How Comedy Central's 'The Other Two' Makes Fake Pop Songs Sound Real Good
The show about what happens to two siblings when their younger brother becomes a YouTube sensation got real help from pop songwriter Leland
In the first episode of Comedy Central’s new show The Other Two, which premieres tonight (Jan. 24), Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb chit-chat with a rookie Justin Bieber-esque 13-year-old named Chase Dreams. He’s just been propelled to musical stardom after a song he released on YouTube, “Marry U at Recess,” went viral. Kotb suggests that Chase should put a cute family saying in his next song, prompting Chase to deadpan, without any PR savvy, “Oh, they said other people are writing my next song.”
Chase’s career skyrockets -- much to the chagrin of his two older burnout siblings, Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) -- but the teen is indeed just a hapless passenger on the road to stardom. A madcap manager (Ken Marino) is running his life and a team of calculating label executives (led by Wanda Sykes) are procuring all of his songs to ensure that “Chase Dreams,” the brand, is marketable and profitable.
But, in the real world, somebody has to be writing Chase’s songs.
And those tracks -- undeniable earworms despite the comedic intent behind them -- are the work of The Other Two’s creators, former Saturday Night Live head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, and Brett McLaughlin, a pop singer and songwriter who has crafted tunes for Troye Sivan, Selena Gomez, and RuPaul’s Drag Race under the name Leland.
Making a “fake” song is tricky. The three songs Chase Dreams releases in the first season needed to be funny but not so funny that they weren’t believable in the world of the show. They needed to be good, but not too good, since they were still being performed by a neophyte pop star whose music, in fiction, was made by committee. Below, Kelly, Schneider and McLaughlin share their creative process with Billboard and break down exactly what goes into making a fake song real.
Call In the Experts
This isn’t Kelly and Schneider’s first foray into the music world. At SNL, they were the masterminds behind musical skits like “(Do It On My) Twin Bed.” But for The Other Two, a more grounded story about the ridiculousness of the music industry, they realized they needed a pop expert’s touch.
“I went to SNL a year ago this month, when Troye performed two of our songs on the show,” McLaughlin recalls. “And I remember telling my team and Troye, ‘I don’t know how, but I would love to work with this group of people on something.'” A few weeks later, he was sitting down with Kelly and Schneider, plotting Chase Dreams’ musical career.
“Basically we would explain to him what vibe we were looking for,” Schneider says, noting that each of the three songs we hear in the first season are meant to evoke a specific pop-music trope, like a social-justice-minded empowerment anthem or a vulgar club-banger. McLaughlin would then come up with a melody and a few chorus and verse options, and the three would fine-tune the tracks. “We would send him our dumb lyrics, and he would make it sound legitimate and amazing,” Schneider says.
Do Your Research...
For “Marry U at Recess,” Kelly and Schneider immersed themselves in the many tween musical debuts available on YouTube. (McLaughlin wasn’t yet involved in The Other Two’s pilot episode, so this song was made with Vanacore Music.) “[It’s] 10-to-12-year-olds not really knowing what to sing about and not really having any life experience,” Kelly explains, “but they had seen pop stars older than them write songs, and they have learned what they think they’re supposed to write about. We just tried to heighten that and make it stupid.”
Still, the ribbing is gentle. The song milks comedy out of the song’s simplicity, like in Chase’s limited vocabulary: “Girl, you’re the cutest girl in the entire world.” You’re not laughing at Chase so much as smiling at him.
“We wanted to make a song that’s enjoyable to listen to because we wanted the kid to feel validated as they’re sent on this journey,” Schneider says. “The way that Cary feels about the music video at the end of the pilot when he’s watching it -- ‘I mean, I don’t not get it’ -- that’s exactly what we wanted people watching to feel.”
...But Don’t Overthink It
“Writing a song is always going to be writing a song,” McLaughlin says. “You’re always going to sit at a piano or computer or guitar and make up something that didn’t exist before. I didn’t want to stop myself every 30 seconds to say, ‘Is this the right direction?’”
Cramming in punchlines wasn’t a priority, either. “We wanted it to seem real,” Kelly explains. “It was really different to write comedy songs for this show compared to writing comedy songs for Saturday Night Live. In SNL, every line, every lyric should be a joke.”
The songs in The Other Two aren’t parody songs. Though some lyrics are certainly over-the-top, the comedy on songs like the hip-hop-inspired “Stink” comes from the idea that Chase is, for instance, an innocent kid singing a song somebody wrote about getting stinky on the dance floor because the label was gunning for the club market. “In the show it’s less that each lyric is a joke and more that premise itself was absurd,” Kelly says. “The song itself was earnest.”
Know Whom You’re Writing For
Chase Dreams’ second single, “My Brother’s Gay,” preaches a shamelessly pandering message of LGBTQ acceptance that comes at the expense of his brother Cary’s privacy. “[It came from] Chases’ team going, ‘Oh, you know what people like? Those pro-gay songs. We can make you be liked by making one of those songs everyone likes,’” Kelly explains. Chase, the sweet, naive boy that he is, is coming from a sincere place, even if his songwriters aren’t.
“I wrote these songs [imagining] I was a label executive and trying to involve different genres and go to the extreme of those genres,” McLaughlin says. “‘My Brother’s Gay’ is a One Republic anthem. I wanted to go to the extreme of that. I wanted to push as far as it can go -- throw in every element instead of picking a few things …. I just tried to picture myself writing the types of songs I was writing eight years ago when I was like, ‘Yes, I will write for a 13-year-old.’”
“My Brother’s Gay” works, then, because it’s an exaggerated version of a very common situation: Many young, up-and-coming artists just aren’t in control of their careers yet.
“The whole point of these songs is to not make fun of Chase,” McLaughlin says. “It’s to pinpoint where an artist like this would be in his career at that specific moment -- and the types of choices that adults would be making around him and asking him to sing.”
Be Prepared for Life to Imitate Art
The club-banger “Stink,” which appears later on in the season, was designed to be gross and over-the-top: “It’s the next progression of where his team has decided he needs to go, which is that he’s a fuckboy,” Schneider explains.
As a result, no idea was too outlandish during the writing process. “When I’m writing with an artist like Troye or Selena, or anyone who I’m fortunate enough to work with, there is a check and balance within the room,” McLaughlin says. “With ‘Stink,’ the only check and balance was making sure that it was catchy and sounded ridiculous. There was no, ‘Is this tasteful?’”
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the track’s immature, pseudo-sexual ickiness, “Stink” is a solid bop, and McLaughlin says it became a favorite of the show’s cast and crew. However, this fake song had to undergo some last-minute changes because of a real-world music development.
“It was originally called ‘Drip,’” Kelly recalls, because the word toed the desired line between been disgusting and flat-out inappropriate. “And then Cardi B released a song called ‘Drip’ right when we were about to go into production.”
“That’s probably the only time that a joke of ours has been poached by Cardi B,” Schneider adds. “Hopefully, not the last.”