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While series come and go, our favorite tunes will always have a home in our hearts

Sunday, October 19, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

They're catchy and they're kooky, Sometimes they're even spooky,

They're altogether loopy,

They're TV show theme songs.

If those sentences seem to flow in a familiar rhythm, thank a TV show theme song. In this case, it's "The Addams Family" theme by Vic Mizzy, which has echoed through the heads of several decades' worth of viewers.

Related article:

Top 25 TV theme songs, with audio clips of the top 10

Jon Burlingame, author of "TV's Biggest Hits" (1996, Schirmer Books), said theme songs are sometimes more memorable than the shows themselves.

"There would be no 'Addams Family' feature film or no 'Mission: Impossible' feature films if the shows from which the movies were spun off hadn't had recognizable and popular television themes," Burlingame said. "The 'Addams Family' feature would not have been greenlit if a Paramount executive's kid hadn't come home singing the theme song -- and keep in mind that show ran only two seasons."

And that was in the mid-'60s, but even children born years later came to know the catchy, finger-snapping theme through reruns.

"It's been passed down as a kind of oral history from one generation of kids to the next," Burlingame said. "The 'Friends' theme is a great example of a show whose theme song was so popular and distinctive that it became what old TV themes were, which is a kind of signpost, a signal: This is part of your favorite show and you'd miss it if it wasn't there. How often has that happened lately? Not too often."

Jim McKairnes, vice president of program planning and scheduling for CBS, said he listens to TV theme songs on his way to work in the morning.

"It reminds me of what I do, but there's also a great sense of nostalgia and history," McKairnes said. "Some theme songs provide a sense of time and place of these shows in your life. They're little bits and pieces of history, and it's the soundtrack of our lives."

McKairnes also sees a more practical reason for theme songs to exist. Without them, what music would play when a show wins an Emmy? What music would play in the background when the star of a TV show is interviewed on the radio?

"When I can't answer that, I'm disappointed," he said.

Even the more majestic introductions can be memorable.

"Jerry Goldsmith's theme for 'Star Trek: Voyager' -- a lame show -- was a great orchestral theme that was compelling on its own terms," Burlingame said. "The contribution of a good and talented composer can enhance a show and keep viewers tuned in as opposed to channel switching. ... 'The West Wing' is a great patriotic theme that fits that sequence beautifully."

"The West Wing" theme was composed by W.G. Snuffy Walden, who's also created theme songs for "thirtysomething," "I'll Fly Away," "My So-Called Life," "Sports Night," "Once and Again" and, most recently, "Mister Sterling," "The Brotherhood of Poland, N.H." and "The Lyon's Den."

Walden typically scores several episodes of a series before composing its theme song.

"My understanding of those characters is not going to be nearly as deep as when I've sat with the characters and gone through emotional trials and tribulations with them and then try to access that emotionally myself," Walden said.

He wrote two other pieces of music before what became "The West Wing" theme. One he described as a pop anthem track and another he said was "a Phil Collins-y kind of thing."

Executive producer/director Thomas Schlamme responded to music Walden scored near the end of the show's third episode. That music cue inspired what became the show's lush, patriotic theme song.

"A lot of people talk about it as Copland-esque, but I come from the South and wasn't thinking in terms of Aaron Copland. My roots weren't in classical music. I was a blues player and, to me, it was more of a cross between gospel music and Copland," Walden said. "Something about the heart of it spoke to Tommy."

The most popular TV tunes strike a chord with the public at large, too, even as they've evolved throughout the history of television.

Chart toppers

These TV show's theme songs made it into the Top 20 on Billboard Magazine's top pop singles chart. Note: "The Addams Family" and "Mission: Impossible" theme songs did not hit the charts until their theme songs were used in big-screen spin-offs.

"The Addams Family," Hammer (1991, No. 7)
"Ally McBeal," Vonda Shepard (1998, No. 16)
"Angie," Maureen McGovern (1979, No. 18)
"Baretta," Rhythm Heritage (1976, No. 20)
"Batman," The Marketts (1966, No. 7)
"Bonanza," Al Caiola (1961, No. 19)
"Cops," Inner Circle (1993, No. 8)
"Dr. Kildare," Richard Chamberlain (1962, No. 10)
"Dragnet," Ray Anthony Orchestra (1953, No. 3)
"Friends," The Rembrandts (1995, No. 17)
"The Greatest American Hero," Joey Scarbury (1981, No. 2)
"Happy Days," Pratt & McClain (1976, No. 5)
"Hawaii Five-0," The Ventures (1969, No. 4)
"The Heights," The Heights (1992, No. 1)
"Hill Street Blues," Mike Post featuring Larry Carlton (1981, No. 10)
"Makin' It," David Naughton (1979, No. 5)
"Miami Vice," Jan Hammer (1985, No. 1)
"Mission: Impossible," U2 (1996, No. 7)
"Peter Gunn," Ray Anthony Orchestra (1959, No. 8)
"The Rockford Files," Mike Post (1975, No. 10)
"S.W.A.T.," Rhythm Heritage (1975, No. 1)
"Secret Agent," Johnny Rivers (1966, No. 3)
"Then Came Bronson," Michael Parks (1970, No. 20)
"Welcome Back, Kotter," John Sebastian (1976, No. 1)
"Zorro," The Chordettes (1958, No. 17)

Source: The eighth edition of "The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" ($27.95, Ballantine)


Original ditties with lyrics and without -- "Laverne & Shirley," "Bonanza," etc. -- have given way to pop songs (think about the theme to almost any show on The WB or NBC's "Good Morning, Miami" or UPN's "Enterprise"). Not long ago, there was a movement to abolish TV theme songs altogether.

