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Just Sit Right Back, and You'll Hear a Tale...

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Most people can sing at least a few lines from the songs that opened television shows like "Gilligan's Island," "The Brady Bunch," or "The Jeffersons." Yet few programs today kick off with a musical explanation of the series' premise. We ask Eric Deggans, media critic at the St. Petersburg Times, why the TV theme song is an endangered species. And longtime songwriters Marilyn and Alan Bergman talk about creating themes for "Good Times," "Alice," and other hit shows.

Weigh in: What's your favorite TV show theme song? Do you miss them?


Eric Deggans

Comments [59]

domitype from Palo Alto CA

If you want to hear the good, bad, and ugly of TV theme songs (and much more) listen in to on Saturday mornings 9AM to 12 Noon Pacific Coast time - a long running show called "The Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show" with Robert Emmett. No archives available yet, so you will have to listen live.

Jan. 28 2008 05:21 PM
Ed from New York

My friend John wrote a theme song (in the style of a TV theme) for a newsletter I publish ( — reimagining it as a Saturday-morning cartoon, perhaps. If anyone's interested, it's available here:

("New York Ghost theme")

Jan. 17 2008 03:29 PM
Mark from Manalapan NJ

The last line of the Good Times theme song is "Hangin' in a chow line." I couldn't figure that out for years, but thanks to Google...

Jan. 16 2008 06:04 PM
Soundlanguage from West Village/Jersey City

Shoot, i forgot about Dark Shadows! Before my time to have caught it live but the Sci-Fi channel reruns many years back had me completely hooked.

Robert Cobert's theme is one you can't forget, very evocative, atmospheric in the extreme.

Jan. 16 2008 03:32 PM
Soundlanguage from West Village/Jersey City

My #1 is Are You Being Served? (do British shows count?) I'm a yank but that's incredibly perfect for an opener and on it's own.

Hawaii Five-O (for that outrageous drum hook and infectious sing-alongability), ZOOM! theme (cool early 70's kids show), Bob Newhart's ( oddly, it really rocks) Henry Mancini's What's Happenin' theme, and game show Match Game.

All the old standards too of course (pre-'84) but i'm unmoved by today's themes, most are throwaways or don't lure you in/create comfort. Just my .02.

Honorable mention (pun unintented) goes to Patrick Macnee & Honor Blackman for the hit song "Kinky Boots" written about the Avengers once the show took hold and rocked the UK in 1963, even becoming a Top 5 hit.

Jan. 16 2008 03:27 PM
Rachel H from Highland Park NJ

The theme song is alive and well in children's television and not just in the classics--Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Mr. Rogers. Newer series have catchy songs. For example the Bobs, Builder and Sponge, have themes.

Jan. 16 2008 03:18 PM
Kathy from Brooklyn

When I was a kid I loved these themesongs and even compiled a casette tape of TV themes that I called "Profiles in Television," a title which I think was oddly inspired by the book by JFK. I held a tape recorder up to the TV to capture the tunes. I started with the theme from "Masterpiece Theater," and also included "Whiz Kids" (anyone remember that show?), "The Facts of Life," "Perry Mason," "The Jeffersons," tunes from "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Hawaii 5-0," and "CHiPs."

Jan. 16 2008 02:55 PM
Larry from Monroe

The two that some to mind as unique are the
themes from "The Jackie Gleason Show" titled
"Melancholy Serenade". Gleason was a big music
lover. The second one is the theme from "Twin
Peaks" (which I am watching each night courtesy
of the new complete DVD collection.) The theme
lets you know you're in for "something completely different". A lovely combination of
scary and soap opera!

Jan. 16 2008 02:53 PM
Rebecca from Ridgefield, CT

Well, the TV opening theme is at least going strong in Japan. Most anime have theme songs written specifically for the shows by millionaire pop artists with huge followings. Their popularity definitely stretches into the US, though, as Cartoon Network has kept a lot of them despite mostly being in Japanese (Cowboy Bebop is a good example).

Jan. 16 2008 02:49 PM
Deb from manhattan

I want to give a shout out to the themes for a couple of cop shows other than NYPD Blue (which I also love): "Homicide" and of course "Hill Street Blues" had excellent themes.

I don't think it's an original song but the song by Everlast for "Saving Grace" perfectly fits the show: epic, a little dark...

