Why So Serious? The Evolution of Joker’s Theme Songs

Comic book depiction of the Joker

What do Nelson Riddle, Danny Elfman, Shirley Walker, Hans Zimmer, and Hildur Guðnadóttir have in common? They have all tried their hands at creating a musical sound that encapsulates a fiendish clown prince of crime. The Joker has had many different iterations through the decades. Each came with its own actor, look, and context. With so many different versions of the same character existing out in the world, it only makes sense that the music used to represent him would change too. As the character evolves, so does his soundscape.

Who is the Joker?

First appearance of The Joker in the Batman comic book series.

The first appearance of Joker occurred in the initial issue of Batman on April 25, 1940. This laugh obsessed villain, created by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson and Bill finger, was originally a one-off villain. However, the editors and writers wanted to keep him around. This spawned the most iconic villain in world of Batman and led to Joker ultimately becoming the Dark Knight’s archnemesis. While his popularity maintained for decades, Joker probably had a different voice in everyone’s heads until he made his TV debut in the 60’s.

Holy Joker Theme Batman!

Cesar Romero as The Joker

Cesar Romero was the first person to ever portray The Joker and give him a voice. This initial version of Batman’s nemesis was a product of the times and the show that he was in. This 60’s era Joker was more lighthearted than his later counterparts as the show took place in an era where previous war times had caused DC comics to make Batman more friendly to appeal to children who needed a pick me up from the society around them. In this show, the writers took the newer, more colorful version of the Batman comics and turned them into scripts. This childlike feel seems silly now but was a big hit in its day.

The Joker’s Theme is a chaotic fanfare for the clown prince. It was a direct reflection of the context in which it was used. It needed to sound a little clowny and silly while still portraying a menacing nature. Nelson Riddle achieved this with a melody and countermelody which, on their own, sound like they could be music you hear at a local carnival. When these two lines are played together however, they are very dissonant. The melodic lines also are constantly shifting upwards and the dissonant intervals (such as minor seconds and tritones) continue without ever giving the listener a sense of resolution. This lets the audience in on the uneasiness and foreshadows the heinous crimes that the Joker is about to commit. You can listen to this theme hear:

Nelson Riddle’s “The Joker’s Theme”

A Waltz to the Death

It wasn’t until 20 years later that the world received its next iconic Joker. In Batman directed by Tim Burton in 1989, things in Gotham got a little grittier. This shift was occurring societally as well in the real world and was on par with Burton’s usual aesthetic. With a descent into darker imagery and concepts, it makes sense that The Joker would evolve in a similar fashion.

Jack Nicholson was known at the time for his defining roles in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. It was probably the latter that led to interest in him as the Joker. Being no stranger to dark times and killers (with his close relation to the Manson Family murders), he was perfect for this role.

Jack Nicholson as the Joker

Danny Elfman had previously worked with Burton on various other films and was trusted to create the soundscape for this new iteration of Batman. This film was Elfman’s launch into DC stardom via the Iconic Batman Theme which was used for decades after this movie came out as the go to Batman Theme. However, an equally captivating theme was his Waltz To The Death. This theme was created around Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker being creepy and carefree in nature. This is reflected both in the title and the music itself. The bombastic nature of the intro misdirects the listener into preparing for a suspenseful and epic piece of music. That is cut short when the intro ends abruptly, and we are introduced to the real nature of this theme: a playful waltz. This typical 3/4 time feel is filled with characteristic strings and big moments outlined with crash cymbal, bass drum, and timpani hits. Around 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the piece we get a more whimsical and carnival-like sound with quick and heavy trombone glissandos introduced into the mix very briefly. This sudden change in the sound serves to foreshadow the derailing that is to come. Things quickly begin to swirl in a different direction as dynamics begin to shift dramatically from loud to soft and the playing style of the instrumentalists lends itself to a lazier feel. This seemingly resolves back into the original, more traditional, waltz style for a few seconds only for the ending of the piece to descend into a creepier cluster of strings as it fades out. While the musical shifts in this piece were originally meant to accompany the scene it was paired with, it stands on its own as perfect representation of the Joker’s chaotic lifestyle.

Danny Elfman’s “Waltz to the Death”

A Bad Joke

The 90’s was an era most consider to be the highlight of animation and Saturday morning cartoons. It makes sense that comic book crusader Batman would make his way into the world of animation, as he was already loved around the world by many children. It also makes sense then that his myriad of villains would accompany him into this new show. After all, what good is Batman without crime to fight?

