In which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
Like most people who have taste and are also pretentious, I loathe The Big Bang Theory. There’s so much innovative comedy going right now, so much breathtaking work—30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Veep, Girls, Family Tree, Arrested Development—and yet this show with the broad characters and the easy jokes and the braying laugh track is the most popular comedy on TV, by far, is The Big Bang Theory. Even two-hour blocks of repeats on cable bring in more viewers than Parks and Recreation.
In my city, reruns come on after The Simpsons every night. Whenever my son and I watch that, he always wants to stay on for the first few minutes of The Big Bang Theory. I was worried he actually liked the show (but at least he’s seven – what’s your excuse, AMERICA?). He doesn’t. He just really likes the theme song. Not only does this show actually employ a title sequence, a dying custom, but the music is an original song, created just for the show, and one which mentions the show. (It’s performed by the Barenaked Ladies, who are The Big Bang Theory of Canadian rock bands.)
It’s my understanding that people enjoy The Big Bang Theory because it’s familiar and comforting at the end of another horrific day on this hot and hostile rock of doom. It’s a throwback to ‘70s and ‘80s sitcoms, and part of that appeal and similarity, I believe, is the original theme song. This song does what a theme song ought to do: It lays out the idea of the show and what a great time you, audience member, are about to have.
If Aristotle were alive in the late 20th century and wrote his Unities about TV sitcom theme songs instead of classical theater, they would be Original Song, Expresses Premise of Show, and Names the Show in Its Lyrics. Adherents include:
• Green Acres
• Mister Ed
• The Patty Duke Show
• The Addams Family
• The Brady Bunch
• Happy Days
• Gilligan’s Island
• The Beverly Hillbillies
• WKRP in Cincinnati
• The Flintstones
• The Nanny
• Sesame Street
• The Love Boat
• The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
• And the super-meta It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
Other great TV theme songs meet almost all of the criteria: Laverne and Shirley, Friends, The Jeffersons, All in the Family, Cheers, and Growing Pains all had original songs that conveyed the show’s plot while not explicitly mentioning the show’s title. “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” from Cheers is about the joys of drinking to escape your problems, and “I’ll Be There For You” from Friends is about friends, for example.
Based on the 2012-13 TV season, here’s a breakdown of what comedies use what kind of theme song:
An instrumental or near-instrumental: 12 (The Simpsons, Bob’s Burgers, How I Met Your Mother, The Mindy Project, Modern Family, Two and a Half Men, 30 Rock, Up All Night, Parks and Recreation, The Office, 1600 Penn, Last Man Standing)
Tangential at best pre-existing pop songs: 9 (Malibu Country, Go On, Rules of Engagement, 2 Broke Girls, Ben and Kate, Mike and Molly, Raising Hope, Suburgatory, Guys With Kids)
No theme song at all: 4 (The Middle, The Neighbors, How to Live With Your Parents, Whitney)
Four shows have a real, honest-to-God, classic TV-ish theme song. Sort of. New Girl was written for the show by star Zooey Deschanel and friends, and while it does describe the show it doesn’t use the words “new girl.” And The Big Bang Theory, of course (even though they just say “big bang,” not “big bang theory.”) American Dad almost gets there, missing just the title. Just one show uses a real, original, old school TV theme song, and it’s Family Guy. Although it feels ironic and winking, as that show is supposed to be a brutal satire of old family sitcoms.
As it could be considered a cornball relic, this kind of theme song is dying, an eroding TV trope; a wacky theme describing the show to you could be construed as a bit forced. But the real reason they’re gone? Time. The comedies that use a theme song don’t let them go on for a minute or even 30 seconds—they get about 15 seconds, max. That’s because the networks have to squeeze as many ads into a half-hour as possible. While half-hour shows once consisted of 22 minutes of show and eight minutes of commercials, today’s programs are 20 to 21 minutes, including the song. Showmakers need all the time they can get to tell a story, and shaving off a theme song, no matter the format, is an easy way to do it.