Quick, name the most iconic TV show theme song of the 2000s. The various covers of American singer-songwriter Tom Waits' 1987 gospel deep cut "Way Down in the Hole" in The Wire? Columbus, Ohio producer RJD2's smoky hip-hop instrumental "A Beautiful Mine" from Mad Men? All strong picks, but for sheer recognizability, it's hard to beat the opening tuba and mandolin waltz of HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm.
As the story goes, the show's creator and star Larry David discovered the jaunty tune by accident when he heard it in a bank commercial four years prior. "It just sort of introduces the idea that you're in for something pretty idiotic," he said in a 2009 interview. The title of the lighthearted track was "Frolic," and the man behind it was Rome-based pianist, conductor, and teacher Luciano Michelini, whose career began in the early 1970s mainly composing for Italian and foreign films.
In the time since the globally beloved show ended in 2011, the song has enjoyed a second life courtesy of countless internet mashup videos, which pairs the track with other pop culture and political clips. These humorous results range from Steve Harvey announcing the wrong winner of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant, to Bernie Sanders being interrupted during a speech by Black Lives Matter protesters and New Jersey governor Chris Christie realizing four years of President Donald Trump is going to feel like a whole lot longer.
With Curb set to return later this year and the memes not slowing down anytime soon, we recently spoke to the 71-year-old Italian composer over email (through a translator) about his career, the enduring legacy of "Frolic," and what's he's learned from working with his son on music.
THUMP: When did Larry David reach out to you about using "Frolic" for Curb Your Enthusiasm?
Luciano Michelini: Larry David never contacted me directly. In 2000, the son of Franco Micalizzi (an Italian composer from RCA) called me and said that an American label bought the music rights to a film by director Sergio Martino, La Bellissima Estate. "Frolic" was one of the songs in the movie, but I never thought that "Frolic" would have a future life because of this.
A while later, Larry David's production team contacted the music editor, and I found out Larry had chosen "Frolic" as the main theme song for his new series. The funny thing is they also wanted to know if I was still alive because the movie was from 1974!
How was the song originally used?
I wrote "Frolic" for a funny character named Il Barone Rosso (The Red Baron), who was played by an important Italian actor at that time named Nino Toffolo. In the movie, Il Barone Rosso lived in a small airplane on the beach after an air disaster.
Throughout your career, you've written music for numerous films, what's been the biggest challenge of composing for others versus composing for yourself?
The difference between original music and music for films is the fact that the original music is completely autonomous, with no rules and just the author's feelings. This is most of the time difficult to do for a song used in a movie. The great [Italian director] Pierpaolo Pasolini has said, "The music completes the movie and it gives dimensionality to the movie." You have many rules to follow, and everything is about the images that you see, and it has to be in sync with emotions. Almost all of the films I have done were in real time, where we recorded the music with an orchestra I conducted and the movie playing in front of us.
Why do you think "Frolic" has been so universally well-received?
If I think of how many great songs there are in the world, I find it difficult to explain how "Frolic" has become such a success and so recognizable. I can only guess it was just the right song for the right TV show at the right time. I wrote the instruments including mandolin, tuba, piano, and strings to really catch the ear of the listener. It's a piece with comical DNA.
Have you seen any of the mashup videos or remixes?
I have seen many of the videos on YouTube known as "The Frolic Effect," it's very amusing, and I think it's the perfect way to use the song. I have not seen many remixes, but the song has adapted to fit different purposes throughout its lifetime, and it can continue to adapt in different musical styles. The song has a solid harmonic arrangement with many seventh chords that you can easily manipulate, so you can easily edit into electronic music and the result can be very unique.
Do you listen to any electronic artists? Are you familiar with Italian producer Lorenzo Senni?
I am not a big fan of electronic music to to be honest, but I like to see the new trends and what is happening in the world musically speaking. I rely completely on my son Lorenzo [who performs under the name Lorenzo Dada] when it comes to electronic music. I do however appreciate Björk.
He's a techno producer, what lessons has he taught you about making music?
He's helped me to understand the electronic scene and all of the sub-genres. It was a world that I didn't know also in terms of technology. It's incredible now what you can do from your bedroom with just a computer. Very different from my era of creating music with actual instruments.
When Lorenzo was four years old, my wife Anna and I started him in music with the Yamaha method, and then he then studied at the Conservatory Saint Cecilia in Rome, where I taught for more than 50 years. He has shown me a new way to write and think of music. We are actually working together to combine his live set with the orchestra in Rome, where I will get to work beside him as the conductor. It's the first time that our roads will collide and I'm very excited and proud about this.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Max Mertens is on Twitter.