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'Simpsons' music man

After several years composing music for the television programs "Alf" and "Moonlighting," Alf Clausen was in unfamiliar territory. He was out of work.

Alf Clausen in the studio
Best known for his work on "The Simpsons," Jamestown, N.D., native Alf Clausen has worked on the musical side of television programs such as "Moonlighting," "The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Hour," the "Donny & Marie" show and "The Critic." Photo special to The Forum

After several years composing music for the television programs "Alf" and "Moonlighting," Alf Clausen was in unfamiliar territory. He was out of work.

In fact, he'd been out of work for seven straight months. That's when he got a call about working on a new animated series.

"And I said, 'What's the show?' And he said, 'It's called "The Simpsons." Have you ever seen it?' And I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Are you interested in doing animation?' And I said, 'No,' " Clausen recalls.

The Jamestown, N.D., native and 1963 graduate of North Dakota State University wanted to do dramas and TV movies of the week. But at the interview "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening told Clausen, "We look upon our show as not being a cartoon, but a drama where the characters are drawn, and we'd like it to be scored that way. Could you do that?"

"Well," replied Clausen, "now that you put it that way, yes, I could do that."

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And for 19 years, he has.

The two-time Emmy Award-winning Clausen makes his way to North Dakota for two events presented Tuesday by BisonArts, a group that raises funds for the NDSU Division of Fine Arts. The latter event features a discussion of composition for film and television and a performance of Clausen's music, conducted by Clausen himself.

"NDSU gave me a lot and I'd like to give back in some way, shape or form," Clausen says from his Los Angeles home where he lives with his wife, Sally.

Maybe it's fitting that Clausen ended up as the lead musical mind for a cartoon. He enjoys a joke. In relating part of his early story during an interview, he says he uttered a Homer-like "D'oh!" and then says "Oh, wait. That word didn't exist then, did it?"

Fellow North Dakota native and retired music teacher at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif., Gerry Schroeder says Clausen has a "terrific sense of humor" and a "great laugh." He says Clausen wrote a rock opera for Golden West College titled "Joan Baby" in which Joan of Arc comes back as a quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

And retired businessman and salesman Tim Smithson of Fargo used to play in NDSU's marching band with Clausen, and described his sense of humor at that time as "very dry, but very funny."

For whatever reason, "The Simpons" shoe has fit. But Clausen's early academic days could have led him in a very different direction. He started out majoring in mechanical engineering "because my college entrance tests told me I would be good as a mechanical engineer and I had no idea what I wanted to do when I went to college."

Of course, the move to music wasn't totally out of the blue. He started playing French horn in the seventh grade. And as a child of the 1950s, he says, "I just fell in love with Little Richard and Chubby Checker and Elvis and the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino - all those R&B artists."

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He was creatively inclined as a youth. He had a Lionel train set layout that stretched over three 4-foot by 8-foot tables. He also got into hotrods, founding a National Hot Rod Association certified car club in Jamestown.

Given his penchant for working with his hands, maybe engineering wouldn't have been so bad. But life would lead otherwise. He took a trip to Manhattan between his sophomore and junior years in college to stay with his cousin, a professional musician.

He saw the original productions of "West Side Story" and "My Fair Lady." He saw Ingmar Bergman films. He attended the Randall's Island Jazz Festival and remembers telling someone " 'Boy, that trumpet player's amazing. Who is he?' And the guy said, 'You've got to really listen to him. That's Miles Davis.' "

Clausen says those six weeks "totally turned my life around. And when I went back to North Dakota, as I say, I lasted about six weeks in mechanical engineering and realized that what I had just seen was something that I really wanted to be involved in."

The place to start was with a change in major. He earned a degree in music theory, later making his way to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and eventually moving to Los Angeles in 1967.

"One thing led to another, and contacts led to other contacts, and eventually I ended up getting a call at the last minute to write an arrangement for the 'Donnie & Marie Show,' " he says.

The music director of the show loved Clausen's work and invited him to join the show as an arranger. He would become the show's music director, his first "big network job."

It's only one of many big-name productions he's worked on or contributed to, including the television programs "The Critic" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Variety Hour" and the films "Airplane II," The Beastmaster," "Ferris Beuller's Day Off," "Dragnet," "Mr. Mom," "Naked Gun," "Splash," "Weird Science" and "Wise Guys."

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Despite those credits, it's probably his work as composer/conductor/songwriter for the "The Simpsons" that's his biggest claim to fame. And the whole affair can get pretty grueling, too. He says that during the heat of production, he's pulling about 80 or 90 hours a week. But, he says he likes the instant gratification that television offers.

In his words, "There's nothing like seeing your work come to fruition in that short turnaround time and see it on the air and be able to sit back and say, 'Yeah, I did that. I made it work again. How did I do that? I have no idea.' "

If you go

  • What: BisonArts Gala benefiting the NDSU Division of Fine Arts
  • When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday
  • Where: 300 Broadway, Fargo
  • Info: Call (701) 231-7969
  • What: An Evening with Alf Clausen
  • When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
  • Where: Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway
  • Tickets: $10 for adults and $5 for students. Call (701) 231-7969 for more information.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

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