The TV show theme song.
It’s practically a lost art these days, with most television shows having “themes” that last no more than a few seconds, and some, having none at all. But TV show theme songs are some of the most inescapable, most recognizable, and most likely to get a crowd of people (of a certain age) to sing along with you.
I love TV show themes. I sat with a recorder and meticulously recorded them from our TV’s speaker so I could listen again and again. And when TEEVEE Tunes began releasing the “Television’s Greatest Hits” collections when I was in high school, I was in heaven.
TV theme songs are cultural touchstones, often reminiscent of the time they were written, sometimes transcendent, but always–if they’re good–stuck in your head hours after hearing them. Mind, they may not be great music, but they are great fun. Here are my top 20 theme songs of all time–and it’s completely subjective:
20. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW
One of the greatest shows of all time (and the precursor to workplace sitcoms like The Office in an age when most shows never really showed what the dad did at work) also has a great theme song. It’s one of my favorites (obviously), and I loved wondering if Dick would trip over the ottoman or not each week. For the record–I only watched it in reruns.
A show with a great premise (the same side of every story as seen by a vast group of characters), Boomtown didn’t last long. But its theme by WG Snuffy Walden (The West Wing, The George Lopez Show) is one of the best theme songs of the last 10 years. The opening credits, which shows the history of the City of Angels from its founding to the present day, are also pretty impressive.
Inescapable in the early 1990’s, and the last TV theme song to become a #1 hit, “I’ll Be There for You” is a true classic. Sung by the alt-rock group The Rembrandts, who somewhat resented their unexpected success, the song is an instant reminder of a time and place for anyone who watched the show–and identified with its characters–for its 10 year run. “I’ll be there for you,” indeed.
17. ROUTE 66
Composed by a jazz legend who was also one of the greatest arrangers of all-time, this show’s piano-driven theme is one of the greatest of the 1960’s. The show is mostly remembered today because of the car (a Corvette convertible) and this song by the legendary Nelson Riddle.
16. THE FLINTSTONES
Long before The Simpsons or Family Guy, the Stone Age version of The Honeymooners was a prime-time hit, nominated for the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series in 1961. Most of the humor comes from seeing “modern” life in the caveman settings, and the theme song is one of the most familiar of all time.
15. I LOVE LUCY
A ground-breaking television show (first major sitcom shot in Hollywood and filmed on 35 mm film in the now-ubiquitous 3 camera format) and still one of the funniest of all time. The show was the biggest of its day, winning multiple Emmy Awards and ending its six year run having been the number one show four of those years. The episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” (where Little Ricky is born) had a rating of 71, meaning 71% of all televisions in America were watching that night. The theme song is one of the most instantly recognizable themes of all time, composed by Elliot Daniel.
14. LAW & ORDER
Mike Post’s music for the original NBC staple, and one of the longest-running shows on television (20 years) is his second greatest theme song. The composer of hundreds of TV themes (including The A-Team, St. Elsewhere, Riptide, and lots of other 1980’s shows), it is this guitar and clarinet-driven piece that earns him his first appearance on this list. Imagine a Law & Order without this music–it’s not possible.
13. PERRY MASON
Ah, memories of being home from school because I was sick and watching Perry Mason in reruns at lunchtime. Raymond Burr’s lawyer always managed to get the confession on the stand, from the least likely person, and poor Hamilton Burger, the District Attorney always lost. The theme song by Fred Steiner was not written for the show. It’s actually called “Park Avenue Beat.”
12. GILLIGAN’S ISLAND
The show may have been ridiculous in concept and execution, but it has one heck of a theme song. In the tradition of its creator’s other shows, it lays out the premise for the show in a catchy way. And I’m pretty sure it will be stuck in your head as soon as you’re done listening to it. Written by Sherwood Schwartz, who created another top TV song, which makes its appearance in our top 10, and George Wyle, who co-wrote one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Once upon a time, Westerns were the biggest shows on TV. Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, were all Top 10 hits. Rawhide introduced the world to Clint Eastwood and this amazing song, sung by the one and only Frankie Laine and composed by film composer Dimitri Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington (who won an Oscar for one of my favorite songs of all time, “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio). Hyah!
