I grew up with television. The HBO Show “Dream On,” about a man whose life was dominated by TV flashbacks, is almost autobiographical for me.
I love TV theme songs. It was a sad day back in the late 80s’ and early 90’s when network executives decided to all but eliminate TV themes to allow for more commercials. Hey, I get it. TV is a for-profit business and the networks are public corporations with a duty to maximize shareholder investments. But even though the short bass guitar figure from Seinfeld counts as one of the most recognizable TV themes of all times, I maintain that long form TV themes add a special element to a show.
Classic TV Themes fall into a couple of categories: What I call the “Sherwood Schwartz School,” where the entire premise of the show is detailed in the theme. I named it after Schwartz because of his classic Gilligan’s Island and Brady Bunch themes. Miss a show? Not a problem, just sing the theme and you’re pretty much caught up.
Then, there’s the “Mission Impossible” or “Star Trek” School. Classy instrumental themes played by a full orchestra. The melodies are dramatic and do a good job of setting the tone for the show. Interesting to note that the Star Trek theme has lyrics. Gene Roddenberry wrote them to the Alexander Courage instrumental theme so he could cash in on the lucrative royalties paid every time the primary theme was played on TV. Roddenberry insisted they be added to the copyright or he would look for another composer. He did promise that they would never be used. They never were and Roddenberry had a nice source of supplemental income.
Johnny Carson also had a nice source of extra cash from the Tonight Show Theme. It was written by Paul Anka. I always admired that he recycled a song he wrote for Annette Funicello back in the 1960’s for the theme, making it an uptempo instrumental. Like Roddenberry, Carson insisted on having his name put on the copyright. Anka had to comply or they’d use another tune where the composer would agree to Carson’s demands. I believe the royalty for a network theme is a little over $500 a play. Multiply that by 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year and you have a pile of money especially considering Johnny Carson’s longevity on the show.
Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I have fond memories of the classic TV lyrical TV themes. Have Gun Will Travel’s biographical song, played at the end of every show, is a tune most people my age can sing from memory. Same with the themes to Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, et al. Of course, the theme to Bat Masterson left out the fact that he died from Syphilis while he was a sports writer in New York. The Wyatt Earp song omitted his past as a pimp and someone who pistol whipped people on a regular basis. Even Disney’s theme for Davy Crockett didn’t mention his drug use or complete lack of personal hygiene. So much for truth in advertising.
Sometimes the producers of a show would change a theme during its run. Most often it was part of “freshening up” a show. That was the case with NBC’s Bonanza. The original instrumental theme was changed for the last couple of seasons as the network tried to breathe some new life in the classic western.
The Brady Bunch theme was changed so that the Brady Kids could sing the lyrics. Cute, but the producers were trying to launch a musical career for the young stars. Sadly, it eventually led to the God-awful Brady Bunch Variety Hour. Mercifully, that only lasted a few agonizing episodes.
The 1966 one season wonder, It’s About Time, was a rare misfire for the successful Sherwood Schwartz. It concerned two astronauts who travelled back to prehistoric times, complete with dinosaurs and cave people. By midseason it became obvious that America hated it. Because of Schwartz’s impressive history, CBS allowed him to re-imagine the show with the astronauts taking the cave people back to the present. The descriptive Schwartz theme had to be redone to reflect the plot change. A lot of work for a show that is considered the Plan Nine from Outer Space of television. It was cancelled after the first confusing season.
Many other classic TV themes were changed to either accommodate plot changes or give a show a more contemporary feel. The Flintstones had an instrumental theme for its first two seasons in the 1960’s. ABC realized the importance of a memorable theme and lyrics and asked Hanna and Barbera to create an original song for the show. The show’s creators enlisted the aid of a composer and wrote the unforgettable “Meet the Flintstones” theme, using the same chord progression as Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm. It helped to imbed the show into the hearts and minds of America and also provided a nice weekly royalty check for Hanna, Barbera and their composer.
Even the theme to Gilligan’s Island was changed to accommodate “The Professor and Mary Ann,” who were previously mentioned as “And the rest…” in the show’s unforgettable theme. The biographical theme for 70’s kid show Land of the Lost also had to be changed when the star left in a salary dispute and his place on the show was taken by Uncle Jack.
The 80’s show “Hardcastle and McCormick had a theme change. Stephen Cannell and his team were pushing Joey Scarbury, who had a major hit with the Theme from Cannell’s The Greatest American Hero. They changed the show’s original theme, called Drive, to a tune sung by Scarbury titled Back-to-Back. The show’s audience objected since the song was about a male/female love affair and it was changed back to the original. However, when the song Drive was reinstated, they edited out the refrain (sometimes called the middle eight) to allow more time for commercials. I love those lyrics; “Slow motion man, iron and steel in the palm of your hand. Hot wired heart, bettin’ your life on the state of the art. Lay down the law, don’t you let ‘em cross the line. Under the hood got the bad and the good. Everybody’s doin’ time.”
The original instrumental theme for Monk was replaced after the first season by a catchy, descriptive song from Randy Newman titled It’s a Jungle Out There. Fans complained that the original Gypsy-styled guitar theme written by Jeff Beal was a much better fit for the show. Both songs won an Emmy for best TV Theme. Even though they replaced the Beal piece, it continued to be used as incidental music throughout the run of the series.
The Original Monk Theme (Instrumental)
The Randy Newman Monk Theme (Vocal)
A few of today’s shows have full themes, like Psych. It was written and performed by the show’s creator in the hopes that it would become a major hit. The Psych theme is a very good song. They even altered it a few times to fit the “ethnicity” of a particular episode. A few other USA shows have full themes. One show, Suits, uses “Greenback Boogie” by Ima Robot, which the band wrote for the show and included it on their third CD.
Today, a majority of shows either have no theme or just a few recognizable bars of music played while the program’s logo is shown. ABC’s Nashville is a good example of this. Adding more commercials in the place of a recognizable theme might make a better bottom line for the networks and producers, but, much like when the networks cut half hour sitcom time by a full minute a few years ago, today’s TV has lost some of its entertainment value.
To quote Randy Newman, “It’s a jungle out there, disorder and confusion everywhere…”
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