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The Lost Art of the TV Theme Song

Time was when TV theme songs were musically competent enough to actually serve the narrative of show and even make it onto the radio. "Welcome Back, Kotter" anyone? But what are the best known theme songs of this generation? The Friends song? How annoying was that? Or the Seinfeld theme - effective, but so about nothing there weren't any words? Maybe it's because reality shows have taken over and reality shows don't really have theme songs, they just kind of have melodramatic musical set pieces like CNN uses when a Russian president dies or something. Although we do have the Simpsons song - but again no words. The Family Guy song kind of rules - but ironically, it's an homage to the theme from All in the Family and really all songs from sitcoms yore.

When I was in film school studying television, we were told that it was absolutely necessary for a TV show to have a catchy opening theme that grabs the viewer from the start and doesn't let go until the final credits roll. That's what the following themes did and what some TV shows of today don't quite get.

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"And Then There's Maude." By Marilyn & Alan Bergman and Dave Grusin. Performed by the late, great Donny Hathaway.

Any song that references Lady Godiva, bra-burning and sewing is alright. A classic from the first airing. Too bad Donny Hathaway isn't around to enjoy the theme's resurgence in popularity.

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"Those Were the Days." By Lee Adams and Charles Strouse. Performed by Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton.

When the show first aired, I was quite young so I didn't watch it. My parents didn't watch it either because they were more into Carol Burnett and Flip Wilson. Sure, All In The Family was groundbreaking TV, but really what's funnier than the "Church of What's Happenin' Now" and Mrs. Wiggins' skits? What's truly amusing and or scary about the song is when I sing it, I sound just like Jean Stapleton.

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Good Times. By Alan Bergman and Dave Grusin. Performed by Ja'net Dubois who also starred as the sassy neighbor, Willona Woods.

A gospel-influenced R&B tune with fun lyrics that were, years later, part of the infamous Dave Chappelle skit "I Know Black People." The song sets up the premise of of the show perfectly.

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Movin' On Up. By Ja'net Dubois and Jeff Barry. Performed by Ja'net Dubois.

A similar style musically to "Good Times" and "And Then There's Maude." It's not "deluxe apartment" but "dee-luxe apartment in the sky-eye-eye." I've often wondered how one grills beans and no one, but no one has been able to replicate George Jefferson's funky strut into the building.

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Suicide Is Painless. By Mike Altman and Johnny Mandel.

Altman is the son of the film's director, the late-Robert Altman. M*A*S*H was one of the few great films to make the transition to a hit television show. The TV theme was instrumental whereas the movie theme had lyrics. I wouldn't be surprised if the reason the network execs deep-sixed the original film version for the TV show was because the chorus goes something like this:

That suicide is painless,
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please

Not exactly lyrics for prime time, family TV time. And, it's probably not something the TV dinner crowd wants to hear while wolfing down their Swanson's Salisbury steak meal.

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Believe It Or Not. By Mike Post and Stephen Geyer and sung by Joey Scarbury.

I never watched The Greatest American Hero. I chose this because George Costanza used his own, homespun version for his outgoing answering machine message and it was perfect in The 40-Year Old Virgin. So it resonates.

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The Muppet Show Theme Song. By Jim Henson and Sam Pottle and performed by Kermit and the cast of Muppet characters.

These are simple lyrics supported by silly images: The muppets gathering on stage, Gonzo blowing the horn and the two old curmudgeons in the balcony. The Muppet Show and chicken potpies were standard fare for Saturday nights at the Gray household.

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The Love Boat. By Charles Fox and Paul Williams (yes, that Paul Williams-the wee one) and performed by silver fox crooner, Jack Jones.

The final season the theme was sung by Dionne Warwick. For the longest time, thanks to this show, I thought all women had to wear nude pantyhose and high-heels with their jewel-toned, high-legged bathing suits. Imagine my surprise during a family trip to the tropics one spring when I realized that nude hose and heels with swimwear are just a bad, bad idea. One has to be on the Lido Deck, sipping a fruity drink in order to get away with that look. I spent many dateless Saturday nights (shut up) watching this show followed by another Aaron Spelling tour de force, Fantasy Island. Each time the over-the-top theme song started, I was filled with hope that someone would find true love without all of the miscommunication hijinks that happened every week. It also made me realize that the ship was run by a bunch of Pervy McPervertsons. I mean really, the only cool one was Isaac the Bartender. Who would ever in her right mind find Bernie Koppel attractive?

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Come and Knock On My Door. By Joe Raposo and Don Nicholl. Sung by The Other Ray Charles and Julie Rinker.

What is so funny about this song is the overuse of the wa-wa peddle with the guitar at the beginning followed by the Stuckey's-on-the-interstate level singing talent. So cheesy it is completely irresistible. My favorite line is:

"Where the kisses are hers and hers and his, three's company too!"

Bernie Taupin eat your heart out.

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Catch up with the Beachwood Fall TV Preview! Best Preview Ever. Anywhere. It really is.



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Posted on October 2, 2007


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