Joker from Batman the Animated Series

Batman the Animated Series brought yet another version of Joker. This time voiced by the legendary Mark Hamill. Hamill is known around the world today (aside from Luke Skywalker) as the voice of the Joker and has voiced him in many projects since this show. Being an animated series, there is more freedom regarding what can be accomplished visually compared to live-action adaptations of the comics. That freedom rolls over into the exaggeration voice actors give and the range in which music is used.

Often it is the case in TV shows (especially animated ones) that the composer will establish a theme for a character which can be varied and adapted based on the premise of the episode it is used. This Joker theme is no different. Shirley Walker established a classic melody that sounds like something straight out of a carnival. It is then put through multiple variations with the most prominent difference often being instrumentation. In one version it’s played on flute and is accompanied by temple blocks, cymbal crashes, and xylophone giving it a ragtime feel. In another variation it seems to give a mock romanticism to the Joker as its played in an exaggerated French style on accordion. Other changing variables include tempo and key, to adjust pacing within the episodes. This theme was perfectly cartoonish in nature, even for the sometimes-menacing actions of the Joker.

Shirley Walker’s “Joker’s Theme/Bad Joke”

Why So Serious?

Heath Ledger as The Joker

Perhaps the most well-known Joker of today’s society is the one portrayed by the late Heath Ledger. It is hard to even consider the Joker nowadays without picturing this version of the character. A full-on psychotic clown who managed to be creepy without being too grandiose. As the world of Batman grew, it became even darker. In 2008 under the direction of Christopher Nolan, Heath Ledger captured the newest tone of Gotham City’s most infamous villain by putting his whole heart and soul into the performance.

This performance led to the most recognizable Joker line of all time. “Why so serious?” was the line spoken by Joker when he explained how he received the scars that resemble a smile on his face. This line is also the name of the theme written by Hans Zimmer for this once in a lifetime performance. When asked about working with Hans Zimmer on The Dark Knight and Batman Begins, composer James Newton Howard recounted how Zimmer was always challenging himself. He had previously written a 2-note theme for Batman Begins, so he wanted to write a 1-note theme for the Joker in The Dark Knight. This seemed impossible to others working on the project, however through mixing and microtonal distortion of that one note, Zimmer managed to create a subtle siren effect that rises and falls into so much tension you can’t help but cringe as you wait for it to resolve. The full version of “Why So serious?” is 9 minutes long and very minimalistic in nature for the majority of the piece. Bursts of loudness and silence interject a sense of constant rising tension. This is a reflection of the Joker’s nature in the film. Most of his dialogue is calm and quiet, with bouts of loud laughter or rage. Zimmer managed to take Heath Ledger’s performance on screen and condense it into 1 note, which is masterful storytelling to a new level.

Hans Zimmer’s “Why So Serious?”

Dancing in the Bathroom

The most recent description of the Joker comes from the movie Joker directed by Todd Phillips in 2019. This movie takes a new approach to the Joker as most of narrative takes place before neither the Joker nor Batman existed. Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is shown slowly becoming the Joker as he mentally unravels throughout the story. This highlight of the mental affliction that the failed comedian has led to a need for music that was unlike any other previously written for the Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker

The recurring motif throughout the film is a simple minor third interval played by a single cellist. This theme happens in scenes of momentary serenity in the mind of Arthur. These serene moments in his mind become more and more disturbing to the audience as the character develops. The memorable scene that is usually associated with this musical theme is one where Arthur is shown dancing in a bathroom. This Bathroom Dance (also the namesake of the piece) takes place after his first time killing someone in the movie and is also the first time this subtle score comes to the forefront. The minimalism of the piece adds to the uneasiness viewers and listeners gain from the scene as we watch this pivotal moment in the Joker’s evolution. Hildur Guðnadóttir rightfully received various awards for this lurking soundscape that brought us into the world of the Joker.

The iconic Bathroom Dance scene

Conclusion

The Joker has taken many forms in the past almost 50 years he has been on screen. Just like in the comics, storylines and characters are constantly evolving and adapting to fit the times. As these depictions change, so does the music that accompanies them. Looking into the evolution of a character such as Joker and the music composers have used to highlight his life can give us some insight into the evolution of the world they live in as well as the world we the audience live.

Professional music instructor focused on analyzing musical concepts and trends in popular music.

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