Many of today’s TV shows have dispensed with the traditional theme song in an effort to squeeze in more commercial time, which fills traditional television fans with a sense of melancholy. Does anyone out there still remember a time when a show’s theme song told the back-story of the series, or was catchy enough to become a Top-40 hit? As Archie and Edith might sigh, “those were the days.” Stroll down memory lane as mental_floss takes a look at the stories behind some of TV’s classic theme songs.
1. All in the Family: How Budget Restrictions Turned Actors into Singers
The cozy picture of Archie and Edith Bunker sitting at the piano singing “Those Were the Days” seems so in context with the series, it’s hard to picture All in the Family without that opening. However, that homey tableau that seemed so perfectly designed to set the tone for the series was concocted strictly out of necessity. Producer Norman Lear had used up his allotted budget by the time he’d filmed the pilot, leaving no money to hire professional singers or musicians to perform the theme song. Series stars Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton stepped in at the last minute to help him out.
2. Gilligan’s Island: Explaining a Show’s Premise in a minute (or less!)
Cheers, The Addam’s Family, and of course, Gilligan’s Island all after the jump.
When producer Sherwood Schwartz first showed network executives his pilot for Gilligan’s Island, the suits liked parts of it, but demanded some changes before they bought the series. By the time the first episode aired, new actors had been cast as the Professor, Mary Ann and Ginger and the group was already shipwrecked. In order to explain the premise of the series, Sherwood Schwartz jotted down some lyrics and worked with George Wyle, who came up with the melody and fine-tuned the words to “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island.” Their intent was to explain precisely why these seven disparate personalities had ended up shipwrecked on an uncharted tropical island. By the way, it was series star Bob Denver who went to bat for Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson and demanded that the theme song lyrics be revised for the second season from “and the rest” to “the Professor and Mary Ann.”
3. Happy Days: How Royalty Fees Changed the Show
Happy Days premiered in 1974 to the strains of Bill Haley & His Comets performing their classic “Rock Around the Clock” as the opening theme song. The show became a massive hit, and programmers expected it to have the legs to run in syndication for several seasons. Studio bean counters, however, quickly realized that they might lose money in the deal because of the steep royalties they had to pay for the song. The good news was that Paramount had commissioned (and owned the rights to) the show’s closing theme, written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. So beginning with Season Three, the familiar “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days….” song was repurposed as the opening theme for the series.
4. How Cheers got its Theme Song
The first collaboration between Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo began in 1981, when they were brought in to write the songs for a proposed Broadway musical called Preppies. One of the first tunes they churned out was “People Like Us.” Months later, out of the blue, a Hollywood producer contacted Portnoy; he’d somehow heard a demo tape of “People Like Us” and wanted to use it as the theme to a new TV show scheduled to appear on NBC. Unfortunately, the song contractually belonged to the Preppies folks, and they refused to let it go, especially for use on a [derisive snort] sitcom. Time was running out – the airing of the show’s pilot was quickly approaching – and the duo frantically wrote and submitted five more songs before NBC finally decided “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was the perfect fit for their new show, Cheers.
5. Snapping to It: The Addams Family opener
Vic Mizzy is a legend when it comes to TV and film songs; he’s the man responsible for everything from the Green Acres theme to the spooky organ theme from the Don Knotts film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. But his most popular composition is undoubtedly the theme song for The Addams Family. Filmways was tight with their production dollars, so Mizzy ended up not only composing the tune, but also singing it. (He recorded his vocals on three separate tracks and then blended them together in the final mix.) Once the song was in the can, it was time to film the opening credits. Mizzy approached director Sidney Lanfield and explained his vision of close-ups of finger-snapping cast members. He added that a “click track” (the steady beat of a metronome on tape) would be required so that the actors could snap on cue. Lanfield basically replied, “What do I know from click tracks? Do it yourself.” So Mizzy ended up directing the opening scenes where the cast members impassively stared at the camera while snapping their fingers when prompted.
6. How a pair of Monkees Wannabe’s Turned Lemons into Lemonade
Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had a successful track record as a songwriting duo; they’d composed the 1961 hit “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” as well as the theme song for the soap Days of Our Lives. Boyce & Hart were not only songwriters; they were also performers. That led them to audition for parts in a new NBC sitcom based on a rock and roll band. Neither Tommy nor Bobby made the final cut for The Monkees, but their musical ability impressed producers enough for them to be brought on board for a steady gig as the show’s chief songwriters. The duo composed the show’s theme song “(Hey Hey) We’re the Monkees,” as well as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone” and 20-some other tunes for the Prefab Four.