Television theme songs, at their best, trigger an almost Pavlovian response in the viewer. After seven years, when one heard, “Woke up this morning…” one became instantly primed for the superb writing, fine acting, and sometimes horrifying violence of The Sopranos. The jaunty I Love Lucy theme always got us ready for black & white hijinks and laughs. The serious, hard-hitting theme of The McLaughlin Group meant it was time to open your ears and mind for intelligent talk and opinions.
There are several different types of theme songs. There’s the instrumental with a sweeping orchestra like Dynasty or The Simpsons. These kinds of theme songs get the audience ready for the show by duplicating the mood the series is going for. These instrumentals are sometimes huge hits, like the quieter Hill Street Blues theme, or the theme from Peter Gunn. An unusual example was the Taxi theme song. The show Taxi was uproariously funny, at times, but also had its moments of melancholy. Their theme song, originally written for the classic season 1 episode “Blind Date” and known as “Angela’s Theme,” focused on the melancholy.
In another type of theme song, the lyrics spell out the theme of the show, or hint at the storyline without getting too specific. These are your Welcome Back, Kotters or your Laverne & Shirleys. These songs can also become big hits, as in the case of “Believe it or Not” from Greatest American Hero or “Everybody Knows Your Name” from Cheers. It was very common in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for some of these songs to get massive radio play. And, before watching a second of the show, you’d get a pretty good idea of what it’s about. A great example (which actually reached number 1 on the Billboard adult contemporary chart) was Charles Fox’s theme to the short-lived Donna Pescow vehicle Angie. Sung by Maureen McGovern, the song was arguably better than the series! Mr. Fox gave us the thrill of a lifetime when he played a bit of it for us during his interview.
NOW, to get to my favorite - it’s a long, lost art- the theme song that tells the specific story and premise of the show. This would mean that any first time viewer could be caught up instantly no matter which episode they see, because in those days nothing of lasting consequence ever happened during the run of a typical sitcom. The classic examples are The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and my favorite obscure one, The Pruitts of Southampton, starring Miss Phyllis Diller. Then there was the Chico and the Man theme. It was such a big hit for Jose Feliciano that they actually had him sing it on the show, directly to the characters it was about!
My personal favorite theme song of all time defies characterization, as it is unique. The theme to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was a meta-commentary on the nature of the theme song itself. Complete with a Randy Newman-style “whistle break,” this was truly the theme song to end all theme songs.
Today, while the television theme song with any kind of lyrics is sadly disappearing, the instrumental theme song is growing strong. The ‘80s, synth theme to Netflix’s Stranger Things is absolute perfection. When you hear it, it puts you squarely back in 1983 reading a Stephen King novel. The Game of Thrones theme makes one want to hop up on the couch and hoist a sword of Valyrian Steel in the air. Ok, maybe that’s just me, but it’s still a great one!
We’re particularly proud of our vast collection of interviews with the great composers of television. In addition to Charles Fox, we have Mike Post, Vic Mizzy, Mark Snow, and Alf Clausen. To hear from them and others about your favorite television theme song, search the collection!
- by John Dalton