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CNN Special Reports

CNN Special: "Where Have All the Theme Songs Gone." Aired 8-9p ET

Aired July 25, 2021 - 20:00   ET



PAMELA BROWN, CNN HOST: He booked out a movie theater and surprised her with a big screen showing on their anniversary. It was the first time she had even seen the video.

Ending tonight on a happy note. Well, thank you so much for joining me this evening. I'm Pamela Brown. I'll see you again next weekend. The CNN Special "WHERE HAVE ALL THE THEME SONGS GONE" starts now.

ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN Special.

DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Bring back the theme song.

PROF. ROBERT THOMPSON, MEDIA HISTORIAN, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY: Television theme songs became almost part of the folk music of a nation.

We don't do ourselves any favor by underestimating the cultural penetration that these little songs had in this culture.

LEMON: What ever happened to the TV theme song?

Outside of your own song, what's your favorite TV theme?


LEMON: Ever.

PORTNOY: I loved "Green Acres "because I grew up in a town called Green Acres.


LEMON: Outside of your own amazing show, which I love, I have to say that, what is your favorite TV theme song?



DRESCHER: Because I like when the song tells the story of the series and I was very influenced with that growing up.


KNIGHT: Spooky. And Nooky. How do you spell Ooky?

LEMON: Here is the biggest question, what ever happened to the theme song?

KNIGHT: You know, that's a good question.




THOMPSON: There was a sense that those shows that came out in the '60s and the '70s, everybody knew them as well as you would know "Happy Birthday" or "Mary Had a Little Lamb."


THOMPSON: Those four notes, do, do, do, would immediately cause that almost Pavlovian knee jerk reaction.


THOMPSON: Everybody knew how Gilligan got on to that island. Because they've heard the song over and over again.


We don't do ourselves any favor by underestimating the cultural penetration that these little songs had in this culture.


PORTNOY: When "Cheers" started nobody was watching. But fortunately, there was a lot of interest in the song.

LEMON: What happened?

PORTNOY: Judy Heart Angelo was a friend of mine for a number of years. We wrote this song called "My Kind of People."

LEMON: Let's hear it.


PORTNOY: Here's the really bad part.

So --

LEMON: Wait, I liked it.

PORTNOY: You liked it? OK. Well, we sent it and they turned it down and we said, can we write you another one? And they said yes, so we wrote this song called "Another Day."


PORTNOY: And they liked it, but they turned it down, so we went from zippity, zippity, zippity, and we crossed the line into total melancholy. But at that point honestly we thought it was over.


PORTNOY: You know, we felt it just -- the air was going out of the tire and we were never going to get it so I sat down and I literally just plunking. And we started writing words.


PORTNOY: The words that we wrote were -- (Singing) singing the blues when the Red Sox lose, it's a crisis in your life, on the run because all your girlfriends want to be your wife, and the laundry tickets in the wash, sometimes you want to go -- so we finished it and they said we really like this but you got to change those words at the top, so we booked Studio Time before we ever even wrote it. We were like this thing --

LEMON: You can say the bad word. You said what (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

PORTNOY: Because I can't take it anymore. So we were -- I remember writing in a cab going down to the recording studio working on making your way -- you know, I remember, and I don't think we ever actually played the whole song until we got into the studio to get something back for them, and I'm just going to -- (Singing) making your way in the world today takes everything you've got, taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.


PORTNOY: And we sent it out and they said yes.


LEMON: And you said?




LEMON: Rumor is that you were singing the song on the set and someone heard you and said, why don't the kids sing the song? Is that true or not?



LARRY KING, TV HOST: Why do we watch things over that we love? MARY TYLER MOORE, ACTRESS: It represents a fruitful time in our past

that life seems simpler, less threatening. There was probably just as evil but it didn't seem like it was all coming at us at once as it was now.

KING: Also they hold up. Amazing.

MOORE: I think they do except for the hair-dos.

