The Evolution of the Lyrics
If you’ve read our earlier Year in Review blog posts, you know basically how our writing process works. We start keeping track of important events right from the beginning of the year. In July or August we compile a list of topics, which we keep adding to as the year goes on. The next step is to select a great tune that’s up-tempo, familiar, and most important, royalty free. Finally we need a catchy, memorable hook. This year, the ancient Mayans and modern New Agers provided our hook for us: “2012: The End is Here!”
Once those key elements are in place, it’s time to start writing. This year our lyricist Scott cranked out the first draft at the beginning of September. Why so early? Partly because we never really know if the song will work until it’s written. We have to get a sense of its length, make sure the topics fit into the rhythms and rhyme scheme, and generally prove that it’s an effective joke delivery system. The rough draft also helps the music producer figure out the basic structure and the right sound to go with the lyrics. So even though it may bear little resemblance to the final version, we need a draft by late summer.
The first draft then goes to the directors, Jeff, Evan and Gregg, for review. Scott submits the text along with a scratch track, a rough recording of himself singing the lyrics to the tune of the selected song. As important as the scratch track is for showing how the words fit the music, it always makes Scott cringe because he’s painfully aware that he’s no singer. In order to embarrass him even more, we’ve provided this sample. The directors then read the script, listen to the scratch track, and (if all goes well) laugh in most of the right places. “Great!” they say. “Hilarious!” “This will be the best Year in Review ever!” It’s the writer’s proudest moment.
This period of euphoria may last for up to two seconds before the cutting begins. Material gets cut for all kinds of reasons. The song may be running too long. Maybe the topic is too obscure. Or let’s be honest, sometimes the joke just sucks. Everyone knows that almost all of the first draft will be cut or replaced in the course of many rewrites. It’s just part of the process. Still, if the song is generally on target, a few gems will stay in. Here’s how the political verse opened when Scott first submitted it.
OBAMA: I said, “You didn’t build that!”
REPUBLICANS: Vote for the billionaire!
ROMNEY: Repeal Obamacare!
CLINT EASTWOOD: I’m talking to a chair!
The first three lines soon disappeared to make room for other political topics. But Clint Eastwood arguing with a chair got a big laugh, so it made the final cut. The botched painting yelling, “ERMAHGERD!” also survived the rewrites. There was no way we were going to top that!
Topics addressed in the early drafts are often cut because they aren’t universal enough to strike a chord with a wide audience. Here’s what the third verse looked like back in October.
AVENGERS: We really kicked box office butt!
RUSH LIMBAUGH: I called that college girl a slut!
FRED WILLARD (BEING ARRESTED): What did I do that was so obscene?
Remember that Kony video?
How ’bout that Facebook IPO!
The nursing mom on Time Magazine!
To some of us, Fred Willard getting busted at an X-rated theater was one of the most hilarious moments of 2012. But it just wasn’t a big enough story compared to, say, TomKat’s divorce or Kristen Stewart making sexy time on the side. Most of that verse had to go for similar reasons.
You’ve probably noticed that a few of the year’s top news stories didn’t make an appearance in our review. That’s because some events, important as they are, are just too painful for our style of humor. JibJab’s stated mission is to make billions of people happy, so we don’t want to include material that will depress anyone. In the early drafts we tried referring to some of the year’s “darker” events, but it never felt quite right. After all, we’re jokesters, not journalists!
At last comes that magical moment when the whole script is finished! Except not really. As Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” (He ought to know, he never wrote a decent comedy song in his life!) Scott submitted twelve drafts in all, and even then he didn’t quit. He continued sending tiny tweaks for days after the lyrics were finalized. But ultimately the song has to be recorded. At that point it’s time to let go of the script and let the brilliant JibJab artists and animators work their magic.