Elfman Zone Home

A Look at Danny Elfman's work for Television

Amazing Stories "Mummy, Daddy" (1985)
Amazing Stories "The Family Dog" (1985)
Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986)
Sledge Hammer! (1986)
Tales from the Crypt (theme) (1989)
The Simpsons (theme) (1989)
Beetlejuice: The Animated Series (theme) (1989)
The Flash (theme) (1990)
Batman: The Animated Series (theme) (1992)
The Family Dog (theme) (1993)
Weird Science (song, Oingo Boingo) (1994)
Perversions of Science (theme) (1997)
Dilbert (theme) (1999) NEWLY ADDED
Desperate Housewives (2004)
Point Pleasant (theme) (2005)
Tales from the Crypt and
The Simpsons
can be found on this album.
Mummy, Daddy
The Family Dog
Pee-Wee's Playhouse
The Flash
can be found on this album.

Every popular film composer out there has worked in television. John Williams, James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith, Elliot Goldenthal, Bruce Broughton, etc, etc. Well, add Mr. Elfman's name to that list. From Television themes like The Simpsons, Tales from the Crypt, and Perversions of Science to commericals for Nike and Nissan, Danny Elfman has done it all—and with much success. Here we'll be keeping you informed about his work for television programmes and series, leaving the adverts to another section. The music clips are a mixture of RealAudio and MP3, and many of them are from the two CD compilations of Elfman's music, titled 'Music for a Darkened Theater'. Text is provided by Tim Perrine (Groovy Yak), Texas Ranger, and Bluntinstrument.

The Family Dog - (From Amazing Stories - 1985, 1993)

Hear the theme in RealAudio
I actually saw this episode of Amazing Stories one day while watching the Sci-fi Channel. I was surprised to find the episode had such a massive influence from Burton (the Dog itself is an animated Frankenweenie). Obviously, where Burton goes, Elfman follows.
I enjoyed this score on Music for a Darkened Theater II, and within the context of the show as well. The theme and music clearly demonstrate the dog’s life: frenetic, wild, happy, goofy, and even dangerous. When the burglars break in, the score takes a more desperate, darker turn, as the dog panics and attempts to stop them before they get away with everything. The wide use of piano adds a nice, clumsy motif to the already romping sound of the mutt. There are a couple instances that seem a little too wild and goofy even for a Burton cartoon, yet these clips are short enough to let pass. It’s obvious that Elfman drew from his earlier works for this one. In the case of the opening theme, I could almost argue that it’s self plagiarism as Elfman “borrows” from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Yet this doesn’t matter as long as the score fits the show - which it does.
VERDICT: Elfman created a mini score that truly captures the motion of a dog galloping to save the day.
—The Texas Ranger
Note: The "Family Dog" idea was revived in 1993 as a short-lived primetime animated show. The main titles theme is basically the same as the Amazing Stories version with a few modifications. - G.Y.

Pee-Wee's Playhouse (1986)

If anybody out there has read my review of MFADT2, than they might guess that I did not like this score that much. I’ll forgo the fact that the music is nothing but noise, and skip to the really annoying part - Elfman doesn’t use the original Pee-Wee theme for the show! Now I’ll admit that this may sound silly, but if he has a good theme, why not use it? If this was a decision that the show’s producers made, then Elfman still could have performed better in the face of adversity.
My philosophy is, no matter what a score sounds like solo, credit must always be given to how it performs within the context of the movie/show. Unfortunately, this theme does neither. I’ll admit that the opening strums from the electric guitar are cute, and the noise works well in the prelude. Yet the rest of the score is nothing but needless noise that serves no purpose.
The main theme, after the strums, consists of wacky percussion and very bizarre sounds from numerous sources (mostly synthesized). I would give credit if the music matched the lyrics of the song, but it doesn’t even pull that off well! After watching an episode of the show, I found that the underlying music (which is far too simplistic, yet annoying) barely fits the lyrics at all. In addition, the rest of the music seems too bizarre and out of this world even for a show about Pee-Wee Herman.
VERDICT: I once asked my little cousin what he thought of the music. He replied, “weird and stupid.” I then asked if he liked it. He said, “Uh. . .no.” Unfortunately, weird and stupid just doesn’t cut it for a nine-year old either.
—The Texas Ranger

