go so well. “First of all, let me just say that the NBC execs that were there for Seinfeld, I worked with them for many, many years. I did 17 series with these same folks. I'm fully retired, so I have no need to flatter anybody for any reason — and I will tell you that they're all good guys. They're all smart people. And their objections were natural and realistic,” Wolff concedes. “They thought the music sounded odd and weird: ‘Is that real music? What instrument is that? Could we not afford an orchestra?’”

Wolff remembers being invited to the meeting by Seinfeld and the series’ co-creator, Larry David, because the music was “on the list” of the network’s concerns. “So, since I was there, they made it the first item, and [NBC Entertainment’s then-president] Warren Littlefield laid it out. He said, ‘It's weird. It's distracting. It's annoying.’” However, Littlefield hadn’t realized that he’d just uttered David’s favorite magic word. “When he said that word… oh, Larry, he loves annoying! He lives for annoying! That's his primary goal in life!” Wolff laughs.

Trying be a team player as well as salvage his job, Wolff quickly took David, Seinfeld, and Castle Rock Entertainment’s Glenn Padnick aside and told them, “Look, guys. Look at that list. You can see on the notepad, there's other [network complaints] on there. So, choose your battles. I can change the music. Jerry, you saw how I do this — give me a couple hours, and I'll get you new music. You'll love it.” Padnick thought this was a reasonable compromise, but David was furious. “Larry got so mad at me!” Wolff reveals. “He just started yelling at me: ‘Get out! Wolff, you’re done here, get out!’ He was just so offended at the notion that I would cave. And he threw me out of the meeting! … Larry was not having it. Larry did not like being told to change things.”

Ultimately, David and Seinfeld stuck to their guns, and the music remained the same — and became legendary. Now it’s being celebrated on the Wolff-curated, 33-track Seinfeld album. Wolff has trouble picking one favorite Seinfeld episode, but he calls “Kramer’s Pimpwalk” his “opus magnum” Seinfeld composition, and he says, “I do have favorite musical assignments. For example, in ‘The Jimmy,’ I got to accompany Mel Tormé on piano live, and in ‘The Pez Dispenser,’ I got to perform a Beethoven piano sonata. And then there's lots of fans who love ‘The Contest’; that's often named as people's favorite. I love that episode too, because for that episode, I got to throw in some fun cartoon music for the scene where Jerry's trying to keep pure thoughts to stay in the contest [and remain “master of his domain”]. Jerry's watching TV and he's trying to think like a child, and ‘The Wheels of the Bus’ comes on and he sings along with it. That's my favorite memory, because early in my composing career I did a lot of cartoon music as a writer for Hanna-Barbera. So, that assignment was right in my bag of tricks.”

Wolff’s overall time on Seinfeld was a full-circle phenomenon in another way, and a way for him to revisit his own childhood and old tricks. “The lip thing…” Wolff muses, referring to all his famous mouth sounds that made the show’s music so fascinatingly “odd” and “weird” at times. “Those of us who were weird kids in school, we all made funny noises. I found a way to get paid for it.”

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This above interview is taken from Jonathan Wolff's appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.