For our summer rewatch series on Survivor: Philippines, I decided to end Emma and Matt’s most recent podcast with The Facts of Life theme song to celebrate the history of contestant Lisa Welchel. In doing so, I kicked up a whole lot of nostalgia for the entire genre of 80s TV theme songs and it wasn’t long until we spent the better part of a Sunday deciding which was the best. This was a debate that couldn’t hope to be settled in comments or on Twitter. No, it deserved more.
The first thing you notice when listening to a bunch of TV theme shows from the 80s is that they exist in the first place. Nowadays, if a show even HAS an opening sequence (and some don’t have more than a title card), it’s either instrumental or a repurposed previously-existing pop song. And sure, I get that a lot of today’s prestige television would feel odd with an accompanying jingle that explained the premise of the show. But listen to some of the best songs on this list and tell me they wouldn’t be value-added to a sitcom or even a cable dramedy. Hell, we’re so thirsty for theme songs that many of us couldn’t listen to the Parks and Recreation theme without singing “Jabba the Hutt” over and over again.
While the form of original theme songs continued into the 90s, I truly believe that they peaked in the 80s (which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that I was a child in the 80s). There you could find some classics and some classically cheesy themes side-by-side, with or without synthesizers. For me, it’s the lyrical themes that best represent the era, with bonus points if they describe the plot. That said, there were also some classic instrumental themes that demand mention, so we’ve decided to break this up into two parts and let you vote on which was the best representative of each category.
Before we could do that, we had to establish some ground rules. First, the show had to exist primarily in the 80s, with a preference for themes that started in or near the decade (thereby disqualifying The Jeffersons, Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley for beginning in the mid-70s and A Different World for not debuting Aretha Franklin’s theme until 1988). The theme had to be an original song written for the show, not a borrowed pop song (disqualifying The Wonder Years, Life Goes On, Bosom Buddies, and China Beach, among others). We also considered doing a category for children’s shows (AKA the ones you millennials may actually remember), but then I decided that only one of them could stand up to the others, and it didn’t need to be segregated into a different category.
“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” written by Gary Portnoy, Judy Hart Angelo, Julian Williams. Performed by Gary Portnoy.
The first theme song I came up with when we were initially discussing greatest theme songs of the 80s was Cheers, because A) it’s one of the best sitcoms ever and B) it was once parodied on The Simpsons, and even that parody was memorably great. But even though I could effortlessly sing along with the theme despite not having seen the show in years, I took a listen again to try to discern the exact qualities that made this song so great.
“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got”? Yikes, we’re off to a depressing start here. I’m turning on the TV for an escape, not to be reminded of the world pushing the pedal to the metal on the path to dystopia.
But hang on. What’s this? Wouldn’t I like to get away? Yes! In fact, I was just saying that in the last paragraph! The song now shifts into a more upbeat, welcoming tone. We’re shrugging off the crippling weight of the world for a while and going somewhere familiar, surrounded by people we care about. By the end of these 60 seconds, you’ve gone from world-weariness to comfort.
A theme song doesn’t necessarily need to explain the plot of a show, but it should set the mood for the viewer. The Cheers theme manages to do both flawlessly, giving you a sense of why the flimsy premise of “a bunch of people hang out at the same bar frequently” managed to work as a show – they’re not at the bar to get drunk, they’re at the bar because they’ve developed strong relationships with these weirdos and enjoy spending time with them. Getting drunk is just an added bonus.
So why did I pick the Cheers theme as the best theme song of the 80s? Because this place – this absurd Survivor website with its wacky cast of characters – is my Cheers. Just as I once looked forward to hanging out with Norm, Woody, Lilith, Frasier, Carla, and the rest, I now I look forward to spending time with you guys.
(Except Saturday Night Palsy. Fuck that guy.)
(Editor’s note: Yes, I did that partially to lock up your vote for Cheers as best theme song. And it better work).
“It Takes Diff’rent Strokes” written by Alan Thicke, Gloria Loring, and Al Burton. Performed by Alan Thicke.
The world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, but all 183 episodes of Diff’rent Strokes began with the greatest theme song in television history. “It Takes Diff’rent Strokes” was composed by Alan Thicke, the grandfather of “Blurred Lines”. Thicke, later immortalized on Canada’s Walk of Fame, expertly set the stage for a show that tackled timely topics like racism, bulimia, and red-headed step-children. In the 80s, young Palsy raced home from school each day to watch syndicated reruns of Diff’rent Strokes where he learned valuable life lessons – like pitying the fool who broke a real bottle over Mr. T’s head, never playing Tarzan with the creepy guy who owns the bike shop, and listening to first lady Nancy Reagan and “just saying no” (okay the last lesson didn’t take). But the big take-away from the show – and from the theme song especially – is that no matter how tough life gets, together we’ll be fine. To any doubters out there I have but one thing to say: What’chu talking ’bout, [insert name here].
