It was the most bodacious of times, it was the most grody of times, it was the age of walkmen, it was the age of parachute pants–in short, the period was nothing like the world in which we live today. Today, kids don’t have any character. That’s because character is only something that can be developed while sitting and waiting for a television show to start as you listen to music so catchy it makes Lady Gaga seem totally bogus. To celebrate this age of heroes it’s time to spend a moment remembering our favorite ‘80s sitcom theme songs.
Cheers has perhaps the most quintessential theme song of all time. This is because Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s composition manages to be catchy, but isn’t an insufferable earworm like some Friends themes which shall remain entombed forever in a blessed sarcophagus to keep it from ever hurting another child. The Cheers theme also speaks to universal human desires, like wanting to be accepted in a place where everyone knows you and is always happy to see you while you indulge in crippling addiction, abandoning your family, and doing the one thing to do in Boston: drink.
While most of us couldn’t pick a lanai out of a lineup, we certainly can knock out the chorus of Andrew Gold’s Golden Girls theme, which expresses gratitude to a friend. It also correctly implies that gratitude should be shown in large material gifts. This captures one of the most honest subjects of life, which is that lovers and partners will come and go, as will careers and homes. Even the booze and drugs might one day run out, though we all pray it won’t be so, but true friends who know and understand us are the bedrock of our existence.
The Facts of Life
Among our favorite sitcom theme songs are some heavy topics, but none have quite the Zen allure of The Facts of Life. In a few short phrases about taking the good, and the bad, and everything, it shows life in unapologetic summation. The song by Al Burton, Gloria Loring and Ian Thicke makes no promises and pulls no punches. It says existence is confusion, loss, and endless strife. It doesn’t say it will necessarily get better, that you must learn these things on the crucible of existence, while you tap your toe and bop your head.
Charles in Charge
Music is replete with catchy, creepy tunes. Listen to the lyrics of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” which is about a salacious lecher coercing a woman to stay with him while perhaps plying her with alcohol, if not outright drugging her. The Charles in Charge theme by David Kurtz, Michael Jacobs, and Al Burton lands in a similar vein, expressing that the singer wants Charles in charge of their days, and their nights. Oh, they want Charles in charge of them. The reason it is still beloved is because underneath this sense of domination is our desire to be protected, loved, and guided by someone as kind as old Chachi was.
Saved by The Bell
Because it debuted in the middle of 1989, some will say that SbtB was more a ‘90s show. Well, those preppies are welcome to tell that to Zack Morris’s shelfed hair, because any series with that much Aqua Net came from the ‘80s. The opening song here by Scott Gale, Rich Eames, and Bennett Tramer isn’t quite as deep as many, but captures the harried vibe many a high schooler feels. They’re always behind the 8 ball, missing their ride, forgetting their homework, and just trying to get by as a hormonal nightmare works its wicked magic in their underdeveloped brains.
The theme song from Family Ties has grim darkness cooked right into it from the very start. Writers Jeff Barry and Tom Scott gave it a lamentation feel with its slower, down-tempo vibe. Then the lyrics croon in, saying “it feels like we’ve been together for a million years.” This is the pain of a trapped soul yearning for freedom, but hope is not to be had as the singer becomes sure they’ll “be together for a million more.” They cannot even remember a time before they met, so lost have they become. Yet that, in essence, is the horrific snare of family.
Normally a sitcom theme song doesn’t give you the eye of the tiger, but this piece by Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay is an indomitable triumph. It belongs in any Get Pumped workout mix and even though the show is about a couple of guys moving to Chicago, the theme is about soaring on the wings of your dreams, and being unstoppable. It’ll take you right into the danger zone while believing you’re the best around, even if you’re just sharing an apartment with some foreigner from the midwest.
In the ‘80s it was mandated that you could either have lyrics, or you could have slap bass. Most sitcoms opted for singing. Then they heard the funky tone from Jack Elliott that somehow captured New York around the same time that The Warriors were coming out to play and wept bitter tears. Murky but powerful, understated yet upbeat, the tune perfectly framed a show that embraced a bleak landscape with a sense of whimsy in the face of the dour.
Puppeteers are the original rebels, which is why Fraggle Rock could have both some slap bass and lyrics. The entire song is about getting rid of your worries, which is fitting considering the amount of suffering in the show. The Fraggles are vexatious parasites that eat the work of the toiling Dozers while evading death at the hands of either the giant Gorgs or the human Doc whose walls they dwell inside of. Philip Balsam and Dennis Lee’s theme extols the healing power of dance even as you survive as scavenging layabouts, draining the system.
The Cosby Show
Stu Gardner and his criminal writing partner who shan’t be named either had enough chutzpah to fill a small stadium, or a touch of lunacy to try to pitch a jazz intro theme. However, the brassy beginning became as iconic as the garish sweaters for the show. It’s a frolicsome, uplifting little ditty that is often prescribed for steps without spring, and can put a little rhumba in your hips even when someone just wished you a happy hump day.
The only thing harder than trying to sell jazz to besuited studio execs who are as original as boy bands is trying to convince them to go classical. But, Henry Mancini’s theme completely captures the experience of a laid back show set in Vermont. Newhart was so full of crackpots and eccentrics that it likely influenced such major cultural touchstones as Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, and Gilmore Girls. The opening credits of those same shows use mellow music along with shots of idyllic countryside, and they should be thanking Newhart for breaking ground among soulless television networks.
Who’s the Boss
There’s a lot of sitcom themes that hit the schmaltz button pretty hard. Growing Pains and Full House fall into this category. They had passable songs, but neither had the power to get you chair dancing, nor had the depth. This master mix from Martin Cohan, Blake Hunter, Larry Carlton, and Robert Kraft not only pops, but reminds us that we’re going to lose dreams, people are going to leave, and your hairline is going to recede, then start showing up on body parts that really don’t need any fur. But, there’s also new life waiting in the bushes like Larry from work, sans the brimstone smell.