You’re Dead To Us…Wacky and Explicitly Descriptive TV Theme Songs

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.

  • Sammy Lane

    I have been to the Big Bang Theory LIVE taping’s,they actually do use a live audience much to my ever growing loving surprise.They film it on The Warner Lot just behind Universal City (a few yards away from The Warner Water Tower where they keep those pesky Warner Bros and their sister Dot!Ha!).

  • Edward La Guardia

    How can you not like BBT??…to not like it is one thing, but to imply that it is not funny is ridiculous. I absolutely love 30 Rock and Parks and Rec and Veep and Arrested Dev. (not Girls though, ugh!) but I still find BBT hilarious. Yes the laugh track can be grating now that so many shows don’t use them (all the ones you listed) but I still think it has some of the best writing on TV at this time.

    Sheldon Cooper will go down as one of the greatest characters in TV history…bank on it. The writing is smart and full of pop culture references and scientific jargon as well as praising nerd culture yet still entertaining for just about anyone. Its appeal is very understandable and I’m sorry you can’t appreciate its humor.

    In short: 30 Rock is in my top 5 favorite shows of all time but Big Bang would be in my top 10…yes, it’s that funny.

    Your welcome ; )

  • Chris Holmes

    Like just about every sitcom on CBS these days, BBT is a black hole of funny.

  • R. Avery

    Finally. Someone else who can not stand Big Bang.

    I really resent the fake nerd bit. Throwing out Star Trek and Star wars references are really lazy writing, as if those two franchises are all that is encompassed in nerd culture. The show is also supposed to be about scientists, and contains zero real scientific content. I understand the average American could not care less about string theory or entropy, but the writing and jokes on Big Bang are interchangeable with basically any other piece of drivel coming out of the networks.

    Sadly though, this show gets ratings. A show like Arrested Development only made it through 3 seasons on FOX, and pieces of crap like Big Bang can go on for mindless 6 seasons.

    I feel like the networks are like a kid who keeps covering the walls in crappy artwork. Eventually the crayons have to be taken away. I am very happy to see shows on AMC trashing the networks in ratings. Hopefully they will see that you can get higher ratings with good material than you can with a brainless piece of crap sitcom.

  • Guy Smiey

    Sesame Street is a sitcom? It’s hilarious (although I’d argue it was better in the 70s, when I grew up with it) but I’m not sure it belongs here.

    Oh great… Now I have “One of these things is not like the other…” stuck in my head!

    As for the Friends theme song, it’s catchy (and annoying) as hell but I could never take it seriously because, musically, it’s pretty much a ripoff of The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” I think Goffin and King should’ve sued over that one.

    Speaking of, “(Theme From) The Monkees” is another song that meets all the criteria. Take Sesame Street off the list, replace with The Monkees.

    P.S. — Big Bang Theory sucks.

  • Guy Smiley

    Guy Smiley. Dammit. Maybe I should just register.

  • Guy Smiley

    I dislike BBT because, as a lifelong sci-fi/comic book nerd myself, I find their attempts at mining these other nerds for laughs to be offensive. They’re pandering to people like me, but still go out of their way to mock people like me, and reinforce the stereotypes that “normal” people believe and continue to laugh — derisively — at.

    Also, Sheldon Cooper may be the single most annoying character in the history of television. My daughter watches the show pretty regularly (and it is always fuckin’ on) and every time I hear Sheldon speak I want to hit him. Hard.

    Penny, and that other blonde dating the guy with the Beatle haircut, are awfully nice to look at though.

    But as the article points out, there are so many better shows out there.

  • steed

    even if you don’t find it funny, I’d encourage anyone to check out the episode from this season (somewhere near the end) where Bob Newhart guests as an old TV show host (like Bill Nye the Science Guy). He’s going to win an Emmy for that guest spot.

  • jefito

    Bob Newhart can do no wrong.

  • DannydixX

    I’ve got the hots for Penny. I wonder would she come across to the dark side?

  • Biffdavenport

    You are all liberal douches. Best when flushed after use.