In July 1994, then-ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert declared a moratorium on theme songs, blaming opening-credit sequences for encouraging viewers to channel-surf. His decree, which he admitted at the time was "an intuitive gut call," was met with outrage by TV critics.

Three months later, NBC's "Friends" premiered, and its theme song, "I'll Be There for You" by the Rembrandts, became a mainstream radio success and probably helped propel the series into the Nielsen ratings stratosphere. By July 1994, Harbert was backtracking.

Nevertheless, the Harbert doctrine had an effect that's still evident today. Gone is the era when every TV show had a theme song. Now, some series have only a few bars of music at the start, with opening credits playing over the first scene instead of being part of a montage sequence.

David Stapf, senior vice president of current programming at CBS, said whether a show gets a theme song is decided on a show-by-show basis. Just this fall, CBS's "Yes, Dear" got a new theme song because research found viewers couldn't recall the show's title. The pop-punk tune by Buffalo Tom lead singer Bill Janovitz uses the show's title over and over.

"It starts the evening in a really fun way and lyrically tells you what the show is about and reinforces the title, which in this case was important to us," Stapf said.

That song was an original tune, but lately TV executives have looked more to the tried and true.

"There's that suggestion of familiarity that people will be drawn in," said Barbara Hall, creator of CBS's "Joan of Arcadia."

When creating "Joan," about a teenage girl who hears the voice of God, Hall said she gravitated to Joan Osborne's radio hit "One of Us" because it encapsulated the themes of her series, with its chorus of "What if God was one of us?"

Osborne recorded a new, slightly bluesier, 30-second version of the song -- mostly the chorus -- for use on "Joan." The song did not inspire the series

but seemed like an obvious choice, Hall said. But it wasn't the only option considered.

"It's always very tricky and depends on the show," he said. For a series with a recognizable franchise -- a law show in the case of Hall's "Judging Amy" -- she said an instrumental

score can work well, allowing the images on screen to tell the story. For "Joan," Hall wanted a song.

"If we'd just had a score, I'd have to tell some sort of story with pictures, and I didn't want to do it," she said. "The Joan Osborne song does such a great job explaining what the show is more than images. Besides being an infectious song, it helped us invite people into the world."

Similarly, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" uses the Who song "Who Are You?" to set the tone for its forensic crime solvers.

"It didn't tell you what the show was about, but it created an instant mood about what the show was about," said CBS's Stapf. "It makes you feel good and say, 'I know that song, I love that song, therefore I might like this show.' It's as simple as that."

When "CSI: Miami" was spun off the original series a year ago, much thought went into what theme to give that series. Various options were debated and ultimately producers went with another Who song ("Won't Get Fooled Again") to help associate "Miami" with the original "CSI."

Burlingame said a new emphasis on old songs comes from a new generation of television executives and producers who have different musical backgrounds from their forebears.

"They're less eager to take a risk with original music when they've got tunes in their heads they know," he said. "They prefer to pay for it because it has the mood they have in mind, as opposed to going to a single composer or a cattle call of composers and asking them to submit themes, which is a big crap shoot."

Generally an original theme is significantly less costly than a familiar song (roughly $10,000 or more for an original theme versus $100,000 or more for an established hit).

Burlingame believes the reason the most memorable theme songs came out of the '60s, '70s and '80s was that composers were valued as part of a show's creative team.

" 'Miami Vice' without Jan Hammer's music is unthinkable," he said. "Any Steven Bochco show without a Mike Post theme is unthinkable, too. One of the things that keeps me tuning in is, if that main title is so compelling visually and aurally. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling."

Composer Walden obviously has a stake in the future of TV theme songs, but he thinks it's just a matter of time before original compositions stage a comeback.

"A few years ago an edict was sent down that they didn't want any instrumentals. Everything should have lyrics, even if it was an original song," Walden recalled. "We're just going in a cycle. You can play band songs all day long, and they speak to us as a generation, but when I think of a main title, I think of 'The Andy Griffith Show' and I hear that whistle and I know instantly I'll spend 30 minutes with Opie and Andy.

"It just speaks to me, and it does something different than a song I've related to in a different context. There's something very special about an original piece of music that can really capture the sense of what a show means to people, to a point that they become inseparable."

Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

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