Hot Dad messes with your favorite TV themes
Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Erik Helwig is Hot Dad, and for just over a year he has been writing and producing twists on popular TV themes. He’s rewritten over 101 themes, and what’s perhaps more impressive than that number is the fact that nearly every song is catchy. Hot Dad’s TV project exhibits just how seemingly effortlessly Helwig can pump out the hooks.
You could say that the songs Helwig writes are not always complete works of genius—when I first stumbled on his Bandcamp, I found myself intrigued but generally unimpressed, particularly by the lyrics. But then I discovered the songs’ original medium, the dotflist YouTube channel. After watching a few of those videos, I became a Hot Dad fangirl. Once Helwig completes his themes, he pairs them with the shows’ opening sequences. The tunes and videos often complement each other in uncanny ways, and, as Helwig mentions in the following interview, it happens completely by chance. The effect of marrying Helwig’s twisted songs and the shows’ deliberate title sequences ranges from funny to unsettling, and whether or not you enjoy the comedy, the discomfort, or the dependable catchiness of the songs, you can admire the Hot Dad TV project as a spectacle of the creative process.
In its singular year of existence, the TV project has garnered Helwig a lot of attention, with features on Gawker, Laser Time, and other publications. Some people have loved it, others have been utterly repulsed. Now, the sun is setting on the TV project, but Helwig isn’t finished creating hooks.
We interviewed Helwig, and he responded with thoughtful and nuanced answers. You can acquaint yourself with his work as Hot Dad on his YouTube channel and download his themes for free on Bandcamp. For a glimpse at what he’s got cookin’, check out his “serious” music project, Girls Who Care.
I’m impressed by the sheer breadth of the Hot Dad-TV catalog. How long has this project been in process? How long does it take to pump one of these out?
Thank you! According to YouTube (I actually forgot), I started around mid-March 2014. I did the first 70 in one day apiece, but then started taking a little more time for mixing/polishing. It’s pretty easy to make mistakes if you conceptualize/create/mix/master in the same day, but there’s also some beauty/honesty in those mistakes too.
Some of the theme sequences just vibe really well with the songs you create. But you’ve said you don’t listen to or watch the theme sequences before you create a song. Do you find your prior exposure to certain shows influences how a song comes out? Or is it just serendipitous?
It’s mostly serendipitous, but seeing a show undoubtedly has some kind of impact on the final product, whether it be tangential or direct. In some cases, I found it fun to destroy the vibe of the show with the theme (Oz comes to mind), but that’s also kind of a cheap/easy tactic to use for laughs, so I try not to overdo it. I just take whatever the first hook is I create when thinking about the title of the show and run wherever it goes. And sometimes that’s a happy place and sometimes it’s weird and sometimes it’s dark and the list goes on and on.
The end product with the video is entirely serendipitous though. I don’t watch the original and so when my song is done, I usually just sync up one thing (like the fade out or title text) and hope for magic during the rest. And yeah, while some of them have turned out really incredible, I can’t complain about any of them, honestly. Initially, I was just making any song I wanted and speeding/slowing up the footage until it kinda matched. But that caused some unpleasant results (slowing down a 20 second intro to be 2 minutes just doesn’t work all that well), so now the only thing I look into is the length of the intro before I make/arrange the song. The rest is chaos!
You also said that there’s a number of shows you’ve written songs for that you don’t/haven’t watch/ed. Where do those songs come from? Do you acquaint yourself with the story lines of the show before writing them?
As I mentioned above, I choose a show, come up with a hook (I just do other stuff and wait for it to happen), and then head to Wikipedia to fill in the lyrics if I know nothing/haven’t seen it. Sometimes I emphasize the wrong things (usually intentionally, sometimes not), and sometimes I come up with a nice, pithy description of the show. And all of those variables play into how much comedy is present in each theme. Some of them aren’t even funny really, but it’s not clear to the uninitiated what I’m trying to do. “Why did he make this?” “Does he think this is better than the original theme?” “Is he trolling for views?” “Is he just a super fan who made his own song as a tribute?” I love that ambiguity.
What’s your goal when you write one of these? Create a catchy song? Capture (or maybe subvert) the essence of a beloved TV show? Some combination of both? Something else?
My goal whenever I make any composition is to create hooks. I don’t care the style, I just want hooks. When I get a hook I like, I’m inspired to do all the rest of the work required to finish the song. So I’m gonna say yes to the catchy song motive, which sometimes does capture the essence of a beloved show. But I try not to think too hard about it. The other questions were kind of answered above (use the gimmicks, but don’t abuse the gimmicks), but I will say that shows like “Home Improvement” (which I wrote/acted in a YouTube parody series of), ended up up with extra darkness/weirdness because of my earlier re-imagining of it. That was definitely intentional.
