Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!
Here’s a phrase you don’t hear anymore: “It’s going on!” In olden times, this alert was yelled toward the kitchen at whomever was gathering the snacks in anticipation of a relaxing evening in front of the tube. The old-fashioned TV theme song gave you another minute to get yourself situated, like the house lights blinking at the theater. Somehow, these intros fell from favor, leaving the viewing public with shows that launch right into the action without warning—and woe betides the stragglers. Sometimes I miss the TV theme song almost as much as I miss the days of good TV itself.
My parents set the stage for my appreciation for a good theme. During the ’70s, the stone grooves of “Quincy” and “Baretta” were lullabies to me, drifting in from the living room of our flat in a sleepy Marin County town that was still many years from becoming prohibitively posh. I grew to consider the top-shelf themes to be the instrumentals: “The Rockford Files,” “Sanford and Son.” “Hart to Hart” had its cool narrative prelude on top of the music; it also had Robert Wagner wearing driving gloves behind the wheel of a red convertible, which was a pretty strong argument for its inclusion on my list of favorites.
But the songs closest to my heart came from sitcoms—do they still make sitcoms? For a while now, I’ve been down to a diet of “Seinfeld” reruns, “Judge Judy” and any show featuring chef Gordon Ramsay yelling at people.
The song, of course, goes hand in hand with the visuals. I was fairly young when I began to imagine my grown-up life as one of those effervescent montages: a world of reaction shots and lots of raucous laughter, of the turn-and-smile and someone taking a cake in the face on the downbeat. (Never the heroine agonizing over a stack of bills, or in sweats and a stained T-shirt washing dishes on a Wednesday night.) The intros were as ingratiating as they were fantastical; even characters with arguably hopeless lives, like “Alice’s” desert-wasteland waitresses, were depicted having a jolly old time, with a tight social support network and wacky adventures galore. In the same vein, the rampant enthusiasm of the bouncy “It’s a Living” intro hardly squares with my own brief restaurant-industry experience.
The effective theme was shorthand for an entire series. I don’t feel the need to ever partake of another helping of “Silver Spoons,” for instance—a show whose purpose, as far as we were concerned, was to fill time on babysitting nights. But hearing its song again gives rise to an affection I never felt at all for the program when it was on the air. In sixty seconds, the tune encapsulates not only the experience of the show, but also the context of our lives in which the show existed: recess musings about how semi-regular Jason Bateman deserved a better gig, and what kind of sickie would buy a teen rag for a picture of Ricky Schroder?
Other themes were so evocative you didn’t need to know the show to catch the mood, like “Welcome Back, Kotter” and the white-hot “Good Times.” As for the series that weren’t so brilliant, a strong opening ditty served as foreplay—because hey, a little warm-up action can make almost anything better. The intro that successfully gets into our hearts boils down to the simple formula of an infectious tune and crack editing, as demonstrated in this note-perfect marriage of the “Three’s Company” theme and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”
There just isn’t room to fete every great theme that’s rocked my TV world (sorry, “Maude” and “WKRP”). I’ll close by nominating my favorite—and by opening the debate. Of all the TV themes I’ve enjoyed, “Laverne & Shirley” remains tops on a very long list. Why do I love it so? Is it the lyrics’ cheery determination that the titular working stiffs will slip the surly bonds of the Shotz Brewery and make all their dreams come true? Is it that classic shot of horndogs Lenny and Squiggy? I don’t know. But Cyndi Grecco’s vocal makes my heart soar every time as DeFazio and Feeney whiz by on that bicycle in the final frames.
Care to declare your own champion? Tell me all about it.