|When you saw this cat, that meant the show was over, man.|
TV theme songs are dying, and Madison Avenue is killing them. Thanks to an ever-increasing number of commercials allowed per half hour by the FCC, the old standard 24-minute television episode was shortened to a mere 22 minutes. And the incredible shrinking sitcom wasn't done with its reverse growth spurt yet! The average new episode of a supposed half-hour comedy now clocks in at something like 20.5 minutes, with the other 9.5 going to ads for Geico, State Farm, All State, Nationwide, Esurance, and many other insurance companies, all of whom truly love and care about you, really. That's not even counting the time devoted to product placement during the episodes themselves. ("Your mother-in-law is coming for two weeks? Where's she gonna sleep? On our $499 Karlstad beige natural sofa from Ikea?") With the insatiable admen gobbling up more and more of each program, TV sitcoms now have less time to themselves to, you know, actually tell the little stories they're supposed to tell. As a result, the once-vaunted TV theme song -- for my money, one of the great art forms of the 20th Century -- is now an endangered species, either cut down to just a few seconds or even removed entirely. And those are just the opening theme songs! What about the distinctive closing theme songs that TV shows used to have? I'm afraid those truly are a goner. But before they disappear from our screens and our memories forever, I thought I'd give a rundown of some personal favorites.
WKRP IN CINCINNATI (1978-1982)
No discussion of great closing theme songs could ever be complete without mention of the famously-incoherent, famously-awesome closing tune from WKRP in Cincinnati. Composed and performed by a quirky Atlanta musician named Jim Ellis, this unhinged, almost animal-like ditty is forever lodged in the subconscious memories of countless baby boomers and Generation X-ers, many of whom lost precious hours trying to decipher the lyrics. They need not have bothered: Ellis never came up with actual lyrics for the song (whose only known title is "WKRP Close"), so he muttered some nonsense with a few intelligible words like "bartender" thrown in. The song becomes like an audio Rorschach Test. You hear in it what you want to hear.
THE BRADY BUNCH (1969-1974)
Pretty much all the 1960s and 1970s shows associated with producer Sherwood Schwartz, including Gilligan's Island and It's About Time, have better-than-average theme songs. Schwartz took a particular interest in this aspect of his programs, often writing or co-writing the themes himself. Maybe the most indelible and diabolical of his creations is the instantly-familiar theme song for what is, hands down, the corniest family sitcom of all time, The Brady Bunch. I must have loved this show when I was a kid. For years, it was a favorite in syndication, and I can remember watching the reruns on pretty much a daily basis. I'm sure I've seen every Brady episode at least two or three times apiece. Maybe I was tuning in just to hear the funky, organ-accented instrumental version of the theme which ran over the closing credits.
SESAME STREET (1969- )
One place where the theme song will never, ever die is PBS, namely because they don't have to deal with TV commercials and can fill up their hours and half-hours with more actual content... that is, when they're not begging for pledges like common panhandlers. Like most of you who grew up in front of the idiot box, I have especially fond memories of Sesame Street. I was in it for the puppets and the cartoons, baby, not all that "ABCs and 123s" jazz. Whatta show. It was like a Saturday Night Live or Monty Python for preschoolers. And thank the good lord and savior Jim Henson that I got in and out before the onslaught of Elmo and all he stood for. Anyway, the end of each Sesame Street episode was always a mixed blessing for me as a kid. While I was sad to the see the episode expire, leaving me to the tender mercies of The McNeil-Lehrer News Hour or some such, I was psyched to hear the superbad closing theme music. Though just about every aspect of the Muppet universe has been captured in excruciating detail, there is precious little information available about this song. It's considered merely an instrumental version of Joe Raposo's opening song, but it strays quite far from its progenitor. Some fans have nicknamed it "Funky Chimes," though, and MF Doom sampled it on a typically spacey track called "Kookies."
Another place where theme songs will never die is animated cartoons. Animation is slow, expensive, and complicated to produce, and theme songs help to eat up time. Have you noticed that most long-running animated shows (The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park) tend to have fairly elaborate title sequences? The longer the theme, the shorter the rest of the show. FX's spy spoof Archer has a great title sequence of its own, but perhaps even more memorable is the hep, swingin' tune which plays over the end credits. "The Killer" by Mel Young and His Orchestra was not written or recorded especially for the series. It's a piece of stock music dating back to the 1960s. I wish I could tell you more about Mr. Young, but I can't find much about the guy. But here's another Mel Young track called "On the Beat." And here's something by Mel called "Stockpot" from 1968.