Beetlejuice - The Animated Series Theme (1989)

Hear the theme in RealAudio
This theme succeeds where the Pee-wee’s Playhouse theme failed. Both are very similar in nature: each contains wacky percussion, cartoon sound effects, and other bizarre orchestrations. Unlike the Pee-wee the theme, Elfman actually bothers to write a cohesive, linear score, despite the fact the opening title sequence is a non-linear romp through a cartoon world. In addition, Elfman actually draws from the Beetlejuice theme for the show’s opening, unlike the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse show.
The opening begins with a dark, mischievous introduction, that showcases some goofy percussion, and what sounds like a calliope. This sets the carnival motif in motion, as a wild, animated, “dark ride” begins. Once again, the rolling arpeggios are present, yet in the form of a series of wind instruments. Elfman decides to abandon the piano as the source of the main beat, opting to use the cartoonish percussion and Tuba. The wordless choir works well, both creating a fast rhythm, and giving the theme a dark, but not “so dark that the kiddies go crying to their mothers” feel. At the halfway point, the theme takes a goofier turn, as a series of sound effects/percussion creates a horse riding sound, mixed with pig noises. This clomping seems to fit the scene, as Beetlejuice and Lydia ride past various, animalistic nether-world monsters. At the closing screen, the theme slows, and ends on the same note that the movie score’s introduction did.
VERDICT: Beetlejuice (the movie score) later inspired Elfman’s work on The Simpsons. Logically, the two animated themes should sound alike, and then they do. Yet the Simpsons theme seems to be better orchestrated, more adult, performed by a larger orchestra, and feels frightfully satirical. In the end, I have to rank Beetlejuice a little lower on the scale, due to its cartoony feel and small, synthesized performance.
—The Texas Ranger

The Simpsons Theme (1989)

