Hello, Larry And The Death Of The Sitcom Theme Song

Posted by: Jon Fine on March 12, 2007

A colleague forwarded me the below YouTube clip. He advised me to watch all the way to the end, in order to catch the supporting star who pops up out of nowhere at the end—a classic of celebrity randomness past:

“Watch all the way to the end” is good advice, because by today’s standards this is unbelievably long. Emphasis on “by today’s standards,” that is. Hello, Larry’s theme song—with its multiple verses and bridge, a massive backing band encompassing horns and keyboards and guitars, and increasingly weary titular refrain— in its time was an exemplar of a past TV meme. Before and after Hello Larry’s heyday (if one can term it as such) of 1979-80, sitcoms introduced themselves each week with incredibly involved theme songs. They not only explained what the sitcom was about, they gave ultra-detailed back-story information. Looking at this clip in 2007, I sort of feel like I’ve watched the whole show when I’ve only watched the whole song.

Sitcoms don’t do themes like this anymore. (And when did they stop? Don Smith, can you help us out here?) The made-for-web sitcom The Burg, which takes pretty dead aim at hipsters in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn, gets its theme and character sketches across in around twenty seconds—and with a song snippet that contains no specific lyrical exposition whatsoever.

But, whatever. Someone needs to bring the long-form sitcom theme song back. And you don’t even need a sitcom to write one. In this era of ultra-bite-sized entertainment, the minute-long sitcom theme song can be the whole show.

Reader Comments

Rhea

March 12, 2007 7:42 PM

I think contemporary sitcoms don't have complicated backstories, like Friends or Seinfeld: a bunch of friends hang out together week after week. For some of the older sitcoms, the theme songs had to be complex because the whole 'backstory' to the sitcom was contained in it. Good examples are The Brady Bunch (you kinda have to know how they 'all became the Brady bunch' or else it doesn't make sense) and the same with The Beverly Hillbillies. How did these hicks get to live in a fancy neighborhood?

Don Smith

March 13, 2007 10:59 AM

Indeed Portland is a long way from LA, but not, apparently for the globetrotting Meadowlark Lemon. The expository theme song, such as was made famous by Sherwood Schwartz (Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island) has been gone for a very long time. I think people forget that our generation might mostly remember such theme songs from Saturday morning shows, name one Sid and Marty Krofft show that didn’t spell out the entire set-up. What was once a way to introduce characters each and every time became corny or campy way too fast for an industry looking to stay hip.

Don’t forget the Expository spoken-word openings (The Odd Couple’s ‘divorce’ speech, The Fugitive, various Quinn Martin shows) or also the instrumental theme with introductory shots (Munsters, Leave it to Beaver, What's Happening, all the way through the 1990s). If I had to say that one show killed the theme song, it would be Seinfeld. Sure, dramas had started to drop the songs way back in the 1980s, but Seinfeld’s abrupt opening allowed for 15-30 seconds more gags and seemed to draw the audience in without giving them a chance to switch channels. Was it just a rock that keeps away tigers? Did it have real effects? I can’t say.

It’s hard for me to guess, but I think the last hit sitcom with a theme song that spelled everything out might have been the Fresh Prince.

I’d bet dollars to donuts that the same reports that told marketers that the jingle was dead and suggested the Doublemint twins rollerskate around to a Stereolab track was probably read by some Gen Xer trying to stay a step ahead of the interns at the network.

Don

Jon Fine

March 13, 2007 11:32 AM

Seinfeld, sure, but what about the theme song to Showtime's "It's Garry Shandling's Show"--which first aired in 1986:

This is the theme to Garry's Show,
The theme to Garry's show.

Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song.
I'm almost halfway finished,
How do you like it so far,
How do you like the theme to Garry's Show?

This is the theme to Garry's Show,
The opening theme to Garry's show.
This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.
We're almost to the part of where I start to whistle.
Then we'll watch "It's Garry Shandling's Show".

This was the theme to Garry Shandling's show.

Suzanne

March 15, 2007 2:44 PM

Part of the demise of the theme song has to do with the amount of commercials that they now jam into a half hour. Even the end credits are smooshed into half the screen so they can show promos for the news or upcoming shows.

Larry Hovis

March 26, 2009 4:34 PM

A good expository theme song was "F-Troop"

The end of the Civil War was near
When quite accidentally,
A hero who sneezed abruptly seized
Retreat and reversed it to victory.

His medal of honor pleased and thrilled
his proud little family group.
While pinning it on some blood was spilled
And so it was planned he'd command F Troop.

Where Indian fights are colorful sights
and nobody takes a lickin'
Where pale face and redskin
Both turn chicken.

When killing and fighting get them down,
They know their morale can't droop.
As long as they all relax in town
Before they resume with a bang and a boom
F Troop.

Jaime Merrifield

March 27, 2009 4:37 AM

My favorite is still the theme song to MASH. Weren't the words written and became a hit later? I always wondered how anyone knew "Suicide is painless".

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