'Werewolf Bar Mitzvah' From '30 Rock': An Oral History
We're long past the golden age of novelty songs, but in 2007 humanity was gifted with a "Monster Mash" for a new generation. It was a cutaway joke in the 30 Rock episode "Jack Gets in the Game," and life would never be the same.
"Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky, scary
Boys becoming men — men becoming wolves"
LAist talked with two of the writers who conjured these magical words: 30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock, who wrote the episode — and 30 Rock writer Tami Sagher, who wrote most of the lyrics. Here's how it happened.
WHERE THE IDEA FOR WEREWOLF BAR MITZVAH CAME FROM
Robert Carlock: God, I don't know. I mean, I think it was in my writer's draft. I think this was around the time — what's the Black Eyed Peas song where they have 'mazel tov' in there?
"I Gotta Feeling." And it just felt like they were clearly just trying to get played at bar mitzvahs. And I thought Tracy would have his own take, but not really understand the event, and try to double down on the Halloween novelty song — combine the two.
That was the thinking, of, 'What are things that people do to try to make sure those BMI and ASCAP checks keep coming?' I'm not sure he knew exactly what he was doing.
We always talked about Jenna, Jane Krakowski's character, trying to do a Christmas album just because Christmas albums sell, and she's going to write new Christmas songs. And we never quite got there.
But it was also all those novelty, like "Zombie Jamboree," and those terrible novelty Halloween songs that get radio time every Halloween.
I think it was in About A Boy where Hugh Grant is living off the money made from his father's terrible, terrible Christmas song. So I think part of the fun was can we mash up — almost werewolf-like — these different kinds of music, in an effort to exploit all of them.
WHY WEREWOLF BAR MITZVAH RESONATED WITH A GENERATION OF COMEDY FANS
Carlock: I don't know! I don't know. I think the original draft, it was just the first couple lines. We were always trying to stuff so much into our 21 minutes and 15 seconds.
In the draft, it was "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky, scary."
Tami Sagher: It was Robert's script, and I think he had "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, spooky, scary." And I pitched "Boys becoming men, men becoming wolves."
Carlock: Which might be what pushed it — maybe that's what people are enjoying.
On some level, it makes sense. If boys become men on this special night, then perhaps, what's to keep men from becoming wolves?
It's such a good joke. And I wish it were mine.
Sagher: It's so goofy. It's our "Monster Mash." I think everybody was ready for, it had been how many years, 30 years since the "Monster Mash."
Carlock: There's also [30 Rock composer] Jeff Richmond's music to begin with, which is pretty earwormy.
But also, I think on some level, you get, "Oh OK, Tracy was being cynical, and I've seen people do that kind of novelty song thing," and you understand what it is on some level — it can't just be completely random.
Carlock: I guess the irony of it is, my oldest kid had his bar mitzvah season last year, and said he heard it got played at one of the bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah parties he went to. So I guess the irony is, I'm getting the ASCAP checks.
Sagher: "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" played at my nephew's bar mitzvah, and that was a delight.
It's becoming a real Halloween song too.
SHOOTING THE WEREWOLF BAR MITZVAH MUSIC VIDEO
Carlock: We were always writing little cutaways. We never stopped doing it, but we were just sort of learning, "Oh, this is time consuming and expensive to do these little jokes that are just these cutaways!"
When an actor comes in to put in fake teeth — it's good that we were singing to a track, because Tracy couldn't speak well with the teeth.
But you walk down there and realize, "Oh, we've built a cemetery set for this eight seconds of time, and we're taking three hours out of our day to get these eight seconds."
But it didn't stop us from continuing to do that forever.
Sagher: I think that's another reason actually that that took off, was the visual element. Because even though it was just like an eight-second, swish, cut-to, it was just so perfect — Tracy's werewolf costume, and they managed to do live-action cartoon, in the best way.
The art department on that show, and the props department on the show, were so fully part of the process. There were times I remember that I would come down to see something that was being shot, and there would be a hilarious joke that they had come up with, that wasn't from the writers. They were wonderful.
RECORDING THE EXTENDED, FULL SONG WITH DONALD GLOVER
Sagher: And then, that was a big hit, unexpectedly. It was one of those things where, after the episode aired, people really loved it. And NBC did that thing where, for just that eight-second clip, they showed a 30-second commercial to see that eight-second clip.
And a little bit born of frustration with that, but also Halloween was coming up. Jeff Richmond, the genius musical director of that show, had suggested writing a full song.
And so I took a first pass at the lyrics. I think I'm the only Jewish person in the writing credits for it. And so I wrote the lyrics, and sent them to Robert — and Robert, his note was to have it go off the rails a little bit more. Of having the Tracy character just sort of lose his way more.
