Show me that smile again….Or, whatever happened to the TV theme song

tapesThe 80s and 90s were a golden age of music…we had New Wave, alternative, pre-alternative, punk, and a million other amazing genres. Even the theme songs from sitcoms knew where it was at. We had such classics as Family Ties (what would we do baby, without us?), The Facts of Life (You take the Good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have), Perfect Strangers, Who’s the Boss, Silver Spoons, Full House, Friends, The Wonder Years…I could literally fill this entire article up with examples of memorable, and quite frankly, amazing sitcom theme songs from 1980 through the year 1999. I can’t even fill a quarter of this article with good theme songs from 2000 through 2015. What the heck happened?

whatchutalkinboutwillisMaybe I should back up and ask a different question: what makes a good sitcom theme? Let’s look at the following: The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and The Flinstones – all theme songs I would bet most Americans know. Yes, yes, I realize those are all from a time-frame outside of the periods I’m talking about, but I’m viewing these three as a control – as a canon in which to judge all other sitcom theme songs. As I stated before, most Americans (and I’m guessing many people in many other cultures) could recite or sing the lyrics to all three of these by heart. This is one measure of a good theme song – it’s memorability. They are catchy and they are something one might catch oneself singing, or at least humming in the shower. A second criteria – these songs tell what the show is about. For example, The Brady Bunch tells us about the merging of the two families into one; Gilligan’s Island tells the tale of how the castaways got to the deserted island they’re stranded on. The Flinstones theme tells of the prehistoric family, and even invites the audience to watch their zany adventures as they live their lives.

The third, and most important thing in a sitcom theme is that it is something that becomes part of the culture. The theme song becomes something more than just a song which tells us a show is about to start – it becomes something we find ourselves singing when we’re drunk or in a silly mood or what have you. Granted, cultural relevancy is closely related to the fact that the theme song must be memorable. A song won’t become part of the culture if the song is not memorable, though that does not mean they are one and the same. A song must have culture relevancy. When I was a teen, I remember hearing a preacher trying to shame us because we could sing the theme song to the Flinstones easily but very few in that crowd could recite certain Bible Verses. That preacher did not understand, that while said Bible Verses are not necessarily part of the culture, the theme to the Flinstones is very much a part of the culture. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the theme from the Flintstones over a thousand times. Aside from maybe John 3:16, I’m not sure I can name one Bible Verse that I’ve heard recited as often. One does not walk down the street to hear Romans 3:23 being whistled by some random passerby-er, or Psalms 119 being played from a nearby television. They aren’t really part of the culture; they are part of certain subsets of the culture, but not the American culture at large. However, the theme from the Flinstones, the theme from the Brady Bunch, and the theme from Gilligan’s Island are indeed part of the American culture at large. That’s why we were able to recite them. That’s why youth groups sing Amazing grace to the tune of Gilligan’s Island, that’s why I heard someone singing the Brady Bunch on the bus just the other day (note: this might sound like anecdotal evidence – however in this case I think we can forgive the lack of scientific data). Granted, cultural relevancy is closely related to the first point I made, ie the fact that the theme song must be memorable. A song won’t become part of the culture if the song is not memorable, though that does not mean they are one and the same.

To be fair, there are a few of theme songs that really don’t fit all these criteria, but are great nonetheless. Most of them, however, are instrumentals and do fit points one and three. The Theme from the Office is a classic example. However, even those are becoming few and fare between. I used the Office as an example, because it is the only sitcom in the semi-modern era I could think of. The others I thought of were Seinfeld (1989 – 1998), The Simpsons (while current, it began in 1989), and Night Court (1984 – 1992). To be fair, I did think of another which is indeed modern era: The Crazy Ones. The theme for the Crazy Ones made me very happy, and is very memorable to me – however, most people really didn’t like The Crazy Ones. Despite staring a beloved cast (we miss you Robin), the show, and by extension, the theme didn’t really become part of the culture.

I'm no superman!
I’m no superman!
Going back to shows that meet all three criteria, I can only name two that fit the current criteria: Family Guy, which I don’t count because it started in the 90s, and The Big Bang Theory – which is a stretch for point number two. If we add in shows that have ended, but are still in the current era, I guess we can add Srubs. Sure, there are sitcoms that failed which might have tried (Selfie). There’s The Goldbergs, which hasn’t quite ascended into “part of the American culture at large,” (yet?). There’s probably a few cable shows that I’m missing (maybe on Disney or Nickelodeon), but again they might be part of a sub-culture, but not part of the culture in general. If I heard someone whistling the theme to say, ICarly (is that still on?), I wouldn’t recognize it. It’s time to face facts – the powerhouse of sitcom songs from the 80s and 90s seems to be a thing of the past.

But why has this happened? What happened to the TV theme song? To be honest, I don’t know that the why even matters. What matters is we somehow storm the Bastille, or rather Hollywood, and demand they give us our freaking sitcom songs back! Now! No, no, no, we don’t want a clone of Charles in Charge or Silver Spoons or Who’s the Boss – those wouldn’t be culturally relevant. We want something fresh. You can even give us a song that wasn’t originally written for the show – I’ve mentioned the shows Friends, Scrubs, and the Wonder Years; those weren’t original songs – but they were culturally relevant, they were memorable, and they explained the general premise of the show. So please, production companies – for the sake of the culture! Of all mankind! Bring us a renaissance of sitcom theme songs! Just think about this, it’s free advertising. Every time I hear the theme from Friends, it makes me want to watch friends. Sure, the show is in syndication, but one day I won’t be able to pull it up on TBS or Nick at Night, and one of these days it won’t be on Netflix. That is the day I shell out a couple hundred bucks for the entire damned series. That is the day you get my money, all because I heard a stupid song.

I leave you with this tribute to 80s sitcom theme songs…

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One Response to Show me that smile again….Or, whatever happened to the TV theme song

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