And the theme for "The L Word" fits the show too in that it is unbelievably dumb and grating.

Jan. 16 2008 02:44 PM
Carol from Brooklyn

A surreal scene in Malta about 20 years ago: I am walking down a residential street and through all the open windows comes the theme from DALLAS. So the ability of tv music to bring people together extends all over the world, and television themes come to represent a lot about our country's culture.

Jan. 16 2008 02:39 PM
Thom from Montvale, NJ

I always thought the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song was one of the best "explainers."

Jan. 16 2008 02:36 PM

I can't believe that no one has mentioned the theme from "Green Acres." That song was campy and excellent. "Dahling, I love you but give me Park Avenue!"

Jan. 16 2008 02:35 PM
Toni C. from New York

Hello, The L Word!!!!!

Jan. 16 2008 02:34 PM
David from Brooklyn

Mike Post. That's all I'm saying. Hats off to Mike Post.

Jan. 16 2008 02:33 PM
B.C. from Jersey City

what about The Cosby Show?! That was a show that really "got it". He changed the version of the theme song every season. So it really set off one season from the other! It had jazz, pop, big band, Latin. It had it all and that's what television is all about!

Jan. 16 2008 02:33 PM
Neil Kaplan from NYC

Alan & Marilyn are incredible.. .lets remember them also as having written great lyrics for Barbra Streisand. . . . (pls tell Barbra i never got my autograph are her CD set at the Mirror Set)
Anyway. . . . Who can Forget GREEN ACRES? i sing it ALL the time.

Jan. 16 2008 02:33 PM
Sue Funke from NYC

Cheers and Mr. Belevedere are tied for best theme songs in my book.
The long version of the Cheers theme songs is absolutely fabulous, I highly recommend listening to it sometime.

Jan. 16 2008 02:32 PM

I wonder if the greater prevalence of current popular songs as part of the "soundtrack" for many, many shows (including ER, the Dawson's Creek and most shows that are aimed at teens and young adults) has competed with or made less viable the use of theme songs.

Jan. 16 2008 02:30 PM
Rayna Dae from Long Island City

A good friend reminded of the strange and rarely seen "Jennifer Slept Here" tv show with Ann Gillian. Try to find that theme song. Crazee!

I plan to cover it in a cabaret of TV theme songs sometime in 2008. There are some great suggestions here too!

Jan. 16 2008 02:29 PM
jill from new york

One area where the theme song is still going strong is cable - the Sopranos, the L Word, the Wire, etc. Though it really bugged me that they changed the Wire's theme song this year! Well, they didn't change the song but the singer. I highly preferred the old version.

Jan. 16 2008 02:29 PM
MiskaMuska from Midtown

I love the theme song to The Nanny.

I also love the ones in Monk. There used to be a title theme composed by Jeff Beal played at the beginning of each episode but it's replaced with the 'Jungle' song for some reason.

Jan. 16 2008 02:29 PM
colby hall from brooklyn

"SherwoodSherwood Schwartz , creator of such nostalgic TV shows as "Gilligan's Island " and "The Brady Bunch " was once asked why his shows began with theme songs that set up the premise of the show. ("Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale..." or "Here's the story of a man named Brady...")

His response was, "Confused people don't laugh."

Jan. 16 2008 02:28 PM
Jeremy from Manhattan

Wait, no one has mentioned The Greatest American Hero's "Believe It or Not?" It would be at the top of my list, that's for sure. There are generations of TV watchers that can sing the chorus . . .

Jan. 16 2008 02:25 PM
Jonathan Sroka from Brooklyn

Do your guests have any comments on the modern TV Show Theme song seeming to have more strength in prime time cartoons today? Examples Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, and even to some extent King of the Hill. All are memorable tunes, most tell a great introductory story, and all expose the audience to the main characters of the show.

Jan. 16 2008 02:25 PM
Paul from Yonkers

I submit the last great TV theme is that of the is smart and snappy and very retro!
How cool is this sets the sceen and gets you ready to understand how the players got where they are!

Jan. 16 2008 02:25 PM
Stephen from Brooklyn

Definitely a unifier because as McLuhan asserts the television has become the new collective campfire.

Jan. 16 2008 02:24 PM

"Family Matters", "Happy Days" and "Three's Company" were always my favorite.

