The Lost Art of the Sitcom Theme Song

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In the old days of television, before on demand and remote controls, the theme song announced the next show. It was designed to catch or keep your attention. Between the birth of television and the end of the 20th Century, 42 television theme songs charted on the Billboard top 60, four of which made it to No. 1. In the 21st Century not one television theme song has hit the pop charts.

Reasons for this include changing public taste and the fragmentation of popular culture but also the simple fact that many modern shows have no theme, and most that do use a short instrumental motif in lieu of a full fledged song.

The 1950s

Like all television programming, the sitcom has its origins in radio shows that were adapted for the new medium. Two pioneering shows – The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy – set the template that would remain virtually intact for the rest of the millennium.

The Honeymooners theme keeps with the radio tradition of an orchestral bed beneath the announcer.

I Love Lucy was a pioneering show in many ways, including its theme song. The I Love Lucy theme, written by Eliot Daniel, is the first sitcom theme that works almost as a commercial jingle. It is an infectious, easily identifiable tune that serves to brand the show.

Interestingly, these two iconic 1950’s sitcoms featured childless couples living in apartments – one blue collar realism, the other showbiz glamour – in an era that would be defined by the quintessential suburban nuclear family: a large house with a yard and a dog, a father who works, a mother who keeps the home and the 2.5 kids who learn and grow from their problems each week: Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

The 1960s

As the 50s morphed into the 60s, sitcoms began to focus on less traditional families, from the broken to the fantastic.

The Mister Ed theme song – one of television’s most memorable – was written by the pop songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who wrote the wistful standards “Mona Lisa,” “Que Sera, Sera” and the Christmas classic, “Silver Bells.” The Mister Ed theme perfectly demonstrates how an otherwise forgettable show can achieve timelessness with a well-constructed theme song.

Earle Hagen and Herbert Spencer wrote the iconic The Andy Griffith Show opening theme, called “The Fishin’ Hole.” Hagen whistles the infectious instrumental theme.

The Munsters, The Addams Family and I Dream of Jeannie featured the supernatural: monsters and magic.

Reflecting the current surf music craze, The Munsters theme employs a Duane Eddy-style guitar lead. Composer-guitarist Jack Marshall wrote the theme, which has been covered by Instro-gods Los Straightjackets and sampled by Fall Out Boy.

The Beverly Hillbillies formula was simple: place a clan of country folk in the middle of glamorous Beverly Hills and hilarity ensues. But the show instinctively knew that when juxtaposing these two different cultures, the salt of the earth Clampets came out as more sensible against the vacuousness of Beverly Hills. The theme song, “The Ballad of Jed Clampet,” was a No. 1 country hit for bluegrass pioneers Flatt & Scruggs, featuring a vocal by Jerry Scoggins.

The 1970s

Sitcoms in the 1970’s introduced us to independent urban women and the natural progression into dysfunctional families.

“Love is All Around,” the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show perfectly sets the mood of the characters and the show. The song was written by Sonny Curtis, who also wrote “I Fought the Law” and “Walk Right Back,” a hit for the Everly Brothers in 1960.

Curtis recorded the song with different arrangements twice, in 1970 and again in 1980. His 1980 version was a No. 29 Country hit.

Sometimes the theme song is big enough to shape the show. The producers of a new show originally called Kotter hired John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful to write the theme song. He came up with the wistful “Welcome Back,” and the producers changed the name of the show. The song became a No. 1 pop hit in 1976 and is probably the only reason the otherwise forgettable and vapid show is remembered today (other than the trivia of it being John Travolta’s break out role).

Other television themes were hits in this era – the themes from Happy Days and S.W.A.T., for example – but “Welcome Back” is the only situation comedy theme song to become a No. 1 pop hit.

Welcome Back, Kotter may have the biggest hit, but the most iconic sitcom of the 1970s is All in the Family, as is its opening theme, composed by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams.

Necessity the mother of invention, there was nothing left in the budget to produce an elaborate opening sequence, so the producers resorted to having Archie and Edith sit at the home piano and wax nostalgic in song. The very idea of sitting at the piano and singing together is nostalgic and television is partly to blame. It is a brilliant opening that gets us inside these complex characters.

All in the Family could never be made today because the characters so brilliantly portrayed by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton would be reduced to one-dimensional cartoons. There is no ability for nuance these days when it comes to politics. Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton brought depth and nuance to these characters so that everyday Americans could see in them a bit of themselves – for better or worse – or a bit of someone they knew. Archie is not a monster and Edith is not a fool. Just look at the way they sing together.

The 1980s

The 1980’s ushered in a return to the traditional suburban family with shows like Family Ties, Growing Pains and The Cosby Show. If one measure of a great theme song is memorability, then the 1980’s saw a new golden age of sitcom theme songs as well. Many such themes, including Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life were written by Growing Pains star Alan Thicke.

Perhaps the definitive 1980’s theme song comes from a show featuring a family of sorts, if not of blood. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” the theme from Cheers, was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart. It was nominated for an Emmy, continues to be homaged and parodied, and was named the greatest television theme song of all time by TV Guide.

The show is about the friendships formed among regulars and employees who congregate nightly at a neighborhood Boston bar. The song perfectly achieves the main function of a theme song; it brings us into the world of these characters, creating a musical identity that envelops the ethos of the show, and stays in our head decades later.

 

The 1990s

Seinfeld is the Picasso of situation comedies. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s vision destroyed all established constructs of plot, story arch and time. There was no television comedy like it when it debuted and television comedies have not been the same since. This revolutionary aesthetic carried over into the theme song as well. In an era when its biggest competition, the urban-singles-ensemble Friends, featured a ridiculously catchy pop song by The Rembrants, The Seinfeld theme is an anti-theme song: a brief, sequenced bass riff to open and transition the show. The fact that the music is synthesized rather than played on a live bass drives home this postmodern deconstruction. Further, composer Jonathan Wolff reconstructed the theme weekly, in order to adjust to the timing of Jerry Seinfeld’s opening monologue. Seinfeld changed all the rules of television and is directly, partly, responsible not only for the pacing and plotting of 21st Century television, but also for the death of the classic sitcom theme song.

Seinfeld did not destroy the sitcom theme song on its own. As technology allowed an on demand approach to watching television, and as networks squeezed more and more advertising into time blocks, themes became shorter and, in some cases, non existent.

The 21st Century

The sitcom in the 21st Century has seen more experimentation in character, story and presentation, such as the mockumentary style of The Office and Modern Family, while period pieces like That ’70s ShowFresh Off the Boat and The Goldbergs play to a sense of nostalgia for the sitcom’s golden age.

The traditional family-based sitcom has found something of a resurgence in recent years. One of the most successful sitcoms today is Modern Family, which boasts a non-traditional family, a mockumentarty, single camera approach and is filmed on location. But at its heart, Modern Family has the elements of a traditional sitcom: a flawed but loving family which acts as a support system and resolves the issues of each week in 21 minutes. There are no recurring sets outside of the home – no local bar, no corner cafe – where characters gather. They gather in the home (one of three in the extended family). Therein lies the secret to its success and the reason it will remain a lasting and important show. This is a family that loves each other and that handles their own problems in-house and lives by their own code of conduct.

But they have no song. Instead, the show opens with an effective 12 second instrumental big band riff written by Gabriel Mann.

The Middle takes this even further, without any opening theme at all. The show about a regular middle class family in Middle America opens with a shot of an empty road running through a corn field and only the sounds of squawking crows.

The sitcom theme song is not entirely dead, but there seem to be fewer songs where everybody knows the words.

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