-Saturday Night Palsy
“Ducktales” written by Mark Mueller. Performed by Jeff Pescetto.
Most 80s and 90s sitcom theme songs are fun little earwigs that remind you of the show’s core theme, and the lovable cast of characters you will spend time with every week. Kids cartoons? Ain’t nobody got time for that. One of the best on the air in the 80s, beloved by both boys and girls, hits you like a “hurricane” (see what I did there?) right off the bat with its upbeat intro and never lets up for the next 60 seconds. This show has got everything: Race cars. Lasers. Aeroplanes. Mysteries. Time-Travel. D-d-d-danger! Shows about family values and life-long friendships are great, but these ducks are LIVING LIFE, and I am HERE for that.
Oh, and what’s a “tale of derring-do?” I have no friggin’ clue. But this song (and the show) is a duck-blur of fun. Woo-ooo!
The Facts of Life
“The Facts of Life” written by Al Burton, Gloria Loring, and Alan Thicke. Performed by Gloria Loring.
There was actually a different version of this theme for the first couple of seasons sung by star Charlotte Rae that contained elements of this theme, but didn’t quite get it right. It was probably more on brand with the concept of the show being the misadventures of a group of prep school girls and their dorm den-mother, but was a little too bloated and weak (much like how the early season’s cast was too bloated and weak).
This one cuts through the clutter and starts strong with the lines we all wished Lisa Welchel had worked into her final jury performance: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have… The Facts of Life”. Such a lost opportunity. I’m sure that would have scored her at least one jury vote. Maybe two. (Of course, the rest of the jury would have zero clue as to what she was getting at. But still… worth it).
The Golden Girls
“Thank You for Being a Friend” written by Andrew Gold. Performed by Cynthia Fee.
How iconic is The Golden Girls theme song? It’s so amazing that I wasn’t even a huge fan of the show, and I can still sing every word of it to you. Simply put, it inspires happiness. The beginning of the song, “thank you for being a friend”, is instantly recognizable and bound to inspire a sing-a-long among avid fans and non-fans alike. This is no accident. Originally, the song was recorded by Andrew Gold. He viewed it as a fun song that took him barely any time to write. However, for The Golden Girls, the song was re-recorded by Cynthia Fee, a brilliant choice. Cynthia Fee was a jingle singer, noted for Hoover Vacuum (“nobody does it like you”) and Pontiac commercials. Thus, the perfect combination of Ms. Fee’s smooth voice and Mr. Gold’s lyrics were combined to represent the friendship between The Golden Girls. I dare you not to love it. While the 80s has a plethora of earworm themes from which to choose, “Thank You for Being a Friend” will always be number one.
(Editor’s note: Sure, you could argue this being a remake of an early song should disqualify it based on my qualifications. I don’t care. It NEEDS to be in this list and it might need to win).
The Greatest American Hero
“Theme from Greatest American Hero (Believe It or Not)” written by Mike Post and Stephen Geyer. Performed by Joey Scarbury.
Yes, of course the only reason we remember this theme song from a low-rated, three season superhero schlock-fest is because Seinfeld once paid homage to it with George Constanza’s answering machine message. But the reason they did that is because it’s such a great theme song. Well… “great” in terms of what we mean when we say something was a great 80s TV theme song. Instantly catchy (it peaked at #2 on the Billboard charts) and unabashedly earnest, it was probably the only reason to watch the show associated with it. Well, that and William Katt’s epic blonde afro.
“As Long As We Got Each Other” written by John Bettis. Performed by BJ Thomas & Jennifer Warnes.
For me, the pinnacle of the 80’s TV show theme (with words) is that of Growing Pains, “As Long As We Got Each Other.” It ticks all the boxes: it’s cheesy, it has harmonies, it’s ever so vaguely reminiscent of the song “Hungry Eyes,” and, perhaps most importantly, it has an unnecessary little tinkly flourish at the end that seems to imply that the show we’re about to watch has retsyn.