The Simpsons
Hear the theme in RealAudio
Danny Elfman's contribution of the opening titles for this cartoon (in fact ANY cartoon) is entirely within the expectations of his stylistic capabilities. The music for most of his films up to—but not including—Batman (1989) show us a composer instantly at home with quirky comedy, outrageous plot-lines, silly people and social satire (the latter portrayed most memorably in Beetlejeuce and Scrooged). From this aspect of his repertoire the movement to the bitingly funny satirical Simpsons is less a leap, more of a dolly-step (pardon the twee playground slang).
What makes The Simpsons the most enduring of modern "cartoonism" is its combination of intelligent plotting, instantly recognizable characterization, and attention to detail. These observations are ironically the values which not just recent cartoons (with the exception of Disney—though at the cost of today's cinema seats you've got to expect a bit of effort) lack, but also many of the goofy films (did anyone say Flubber?) which might consider themselves appropriate to Elfman's magic touch. In short, this is one "classic" that deserves as much critical praise as it has ratings all over the world.
Elfman's role was to provide striking opening/closing title music which would be both suitable curtain-opener to the show, and provide the series composer (Alf Clausen) with meaty material to work on. In effect what was required was a typical operatic overture. In some sleeve notes for "The Simpsons. Songs in the Key of Springfield" Matt Groening (series creator) claims to have requested "a big, fully orchestrated, obnoxious, arrogant theme that promised you the time of your life". Perhaps not opera as we see it today, but still fitting.
The result is success on a par with the opening of Beetlejeuce--without the headache of a whole film to fill later.
A mere 1'29 in length it crams in references to various visual cues, from the raucous brass writing in the town-driving scene...to the pizzicato delicacy (accompanied by rushing strings) of little Maggie's faux-driving scene...to Lisa's saxophonic disruption of the school band scene (in succeeding episodes this moment provides ample opportunity for improvisation)...This is all stuff that Elfman in this style is immediately suited to and associated with. In fact films such as Beetlejeuce and Pee Wee are often accused of being live action cartoons. This is not without reason, but shouldn't be taken as criticism because: a) they make entertaining films, b) if cartoons were judged on the Simpsons' standard they really would be a "standard" and c) we can enjoy Elfman's style from this period, knowing that what he has written since has proved him to be both imaginative and innovative in other film genres.
Without a doubt the music is concentrated perfect, complimenting the cartoon in a way that few other composers would dare, without disregarding thematic tunefulness. The mood is fun fun fun to an exaggerated extent, and it is perhaps this which lends it that illusive sense of weight and the wickedly dark under-current The Simpsons hides beneath its own flamboyant exterior. Certainly the orchestration is top-notch, and bears an almost infinite number of listenings without giving up all its secrets—a good strength to have when you really are going to hear it that many times.
VERDICT: A miniature catchy-but-classic masterpiece. A must for all fans of this aspect of Elfman's style, and especially for those (like myself) who can usually only take it in small doses!!!
Review #2:
Matt Groening wanted a, “big, fully orchestrated, obnoxious, arrogant theme that promised you the best time of your life.” Boy did he get it! The Simpsons theme has become a cultural icon, much like the I Love Lucy, Saturday Night Live, Star Trek, and Happy Days themes. The mere sound of the opening drums, mixed with a harp, signals the listener to sing out, “ahh-The Simp-sons!”
According to Groening, he gave Elfman “flavor tapes including The Jetsons' theme, selections from Nino Rota’s Juliet of the Spirits, a Remington Electric shaver jingle by Frank Zappa, some easy listening music by Esquivel, and a teach your parrot to talk record.” Apparently, “Elfman gave a listen and said, ‘I know exactly what you’re looking for.’ A studio boss later told me that it was Lemmings marching-to-their-death music!” Once again Elfman combined all of these sources to form something familiar, yet totally unique and truly Elfmanesque. While sounding vaguely familiar, the bongo drums, rolling string arpeggios, bizarre orchestrations, and wacky percussion signals it is definitely an original Elfman tune.
VERDICT: Disturbing, schizophrenic, yet happy and wacky, this theme is definitely one of Elfman’s longest enduring tunes.
Note: In 1997, TV Guide released a viewer’s poll taken a month earlier. When asked what TV theme was the most annoying, the people responded with, The Simpsons among others. Elfman should be proud.
—The Texas Ranger

Tales from the Crypt Theme (1989)

Hear the theme in RealAudio
HBO's version of "The Twilight Zone" owes a portion of its success to Mr. Elfman. There a few internationally famous television or movie themes that can instantly conjur up a "fun" vision of death and decay as well as Elfman's theme for the series.
Of course this is not new territory for the composer and his obsession with death. With songs like Dead Man's Party and Clowns of Death, I'm positive the Oingo Boingo songwriter had no trouble composing this 1.5 minute masterpiece. It probably wrote itself!
In terms of melody, the theme is quite simple. It consists of two phrases, both of them 13 notes long. (Was that intentional??) The two phrases fit nicely in a style from the Baroque period. The first phrase ends in a half-cadence and the second phrase responds to the first and ends with a nice authentic cadence. It's almost like a warped Bach melody. Perhaps that's what Elfman invisioned when he started experimenting with harpsichord for the theme.
The structure of the theme is ABA with the B section only functioning as an extremely short bridge into the recapitulation of the main "A" theme in a new key. (It's almost like an introduction to the key change.)
However, I'd have to say that most of the theme's catchiness and pizazz comes from the interesting accompaniment and orchestration. As mentioned above, the harpsichord is the stand-out instrument in this theme. It almost distracts you from the melody. I'm not sure how the harpsichord became stereotyped as a morbid instrument. For some reason it's now attached with visions of ghosts and haunted houses. (Elfman uses it again in The Frighteners and Elliot Goldenthal uses it in his macabre Interview with the Vampire score.) There's also the inclusion of the pipe organ in the opening. The instrumentation of the melody is quite interesting. Elfman uses a combination of low brass and a celeste-like instrument. For the accompaniment, Elfman uses the harpsichord to outline the harmony, then there's some busy strings, snarling brass sounds, and pounding timpani.
VERDICT: While I enjoy and respect Elfman's Simpsons theme, I'd have to say that Tales from the Crypt is my pick for Elfman's best television theme. It has a simple catchiness, but the textures that support the melody are quite complex and busy. This theme is indeed the pinnacle of macabre.
—Groovy Yak
Review #2:
Okay, only Danny Elfman would take on this project for such a wonderfully macabre reason: once he learned that a dead guy hosted the show, he knew he had to go for the assignment! Sigh. . .and people say I'M strange!
Anyway, with all due respect toward The Groovy Yak, I think his use of the words "busy" and "complex" are a gross understatement. This theme is pure, orchestrated chaos on a level that can only be topped by Elfman's other wild theme for The Simpsons. And after seeing the opening credit sequence for the Crypt at least a hundred times now (I was an avid fan of the show!), I can now safely say that was entirely Elfman's intent! Only a theme as stable as a particularly pissed off psychotic at an Annual Crazy Convention could complement the roaming cinematography, bizarre haunted landscape, and endless barrage of creepy sound effects. Of course, the irony is, as Groovy pointed out, the theme isn't really that complex.
To enhance the mood of the theme, and give it the surreal "out of control" feeling, Elfman masks his melody behind very peculiar orchestrations. Like the Simpsons and recent selections of his Sleepy Hollow score, the sheer complexity of this piece ensures that the listener very rarely hears the same theme twice. Each new listen provides the listener (or victim!) with a new sound hidden underneath the simple melody—whether it be the racing strings, the brooding brass, the pipe organ, the bursts of choir (sort of an Unsolved Mysteries/Beetlejuice hybrid), or the ever present harpsichord. All of these ridiculous extremes for such a little theme prove that Elfman's objective was to disorient as well as fashion a macabre wit. There is never a slow moment, save for the brief pause near the ending. The theme just moves, pushes, and shoves its way through the dusty mansion—never relenting, never giving the listener a break. Every conceivable accompaniment instrument is used in driving force—ascending and descending in arpeggios, pounding incessantly, and musically swaying with the cinematic point of view. All together, this piece causes the musical equivalent of sea sickness—commonly referred to by Dr. Ranger as: Melodious Motion Malady. The cure? Take two Dramamine, plug your ears, go to sleep, and pay me a hundred dollars in the morning!
Though, besides the wild orchestrations accompanying the low brass and Celeste driven 13 note main melody, Elfman also employs a harpsichord. The reasons for this may vary, though it cannot be denied that the harpsichord has made a rather prominent return into the film scoring world as a horror instrument. I believe I may have an explanation as to why this is so. As Groovy mentioned, Goldenthal and Elfman both have employed them in Interview with the Vampire and The Frighteners, respectively. Goldenthal's use is quite self explanatory—the film's setting requires a Baroque arrangement. In addition, the harpsichord is one of the relatively few "dead" instruments of this day and age. By that I mean that it is, and most likely always will be, associated with the Baroque period. Think about it—how many times is a harpsichord used in mainstream orchestras nowadays? I theorize that these two reasons contributed to Elfman's use of the instrument in his theme.
First, Elfman realizes that the harpsichord has a Baroque quality to it. This fits perfectly within the scheme of the theme - after all, part of the definition of Baroque is outlandish and grotesque. As well as being associated with that time period, it is also ingrained in the public psyche as a tool of Old Europe—particularly the rich (after all, isn’t the Crypt Keeper a witty master of his macabre domain?). As a result, this stuffy Old World feel complements the Gothic decay that is so often associated with old, historical, crumbling mansions. In addition, the Harpsichord is a dead instrument—somewhat unique in this time frame (it certainly sets this theme apart from others). This association with the Harpsichord as a dead instrument is perfect in both the literal and cultural sense—it represents death, decay, and historical notes haunting the plebeian present. Thus, the reason it so often is used to score haunted houses becomes painfully clear: it is an old, elite, dead instrument. In that respect, Elfman nailed the coffin shut perfectly! For how better to score an old, dead, rich mansion then to use an old, dead, rich instrument? Simply: Baroque was the only style that allowed him to accomplish a dark romp through a decaying mansion—and boy did he accomplish it!
VERDICT: Fun, dark, relentless, wild, Baroque—MACABRE! I'm not going to state that this theme is better than the Simpsons. They both equally are stunning examples of accompaniment gone totally bonkers. Both have been ingrained in the public psyche, and both deserve to be! Together, they are Elfman's perfect Television Themes. Why should I have to like one more than the other? If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it!—I know, that was terrible. I apologize for that—it won't happen again.
Note: If or when another Tales from the Crypt film is released, sneak into the theater and catch a glimpse of the opening sequence in big, screaming, ear drum shattering, Dolby Surround Sound! Trust me, it's worth it!
—The Texas Ranger

The Flash Theme (1990)

Hear the theme in RealAudio
Ah yes, self-plagiarism—the act of stealing from one’s own work—always amazes me. Of course, this amazement stems more from the debate that self plagiarism sparks, rather than the act itself. Personally, I don’t have a major problem with self plagiarism. In fact, one of my favorite modern film composers is James Horner, who has practically based his entire career on self plagiarism. Still, The Flash theme offers little in the realm of originality, but is a cute use of all those little Elfman-isms. From the first five notes, anybody who knows anything about Elfman’s film score career will likely shout, “Wait just a damn minute - that’s Batman!” For the most part, that’s all this theme is - a reworking of the Batman formula. Every aspect of the theme has a militaristic/comic book feel, in addition to a soaring motif provided by the strings and winds. The second portion of theme, which sounds suspiciously like the last thirty seconds of the Dick Tracy theme, strays away from the Batman feel just slightly. I’m certain that Elfman was going for a film noir, comical, flowing score to match the speed of the justice seeking character. Although, I have never seen the show, so it’s just speculation.
VERDICT: A cute, rather unoriginal reworking of the Batman motif. Comic, soaring, and militaristic, the two and a half minute theme is fun, but little else.
Note: While Elfman wrote the main theme, Shirley Walker was hired to score this show’s few seasons. She also scored Batman: The Animated Series whilst Elfman wrote the main theme (later to be replaced by her own theme). In addition she also was the one of the main orchestrators who worked with Elfman on the original Batman film score.
—The Texas Ranger

Batman - The Animated Series Theme (1992)

How does a composer write a TV theme based on one of the greatest movie themes of all time? The answer is simple: don’t change anything. Elfman performed this task well; and while I must say that the theme to this show is quite good, I can’t imagine Elfman really had to toil hard over this one.
Elfman borrows from the pseudo Baroque/Expressionistic style of his first movie score, instead of the Seasonal Gothic style of Batman Returns. The choice is a good one—for while I enjoyed the more Gothic score of “Returns,” the “style over substance” approach works better in the context of a two dimensional cartoon.
The composer introduces the theme with the same notes used in the two films. This seems to work well, considering the animation department mimicked the opening shot of both films (dissolving the Warner Brother’s sign into a dark sky). Elfman even inserts the obligatory choir chord that has become associated with the opening sequences of the two movies. The music then turns atmospheric, as two criminals stealthily exit a bank. Following an explosion, the score takes an action oriented turn. Elfman uses the same piano movements and brass stings that were use during most of the first film’s action sequences, but keeps the percussion down to a minimum. When Batman appears, Elfman uses a slightly more triumphant version of his classic theme. Over the course of the ensuing fight, he allows the music to match the action of the characters—writing a very fluid, sweeping section, without using too many stings to interrupt the flow of both the action and theme. Of course, he ends with his now classic, foreboding end notes, which signals that Batman will be summoned again to fight injustice.
The end credits theme brings even more triumph to the score. The dark, rolling string arpeggios are replaced with more light hearted, fluid wind instruments. In addition, the heavy, militaristic percussion has been all but silenced. While I can pick up some timpani, I believe Elfman rewrote the beat using mostly heavy strings.
VERDICT: This theme lacks the depth of both movies, but suffices in the context of the cartoon show.
—The Texas Ranger

Perversions of Science Theme (1997)

My brother and I saw only one episode of this show while on vacation at Cedar Point. The plot involved a man trying to “get it on” with a cyborg. The robot shuts off while being “intimate” with him. So the man runs around with a mutilated cyborg attached to his uh...“Herman”, trying to hide it from the future father-in-law, played by William Shatner. I wasn’t quite sure which was funnier, the cyborg incident, or Shatner attempting to act.
During the opening, we both listened to the theme, turned to each other at the same time, and screamed, “That sounds like Elfman!” It turns out we were right. There was nothing truly special about this theme, and I felt it only fit the show adequately. The main theme seemed a little too bombastic for the lackluster opening sequence.
VERDICT: As far as I can remember, I felt that the score was merely an attempt to bring a sci-fi element to the Tales from the Crypt motif (composed earlier for HBO). Those in search of a great Elfman Sci-fi theme should check out the opening sequence to Mars Attacks!. Apart from that, I can’t remember anything else about the score - although I’ll never forget the cyborg incident. . .OUCH!
—The Texas Ranger

Dilbert (1999)

Hear the theme in MP3 (with fx), and the end titles in MP3.
For his translation from three-window cartoon to animation series the office bod with the upwardly mobile tie gained himself a main titles theme from Danny Elfman designed simply to be a big mad. Rubbing noises, a stunted calypso and then Boingo electric guitars. Thematic material is at a strict minimum, sketching a three note motif and hammering it into the mind in various transpositions until you cannot rid yourself of it: 'C' up an octave (to a 'C') and then down a tritone to F#. Simple, effective, but why does it sound familiar? The answer: it has been adapted from music for The Forbidden Zone, hence its title, 'The Dilbert Zone'. As 'Fabrice D' points out, the end titles "revamp" the theme, compressing it, and often omitting the octave leap. Eagle-eared viewers will also note that the theme is occasionally used for link music. It does make you wonder what of value is left for composers Adam Cohen and Ian Dye to get their teeth into.
—Bluntinstrument, with polite nudging from Fabrice D

Desperate Housewives (2004)

Hear the theme in MP3.
A theme destined perhaps not for the greatness that The Simpsons instantly attained, but for a gradual insinuation on the audience of this (for now) intreguing and deft comedy. As with a large number of Elfman's works for television, there is much here that would strike the average savvy Elfman fan as reminiscent of a particular film score. In this case the bright-eyed goofy style takes a quick peek back to Pee-wee's big adventure, both in its instrumentation (kooky synths, saxophone, bright over-all scoring) and in its deceptively simplistic melodic outline. Beneath this disguise is a gratifyingly bizarre succession of harmonic and instrumentational shifts which compliment the Pythonesque televisual images.

Point Pleasant (2005)

Hear the theme in MP3.
Blink your ears and you'll miss this genuinely creepy main title theme to the American spooky soap. Fortunately, this mutated child of The Frighteners (the theme is most reminiscent, dude) and Men in Black (electric guitars) adds very little of value to this corner of Elfman's oeuvre. What it shows, though, is a continuation of his return to more varied projects, from television to video game to animated film to concert work. When viewed in light of this contrast, Point Pleasant doesn't seem so much a tired loop as a carefully directed personal cliché to please the fans and satisfy the money men.
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