By Gregg Shapiro
Atlanta-native and composer/writer Mark Rivers is on a roll. Known for his work on Mr. Show and Parks & Recreation, Rivers has garnered his first Emmy Award nomination for “Totally Gay”, a song featured in the first season of the irreverent, but acclaimed, animated Netflix series Big Mouth. A highlight of the episode “Am I Gay”, it features a duet between Freddie Mercury and co-lead character Andrew Glouberman, it’s easily one of the funniest homages of all time. Rivers was kind enough to make time for me to interview him while he was in Paris with his family in August 2018.
Mark, congratulations on your Emmy nomination for the song “Totally Gay” from the Netflix animated series Big Mouth. What does such an honor mean to you?
Not to sound like a whiner, but I guess it feels like, “Oh, finally some recognition [laughs]!” When I compose on other shows, you’re, if not behind the scenes then, you’re not so well noticed. It’s always more fun when I’m allowed to write songs for a show. There’s more recognition. I’ve sort of had two careers, as a writer and composer/songwriter. None of the shows I’ve ever written on have gotten any accolades of this sort; never been nominated for anything. It feels like I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time and I feel like I’ve earned it.
If you win, do you have place picked out to display your Emmy?
I don’t. I have an eight-year-old daughter and I strongly suspect that it will end up in her treehouse [laughs]. Whether I want it to or not. Or somewhere in her room.
How difficult was it to find someone who could sing like Freddie Mercury?
That was the key! Luckily, it wasn’t very difficult at all. There was one guy who came to mind, that was Brendan McCreary. I found him fairly easily because a mutual friend of ours, Brendan Small, who is a musician and show creator – he created the show Metalocalypse – is a very good guitar player. Also an avid Queen fan. He’d done a show a couple of years prior, put together a big band of very good musicians and back-up singers, and they did a night of Queen music. The singer was Brendan McCreary. He was the first guy that came to mind. He can do such a good Freddie. That was my first concern when they said they wanted to do a Queen song. Forget all the other daunting aspects of it. I felt like, “Well, I can do a version of those things. But if I can’t find a guy who can sing like Freddie…
The song is a combination of homage and parody. Have you heard from the members of Queen about the song?
No! I would love to. I don’t know if they’ve ever seen or heard it. I’m a little nervous that they might be mad or something [laughs].
I would think they have a good sense of humor.
I don’t feel like I would be in any danger of copyright infringement or anything. The melody and the chorus are original enough to be safe. I hope they would appreciate it. I would love to hear from those guys!
What do you think about the casting of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in the upcoming biopic Bohemian Rhapsody?
Rami Malek is the guy on Mr. Robot. I guess we won’t know until we see it. I originally heard an early rumor that it was going to be Sasha Baron Cohen. I was excited about it because I’m a fan of his, as well. This other kid, I don’t know. We’ll see how he does [laughs]. I just hope it doesn’t go the route of typical biopics [laughs]. There’s always that obligatory moment, like in the Johnny Cash one, [imitating Cash’s speaking voice] “I don’t know, I don’t think I’d really walk the line for her.”
The song (sung by the character Andrew, voiced by John Mulaney) is featured in the “Am I Gay” episode from the first season of Big Mouth. What do your gay friends think of it?
What I should have done was played the song for them before I delivered anything, just to make sure everything was kosher. I didn’t think to do that until it was way too late. They laughed and thought it was hilarious. I showed it to a couple of gay men friends who were like, “Send me a link to that!” I said, “I will when it’s available.” I didn’t do the quality or litmus test until later. Luckily, I’m in the clear. I sensed that I would be. The showrunners and the episode itself are conscious of that stuff. The song is very positive. The story is a positive take, ultimately, on gayness. We weren’t too worried.
I’m an Emerson College alum and I understand that you spent a lot of time hanging out on the Emerson campus in Boston when you were a student at Berklee College of Music.
I moved to Boston in 1984. My good friend there was David Cross. He had just started at Emerson the year before. I was going to Berklee College of Music, but I didn’t hang out with any Berklee people, not one! All of my friends were at Emerson. They were fun and funny. They didn’t talk about jazz or obscure music I wasn’t into. I was into XTC and Elvis Costello and The Jam. At that age, I wasn’t into jazz. I didn’t want to hang out with those people. Even post college – I lived in Boston for 14 years – I was still friends with David and I started meeting other people in the burgeoning comedy scene. I developed early friendships with Louis C. K. and Mark Maron and Janeane Garofalo, all these people who were just starting out then.
The Boston music scene during the 1980s was amazing. One of the things that came out of your time in Boston was being a member of the band The Cavedogs, who had a major-label recording contract. What was that like for you?
The major-label part was a blast. But we spent a long time languishing in the indie rock scene before the indie rock scene broke with Nirvana. That late `80s period was a super fun time in my life, but it was also frustrating. We spent about six years becoming a big Boston band, and in New England to some degree but we couldn’t get a record deal to save our lives. When we finally did, first we were on Enigma, and then ultimately on Capitol, that was great, that was a blast. We finally got to get out of Boston and tour the country and be a working rock band and leave our cruddy day jobs behind. So much of my time in the band, and my early years in Boston, were spent working at whatever day job I could make a living at and playing clubs. Going down to New York to play CBGB’s on a Tuesday night and then packing up the van and driving back that night to make it home in time for work. Those are my memories of the Cavedogs, really [laughs].