The only real debate here is choosing which version of the theme song to include. Version 1, for the first season, just features B.J. Thomas (and some odd paintings of old-timey people). It’s fine, but if you know where the second vocals are supposed to be, feels a bit empty. Version 2 has Thomas along with Jennifer Warnes. I’d call this one “Classic Pains.” Version 3, used in the fourth season, features Thomas and Dusty Springfield. Version 4 is an acapella rendition which apparently was used for season 6 but which I will continue to believe is a myth, despite having been shown ample evidence of this version by YouTube. I’d have to go with Version 2 as the favorite here. It drives and surges, and Thomas and Warnes just sound good singing together, in a way that makes the listener feel that they too can share in the laughter and love.
The Littlest Hobo
“Maybe Tomorrow” written by Terry Bush and John Crossen. Performed by Terry Bush.
Look, I realize that only the Canadians in the audience will get this one (although it was syndicated in the US and UK). But for Canadians of a certain age, Terry Bush’s “Maybe Tomorrow” is basically a second national anthem. Even if you’re unaware of the series, give it a listen and tell me it doesn’t belong on this list. You can’t.
Well, maybe you can, since a large part of the deep, passionate attachment my countrymen and I have for the song is the attachment to the show. Detailing the ongoing travels of an unnamed German Shepherd who wandered from town to town helping strangers, The Littlest Hobo was probably the highest achievement in 80s Canadian television (yeah, that’s right Beachcombers fans – I said it. Fight me). It’s important to note that he wasn’t a talking dog or a super-powered dog or anything. Just an ordinary dog helping people every day. He wasn’t just a good doggo. He was the best doggo. Here’s hoping he found his tomorrow and settled down.
I… I told myself I wasn’t going to cry.
(Editor’s note: This entry was included because of mandatory Canadian content rules).
“Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now” written by Jesse Frederick and Bennett Salvay. Performed by David Pomeranz.
The best theme song of the 80s is Perfect Strangers. You know why it is so great? Because we remember it despite the show being terrible. Who actually has any affection for Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker? But you listen to that theme song and suddenly you trick yourself into thinking, “Hey, I want to watch some Perfect Strangers!” Don’t do that. Just listen to the theme song and sing “Standing tallll, on the wings of my dream!” Heck, even The Leftovers love the theme song so much that they used it to introduce an episode! This song is as great as the show is bad, and that is why it’s the best theme song of the 80s.
WKRP in Cincinnati
“WKRP In Cincinnati Main Theme,” written by Tom Wells and Hugh Wilson. Performed by Steve Carlisle.
I’ll admit, this one might circumvent the rules I set out, having debuted in 1978 and ended in 1982, but I figure since WKRP got a big second life through syndicated reruns in the 80s, it fits. And the song is so great. You could take a similar theme and apply it to a new show today and it would work. Such a perfect blend of pep to make you excited to watch a comedy show and melancholy was at the root of a lot of the series’ humour. Happy/sad songs are the best.
Composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.
I listen to this today and can’t help but get FUCKING PUMPED. I am READY for the guns that can’t hit their targets and the helicopters and big-ass explosions that make you leap off the ground and Mr. T pitying fools and OHMYGOD IT’S. ALL. TOO. FUCKING. RAD!1!
I am almost 40 years old.
Hill Street Blues
Composed by Mike Post.
The Theme from Hill Street Blues earns its spot on this list by virtue of its instant recognizability some thirty years after the show’s finale, where even someone such as myself who never watched a minute of the show can identify it from its opening three piano notes. Mike Post’s theme starts out slowly, almost hesitantly, before hitting its proper stride as the strings, drums and guitar join in with the ever-present piano, and the overall feeling it evokes is akin to a slow clap that gradually turns into a normal-speed ovation that only ever seems to happen in tv shows or movies. The theme perfectly captures a feeling of the day-to-day drudgery endured by a bunch of people who are sad that they live on a street that has a hill on it, which is what I presume the show is about.
Composed by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson.
“Instrumental?” you say, incredulously, “but there are words involved!” Yes, there are technically words here. But they are meaningless. The beat is why you’re here. The beat is certainly why Busta Rhymes was here, because he recognized that it was so fucking fire that it was worthy of having Busta Rhymes rap over it in a Matrix-inspired music video because the 90s were amazing.
Just imagine the pitch meeting with the composers that yielded this song:
“We need a theme song for our show. We want something really catchy, but something that suggests suspense and excitement.”
“Ok, what’s the show about?”
“It’s about a guy who eventually becomes a lifeguard and a surprisingly well-known singer in Germany. And he solves crimes with his friend, a talking car.”
“…We’re going to need to be paid up front. In cash.”
And then, because they’re professionals, the composers made this masterpiece.
Composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter.