10. BARNEY MILLER
I was never a fan of the show. Mostly because I was way too young to get it, and most of the characters were unappealing to me. But the theme song! The bass line at the start–the trumpets by the end. This is one of the great instrumental themes and is still timeless today. The versions on YouTube don’t show off the music, so click on the arrow to hear this one.
The rare TV show to be based on a film and actually be more successful, M*A*S*H was groundbreaking in its 11 years on TV, and I remember watching the final episode (“Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”) with the other 106 million people in America who tuned in, making it the most-watched show in TV history. The theme song, adapted from the Oscar-nominated theme from the film, is titled “Suicide is Painless” and has lyrics which are, thankfully, never heard in the titles for the show.
8. THE BRADY BUNCH
Like his theme for Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz’s theme for The Brady Bunch spells out the whole premise for the show. Cheesy as it may be, the show is a huge part of our American pop culture and deserves its place in the top 10–it’s just that unforgettable. The song in its first season (when the kids were still really cute and hadn’t hit that “groovy” stage) was actually sung by a bubblegum pop group called The Peppermint Trolley Company. For fun, here’s every version of the truly memorable theme song.
I was never a fan of the show. I found the characters more annoying than funny, and I was frankly glad when it went off the air, leaving NBC Thursday nights to Seinfeld. However, the theme song is one of the best because it summarizes the philosophy of the show, is singable, and has a universal feeling. Who wouldn’t want to be in a place where “everybody knows your name,” after all?
6. THE TWILIGHT ZONE
Easily one of the spookiest theme songs of all time, the theme for Rod Serling’s 1960’s anthology show still evokes strong feelings, long after the show went off the air. It has found new life, ironically, thanks to Disney, whose Twilight Zone Tower of Terror keeps the theme song alive for a new generation. The music is the best-known work of avant-garde composer Marius Constant. “Next stop–the Twilight Zone.”
5. PARKS & RECREATION
The only show of the last 5 years to be featured here, Parks & Recreation has a theme song as bouncy, slice-of-life, and Americana as its characters. The mockumentary format show, set in Pawnee, Indiana is currently the funniest show on television. The theme song, a rare thing in this modern era of quick soundbites, evokes the American midwest sensibility through sheer pluckiness. Composed by Gaby Moreno & Vincent Jones.
4. HILL STREET BLUES
Mike Post’s other big 1980’s era theme song was also a top 10 hit. Created by Steven Bochco, Blues was a gritty and realistic cop show–not because it showed violence, but because it showed cops as human people dealing with real life trouble. The theme is a piano-driven masterpiece that evokes the very humanity of these everyday heroes. “Let’s be careful out there.”
3. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE
Still amazing today, the theme song captures perfectly the energy and tension of the spies working for the IMF. Peter Graves and the team will, of course, disavow any knowledge of your actions, but the fact that this music still works today (put it on and even kids will start acting like secret agents) speaks to its greatness. Lalo Schifrin’s music is perfection. This is a nice montage created out of the various openings each week, although you are getting an “extended cut of the original theme.”
2. THE SIMPSONS
Now the longest-running show on television, Matt Groening’s cartoon family has stood the test of time. Easily still one of the funniest shows around, the show’s music is as much a reason for its success as its writing and voice acting. While Alf Clausen writes and arranges the music for the show (including such amazing pieces as “Streetcar!” a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire), former Oingo Boingo frontman and film composer Danny Elfman created the theme.
And my choice for best TV Theme Song of All Time?
1. THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB
Jimmie Dodd’s song for Walt Disney’s second venture into television–tapping the then-unheard of preteen market–stands the test of time for a great theme song. It is singable, memorable, gets stuck in your head. But unlike most TV show theme songs, this one has had a long and happy life of its own at the Disney theme parks and in hundreds of other venues and ways. Originally created in 1955, Walt’s show was named after his most famous creation, but its main stars were preteen boys and girls featured in long-running serials about girls and boys. (Much like today’s Disney Channel. Walt was way ahead of his time.) This song has taken on a life of its own because of the power of the Disney brand–if you say the words “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me” to a kid today, they still know the answer: “M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.”
That’s my top 20. What are yours?
Here’s a few honorable mentions: Family Ties, The Muppet Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, The Office, Modern Family, Home Improvement, ER, The A-Team, and Futurama.