I mean, honestly, it was me doing some Wikipediaing.
Carlock: [Glover also] worked on the lyrics. I'm sure he would like credit for that now. He worked on the lyrics, and we all pitched in.
Sagher: And then we recorded it in Jeff's office.
Carlock: Tracy himself wasn't around.
Sagher: So Donald Glover stepped in, because he could do a really good Tracy Morgan impression. And so he stepped in and did some of the vocals, to fill in, and then also did some other ad-libbing talking in it.
Carlock: Some of the vocal on the long version of Tracy is actually Donald doing a pretty amazing Tracy impression. So Donald's all over that track.
If only I knew that I would be producing Childish Gambino.
Sagher: Having written those lyrics, it was surprising how easy it was for a bar mitzvah to turn into a werewolf party. So I think there was something that made sense.
WHY WEREWOLVES ARE FUNNY
Carlock: They're not acting like themselves. I once tried to write a sketch at Saturday Night Live, that did not work at all, which was a guy with a service — because you know when you're turning into a werewolf, and you're still part person, and you're telling people around you, "Go away! Get away from me!"
And then when you're a werewolf, and you realize you've told everyone to go away, you're kicking yourself because you want to bite them.
It was a service to help the human part of a werewolf not to go away, so that the werewolf could bite them.
There's something about people that are — in some ways like Titus [from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt], who thinks in his mind that he's a superstar, but he's living in this basement apartment — that a werewolf encapsulates, that is interesting, about how all of us are not exactly what we present as, or not wholly our best selves all the time. And a werewolf is just a very direct representation of how I think people go through life all the time.
Half-werewolf. We're all half-werewolf.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT SITCOM COMEDY SONG
Carlock: I mean, I think there has to be a reason for it, which is sometimes harder on [Unbreakable] Kimmy Schmidt, even though Titus was an aspiring singer. At least on 30 Rock, there were reasons for people to be singing.
Whereas it remains unclear whether Titus actually went around town doing his "Lemonade," or whether most of that was in his mind, but I don't know. I guess he still smashed the window of Mikey's truck, with a bat that I don't think anyone noticed said "mayonnaise" on it for some reason instead of "hot sauce."
But I think there's got to be a reason for it, because you don't want to suddenly... you know, and there are shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where there's a musical theater kind of tone to the thing, where you understand that people can step out and burst into song. If your show isn't that, I think it's jarring, unless you're justifying it.
TRACY JORDAN'S SCHEMES
"Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" was just one of numerous stops along Tracy Jordan's career on the show, one of the antics and get-rich-quick schemes he would often participate in.
Carlock: There were a couple things that we always tried to keep in mind with [Tracy]. One was that he'd kind of been everywhere in his career — from doing stand-up as a way out of a certain kind of life, and doing it probably in some messed up places, to being the biggest movie star in the world for a little while, and then falling back into TV sketch.
And whatever it was, whether it was a Japanese commercial for some weird soda, or it was "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," you could place where he was in the wild swings of his career. And I think people get how stars can go through those kinds of vacillations.
And the other thing, the thing that I loved about the character, is from day one, we said, "He talks a big game about the stuff he's done, and about women, and that kind of thing, but he's really a family guy."
And he's really, everything he does is out of fear and love of, for and of his wife. And that was always underlying everything.
We thought, "OK, you can get pretty desperate, especially if you're trying to hold onto something, if you're trying to hold onto it for these other people." So it allowed us to go to some weird places.
We didn't want him to be the cartoon stereotype. We wanted him to be someone who knew that what the wider audience wanted from him, to hear from him, was "Oh, I'm wild and crazy!" But the reality was he's just a guy trying to make his way in the world, and do it for his family. And so you could see him selling out, a lot.
THE 30 ROCK WRITERS ROOM
Sagher: It was... I laughed really hard. We got very little sleep. A lot of 30 Rock was crazy hours. We would go sometimes until 9 in the morning.
We would go to Tina's apartment and write from there, because she was burning her candle at every end, as was Robert.
So we would work weekends... it was a very intensive show, hour-wise. But it was also super fun. The writers room, it was all of us laughing really hard, even as we desperately wanted to go home and go to sleep.
It was the first 30-minute show that I worked on, so I learned so much on just also what shooting a show like that is like, and breaking stories. And it also brought me to live in New York for the first time, which is where I want to live, and I live now. (Sagher previously lived in L.A. and Chicago, and still spends much of her year as a writer in L.A.)
It also just set a standard of excellence. Tina and Robert — we worked these crazy hours, but nobody worked harder than from the top. So it never felt like anybody was picking up the slack for anybody else. And as hard as we worked, every other department worked just as hard or harder, because they had to prepare stuff.