The Magnum, P.I. theme song is not only one of my favorite 80s TV theme songs, it’s one of my favorites from any era. A theme song should help describe what the show’s about; this one doesn’t have any lyrics to help do this, but right from the beginning the beat starts and never stops – it tells you “this show is going to be action packed, and it’s going to be fun”. I haven’t seen an episode in over 20 years, but if I hear this theme it instantly takes me back to watching the show; my head starts bobbing and I can’t not smile – it’s just so much fun to listen to. Besides being great music, the sign of a great TV theme song is that it reminds you why you loved the show. This song does that for me. Also, bonus points for Selleck arching his eyebrows at the very end of the theme in the opening credits – that’s just awesome.
Murder, She Wrote
Composed by John Addison.
I’m not sure if Murder, She Wrote has the theme song that is the most incongruous to the premise of its show, but it certainly has to be up there. While the show chronicled mystery writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher as she solved an endless parade of murders in the sleepy wharf town of Cabot Cove, Maine (murder capital of the world, apparently), the theme song merrily skips along as if murders were the most whimsical things imaginable. If the upbeat piano and Disney-ish string section weren’t enough, they also throw in some tubas for an oompah-band feel. It makes absolutely no sense, but is magnificent. It makes me wish more shows and films attempted this. If someone who knows how to do such a thing were to replace the “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” soundtrack from Friday the 13th, or the Jaws theme, with oompah music? Let me know, because I would watch the hell out of that.
At least once, anyway.
Composed by Jack Elliott.
Sitcoms that are star vehicles (rather than pure ensemble comedies) tend to center on a normal, or maybe slightly eccentric, person who tries but mostly fails to corral a bunch of nutjobs (Parks and Rec, WKRP in Cincinnati, Newhart). Less commonly, the main character IS the nutjob, and there may or may not be any “normal one” in sight (I Love Lucy, Mork and Mindy, The Office). Night Court started as one and ended up the other. The first thing you may notice about the Night Court theme is that it’s an awful lot like the Barney Miller theme: Slap bass intro, funk/jazz groove, Manhattan skyline, freeze frames. That’s no accident – showrunner Reinhold Weege was a veteran of the Barney Miller writer’s room. But partly because Night Court was built around comic/magician/weirdo Harry Anderson (who had played conman Harry the Hat on Cheers in what was effectively an audition) rather than comedic actor Hal Linden, the show got weirder and weirder, gloriously so, over its nine seasons. Also, like many classic sitcoms, the show lucked into an amazing supporting cast that included Dan Larroquette, Markie Post, and Richard Moll (alas, Father Time caused a Andropov/Chernenko-style series of gruff female bailiffs, each of whom was brilliant in her own right). The Night Court theme is 40 seconds of musical bliss from an age when it was more important to set a mood than to cram in one more commercial.
-Assistant Dragon Slayer
Composed by WG Snuffy Walden.
Thirtysomething was the original show about nothing. Prior to thirtysomething, TV dramas were almost always escapist fare about exciting people (Dallas oilmen! LA Lawyers! Miami cops!) leading lives utterly different from yours and mine. In contrast, thirtysomething was about ordinary people and their quotidian lives. Pretty much every slice-of-life dramedy about regular (if hyper-verbal) people – your Gilmore Girls, your Parenthood – has thirtysomething in its DNA. Appropriately, the theme song also went completely against the grain for an 80s show by being tiny (mostly acoustic guitars). The result was a timeless TV show and theme song (give or take some pleated pants here or a pan-pipes synth patch there).
Personal note: I watched the full run of thirtysomething when it first aired in my early 20s, mainly because my college girlfriend was a doppelganger for Melissa, asymmetrical haircut and all (and yes, she was – wait for it – in her thirties). At the time, I was super-frustrated by how self-absorbed these dummies were by their tiny, tiny problems (work/life balance! tenure! making payroll! tractor/trailers!). However, even at the time I was mystified by the furious backlash the show engendered, from people who obviously didn’t actually watch it and were more interested in bashing the show as a scapegoat for the excesses of the age (quite similar to the rage Girls would incite decades later). Somehow, I went through all of my 30s without seeing a single episode, then rewatched a fair chunk of it in my 40s and was shocked at how they nailed it. And oh yeah – Susannah really is the worst, right?
-Assistant Dragon Slayer
There’s your nominees. Now it’s your time to vote. And feel free to share your thoughts in comments, even if you think the best theme isn’t here. (It is, though. Trust me).
Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cook Islands, Palau, The Amazon, Cagayan
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Cirie Fields, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino