The 5 Greatest Television Show Themes

Do you know what a “cold open” is? Sure you do. Every current sitcom you watch uses it. It’s when the show just begins, no fanfare, no opening titles. Right into the action, because the producers know you’ll change the channel if you have to sit through 30 seconds of the same music every week.

Congrats! You’ve done exactly what was expected of you, and nothing more.

“Cold opens” are like “cold sores”. They spread easily. Saturday Night Live has done cold opens since before you were born. You’re used to it in sitcoms. Hell, you were getting tired of the “typical sitcom theme”, anyway.

That’s why they suck now.

TV themes used to be of crucial importance. They were the introduction to the universe of the program. They got you settled in, and relaxed. One of the best examples is one I left off this list; Cheers. Viewers loved to come home after a long day of work and hang out with the barflies and servers of that mythical Boston pub. The corny theme was a soothing balm.

That’s Gary Portnoy, who was probably able to retire on that song. The Victorian-era art mirrors the beloved characters, as though they’ve always been there, in spirit, and always will be. That’s a hell of a lot of charm to kick off a sitcom with. I dunno, was Cheers popular or something?

1. NIGHT COURT

Misfit kids like myself adored Night Court. It relied in no way on family or parental influence. Everyone was a weirdo or a pervert. John Larroquette played District Attorney Dan Fielding, whom I largely based my adult persona upon. (I’ve quoted his classic “I HAVE HAD DEN MOTHERS” speech, without irony.) Harry Anderson and Richard Moll were funny as hell, and the show tried its best to hide Markie Post’s beautiful boobs under terrible 80s power suits. John Astin and Mel Torme used to guest-star. It was the final gig for Selma Diamond and Florence Halop, and the show where we all fell in love with Marsha Warfield (in a platonic, careful sort of way).

It captured Weird Old New York City perfectly.

If you pay close attention during the original Night Court opening, you’ll see New Yorkers getting high in the street, and rolling papers sold at bodegas. All this flew right over our childhood heads in its subtlety, as it should have. Hey- what’s with those two towers? Where’d they go? Same place all the other classic NYC culture went. Oblivion.

That’s Jack Elliott, and it’s so indelible, it made its way into a great gag on Family Guy, performed by serial rapist ghoul Bill Clinton:

The guy with the drumsticks (and Clinton’s punchline) are howlingly funny. Admittedly, Family Guy rides the horse of ’80s culture pretty hard, but when there’s results like this, I can’t complain.

2. TAXI

It’s a sin that kids grow up nowadays without a show like Taxi. Any real fan of Danny DeVito is a fan of Taxi; that’s where most of us first saw him. The legendary master troll Andy Kaufman played Latka Gravas, a variation of his breakout “Foreign Man” character. The great Carol Kane played his love interest, Simka. Perfect Strangers would appropriate this formula for its entire running time. Judd Hirsch was the everyman cabbie Alex Rieger, and when his dog dies, I have to leave the room. Christopher Lloyd, known to most as “Doc” Brown from Back To The Future, was Reverend Jim, the funniest character on television at the time. 

dare you to find a funnier character from ’70s TV. I dare you. Heck, find me one willing to stare at a bare light bulb for a gag. (As Rev. Jim did when Alex became a gambling addict.)

Anyway, Taxi was aided in its brilliance by jazz pianist Bob James, who created most of the music. He penned a theme intended for a girl so ugly that no one wanted to take her out, named Angela. Again, this was ’70s TV, so Angela was hidden until the last moments of the show. They knew how to write real people back then, and how to write good television. You don’t show, you tell, letting the characters paint their own descriptive pictures, thus revealing their personalities. Another example is Norm’s unseen wife Vera, from Cheers. When finally revealed, Vera entered with a pie in her face.

Before Bob founded Fourplay, he gave the world a theme song so great that they had to loop the bridge footage to cover it all. The song was longer than the crossing of the bridge.

This five-minute tune spoiled us rotten. It’s incomparable. The way the flute intones, the way Bob starts on the keys… this is how TV theme songs used to be done. Everything that followed was uplifted and complemented. Made greater. This was once the unspoken purpose of the theme song.

But, you know, it all had to be done away with, because viewers might change the channel. Always second-guess the ignorance of the viewing public. It makes television soooo much better.