Most of the others are just whatever thing makes me laugh while I’m writing the lyrics, because that also keeps me working. My girlfriend is partial to “Cheers” because of how dark/cruel the lyrics are, but I wasn’t even thinking of that when I made it. It was just silly/lazy wordplay and it ended up being this like super callous, borderline misanthropic thing. I really love that people are digging into the meanings of these songs I don’t entirely remember making. It’s insanely flattering for me because most of what I write is from a subconscious place (the blessed home of creative flow) and I don’t know what it means at the end of the day. I’m pretty bad at analyzing art (I’m more about emotions than thought), so that’s especially cool.
What’s your favorite theme you’ve made so far? Why?
Whatever one I’m currently working on, because it’s definitely my best work to date. :) :) :) But seriously, I think I’ll say “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” That was the first request I ever did where the requester asked for a specific style (and I think I only did style requests maybe 2 other times, one being a reggae “Powerpuff Girls”). Prior to that, people just said “Do show X or Y” and I did whatever style came up. I was nervous doing it (it happened right after the Laser Time article and I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to handle the pressure), but somehow I managed to make something that hit all the right buttons for fans of the show. People went pretty nuts over it and the original requester has thanked me like 5 separate times now. I guess it made people feel like kids again, even though it’s kind of a dumb song (and I say that lovingly). I did watch it as a kid, but I remember none of it now aside from character names and pizza-fixation (but really, is there anything else to TMNT?).
You said you feel this project and your more serious venture, Girls Who Care, are inextricably linked. I’d agree for a number of reasons, but specifically, how do you see the projects influence one another?
The easiest way to answer this question is to talk about a phenomenon I’ve been witnessing since I started writing both joke and serious music. Oftentimes people say things about Hot Dad songs like, “This is hilarious, but it’s also a legitimately good song” or “It’s a shame you wasted a song this good on a topic so dumb.” Initially, I was really scared of those kinds of statements. I mean, like, whoa, I’ve made a stupid song about topic A or B, but I should definitely use this for a real song later or else I’m crazy. Well, I’ve never done that once, and I’m okay with it. The songs just fall into their right place. Having a song be “wasted on a bad topic” is like another layer of comedy, to be honest, and I love having all of those layers. A lot of the time it’s some insanely dumb phrase in my head that inspires a whole song, compositionally strong or not, and I just want to respect that chain of inspiration.
So in a way, they’re not really inspiring each other, just co-existing in the same world and developing until they become one or the other. I can always tell when I’m writing a “real song” and when I’m writing a “joke song,” but it’s just intuition now and I don’t go much deeper than that. If someone came to me and offered me a bunch of money to make a joke song into a serious one, I’d probably do it. But it’s unlikely to happen on my own.
What are your plans for the future, creatively speaking? What’s your next move?
I’m really backed up right now with unreleased stuff. I’ve got 2 full length Hot Dad albums to release, 3 Hot Dad EPs (all different topics [including the Web]), 1 more TV theme, and the Girls Who Care LP, all of them being held back by roughly one unfinished element each (cover art, mixing, a better video for YouTube, etc). I just got my green screen and lights back from my parents’ house, so my next move is to focus more on videos. I’m not visually inclined at all (which means I’m usually begging better video people to help me), but I’m starting to get totally overwhelmed by the amount of material I want to give “a proper release,” which basically just means “a funny video.” So I need to get it out there, and pushing myself to create videos is the best way to do that, rather than just writing more and more things that will continue to pile up while I wait for other people’s schedules to open up.
Also, I need to start playing shows pretty badly. With both of my acts. So if you’re reading this and you’ve got a show, book me!
If you wanna know whether my focus is comedy or real music, I can’t really answer that. If I do too much of one without the other, I get depressed and have to alternate. So it’s my yin and yang, I guess. I love ’em both.
Have you played any shows/are you gonna?
I’ve been bad about that lately. I have done a few shows with Girls Who Care in Ann Arbor. They went well, but a lot of last year was spent waiting for the LP to get finished by my mixer/producer in NYC, because with the finished LP came updated backing tracks for the show. And yeah, all the TV theme stuff happened too, changing my focus entirely for half the year. The live band for Girls Who Care currently has a biweekly rehearsal schedule, and things are finally solidifying. Hoping to start off as a three-piece with backing tracks to keep it simple and then expand from there.
I would like to do some Hot Dad shows, but I’m not entirely sure how to market those yet. Basically, I’m going to focus on whichever part of my work ends up with the most attention. If there ends up being some interest in a TV live show, I’ve got some ideas for how that’ll work. I obviously need to reach the right people though, since unfamiliar audiences could wind up pretty confused. But maybe that’s fun too.
All that being said, I’ve gotten a lot more press for my joke music than my real music. :)
Is there anything else you’d like Mostly Midwest readers to know?
I’m not actually a dad. *insert appropriate emoticon*
If you like any of my stuff you’ve seen so far, there’s a really good chance you’ll like the new stuff coming very soon. And I’m gonna be coming to your town in some form or another, so watch out!
Although I write some really weird songs about some really weird topics, none of it’s serious, I swear. And I don’t really hate any TV shows and if I made up mean lyrics about your favorite show, I hope you can forgive me. ;)