My family moved to Texas when I was 13 in 1995. My siblings and I basically spent the next few summer watching "Happy Days" in the morning, "Three's Company" around noon time and "Family Matters" in the afternoon. I look for them sometimes just to hear the memories pouring back. Nostalgia really is a great force. 10 years later, I can hear the theme songs in my head still and every time I do, I remember the good idled time spent with my siblings as kids.


Jan. 16 2008 02:24 PM
Sue Funke from NYC

I absolutely love TV theme songs. I think they are a great way to start shows. Though, I do like the idea of a cold open with the theme song at the end much like Fraiser did.

I've got a list of favorites on seeqpod that I listen to all the time:

Also, the extended version of the Cheers theme song is absolutely amazing. I think that and Mr. Belvedere are my all time favorites.

Jan. 16 2008 02:23 PM
Peter Keepnews

God damn it, Alan and Marilyn Bergman write LYRICS. How many times are you (and they, to their eternal shame) going to keep saying that they "wrote" these TV theme songs, as if they wrote the music AND the lyrics?

I don't know what's more offensive to me — the fact that John Schaefer keeps saying it, or the fact that the Bergmans (who certainly know better) ... Oh, wait a minute. Just now, 20 minutes or so into the interview, they finally thought to credit Dave Grusin. How magnanimous of them to (finally) acknowledge that a song has a melody as well as words — and that they write words only.

And by the way, there are plenty of great TV theme songs today. Granted, most of them don't have words, but so what? "The Office," "Two and a Half Men," "How I Met Your Mother," "Medium" — no (or few) words, granted, but melodies that stick in your head. Or mine, anyway.

In other words, I think the whole premise of this segment is bogus.

Jan. 16 2008 02:22 PM
Carol Levy from Brooklyn

I had the pleasure of knowing Irving Szathmary, composer of the music for GET SMART, at the end of life, when he was retired in Malta. He was a lovely man and very grateful for the success of his music. I think that was a terrific theme.

Jan. 16 2008 02:21 PM
slowereastside from manhattan

cjg: Bob James! Thanks for the Taxi're right, it can't be beat.

Jan. 16 2008 02:21 PM
Mike from NY

How about the scene in "Trains, Planes and Automobiles" where nobody on the bus knows "Three Coins in a Fountain" but they join in with glee to the theme from "The Flinstones"

Jan. 16 2008 02:21 PM
Russell from manhattan

the disputed lyric is "Hangin' in a chow line"

These disputed lyrics are disclosed on the Chappelle Show.

SOUNDCHECK SAYS: Even after the famous (and hilarious) episode of Chappelle's Show, there's still some controversy over that line. Marilyn and Alan, the song's writers, say it's "something" like "hanging in and jiving." But we may never know the truth...

Jan. 16 2008 02:20 PM
Charlotte from Manhattan

The web says that line in the Good Times theme "Hangin in a chow line"

Jan. 16 2008 02:20 PM
John from Inwood

Much like the lyrical "explainers," many instrumental themes set the tone of their shows, "The X-Files" and "Six Feet Under" being two examples. It will be a shame to see them go.

Jan. 16 2008 02:19 PM
Casey from NY

The theme from NYPD Blue. LOVED the train-based percussion....

Jan. 16 2008 02:19 PM
Michael Bloomberg from Lower Manhattan

Fat Albert is another song that has cryptic lyrics. What are they singing there?

Jan. 16 2008 02:19 PM
Walter from Chicago, Illinois

It is "hangin' in a chow line" for the "Good Times" theme song.

Jan. 16 2008 02:19 PM
J. Reilly from Bellmore, NY

What about these shows that use pre-existing music like the three CSI shows. Monk had an original theme (I think) but replaced it with a pre-exisitng Randy Newman song.

Jan. 16 2008 02:18 PM
Joan from Manhattan

Though I appreciate the artistic freedom displayed by shows who disregard the theme song tradition, I have to say, when you love a show, hearing that theme start up each week gets me so excited and really gears me up to watch the episode! :)

Jan. 16 2008 02:18 PM
Sue from North Salem, NY

Keepin' your head above water! Makin' a wave when you caaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan! EVERYONE, COME ON!!

Jan. 16 2008 02:18 PM
Carly from Manhattan

Many shows (including ER as your guest mentioned, and all of the Law and Order series) actually do play a full theme song but do so after a few minutes of the show has aired as an introduction or cliffhanger.

