How Fake Queen Song 'Totally Gay' Earned An Emmy Nomination
Comedic songs dominate this year's Best Original Song category from the Creative Arts Emmys, being awarded this weekend.
Maybe the most outrageous nominee: a Queen parody with a dead-on Freddie Mercury impersonator, telling a 13-year-old boy that, yes, he's "totally gay."
The songwriter is Mark Rivers, who's made a living being good at two things: writing catchy songs, and being deeply funny.
"Those are the worst songs," he said, laughing. "I realized the secret to writing those Mouse Rat songs was to write them in real time, and then don't change anything."
Rivers grew up in Atlanta, where he became friends with then-aspiring comedian David Cross. They lived together when they both moved to the northeast.
"I was playing in bands in Boston," he said, "and [Cross] was struggling in the comedy world. I actually met a lot of young, struggling comics back then who went on to much greater things."
He got to know up-and-comers like Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, and a 19-year-old Louis C.K. (back before, well, you know).
"My band was sort of doing really well in the Boston music scene. So I was their successful friend who would hang out at and watch them doing their open mics," Rivers said. "Then things totally flipped years later, and I was the struggling, unemployed musician, and they were all hitting it big in the entertainment biz."
When Cross and Bob Odenkirk created their HBO sketch series Mr. Show, Cross asked his old friend for a theme song.
"We had a lot of stuff that we were doing that was sort of soundalike," Kroll said. "And he just nailed everything we gave him — including, like, fake Billy Joel songs."
"He wrote a song for us called 'L.A. Deli,' which was sort of a hair metal, '80s band soundalike, but about all the different delis that you could eat at in L.A.," Kroll said.
When Kroll created Big Mouth, his dirty animated series for Netflix about the puberty years, he had a few musical tall orders that he knew Rivers could handle.
"What Mark does is he brings a number of different skills together to get to a place where, one, it sounds like the song that it was inspired by — whether it's an R.E.M. song, or a Queen song, or a show tune, or a standard," Kroll said. "And the song and the lyrics have to be as funny as everything that we're writing in the rest of the show. But then the lyrics have to feel like lyrics to a song. So it's even more complicated. He's also playing all the instruments, and producing each song."
For the episode "Am I Gay," centered on Andrew (voiced by John Mulaney), Kroll gave Rivers the following mandate: "We want it to be like a Queen song, and it's about Andrew, who's trying to figure out if he's gay, and the backup band is Socrates, Judge Antonin Scalia, and Duke Ellington."
"It's one of the most bombastically produced bands of all time," Rivers said, "so yeah, it was a little daunting at first. I shuffle around the house, and scribble ideas into a notebook until I've got it in place, and then I record a demo. But I thought, 'Well, I'm pretty sure I can get all those sounds. I think I can write a Freddie-type melody. I'm a decent singer — I can stack up all those background vocals. But I cannot do a Freddie Mercury impersonation.' And I knew, unless I found somebody who did, who could really nail it, then it would all be kind of stupid. Luckily, I had seen a show about two years prior. It was a night of Queen music."
Enter McKian, the stage name of Brendan McCreary (brother of Bear McCreary, who composes for shows like The Walking Dead and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
"I've been interested in singing all my life," McKian said. "And then around high school, I discovered this band called Queen, and Queen became my high school obsession. It kind of became my emo. A few years later, my buddy was getting married, and I was the singer in his wedding band that he put together of all his friends, and he had 'Don't Stop Me Now' in there. I was kind of intimidated by the notes and stuff. I didn't know if I could sing it. And I went to the wedding, and I just nailed it. And suddenly, I thought to myself: maybe these notes are available to me."
Rivers channeled Queen to write the song "Totally Gay," performing every single instrument and all of the background vocals himself. Then McKian came in and channeled the ghost of Freddie Mercury.
Kroll couldn't believe his ears.
"You're like, 'How did we get Freddie Mercury? I thought that Rami Malek movie was a mess, and wasn't out yet,'" he said. "Jordan Peele, who does the voice of Duke Ellington, also did the voice of speaking Freddie Mercury. But Jordan, while unbelievably talented, cannot do that perfect of an impression of Freddie Mercury. And Brendan's is... I mean, beyond perfect."
Perfect — and funny enough to garner an Emmy nomination. But what would Freddie think?
"I think he would have found it endearing and charming," superfan McKian said. "And in a way, this song is very encouraging."
"It's also pretty absurd," Rivers added. "You know, 'Every day is a nonstop cabaret.' I don't think anybody's life is a nonstop cabaret."
"I think Freddie's life," McKian interjected, "much to his detriment, was a nonstop cabaret."
"Maybe Freddie's was, yeah."
"The episode is about how confusing it is to be 13 and to have sexual feelings," Kroll said. "And the idea that it's OK to be gay, it's OK to be straight, it's OK to be bi, it's OK to be pan, it's OK to be anything and everything... that's really what we're trying to say in this show. I would hope he would be happy with the song. I think he would be happy with what Mark did, musically. And I think he would be psyched to have Judge Antonin Scalia on the drums — who we posthumously decided was, in fact, gay."
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