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Dusting Off: The Sitcom Theme Song

Ah, those were the days. Archie and Edith agreeing in song, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.”

We realize it’s a little odd to be waxing nostalgic about the Bunkers waxing nostalgic, but this much is certain: The All in the Family theme song—she wailing, he demonizing “the welfare state,” they embraced in the end over thunderous, authentic applause—had as much to do with setting the voice and tone of the working-class show as Meathead, George Jefferson and anti-Semitism. That’s because sitcom theme songs used to matter.

And that’s why we're dusting them off...

As we first mentioned in our five-part series eulogizing the “sitcom moment” a variety of factors—TiVo, cable, longer commercials—have fundamentally changed America’s favorite 30 minutes.

And minute one took the biggest hit.

Consider this: the combined length of the theme songs for Modern Family (0:12), Two and a Half Men (0:17), Curb Your Enthusiasm (0:06) and Whitney (0:03) would barely take you to the chorus of The Greatest American Hero.

And as we all know, fists don’t start pumping until the chorus...

Yes, you’re right, technically The Greatest American Hero is a “comedy/drama” (like Moonlighting). And yes, that is an eight-bar intro, and okay, the chorus is sung three times. We’re not saying there wasn’t fat to trim off these puppies—after all, this was a time when theme songs contained second verses, pre-choruses, wholly unnecessary transitional bridges and a cappella clap breaks, seemingly none of which played with a great deal of urgency, at least when compared to the frantic, auctioneer-like cadences of theme songs today. At times they seemed endless, like this paragraph.

But endlessly optimistic, too. It’s fitting, then, that Seinfeld, the least optimistic sitcom ever, was the first to do away with the song altogether, choosing to instead go with a frenzy of bass slaps, tongue pops and guttural hiccups.

To properly dust off sitcom theme songs, we first need a refresher. To that end, we’ve organized the best of the best into eight categories: Expositional Ditties, Anthems, Liberated Women, The Jazz Age, Caucasian Sap, Funk Brothers, The Thinkers, Optimistic Groovers and, finally, The Bummers.

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale...

EXPOSITIONAL DITTIES Gilligan’s Island (above) The Brady Bunch Arrested Development The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air The Beverly Hillbillies The Flintstones The Jetsons The Odd Couple

ANTHEMS Perfect Strangers (above) The Office (BBC) The Bob Newhart Show The Mary Tyler Moore Show Angry Boys Summer Heights High

LIBERATED WOMEN Alice (above) Laverne & Shirley Kate & Allie Gimme a Break!

THE JAZZ AGE The Cosby Show (above) Everybody Loves Raymond Frasier

CAUCASIAN SAP The Golden Girls (above) Cheers Silver Spoons Friends Punky Brewster The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (Sung by Harry Nilsson, incidentally.)

Side note: Mercifully, Cheers cut the balance of Gary Portnoy’s “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” after the first chorus, otherwise you would have unawarely committed the third verse’s lyrics to memory as well.

Roll out of bed, Mr. Coffee’s dead The morning’s looking bright And your shrink ran off to Europe And didn’t even write And your husband wants to be a girl...

Be glad there’s one place in the world Where everybody knows your name...

(Side, side note: Cheap shot at Kelsey Grammer?)

FUNK BROTHERS Barney Miller (above) Maude Roseanne Blossom Night Court Sanford and Son

THE THINKERS It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (above) Malcolm in the Middle Green Acres Get a Life Chuck South Park

OPTIMISTIC GROOVERS One Day at a Time (above) Chico and the Boy Mr. Belvedere Growing Pains The Desmonds Full House WKRP in Cincinnati Welcome Back, Kotter Who’s the Boss? Growing Pains

THE BUMMERS M*A*S*H (above, lyrics written by Robert Altman’s 14-year-old son, Mike. What?) Taxi Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman Family Ties (below)

Sha la la la...

—C.B.S.