On Newhart, TV producer Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) once said, “I don’t think I could ever really be happy doing a show that didn’t have a catchy theme song that explained the premise.” Michael and I are on the same page when it comes to TV shows. There’s nothing I love more than a catchy theme song. There have been times when I’ve watched a show I didn’t really like just because it had a good theme song.
Over the last 20 years or so, TV shows have been phasing out theme songs, which I think is a big mistake. A good theme song can really boost a show’s popularity. Studies have shown that people remember song lyrics better than anything else. Do you think Gilligan’s Island would’ve been as popular as it was if it didn’t have such a catchy theme song? People who’ve never even seen it have probably heard the theme song and can sing at least part of it. That’s the power of a good theme song.
Here’s my list of the top 10 best lyrical sitcom theme songs of all time. (My list of the top 10 best instrumental theme songs of all time is coming soon.)
#1: The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show was not only one of the greatest sitcoms ever, it also had the best theme song ever, “Love is All Around,” written and performed by Sonny Curtis. It’s upbeat and catchy, and it has inspirational lyrics and a groovy 70s arrangement.
The song went through two phases: In season one, it was marginally slower and in a slightly lower key, and the lyrics seemed to be uncertain, asking, “How will you make it on your own?” In season two, the song was retooled to be faster and more upbeat with the more empowering lyrics declaring, “You’re gonna make it after all.” Personally, I love both versions. The season one version has a cool organ part at the beginning, booming bass, and jazzy horns. The later version features orchestral strings, big band-style brass, and stronger percussion that makes it really kick.
#2: The Patty Duke Show
No theme song gets stuck in my head more than The Patty Duke Show’s theme song, “Cousins,” written by Sid Ramin and Bob Wells and performed by the Skip-Jacks. This song is what Michael Harris had in mind when he said the quote above. The song perfectly and succinctly sums up the show’s premise: two identical cousins who are complete opposites. It’s probably the catchiest theme song ever, and the Skip-Jacks’ enthusiastic performance makes you want to snap your fingers and tap your feet. Once you hear it, you’ll never stop singing it.
In season three, the song was retooled with new instrumentation and a slightly different beat that didn’t quite seem to fit with the original melody. The vocals were different too, replacing the original duet style of the guys and gals switching off with all of them singing in unison. Personally, I don’t think anything could ever top the original...except of course The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, but it’s very close.
#3: Perfect Strangers
Probably the most uplifting theme song of all time is the Perfect Strangers theme song, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” written by Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay and performed by David Pomeranz. The arrangement is similar to other Miller-Boyett theme songs composed by Frederick and Salvay, with electronic drums, 80s synths, swelling strings, a sprinkling of harmonica, and a chorus of background singers providing plenty of “aaahhs.” It starts out soft, builds slowly, then explodes into the chorus before cooling things off again. It gets you pumped and ready to take on the world. It’s the perfect song to sing in the shower or listen to while you work out.
#4: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
No theme song is more indicative of its time period than that of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, “Dobie,” written by Lionel Newman and the show’s creator, Max Shulman, and performed by Judd Conlon’s Rhythmaires. This infectious tune features jazzy horns and drums with a harmonizing vocal group singing the peppy lyrics, which describe all the different types of girls Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) might be interested in.
The song sums up the original premise of the show: a lonely teenager looking for that one special girl, but later the show became more complex. It wasn’t strictly about Dobie’s attempts to win the heart of Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld) or any of the other girls at school. It also covered his conflicts with his father, troubles with teachers and homework, and the zany antics of his best friend, Maynard (Bob Denver). In fact, later on the show became so Maynard-centric that it probably should’ve been renamed, “The Many Loves of Maynard G. Krebs.” But through it all, the theme song remained the catchy, fun ditty it was in the beginning.
