Saturday, September 5, 2009

Singing the TV theme's swan song

Who can turn the world on with a smile? Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?

Why, it's the TV theme song, and you should know it. With each glance and every little movement to show it:

For many people, this theme to the Mary Tyler Moore show is as great and as memorable as the actual show. Just try to get it out of your head the next time you walk down Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis - it's more impossible than ever, thanks to the Mary Tyler Moore statue at 7th Street.

Let it be said now and for all time: if there was no Mary Tyler Moore theme song and Minneapolis montage, there'd be no statue.

It's already been about 15 years since the big networks started pulling the plug on TV theme songs. Blame the remote control's dominance in the 90s: the thinking was that the TV theme song was a an opportunity to flip that the networks couldn't afford.

The sitcom most credited with killing the theme song is Frasier, which took that "tossed salad and scrambled eggs" song and put it at the end of the show while the Jack Russell terrier ran around the set:

No wonder they didn't put it at the beginning of the show - it sucks. Thanks, Frasier.

The upshot is that now theme songs are few and far between, and not even close to as good as they used to be. HBO has made some decent attempts - most notably, the Sopranos' theme ("Woke Up This Morning"). But the song, by Alabama 3, wasn't written for the show. As any theme-song connoisseur knows, that's cheating.

So, thanks for trying, HBO, but your shows and too many others are trying a bit too hard for my liking. Top marks for production, but too arty and trendy by half.

If you want to get to the great TV theme songs, you've got to go to back to the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when they knew that the intro to a show had to feel like my comfortable velour shirt, which is to say: exactly like "wearing a hug."

The Cheers theme is so great, it made viewers nostalgic even when the show was first aired, leading them back to a particular point in time in their own lives. Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar" tries to do the same thing, but we know which song is better, right?

In many cases, TV shows became popular simply because of the song. I give you: Welcome Back, Kotter.

I still maintain that John Travolta owes his entire career to John Sebastian. The song, called "Welcome Back, Kotter" doesn't actually name "Kotter" in the song - but it hit number one in 1976 and it was a hit again in 2004 when rapper Mase covered it as "Welcome Back."

In the days before the VCR and digital box, the TV theme was also the warning that your favorite show was about to start. Bob Newhart's phone would ring, and I'd yell to my Mom and Dad, "Bob Newhart's on!!!!"

By the time the show started, everyone was in position.

Bob Newhart Show Opening Theme - Click here for more free videos

I love how Lorenzo Music's song starts off brash and confident and ends rather introspectively, with Newhart trudging home after another fruitless day of trying to cure Mr. Carlin. Thank God there's a beaming Suzanne Pleshette there to meet him, or Bob might've decided to end it all.

The Rockford Files also started with a ringing phone and a new answering machine gag every week before segueing into Mike Post's brilliant song (note the tribute to Mary Tyler Moore when Jim Rockford hangs out at the meat freezer). "Mom, Dad: Rockford's on!!!"

Rockford Files Season 1 intro

For many shows, like Green Acres, the Odd Couple, Star Trek, the Brady Bunch, and Gilligan's Island, the theme song neatly explained the premise of the entire show, which is probably why we always knew what was going on with Gilligan and why we still don't have a clue about what's happening on Lost:

Some shows were terrible, but still had a great theme. Like Barney Miller - a boring show that kicked off with a great blues jam and one of the most memorable bass lines of all time. As a kid, I used to watch the theme, shut off the TV, then go to sleep feeling satisfied (dirty connotations not intended).

Gospel rave-ups were also big in the 70s. To this day, it's impossible to move into an apartment without singing this little ditty from the Jeffersons:

Maude had such a great theme song that it was difficult to tell if it was about Maude or Bea Arthur herself. When Arthur died earlier this year, journalists found it impossible not to quote from the song:

Maude TV Opening Theme - Funny videos are here

Perhaps most alarming is that without the theme song, we're being deprived of finding out whether our current batch of TV actors can also sing. House, Monk, and Chuck are wimps compared to Mr. Rogers, Alice, Frasier, Archie and Edith, all of whom sang their own songs.

To this day, All in the Family's theme, off-key as it may be, is most often ranked as the best theme song of all time:

Those were the days.


  1. An honourable mention should go to the early-90's "inspirational story" theme songs. Shows like Full House, Family Matters and my favorite, Perfect Strangers:

    I actually blame Seinfeld for the death of the TV theme song (although I specifically did not watch Frasier because of the horrible theme song!)
    Seinfeld would start out with that famous bass line, and then go right into Jerry's stand up. In later seasons they did away with the stand up altogether and launched straight into the story, something that most shows do these days.

    Some theme songs still live, though. The Simpsons and Family Guy haven't changed in years, and aren't likely to anytime soon.

  2. Yeah, Seinfeld is as guilty as Frasier.

    I love the Perfect Strangers theme, but Full House - ecchhh.

    Diff'rent Strokes and Facts of Life had a similar theme - "Can't we all just get along?" Ha, ha.

  3. I can't even address the cheese factor the Full House and Co. themes Dan. I hated all of the shows with such a passion, luckily I have forgotten how the themes went.

    As someone who loves Frasier and considers it one of the funniest, most well-written sitcoms ever, I feel compelled to tell you guys to suck it! The post-episode theme isn't that bad, and at least you weren't forced to stick around and watch it if you so chose.

    The Simpsons theme definitely takes the cake for longevity. Of course, when the show first aired in '89, it was still common for shows to have themes.

    One other theme song that persisted despite the anti-theme song period of the '90s was That 70's Show.

    One of the weirder shows was Everybody Loves Raymond. The show changed their theme/opening sequence multiple times over nine seasons. My personal favourite was the brief period during the fourth or fifth season that they used the Steve Miller Band's "Jungle Love". It was a refreshing change for a time there.


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