Never in Darren Criss’ wildest dreams did he think he’d be able to cast Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, in his new musical comedy series Royalties. And not only that – be able to get the Star Wars icon to sing about King Kong’s… wait for it… penis.
“I could not believe he said yes,” Criss says. “I could not believe he showed up. I could not believe I was vocal producing, with my buddies, Mark Hamill in the (recording) booth, getting him to say the word penis several times to get the right tone.”
Hamill’s performance of “Mighty As Kong” (watch the music video, below) is one of the many zany musical numbers that highlight each episode of the series, which co-stars Criss and Kether Donohue as a pair of struggling songwriters trying to make it big in the music business. Royalties began airing in June on the mobile-only short-form streaming platform Quibi.
Other famous faces that pop up in the bite-sized show (each episode clocks in around 10 minutes) include Sabrina Carpenter, Jennifer Coolidge, Jordan Fisher, Julianne Hough, Bonnie McKee, John Stamos and Rufus Wainwright. Glee fans should also be on the lookout for a some of Criss’ Glee castmates to make an appearance, as both Kevin McHale and Chord Overstreet turn up in an episode.
Criss, who is the creator/co-executive producer/co-writer of the show, says the idea for Royalties came about at the start of his career, when “I definitely started seeing the comedy of errors that was the creative process in the music industry, for better or for worse.” (An early version of the series was in development at Fox TV in 2016.)
“I would meet so many people, especially in the writing community, that really felt like their livelihood was ripe for a comedy,” Criss tells the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast (listen to his interview, below).“My main focus was to make it as goofy and very light, just scrappy as possible… Between wanting to make a comedy of this (songwriting) world and writing (my own) songs and being in something, it just kind of scratched all the itches for me as a creative person.”
Below are some highlights of Criss’ conversation with the Billboard Pop Shop Podcast, including how it was easier than one might think to get Hamill to do the show, why 2019 was “one of the most difficult, complicated, most fulfilling, and concurrently frustrating years” of his life, and an update on the status of his COVID-19-delayed Broadway show American Buffalo.
Why Quibi, and its short form format, appealed to Criss:
Their whole creative model was very appealing to us. They were just the most enthusiastic. And we were flexible enough to the point where, you know, hearing something like, ‘let’s do short form,’ was really an interesting challenge for us. I actually quite enjoyed it, because you really have to kind of triage story elements and character arcs and how can you make that work (in a short format). …
The parallels to songwriting are infinite. When you have a (song) assignment of ‘we want it to be this BMP (beats per minute), we want it to be under three minutes, and we want to mention this word.’ That’s kind of the same thing of like, ‘we want this show to be this kind of funny, and under this amount of time.’ You know, parameters are good for artists, especially for guys like me. It’s no coincidence that I’ve written more songs in the past year than I have in my entire life, because I had deadlines and purpose. As an artist, I can’t seem to write for myself. I really thrive writing for other people.
On how the song “Mighty As Kong” came together:
One of the major constructs that I wanted for the show was to have a different artist per episode playing some bizarro version of some real person. We had this one song that we loved… it was before even the song was written. We just had this (idea of a) kind of country-rock (singer), Bruce Springsteen meets Tom Petty if he was Johnny Cash. If they all kind of became this one person. We had kind of knocked around a lot of different ideas… The song was really really silly. It’s a song about (laughs)… a guy who relates to King Kong’s penis. ‘Mighty As Kong.’ He finds solace in the size of King Kong’s… or, King Kong’s alleged-sized penis.
But why did “Mighty As Kong” lead to … Mark Hamill?
So, naturally, when you think that, you just think, ‘wouldn’t it be funny if we got Mark Hamill to do this?’ … I really wanted to give artists a chance to not be themselves at all. … I really wanted people to be outside of their supposed wheelhouse by the general public. … So I really wanted somebody that was fun and recognizable, but would bring a fun weight to this. So obviously Mark Hamill was just a pipe dream.
Unbeknownst to me, completely coincidentally, I did not know that Mark Hamill has a lifelong obsession with King Kong and the King Kong franchise and all the movies. And he’s been collecting King Kong memorabilia ever since he was a teenager. In fact, he told me that King Kong was one of the reasons why he wanted to go into the movie business. It’s a very palpable piece of his own life and nostalgia. He (said), ‘that’s the only reason why I said yes.’ I told him, ‘I wish I was that calculating! I wish I was that smart!’
It was just utter providence that we wrote this silly song and we asked him and I wrote him a letter. I could not believe he said yes. I could not believe he showed up. I could not believe I was vocal producing, with my buddies, Mark Hamill in the (recording) booth, getting him to say the word penis several times to get the right tone. The whole thing was just a wild wacky upside down world that he brought a lot of humor to — I still can’t believe he said yes. But it has mainly to do with the fact that he just loves King Kong, and that was just total serendipity.
On filming Royalties and Netflix’s Hollywood at the same time in 2019, and how last year was both “fulfilling” and “frustrating” for him:
When Quibi picked (Royalties) up, we kind of went full-tilt into that. And a while after that, I had a conversation with Ryan (Murphy) about this 1940s Hollywood idea (which premiered May 1 on Netflix), and he took it from there. (Criss co-stars in and co-executive produced Hollywood.) And by the time everything got locked in, they were all slated (to go into production) around the same time. In fact, Royalties was such and hot and heavy production process, because I had to zoom through that in order to finish in time to shoot Hollywood. I mean, at one point, I was shooting both at the same time. And the entire time I was doing Hollywood, I was also in post-production for Royalties. Last year was one of the most difficult, complicated, most fulfilling, and concurrently frustrating years of my professional life. It was the most I’ve ever been tested, and I love the chaos of multi-tasking.
We were meant to see Criss on Broadway right now in American Buffalo, with Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell. However, it didn’t even get to play a single show to the public before COVID-19 shut down Broadway. Is the plan still to get the show up and running when it’s safe to do so?
Well, we’re kind of at the whim … of the pandemic. Like many shows, we’re just waiting to see when things will be safe. I think that’s the No. 1 priority, making sure that the people of New York and the people visiting Broadway can be safe to do so. I have my own thoughts and opinions of when I think things may come back or not, but I don’t know how rooted in reality they are …
I know that Neil Pepe, our director, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Rockwell and I are all very excited about doing it, whether it gets to be in the near future or distant future. I think we’re all quite keen on making it work somehow. We had such a great time doing it (in rehearsals). And we’re also one of the very lucky shows that … we’re a small play. We’re a limited run (show) with a three-person cast, in a production that has a lower managerial overhead. It gives us a certain amount of license to hopefully come back in whatever medium we can.
Elsewhere in the new episode of the Pop Shop Podcast, hosts Jason and Keith discuss chart news about 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart with “Trollz,” Lil Baby bowing at No. 3 on the Hot 100 with “The Bigger Picture,” and how the top 10 of the Billboard 200 albums chart is absent of a single debut for the second straight week. Plus, there’s a Chart Stat of the Week focused on Duran Duran reaching No. 1 for the first time on the Hot 100 back in 1984.
The Billboard Pop Shop Podcast is your one-stop shop for all things pop on Billboard’s weekly charts. You can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop. Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard’s senior director of charts Keith Caulfield and senior director, music, Jason Lipshutz every week on the podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider. (Click here to listen to the previous edition of the show on Billboard.com.)