When you’re feeling down, there’s no better theme song to cheer you up than the Cheers theme song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo and performed by Gary Portnoy. The song is heartwarming with lyrics that talk about how times are tough, but you always have good friends to help you through. It starts softly with just a piano and Gary’s voice, sounding almost mournful. Then the drums and background singers kick in, and you want to start headbanging like you’re in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene in Wayne’s World.
Viewers loved the song so much that when Gary recorded a full version of it, it made the charts in both the US and the UK, and it even won an Emmy award for Outstanding Achievement in Music an Lyrics.
#6: WKRP in Cincinnati
Another theme song that just makes you feel good all over is the theme from WKRP in Cincinnati, written by Tom Wells and the show's creator, Hugh Wilson, and performed by Steve Carlisle. In the original version, the song begins with radio static and clips, as if someone is tuning through different radio stations, then it settles on the theme song, which starts out sounding like it’s coming through the radio, then gradually becomes clearer and stronger. It fits perfectly with the premise of the show, which follows the misadventures of the rag-tag staff of a small local radio station. The lyrics read like a letter written by someone who left the rat race for the simpler life at WKRP. It gives you a sense of chilling out and forgetting the stresses of life.
Later versions of the song removed the radio tuning at the beginning, but otherwise it remained the same throughout the show’s run.
#7: Welcome Back, Kotter
Another chill song that makes you want to kick back and relax is the theme from Welcome Back, Kotter, “Welcome Back,” written and performed by John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin’ Spoonful. The song combines rhythmic piano and guitar chords with hand claps and just the right amount of harmonica under softly-sung lyrics that welcome Mr. Kotter back to the old neighborhood. The simple instrumentation and vocals make it super easy to listen to, and it makes you want to hear it over and over again. The song was so popular that in 1976, it was the number one song in America.
#8: The Greatest American Hero
Another chart-topping theme song hit was the theme from The Greatest American Hero, “Believe It or Not,” written by Mike Post and Stephen Geyer and performed by Joey Scarbury. It peaked at number two on the Billboard charts 1981. Like many of the other songs on this list, it’s upbeat and uplifting with swelling strings and a tight beat. The lyrics are written from the point-of-view of the main character, Ralph (William Katt), who suddenly finds himself becoming an unlikely and reluctant superhero. The music starts softly and then pops at the uber catchy chorus, and it makes you want to belt it out along with Joey.
In fact, on Seinfeld, George (Jason Alexander) did just that for his answering machine message, recording his own, more relevant version of the lyrics.
#9: Good Times
The theme song from Good Times, written by Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman and performed by Jim Gilstrap and Blinky Williams, is so upbeat and fun that it seems incongruous with the show itself, which follows a poor black family in Chicago as they struggle to keep it together during the rough era of the 70s, when inflation and the energy crisis plagued America. The song is so gospel-like that you can picture a choir singing it in church with an old lady jamming on the piano and the congregation dancing in the aisle. In fact, a real gospel choir provided the background vocals.
The lyrics talk about so-called “good times” but list examples that don’t sound like good times at all: “temporary layoffs, easy credit rip-offs, scratchin’ and survivin’...” Either it’s meant to be ironic or promoting the message that no matter what happens, as long as you have a loving family, you always have good times.
If you’re looking for a theme song that makes you want to get up and dance, look no further than the Friends theme song, “I’ll Be There for You,” written by the show’s creators along with Michael Skloff and Allee Willis and performed by The Rembrandts. This fun, catchy song is brimming with 90s goodness with its twangy guitars, swift beat, and that one part where everyone claps. The lyrics go along with the show’s theme of friendship, and the music fits perfectly with the intro’s imagery of the stars dancing and playing in a fountain.
At only 54 seconds, it’s probably the shortest theme on this list, but it’s still amazingly effective and memorable. I never even liked the show, but back in the 90s, I would often tune into the beginning of it just to hear the theme song. And it seems I wasn’t alone in my fondness for this energetic pop/rock number. The full version of the song was number one on the US charts for eight weeks in a row, and it also made the charts in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and Canada.