Where Everybody Knows Your Theme Song

REVIEW: 'Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring'

May 21, 2023

You're going to have to trust me on the following math:

Assume, for the purposes of this exercise, that you are piloting a small craft, no more than 30 feet in length, and you motor out of the Honolulu marina having charted a course for a three-hour tour. At some point, the weather starts getting rough, and your tiny ship is tossed. (Perhaps you're familiar, at this point, with this particular word problem?)

Taking into consideration engine speeds, storm wind activity, and the painstaking efforts of the United States Navy in World War II to map every single inch within a 500-mile radius of the Hawaiian archipelago, it's literally impossible to find yourself aground on the shore of an unchartered desert isle.

Run the numbers yourself, if you don't believe me. You'll find that, even at different wind speeds and multiple storm vectors, a ship setting off on a three-hour tour that hits nasty weather is more likely to be blown back toward its home port. Or, at worse, will wash up on the beach in Maui.

But that's not how it happened in the long-running hit comedy Gilligan's Island. And if you, like me, spent as many unsupervised childhood hours as possible slack-jawed in front of the television, watching reruns of Gilligan, Bewitched, Hogan's Heroes, and whatever else was on in the hours between school and the time the grownups came home from work, it doesn't matter that the math is wonky. Gilligan and the castaways were on an uncharted desert isle. The proof, as if we needed it, was in the theme song.

Things that don't make sense when you say them often sound fine when you sing them. Gilligan's three-hour tour, for instance. Or the theme song to the popular sitcom of the early 1960s, The Patty Duke Show, which explained that the merry mixups that occurred between the two lead characters—both played by Oscar-winning actress Patty Duke—happened because they were, as the lyrics convinced us, "identical cousins."

The upbeat, swinging theme was written by Robert Wells and Sid Ramin, and it breezes by the statistically impossible premise by just singin' it loud and proud:

Meet Cathy, who's lived most everywhere
From Zanzibar to Berkeley Square
But Patty's only seen the sights
A girl can see from Brooklyn Heights—
What a crazy pair!

But they're cousins,
Identical cousins all the way.
One pair of matching bookends,
Different as night and day.

These themes, and pretty much every other television theme song that rattles around in our collective memory, did a lot more work than just introduce the cast of the show or paper over a nutty premise. As described and compiled in the compulsively readable, browsable Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring by Jon Burlingame, they set the mood for the next 30 or 60 minutes of what we now call "content." They created the emotional and cultural context for what was about to unfold.

The tense, exciting theme to Mission: Impossible, for instance, kicked off the show with sizzle. A single hand lights a fuse—if you're a certain age, just reading those words brings up a set of happy memories—and Lalo Schifrin's jangly, percussive theme, which included some groovy bongos, gets you ready for a slick, smart hour of secret agents, disguises, explosions, and clandestine American adventures that end up a lot better than, say, the bad news that was coming out of Vietnam and Cuba. Schifrin's music told the audience something important: This isn't the news show you just watched. This show has a happy ending.

Burlingame has it all in his book, which can be read front-to-back or flipped through as the reader stops to read about some almost-forgotten favorites. For me, those were the sexy "Come And Knock on My Door" theme to Three's Company, which oozes 1970s libertine Southern California vibes, and the indelible, arresting opening theme to The Sopranos, "Woke Up This Morning," a 1997 song by the British band Alabama 3. Which I'm guessing you never heard of until Tony Soprano drove through that toll booth.

The book has it all, from The Cisco Kid (1950) to Succession (2023), but in addition to being a trip down memory lane, it's also a fun meditation on the ways in which music can tell us a story that words cannot. For a lot of the most popular shows, the theme song was a starring character.

In my first month as a staff writer on the long-running NBC comedy, Cheers, I learned all about this.

The writers were gathered, as usual, in the writers' room. We were hashing out a story for a future episode—I can't remember the exact details—and at one point I suggested a certain twist to the story, some nasty prank one character could pull on another.

But then I immediately took it back. It seems too nasty, I said to my colleagues. It crosses the line between funny-mean and mean-mean.

My boss at the time sighed patiently. Didn't I realize, he told me, that the characters in Cheers can be as mean and insulting as they like to each other? That's what the theme song is for, he said. Once we tell everyone that this is a place where "you want to go," where "everybody knows your name," we can get away with anything.

He was right. Three-hour tours, friendly neighborhood bars, the cast of Friends promising to be "there for you," those songs created a lot of free passes for unrealistic, unfriendly—but funny—behavior.

These days, it's a rare show that has a really memorable theme song. Network and studio executives don't really like them. They're expensive, for one thing. (You have to pay the composer a royalty each time the show airs, and when you're talking a Cheers or a Sopranos, that adds up.) But it also gives the audience a chance to reconsider watching the show at all. Television programmers and algorithm coders want one episode to glide seamlessly to the next. No flipping allowed.

They think this is an improvement, but I'm not so sure. A really good theme song helps the writers be a little more free, a little more creative. Or, as I learned on my first job in television, it helps you get away with murder.

And it sticks in your memory forever. Reading Music for Prime Time is like hearing a thousand of your favorite songs, and it reminds you that identical cousins and three-hour tours once seemed very possible.

Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring
by Jon Burlingame
Oxford University Press, 480 pp., $35

Rob Long is an author and screenwriter and a 33-year member of the Writers Guild of America, and is currently on strike.