Plus, fuck all those talented jazz musicians and their high prices. Why bother, when you can get the guy who did the wonderful guitar on Chuck Mangione’s “Feels So Good”, and have him direct mediocre vocalists to utter “men men men men MEN MEN MEN MEN MEN MEEEENNN!!! Right? Isn’t that hilarious?

I mean, people don’t still watch Taxi and Cheers, do they?

How about this wondrous gem, from the Gilded Age of Pay Cable. Name another theme song that’s this perfect and funny. There ain’t none.

3. IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW.

I was ready to declare television dead after the passing of Garry Shandling. He was the second coming of Ernie Kovacs. He had the rarest gift; he would walk onto sets and verbally deconstruct everything you saw, for huge laughs. It was even funnier than Chris Elliott’s Get A Life. Bill Lynch’s theme was the icing on the cake, with literally unforgettable lyrics.

This is the theme to Garry’s show
The opening theme to Garry’s show
This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits
We’re almost halfway finished
How do you like it so far?
How do you like the theme from Garry’s show?

Lynch remarks “we’re almost to the part/of where I start to whistle/then we’ll watch It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”, and then he whistles, jauntily. Shandling went on to top himself, with The Larry Sanders Show. Many comedians you once admired did their best work there.

4. WKRP IN CINCINNATI

Look; the opening theme of WKRP is great. It sums up the world of 1970s radio beautifully; “living on the air” sung like an old AOR treacle-slab. When we were boys, we all lusted after the walking wig Loni Anderson, then when we hit puberty, we all noticed Jan Smithers as “Bailey Quarters”, who was a thousand times more attractive.

Yes. Yes she was. They put glasses on her to tone it down, and it only made it worse.

Here, for completeness’ sake, is the opening intro.

Check out how much filler there is before the song even begins! When was the last time you saw a show take its time?

Still, that’s not why I’m including the WKRP theme. Like many others, I’ve been obsessed with the closing theme, since the ’70s. It’s what I always imagined Dr. Johnny Fever wanted to play on the air, if only the bosses would allow it. It’s probably the best piece of rock music ever created for a TV program.

Here is what I know.

The ending theme song was done by a group of studio musicians in Atlanta, GA [led by Jim Ellis]. The lyrics are unintelligible because it was recorded solely to help the musicians and the show’s producers get a feel for the song and the lyric melody. The producers liked it as is, so it was never changed.

Here are the “lyrics”.

Said to the bartender
“Best night I ever had”

Singin’ to the bar
Had a microphone in her heart

I said “goodbye madam”
I’ve had a bird in the hand

I said I’m doing good
And put love in her heart

Don’t forget the MTM “meow”, after the final note. Mary Tyler Moore was married to Grant Tinker, the president of NBC at the time, and was able to produce a lot of great TV. Taxi had a woman saying “Goodnight Mr. Walters”, and then Mr. Walters went “GRU-unt”. Television will never, ever be as good as it was in the 1970s.

Here’s proof. The best television theme of all time. Indisputable. Just listen to the bass guitar that kicks it off.

This was once the gold standard of television music, and indeed, television comedy itself. The high watermark.

5. BARNEY MILLER

Hey- there’s those funny towers again! Weird, how television was worthwhile as they stood.

Do I even need to comment on that music, other than to tell you it’s the Daniel Caine Orchestra? We got to watch a show with Hal Linden, Jack Soo and Abe Vigoda. We were spoiled rotten. That’s why I can tell you, with authority, TV is dead as an art form. It’s all co-opted by popular social outrages. It doesn’t reflect reality in any meaningful or poignant way, at all. It’s all models trying to tell jokes and pretend they’re regular people. Pardon my French, but fuck all that shit, running. TV is deader than Vaudeville.

Here’s more proof, as a bonus.

6. THE ROCKFORD FILES

That flickering, faded image of James Garner is more of a man than anyone you know. A 50-year pot smoker. The original Maverick. A guy’s guy par excellence. Beef- it’s what’s for dinner. Time was, you could turn on a television and see a man like that.

Anyone still talk about Glee? No?

Hey, it’s not like the link between music and television comedy is an important one. It’s not like the average person can hum the theme to Sanford & Son, Good Times, or even Family Ties, on command. It’s not like Family Guy has an opener inspired by the Bunkers singing at the piano, at the start of All In The Family. It’s not like there are collections of classic TV themes available to purchase on CD.

Obviously it was a smart move to shitcan all that, just in case some lumpen asshole can’t be bothered to sit through 30 seconds of music without changing the channel. Right?

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