Jan. 16 2008 02:18 PM
Maya from Brooklyn

OK, who wants to sing the theme from "Dukes of Hazard" with me....any Good Ol' Boys out there?

Jan. 16 2008 02:17 PM
John from New York

What about the theme to American Idol? It's still going strong.

Jan. 16 2008 02:16 PM
slowereastside from manhattan

Anyone know who wrote the theme song to 'Taxi?"

Jan. 16 2008 02:16 PM
JP from Somers, NY

I freely confess that my wife and I made up an interpretive dance to the theme from "Law & Order", right up to the wolf howling at the end.

Jan. 16 2008 02:16 PM
Giuliana from Midtown

"Monk", Tony Shaloub's detective show, has a real theme - one of the few, admittedly, but it's new, written for the show,(not apreviously existing piece of music) and it's by Randy Newman!!

Jan. 16 2008 02:15 PM
Anne from Jersey City

Boy, I loved watching Archie and Edith sing their own theme on "All in the Family." And I remember fondly eating my after-school snack and singing along to the Brady Bunch theme.

I grew up in Seattle, so Brooklyn for me was all about that opening to "Welcome Back, Kotter."

This segment reminds me how goofily happy those songs made me--make me still.

Jan. 16 2008 02:15 PM
Sammi Malek from NYC

It is interesting that I associates shows with theme songs with being old and never thought about why I did that. Of the modern shows I watch, the only one I can think that has a theme song that I actually remember is the show Monk on USA (with the theme song "There's a Jungle Out There"). I adore that song because, picturized on various phobias of Monk, it tells a story.

But otherwise, I'm happy that other intros to shows are almost always cut (Numbers, ER, etc.). If it is not a catchy tune like Monk's, I don't want to hear it!

Jan. 16 2008 02:15 PM
Tom from Williamsburg

What about the Sopranos?

Jan. 16 2008 02:14 PM
Charlotte from Manhattan

I miss them very much. Sometimes, on camping trips, my family, friends and I devote a good hour or two to singing as many as we can remember.

One of my favorites was the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show. Inspiring!

Also, remember, some of the shows actually had a different closing song. MTM did as did the Beverly Hillbillies and Giligan's Island.

Jan. 16 2008 02:14 PM
emily from manhattan

I loved Magnum P.I song:) that and NIght Rider

Jan. 16 2008 02:13 PM

Of course I miss the songs - they've been replaced by more and more commercials. 18 minutes of commercials to the hour!!!!

Jan. 16 2008 02:13 PM
Sue from North Salem, NY

I remember in the early early days of the internet, the greatest thing was being able to download sound files of TV themes. You'd fix your computer so that it booted up to the theme from Battlestar Galactica or "C'mon Get Happy" from the Patridge Family...

Jan. 16 2008 02:13 PM
cjg from Oyster Bay, NY

You can't beat Bob James' theme to Taxi (Angela's Theme).

There are so many notable others: Cheers, Rockford Files, Sanford & Son, Chico & the Man (which had 2 different themes- 1 for the intro & 1 for the credits), Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Good Times, MacGyver, Doogie Houser MD, What's Happening, Andy Griffith Show, All in the Family, The Wonder Years, The Simpsons, The Cosby Show & many more.

The common thread seems to be that many of these are written and/or recorded by great artist (Quincy Jones, Bob James, Enrique Iglesias, Danny Elfman, The Beatles via Joe Cocker, etc).

If it's not already apparent... I love TV themes.


Jan. 16 2008 01:46 PM
William Scruggs from New Jersey

I always liked themes from TV westerns. My two favorites were the theme from "The Loner", a short lived western that starred Lloyd Bridges and "The Defenders", a lawyer program that actually used Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" as its theme.

Jan. 16 2008 12:45 PM
Tracey Mitchell from Alexandria, VA

I loved the theme song to "Chico and the Man".

Jan. 16 2008 12:13 PM
Marty Sanchez from Brooklyn

I always adored the folky theme songs similar to Gilliagan's Island's, but there were also some really funky pieces such as Sanford and Son, Baney Miller and Rock Frod Files.

Are we ready for a compilation or would this entail a licensing nightmare?

Which is really the issue. The ascendancy of reality television with it's lower costs (no scripts, sets or costumes) suggest what is really occurring=>lower costs for producers.

Jan. 16 2008 11:44 AM

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