So that was another thing too — of feeling like everybody is so completely in it, for every second of it.
I've been really fortunate the shows I've worked on have been run by really wonderful, strong, intelligent women. Although How I Met Your Mother was run by really strong, intelligent men, but they were really kind.
Also, Tina was very proud of the fact that she had a "no asshole" policy, and I've been fortunate that, since then, I would say I've managed to work on one "no asshole" show after another.
30 ROCK'S COMEDIC LEGACY
Robert Carlock talked about the comedic style both 30 Rock and Tina Fey and Carlock's current show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt became known for, with rapid-fire jokes and quick cutaways.
Carlock: I don't know why we like it. An eagerness to please, I guess — and over-do what the audience might actually be wanting, because there is a density that can be exhausting, for us and probably the viewer.
But it's like, we pitch a lot of jokes, naturally, and it's hard to let them go. It's hard to not try to put them all in, I guess — we want to give everyone a little something, until they get sick of it.
Sagher: I think, especially with the show that Tina and Robert created, the tone of it just worked so well.
Tami Sagher has continued to work as a performer, including recently doing a voice on Bob's Burgers, and she's written for shows including How I Met Your Mother, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Girls, and now Orange is the New Black.
Sagher: I was on it for season six, and I'm on it again for this season seven, which is going to be the last season. And performing wise, I still perform weekly at the UCB, either in New York or L.A., depending where I'm at.
The final half season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt comes out in January.
Carlock: We're working on what Netflix is calling a "movie" — sort of a longer form version of [Kimmy Schmidt] that we're hoping to shoot next year, and Tina [Fey] and I are working on a bunch of things for chapter 10 in our work together.
We're always trying to keep a hand in [feature films]. I hope so. Getting movies made is harder than getting pilots made — they're more expensive — but, always trying to please everyone out there with the money.
BONUS: MORE 30 ROCK STORIES
Carlock: One of my favorite [Tracy Jordan schemes] is always in that [30 Rock writer] Jack Burditt episode, where Jack Donaghy tells him that the only thing he can't get away with as a famous person is dog fighting. That, of course, makes Tracy — despite, he knows it's wrong, his best instincts — he wants to get into dog fighting. Just because someone told him he couldn't.
Sagher: It was early on, we were at a table read, and it was this episode with the dogfighting, where Grizz and Dotcom had brought in two puppies. In the episode, he was in this rebellious phase, and Jack says "You can do whatever you want, just no dogfighting." And so he's like, "Dogfighting!"
So Grizz and Dotcom went and got two tiny little puppies, and I remember them saying "Awww!" And then in the script, Tracy's supposed to say, "'Awww?' No 'awww'!" But for some reason, he just went "AAAAH! No AAAAH!"
And Tracy's one of those guys who just does that. But whatever choice he makes — any other person, it would be a mistake, and with him, it would just be funnier.
But I remember laughing so hard that I gripped Robert Carlock's knee at the table read. And as Jew-y as I am, Carlock is WASP-y. And I've never felt so completely aware of that was an inappropriate thing to do.
And we never even discussed it. But then a few months later, we had gotten through the writers strike, and coming back, Yvonne Mojica, who was in the art department and did design, we saw each other in the hallway and we hugged. Because it had been a few months where everybody had been out of work.
And Carlock witnessed it, and I could see that he was very confused by it. And even then, it took him until 3 in the morning that night that he brought it up.
Of like, "Did you and Yvonne know each other from before? Because I saw you guys hugged." And I was like, "No, we're both just ethnic." Like, she was Puerto Rican, and I'm Jewish.
And then I managed to bring up, "A few months earlier, I know I gripped your knee, and that was weird for you." And he was like, "Yes, it was."
Then we put in the script — I think it might have even been that night — where Liz tries to hug Jack, and Jack doesn't like hugging because it's too ethnic.
Carlock: There's [also] always him watching Frank figure out how to get out of the Uncanny Valley in the pornographic video game.
Sagher: The other weird thing I remember from that show was, we had written this episode for Jenna, where she gets attacked by a monkey. And that was another all-nighter, and then we got out, and literally that morning, the monkey attack where the woman's face was torn off happened. And it was such a bizarre confluence.
And I remember being like, "We have our fingers on a very f----- up pulse of America." And also, the panic of, "Can we still do this?" Because we worked very hard on it.
Our messed up writer brains were completely in line with a rabid monkey — we were all on the same wavelength.
Note: LAist writer Mike Roe has written a full oral history book about the show 30 Rock. Details are available here.
Portions of this story have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
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