KING: How do you explain to yourself the success of "Seinfeld"?

JERRY SEINFELD, ACTOR: It's like this miracle thing. And I don't like a joke, didn't matter if you add or subtract one word, it ruins the whole thing. This is like a perfect little joke. These four people, the way we mesh.

KING: Couldn't have written it out then.

SEINFELD: No, a lot of luck and a lot of hard work.

THOMPSON: Many people say that the first hit television show was the "Texaco Star Theater." And it also was probably the first theme song that immediately could be something that everybody was able to sing.


THOMPSON: The theme song was really a commercial. It was sponsored by Texaco Oil Corporation.


And the entire theme song is four gas station attendants that do a chorus line and sing the theme song in full gas station attendant uniform.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Presented by your Texaco dealer.

THOMPSON: And by the way, never mentioned the star of the show once. The theme song once it was liberated from its sales obligation was able to move into more rich, artistic and dramatic territory.


LEMON: You have one of the most iconic TV theme songs ever. I mean, could you have imagined that when you were a little kid and they cast you in this role?

KNIGHT: No, not even close. All I know is that when asked to sing, I was petrified because I'm that guy, you know, at a birthday party that can screw up "Happy Birthday."

LEMON: Rumor is that you were singing the song on the set and someone came up with the idea, someone heard you and said, why don't the kids sing the song? Is that true or no?

KNIGHT: Maybe? I haven't heard that rumor. If I was there, I wouldn't have been the one singing the song.

LEMON: Do you remember anything from the recording session?

KNIGHT: All of a sudden, they're dragging me into a studio and I know what I have to deliver. Not much. It's just amazing what my singing does to people's faces. So I try not to do it much.

THOMPSON: A lot more people could recite the theme song from "The Brady Bunch" than could recite that poem that's on the bottom of the Statute of Liberty.

Is it because these songs were so brilliant? And I think in their own way they were, but is it because they were written by the greatest composers of all time? In most cases, no.

Sherwood Schwartz was a comedy guy. He wrote two of the most classic of all time TV theme songs, "The Brady Bunch" and "Gilligan's Island." He wrote those songs because he needed them to serve a purpose, to give us the entire backstory of those shows.


THOMPSON: The detail is so basic and specific. It's simplicity is almost -- like modern architecture that decided it was going to expose everything it was. You'd see the pipes. You'd see the -- you know, the support of the Bauhaus level of a TV theme song.


THOMPSON: And "The Brady Bunch" just does it. Here's the story once upon a time of a lovely lady who was bringing up three very lovely girls, all of them had hair of gold, Goldilocks. I mean, this goes deep into our Medieval way of telling stories. And the fact that it was kind of hip back then. It was a blended family when most of TV was mom, dad in a first-time heterosexual relationship in a suburban single-family dwelling with their own biological kids.

We were at least beginning to explore that families could love each other and not necessarily fall into that very old-fashioned notion of the American family.

LEMON: Can you please sing it for us?


KNIGHT: By the way, and that's why she could never leave the curls behind and always had a headache.


LEMON: Does it make you cringe or do you still love it?


KNIGHT: I can't cringe.


KNIGHT: It's an honor. It's an honor. I mean, who could have predicted?

Having been part of this thing that affects everybody and only generates camaraderie and brotherhood because that's really what I feel I get from it.

THOMPSON: We knew they were silly. That whole '60s, '70s television era we approached with a loving sense of disdain. In the 1980s, television started copping attitude. We can do shows like "Cheers" and the old idea of the "Brady Bunch" theme song seemed positively part of that old school theme. So the only reason we get an expository theme song, an old-fashioned theme song is when it's done tongue in cheek. "The Nanny" is a great example.


THOMPSON: It aggressively went back to a '60s style theme.

LEMON: So you get the show. They said deal, and then when do you say, OK, now theme song?

DRESCHER: When you make a pilot, we don't know if it's ever going to air. They don't spend money on an opening title.



BUD BUNDY, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN ACTOR: Great news, everybody, it's official.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why do you think the show works?

ED O'NEILL, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN ACTOR: I'm not really sure about -- if I knew that, I'd be doing my second one.

KATEY SAGAL, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN ACTOR: I thought you were beautiful.

O'NEILL: Come on, Peg. You used the diaper's face.

CHRISTINA APPLEGATE, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN ACTOR: We have very faithful viewers. And they'll just stick out with us as long as we keep doing them.

PIERS MORGAN, TV HOST: "Frazier," like "Cheers," I mean, they were just phenomenal shows. Stratospherically popular, global shows. Did you get an inkling early on this is going to be huge, this is going to change my life?

KELSEY GRAMMER, FRAZIER ACTOR: You do have a sense there is a beauty about releasing it to the public to just saying OK, here it is, love it or hate it. We did our best.


LEMON: What was the spark for the show?

DRESCHER: It was when I was in London, with my girlfriend, Twiggy, her and her husband were busy working and so I ended up hanging out with their little daughter. And I'm schlepping a roll over London and the kid suddenly says, Fran, my new shoes are hurting me, and I'm thinking, what the hell is she telling me for? So I told her just step on the backs of them, and she said, wouldn't that break them? And I said break them in.

And I could not get this relationship out of my head because I wasn't really telling her what was good for her like a normal caregiver. I was telling her what was good for me. And so the wheels were turning in my head, what do you think about a spin on "The Sound of Music" only instead of Julie Andrews I come to the door?

Are you kidding? I practically raised my sister's two kids when she was (INAUDIBLE).

LEMON: You get the show. They said deal, and then when do you say, OK, now theme song?

DRESCHER: We made the pilot.

Do you have a pen?

In fact, they didn't even give us enough money to make a full pilot. We insisted on doing the whole script and we borrowed sets and had a very small budget.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right. You're hired but on a trial basis.

DRESCHER: When the show got picked up, and they said now you need to come up with an incredible opening title. And that was when I said let's get Ann Hampton Callaway to write it.

LEMON: Ann Hampton Callaway was the singer and songwriter, right?

DRESCHER: Yes, a friend of mine took me to a club and there was Ann Hampton Callaway singing, and I had it in my head that if I ever had a show of my own, I was going to ask her to write the theme song.

LEMON: Did you help with the lyrics or was it all her?

DRESCHER: We spoon-fed her all of the details about the character's journey. We described her as the flashing girl and we said she's the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan. She made it into a song, added a lot to it, and came up with an incredibly catchy and very New York, almost jazzy melody.


LEMON: When you heard it, at first, did you know as soon as you heard it?

DRESCHER: Yes, absolutely. She did a marvelous job. I mean, it became one of the most significant opening title songs of certainly the '90s, if not in all of television.

LEMON: In all of television, Fran, don't downplay or underestimate that theme song. The acting is great. The characters are amazing.

DRESCHER: Thank you.

LEMON: But it wouldn't have been the same without that theme song, am I wrong?

DRESCHER: I agree. I agree.


LEMON: HBO Max. Streaming. You ran for six successful seasons and you're running now in perpetuity. Forever into eternity. How do you feel about that?

DRESCHER: To see how millions of people all over the world to this day still love it, it just makes my heart sing.

You like? I borrowed it from my cousin, Miss Long Island 1989.

Every single week for six years and actually for, you know, 22 more after that. Everybody saw what was really the pilot episode.

Ma, pack my things. He wants me back.



THOMPSON: In the '80s, some people got worried that oh, if you spend too much in the television theme song, people may switch the channel.

DRESCHER: Truth be told, they tend to underestimate the viewer because with quality comes a loyalty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shishka (PH)? Is that like a shakshuka?

DRESCHER: Yes but they cost a lot more.

THOMPSON: It's few and far between that throughout the '80s and '90s, and into the new century, we had many of those old-fashioned things and when we saw them, they were retro homages to those old days.


THOMPSON: Like the opening of "The Sparanos," that song of course had already existed but what accompanies that is the great American immigrant story. Those four scenes where each scene the houses get further apart, more greenery in between, and bigger until Tony arrives at his palatial ex-urban thing. There are a couple of them that have no words, completely



THOMPSON: "Law and Order" is an example where you simply have to have something playing where you show who is starring in this thing. That was important because they kept changing the cast.


THOMPSON: "Twilight Zone" the same thing. And also four notes. They kept changing the notes. You grow up next door to somebody in a tiny little town in South Dakota and then when you're 30, you go to Paris and you sit down in the cafe and there is the person that you grew up next door in your small town in South Dakota. You could say, what is the likelihood or the odds of this or you could go, do, do, do, and that says everything.

Those theme songs transcended not only the shows that they were associated with, they transcended music itself. They became part of the language.

KNIGHT: "My Favorite Martian," "My Three Sons." "Curb Your Enthusiasm," these songs that don't have any lyrics but they set up the tone of the show immediately.

"Outer Limits" or "Twilight Zone," "Mission Impossible," "Hawaii 5-0." It's amazing how much this stuff has influenced us.


KURT FARQUHAR, MOESHA, SISTER SISTER, AND GIRLFRIENDS THEME SONGS, CREATOR: Before I was writing stories, you would see a black show but you wouldn't really hear a black show.


KING: Did you have doubts about "All of the Family" being a success?


CARROLL O'CONNOR, ALL IN THE FAMILY ACTOR: I remembered Sherman from "Pearly" when he was singing and dancing, and was one of the most unique actors on the stage.

HEMSLEY: The first time I went to the reading, they handed me the script and I had no idea. I was new in town, I didn't know anybody, and I was scared. Something about when I looked at his eyes, he put me at ease.

KING: How long before there was a spinoff?

HEMSLEY: I think it was the third episode they started talking about it.


THOMPSON: My favorite television theme song would have to be "The Jeffersons." The performance, the gospel choir, the pronunciation of "deluxe," in just the right place in that theme song to make it work.

LEMON: You were homeless?

FARQUHAR: Yes. Living on the streets of Los Angeles. Up and down Melrose.

LEMON: What brought you out of that?

FARQUHAR: I ended up getting a record deal with Modern Records. We put out a single. It did OK. Nothing big, but the single that we did, "Living Large," ended up being chosen as the title for a TV show, and after that I started trying more TV shows. And amazing thing of being homeless will make you figure out what your priorities are and one of the priorities had to be getting some food and starting to eat.

LEMON: You have scored more primetime television series than any other black composer, ever.

FARQUHAR: I've just been fortunate to get in at a time when there was a renaissance of black TV shows back in the '90s.

That was really a magical theme song. I co-wrote it with the star of the show, Brandy.

BRANDY NORWOOD, SINGER: It came from the music. They came from my personality and my music and they offered me the part.

FARQUHAR: Originally the way it went, the producers came to me and said, hey, you're doing the score but we want you to do a theme song. And a day or two later, they called me up and said, hey, a little change. Brandy is going to do the theme song with you. I said, oh, OK, well, we'll do that. And literally they put us together like a day or two later and she came over to my place and she sang me this idea.


I said hold it, hold it, wait here. I had written the music. She had written the lyrics and all of it worked together immediately.

LEMON: So what would you call that?

FARQUHAR: I would call that lucky as heck.


FARQUHAR: A fun thing we rerecorded it with the stars of the show with Tia and Tamara Mowry.

TAMARA MOWRY: You know, Tia and I sang it. A lot of people don't know that. So in the beginning we're lip-synching and we're like dancing to the theme song but we actually are singing.

FARQUHAR: And it was such fun, they wanted to sing the song. It was just exciting.


FARQUHAR: That's about as much as I got. As you see I'm not the singer in this band. I just loved that show. Everything about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We tried to rest when it came to not objectifying the perception of black women and our own struggles.

FARQUHAR: To say that there is going to be a story about young black women.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS, GIRLFRIENDS ACTOR: We were a show that was talking about the relationship between women. And between black women and our support and love of each other.

FARQUHAR: And their excitement in life and going through life and telling it in a real story. I just thought that that was an amazing idea.

LEMON: Is there anything that you need to know when you're writing a particular song?

FARQUHAR: You need to know what the characters are like. You need to know the length of a theme song. You don't want to write a three- minute song and edit it down.

THOMPSON: It is true that many TV theme songs that have made it into the great American songbook but the basic theme song actually really needs to stick to in the old days, maybe 90 seconds but 60 seconds maybe when it gets introduced and then it gets cut shorter as people get to know it.


THOMPSON: You spend your first season of "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and you do the whole song.

One thing, you needed that first season because people don't have the whole story.

The backstory theme song, the theme song as the in the beginning there was, you know, this. The Fresh Prince. This is the story all about how my life got turned upside down.

How this guy from West Philadelphia is now in this rich Bel-Air neighborhood.

By the second, third season, you don't need to be giving the entire full song so it becomes completely tempting and within the best interest of everybody involved to start chopping that thing off because then you can use that to put promotions for whatever is on next, sell more advertising.

There's a long version of that. But very few people know the whole thing. THOMPSON: Both "Cheers" and "Friends" could sort of be the last gasps

of a network television theme song as a popular hit.

LEMON: Whatever happened to the TV theme song?

DRESCHER: Business happened.

PORTNOY: I quit.


MATT LEBLANC, FRIENDS ACTOR: Our job is to come up with the funniest thing all day long. The writing is so good.

COURTNEY COX, FRIENDS ACTOR: There is nothing better than having the audience laugh. There are no ego trips at all.

MATTHEW PERRY, FRIENDS ACTOR: That's why you're talking to six people that wouldn't go away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys really are friends.

JENNIFER ANISTON, FRIENDS ACTOR: Yes, we know how lucky we are.

THOMPSON: Some of these theme songs are fun, we remember them, they become iconic, but a pretty good number of theme songs that actually made it into top 40, regular radio play. And probably the greatest example would be "Friends."


THOMPSON: Life always stuck in second gear, the fact that you are really getting too old for this, but things haven't really kicked in yet. That's really what "Friends" was about. That they were still kind of stuck in a certain kind of arrested development. It's not a backstory theme song, it's not here's the story of how they met. It's the story about how they feel.

MARTA KAUFFMAN, CO-CREATOR, FRIENDS: The music was composed by my ex- husband. We went through a couple drafts, but it was not a difficult process. When things are right, they sort of write themselves.

THE REMBRANDTS, FRIENDS THEME SONG PERFORMERS: We got the offer on a Wednesday and went over the arrangement on a Thursday with music director Michael Schloff, cut the song on a Saturday, and it aired the following Thursday.

KEVIN S. BRIGHT, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, FRIENDS: I remember getting in my car and driving from Warner Brothers one day and I just turned on the radio and there was the theme song, and that to me was wow, this is big. This is huge.

THOMPSON: Both "Cheers" and "Friends" sort of the last gasps of a network television theme song as a popular hit.

[20:50:09] LEMON: Whatever happened to the theme song?

KNIGHT: You know, it's a good question.


PORTNOY: I know. It's a crime.

LEMON: Why aren't there catching theme songs like "The Nanny" anymore? What happened?

DRESCHER: I think that business happened.

FARQUHAR: They needed more space and I know where we can get 60 seconds, I know where we can get 55 seconds, we'll take this down to five.

PORTNOY: That happened on a lot of shows, yes. And why? Advertising.

LEMON: The shows weren't longer, it was the commercial breaks were longer.

PORTNOY: Yes. Absolutely. Yes -- no, they didn't give it to the show.

THOMPSON: Every second your spend on your opening theme song is a second you can't be spending on the content itself, no problem. But it's also a second you can't be selling to advertisers. Big problem.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When did you start begging from scratch?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not scratch, mom. It new Pillsbury Plus.

LEMON: They kept shortening the theme song, right, from like a minute, and to a minute, to 45 to 30 seconds to make more room for commercials. Have you experienced that? Is that an issue for you?

FARQUHAR: Yes, I've experienced it. Is it an issue for me? No. I mean, it's a part of reality. If you only have five seconds, imagine Moesha with five seconds. It's just -- you get "Mo to the," out.

PORTNOY: A lot of people think it happened with streaming, with cable, but I remember when it happened because I remember back in the '80s, the first time somebody gave Judy Heart Angelo and myself a script and said give us 45 seconds instead of 60, OK, and not too long thereafter somebody said give us 30, and 20 and 10, and, you know, there are people who can do that like orchestraters, arrangers. I'm a songwriter. I can't express myself in 10 seconds. I don't want to. So I quit.

FARQUHAR: As a composer and person part of the whole TV show making experience, trust me, a lot of thought goes into those theme songs.

I know of a lot of people that relate to their TV show through its theme song. So why give that away?

KNIGHT: Right now there is so much to watch. There isn't really one thing that everybody can rally around.

THOMPSON: We spent the first 80 years of the 20th century building up this unbelievable consensus audience and then we spend the last two decades of the 20th century and all of the 21st century breaking that up into a million little pieces. First with cable and now with streaming where there is an infinite number of varieties.

One could argue that streaming has been a great friend of the theme song in that streaming allows young people to discover and watch multiple episodes of "Fresh Prince", of "I Love Lucy," of any of this stuff that they may not have access to before, but the bad thing is they may decide to watch these things but they're given the effortless opportunity to skip the theme song.

FARQUHAR: You know, I don't think it's getting the opportunity to get ingrained in people's head and be totally linked with the show as they were in the past.

LEMON: I mean, "The Brady Bunch" is one of the most popular theme songs ever. It's from the 1970s. It keeps getting reintroduced to new generations and new audiences every single day.

KNIGHT: The theme song is catchy. Popular at the time. But it's only grown more so because 50 years later, you can still remember it because it's that simple.

DRESCHER: Honey, are you gorgeous? You look just like a virgin. I brought you some crackers for your morning sickness.

You know, now that the show is having this incredible moment again since it's been on a streaming platform, people are really appreciating the facets of it that made it so wonderful and I think that they're digesting it in a whole new way and that starts with the opening titles, the theme song, the animation, and goes all the way through.


LEMON: There is a certain nostalgia I think for TV. Do you think that there'll be a renaissance? Do you think it will come back?

PORTNOY: Well, I do only because I think everything that goes around comes around.

KNIGHT: Everything seems to cycle eventually, maybe we're on a rather extended orbit on this. And maybe it will come back.

LEMON: Bring back the theme song. Bring back the theme song.


LEMON: We're on a mission, Fran.

LEMON: OK, so one last thing, I have this little show called "DON LEMON TONIGHT."


LEMON: Can you write me a theme song?

PORTNOY: Oh, my god. What do you have in mind?

LEMON: I don't know.

PORTNOY: (Singing) "DON LEMON TONIGHT," we're going to talk things tonight, on "DON LEMON TONIGHT." We're going to talk things through "DON LEMON TONIGHT, we're going to deal with the truth. "DON LEMON TONIGHT." We're going to talk things through "DON LEMON TONIGHT, we're going to deal with the truth. We're going to deal with the truth.

I like the deal with the truth.

LEMON: Yes. That was it. That's it. That's your 20 seconds. I know you're not an arranger.

PORTNOY: I need 60.