The 10 Most Memorable '80s TV Theme Songs

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Sad news this week: Singer/songwriter Andrew Gold died of a heart attack at 59. Film fans will most likely recognize his biggest (and, frankly, kinda only) hit “Lonely Boy” from its use in Boogie Nights. Okay, and in The Waterboy. But that pop epic was not Mr. Gold’s pop culture legacy; it seems that back in 1978 he wrote and recorded a little number called “Thank You For Being a Friend,” which was re-recorded by Cynthia Fee and used as the theme song to The Golden Girls . And if I threw a party, etc.

In memory of Mr. Gold, we contemplated a list of the best 1980s TV theme songs — a notion only slightly complicated by the fact that, well, by most reasonable standards, “Thank You For Being a Friend” isn’t actually a terribly good song. What it is, however, is catchy — if you hear it once, it lodges itself in your brain forever, ready to be trotted out at a moment’s notice for spirited sing-alongs during Lifetime re-runs, drunken parties, and Golden Girls-themed drag shows. And let’s face it, that’s what a lot of those ’80s theme songs were — maybe not good, but certainly not easy to get out of your skull. So that’s the list we put together, limiting ourselves to shows that premiered in the 1980s — so, as painful as it was to leave them out, there’s no Rockford Files (its final regular episode aired in January 1980), Taxi or Diff’rent Strokes (both premiered in 1978), WKRP or Dukes of Hazard (1979). Take a peek after the jump, and add your own in the comments.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse

After the smash success of his 1985 movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Paul Reubens surprised many by choosing not to focus on a sequel (or on live appearances, where he had created the Pee-Wee Herman character), but by accepting CBS’s offer to create and star in a Saturday-morning TV show. He proceeded, over the next five seasons, to present one of the most gloriously weird children’s programs in TV history. Its oddball tone and anything-goes spirit was well-prepared by its wonderfully goofy opening theme song, composed by Devo alum (and future Wes Anderson composer) Mark Mothersbaugh and performed by Cyndi Lauper (credited as “Ellen Shaw”).

21 Jump Street

One of the very first programs (along with Married… With Children and The Tracey Ullman Show) on the new Fox network, this youth-geared cop drama is mainly remembered as being the show that introduced Johnny Depp to the world. But the lovely Holly Robinson (pre-Rodney Peete) was also among the cast of up-and-comers, and she apparently picked up a few extra bucks by singing the show’s hyper-’80s theme song (“You better be ready to/ ah, be ready to JUMP!”), composed by Peter Bernstein and Jay Gruska.

Roseanne

Roseanne‘s distinctive harmonica-heavy theme was one of the early credits of W.G. Snuffy Walden, who would become one of the most prolific TV composers of the following decades; his credits include Sports Night, Felicity, The West Wing, and Friday Night Lights. (He’s also credited as a guitar player on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life album, ensuring that if I ever meet him in a bar, all of his drinks are on me.) Roseanne‘s opening credits — which often changed from season to season — usually saw the extended Conner family gathered around the kitchen table for food or poker or another group activity, ending on Roseanne and her distinctive laugh. Walden’s theme is memorable and sing-along-able even though it has no lyrics — or at least, it didn’t until the show’s terrible ninth season (below), and no one remembers those anyway.

Hill Street Blues

Hill Street‘s bluesy, mournful yet hopeful theme was the work of Mike Post, one of the all-time great TV composers; his other credits include L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, The A-Team (it almost made the list — c’mon, there’s only ten spots), MacGyver, Magnum P.I., Law and Order, and perhaps your author’s all-time favorite TV theme song, The Rockford Files. Well-known jazz guitarist Larry Carlton performed on the theme, which reached #10 on Billboard’s Hot 100…

The Greatest American Hero

…but that was small potatoes compared to Post’s other 1981 TV theme, the Greatest American Hero opener “Believe It or Not,” which hit the Billboard Hot 100 in June of that year and worked its way up to a peak position of #2 in August. The idea of a TV theme song becoming a pop hit is all but unheard of these days (the last one we can think of was “I’ll Be There For You”), mainly because the idea of a TV theme song is all but unheard of these days. But “Believe It or Not,” sung by Joey Scarbury (with music by Post and lyrics by Steven Geyer, who later collaborated on the themes to Hardcastle & McCormick and Blossom, among others) is exactly the kind of bland, vanilla, easy-listening pop that was all the rage at that time, and it is all but impossible to get out of your head — unless you choose to replace it with George Costanza’s famous answering-machine cover (below).

