Even when you can’t remember the name of an actor in a favorite sitcom from your childhood, chances are you can still hum the theme song.
As composer Jonathan Wolff (“Seinfeld”) explains: “A unique, memorable, unmistakably recognizable series theme can serve as a signature for the show. A viewer hears the theme, sometimes from another room, and there’s a Pavlovian response: ‘Let’s watch.'”
It’s been true from the earliest days of television. Emmy winner Earle Hagen — the veteran composer of many series, including “The Andy Griffith Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “That Girl” — recalls that he and partner Herbert Spencer “struggled like hell to come up with something” for Griffith’s comedy about life in Mayberry, N.C.
“Finally, one morning I got up and said, ‘You know, that thing ought to be simple enough to whistle. Quiet, simple, neighborly stuff.’ And then it took me about 20 minutes to write it.”
Hagen went into the studio with a guitarist, bassist and drummer, and whistled the theme himself.
Producer Sheldon Leonard then shot film to accompany this bit of homespun Americana: the familiar sequence of Griffith and young Ron Howard walking to a lake with fishing poles.
Vic Mizzy not only wrote the theme songs for ’60s classics “The Addams Family” and “Green Acres,” he conceived the entire opening sequences of both (and actually directed the actors during shooting of the former’s main title).
“You’ve got to have something that’s recognizable, lyrically and musically,” says the former Tin Pan Alley tune smith. “Each show must have an aura, its own sound.”
Mizzy penned funny lyrics — the weird Addamses snapping their fingers to “They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky”; Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor trading opinions about farm life with “The chores! The stores! Fresh air! Times Square!” — and created offbeat orchestrations for both: a harpsichord for “Addams,” bass harmonica and fuzz guitar on “Acres.”
Emmy and Grammy winner Charles Fox, composer of such familiar ’70s themes as “Love, American Style,” “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” remembers producer Douglas Cramer’s request for music on “The Love Boat”: “Establish that this was going to be a great adventure on the high seas, an exciting, fun voyage.” Lyricist Paul Williams matched Fox’s energetic tune with the now-familiar lyric (“Love, exciting and new…”).
As for “Happy Days,” the producers “wanted (lyricist) Norman Gimbel and me to write a song that sounded like it was a hit in the ’50s but still had a freshness, a new song that expressed the vitality of the show,” Fox says.
Times have changed. While a 60-second song once established an entire series premise (“The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gilligan’s Island”), contemporary themes often last as little as a few seconds.
“A good theme today must make a complete statement in one or two phrases,” says Wolff, whose current roster includes the piano-driven “Will & Grace.” “Even the timeslot and the target audience can influence the musical sensibilities of a show.”