The Facts of Life

This long-running spinoff of the equally durable Diff’rent Strokes was so bent on recapturing that show’s mojo that it even employed the same trio of composers to create the theme song: Al Burton, Gloria Loring, and Alan Thicke. Thicke was one of the more inescapable figures of ‘80s television, albeit with a strange trajectory: first as a theme song composer (he also wrote music for several game shows, including Wheel of Fortune and The Joker’s Wild), then as a would-be Johnny Carson (hosting the ill-fated Thicke of the Night), and finally as the star of Growing Pains, charged with the responsibility of grounding Kirk Cameron. The mind-numbingly catchy theme to Facts was part musical introduction, part recipe — advising the viewer to measure out one part good, one part bad, mix thoroughly, and thus produce the titular information.

Also worth checking out: The original version of the opening, which was only used in the pilot episode, features vocals by Mrs. G (aka Charlotte Rae).

Moonlighting

Glenn Godron Caron’s inventive screwball comedy/mystery series made Bruce Willis a star and made Cybill Shepherd a star again. It also gave jazz crooner Al Jarreau a Grammy nomination and a hit on the pop charts (#23 in 1987) with its snazzy opening theme, which Jarreau co-wrote with TV composer Lee Holdridge. Charmingly snazzy, the theme (and Jarreau’s vocal stylings with it) has a lush romanticism that the show itself seldom indulged in, but which lurked under its cynical surface.

Miami Vice

Again, it may not be so easy to sing along with this instrumental number, but God knows that hasn’t stopped us from trying, for nearly 25 years, to vocalize and air-drum along with Miami Vice. This synth-and-guitar period masterpiece was the work of Jan Hammer, who provided music throughout the show’s run. The stylish cop series was a giant hit (initially, at least), and so was the theme—it won two Grammys and got all the way up to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in November of 1985 (it also charted impressively high on the R&B, Dance, and Adult Contemporary charts). This, in roughly a minute, is the sound of the late ‘80s.

Cheers

Here’s the thing about the Cheers theme: at just about any gathering of more than, oh, two people over the age of 30, you can fill a void of silence by quietly singing “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got…” and thirty seconds later, everyone in the room will be belting right along, “Sometimes you wanna go/Where everybody knows your name!” (Try this little experiment at your next book club.) It’s not just that the Cheers theme, performed and written (with Judy Hart Angelo) by Gary Portnoy, is catchy; it’s that its central premise (that whole “wanting to be where everybody knows you” thing) is a truth that doesn’t only reside on that great sitcom.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show

Maybe it’s our meta-television leanings, but we can’t help but hold, as our favorite catchy ’80s TV theme song, the one that sent up the entire notion of the catchy ’80s TV theme song. Garry Shandling’s innovative, boundary-breaking Showtime series was endlessly self-referential — Shandling played himself, constantly breaking the fourth wall to talk to the studio audience in his apartment, doing an “opening monologue” to set up the show, unfolding the plot with his own commentary (“So here’s what happening in the story now…”) and clever time-passage gimmicks (in an early episode, fourteen newspapers are thrown at him during a transition; once they’re done, he announces “Two weeks have passed!”). Every character knows that they’re on Garry’s show and makes jokes to that effect, from little Grant making his first appearance at the end of an episode to complain scornfully, “Thanks for the big part in the show this week, Uncle Garry!” to Garry’s mother doing a spontaneous live commercial on the air in order to drum up business for her pet shop. So it would only make sense that the theme — written by Joey Carbone, Alan Zweibel, and Shandling, sung by Bill Lynch — would reference itself as well. The bouncy, impossibly catchy 41-second number announces itself as “the opening theme to Garry show,” explains how it came into existence (“Garry called me up/ and asked if I would write his theme song”), includes a whistling break (“We’re almost to the part/ of where I start to whistle”), and concludes with the only appropriate big finish (“This was the theme to Garry Shandling’s Show!”). The theme became part of the show’s fabric — Shandling would work out business to do during it, like cleaning his apartment for a big date or showing photographs related to the episode, or have guest stars perform it — and is, in its honesty, perhaps the quintessential TV theme song.

Those are our favorite TV theme songs from the ’80s — what are yours?