January 03, 2012

A Bad Case of Earworms:
The 25 Greatest TV Theme Songs

Last night, I came down with a bad case of earworms. I blame Poker Grump.

It started innocently enough. I got into a semi-spirited Twitter debate with Poker Grump and a motley assortment of misfit toys regarding what TV theme song was the best ever. I advocated for “Hawaii Five-O”, but the Twitterverse spit out a ton of intriguing alternatives. I was inspired by the debate to challenge Poker Grump to post our Top 25 TV theme songs simultaneously for criticism and frivolity (Grump’s list is cross-posted here). There really is no underlying wager to settle or winner to be determined, although I assume I will emerge victorious in the court of public opinion ….

Since Poker Grump accepted the challenge, things have taken an ugly turn, with several dozen TV theme songs running through my head non-stop for the past 24 hours. I started by listing TV theme songs off the top of my head, then searched iTunes and online lists (see here and here) for ideas of songs I had overlooked. Then, I started plugging in the obvious top songs and knocking out the obvious misfits until I had my list. The process was harder than I had anticipated; there was a lot of handwringing over the final fifteen spots, and I found myself having to make some tough cuts of songs I had assumed were locks for the Top 25. Obviously there’s a large element of “eye of the beholder” in play when judging the “best” TV theme songs, but there are a few criteria I tried to use to sort out my list:

  • Did the theme song set the mood and/or provide background for the show?
  • Was the theme song an earworm? When the song comes on, do you find yourself humming, whistling, and/or singing along?
  • Was the theme song for a show I regularly watched, and/or which was widely popular?
  • Has the theme song crossed over into popular culture—e.g., is the song used in other TV shows or commercials, or otherwise parodied, sampled, quoted, and/or referenced in pop culture?

So, without further ado, here's the list (in traditional inverse order) (where I couldn't find a different, "official" title, I went with "Theme from ________" as a default song title):

25.  L.A. Law / “Theme from L.A. Law (instrumental)” by Unknown:  Ripped off by a dozen law dramas since.

24.  Bones / “Theme from Bones (instrumental) by The Crystal Method:  Suspenseful, yet strangely scientific. Perfect fit for the show.

23.  Monk / “It’s a Jungle Out There” by Randy Newman:  Neurotic and playful. You had to see the series to get the song.

22.  The X-Files / “Theme from the X-Files (instrumental)” by Mark Snow:  Eerie mood-setter for a paranormal conspiracy show.

21.  Rawhide / “Rawhide” by Ned Washington & Dimitri:  None of us remember watching this show, but thanks to the Blues Brothers, we can all sing it. Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, keep them doggies rollin’ …

20.  The Muppet Show / “Theme from the Muppet Show” by Jim Henson & Sam Pottle: Catchy tune, and they played weekly games with the opening credits years before The Simpsons.

19.  The Addams Family / “The Addams Family Theme” by Vic Mizzy:  Oh snap! Snap!

18.  The Flintstones / "Theme from The Flintstones" by Hoyt Curtin:  It's a good time, a yabba, dabba, doo time, it's a gay, old time!

17.  Hill Street Blues / “Theme from Hill Street Blues” (instrumental)” by Mike Post:  Soft piano, soaring strings, good for a hankie before the first commercial.

16.  Batman / “Batman Theme” by Neal Hefti:  Perfect superhero theme. Great hook, greatly sampled and parodied.

15.  Star Trek: The Next Generation / “Theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation (instrumental)”:  The essence of pure space adventure.

14.  The A-Team / “Theme from the A-Team (instrumental)” by Mike Post:  Just a kick-azz theme song for a bunch of guys who kicked azz every week.

13.  Family Feud / "Family Feud Theme Song (instrumental)" by Unknown:  Easily the most recognizable game show theme of my lifetime.

12.  Happy Days / “Happy Days” by Pratt & McClain:  How better to make the mid-70s to early 80s feel like the late 50s?

11.  The Brady Bunch / “Theme from The Brady Bunch” by Sherwood Schwartz:  What color hair did the girls have? Now try to stop singing. ‘Nuff said.

10.  Gilligan's Island / “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island” by Sherwood Schwartz & George Wyle:  What was the name of the ship? How many hours was the cruise? Now try to stop singing. ‘Nuff said.

9.  The Beverly Hillbillies / “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” by Paul Henning:  Someone says, “Bubblin’ crude.” You say, “Oil that is. Black gold. Texas tea.” Now try to stop singing. ‘Nuff said. Plus, there’s the Neal McCoy homage, “Hillbilly Rap”, where he takes “bubblin’” to new heights.

8.  Dallas / “Theme from Dallas (instrumental)” by Jerrold Immel:  Big musical theme to introduce big hats, big hair, and big stars.

7.  Mission: Impossible / “Theme from Mission: Impossible (instrumental)” by Lalo Schifrin:  Possibly the most ripped off TV theme song riff. That's a huge compliment.

6.  M.A.S.H. / “Suicide Is Painless (instrumental)” by Johnny Mandel:  A moody intro for a black comedy about war. Couldn’t argue if someone wanted to move this up a few spots.

5.  Miami Vice / “Theme from Miami Vice (instrumental)” by Jan Hammer:  This was a groundbreaking show for kids my age, and really ushered in a new style of TV show, with pop music soundtracks, fast paced / jump cut editing, and an emphasis on style over exposition. The song perfectly conveys the energy and excitement of both Miami and a cop show.

4.  The Dukes of Hazzard / “The Dukes of Hazzard” by Waylon Jennings:  One of my favorite childhood shows, and the catchy song perfectly encapsulates the essence of a couple of Southern good ‘ol boys fighting against the man and having a good ‘ol time.

3.  The Jeffersons / “Movin’ On Up” by Ja’net Du Boise & Jeff Barry:  Catchy gospel-inspired tune with some important cooking advice—“Fish don’t fry in the kitchen, beans don’t burn on the grill.” I dare you to find a person who doesn’t tap their feet and sing along to this one!

1. / 2.  Cheers / “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy:  Look, it’s a song about drinking with friends at a bar, it’s a song you can sing with your friends at a bar, and the show is about a bunch of friends who hang out at a bar. Oh, and it’s impossible to get out of your head. Hard to top.

2. / 1.  Hawaii Five-O / “Theme from Hawaii Five-O (instrumental)” by Morton Stevens: The opening drums leading into the horn power riff, juxtaposed over images of huge surf waves. Perfection!

ADDENDUM (4 January 2012):  Mea culpa. I should have kept the courage of my convictions. Hawaii Five-O is perfection, and must be placed in its rightful Numero Uno position. Just take a look at this Brian Setzer Orchestra live performance posted by Lucki Duck over on his blog, Small Potatoes Poker & Sports Betting:

Honorable Mentions (a/k/a TV theme songs that made my initial list but didn’t make the cut):

All In the Family:   Iconic, but honestly, the show is no longer a cultural touchstone the way Cheers or the other shows are, particularly to people under 50. It’s the War & Peace of TV theme songs; everyone is supposed to remember it and revere it, but most people couldn’t sing a line from the song or relate a classic scene from the show.

Cool theme songs, but the shows are largely forgotten (you might know a scene or two, but characters? Episodes? Memorable quotes? Come on, now!):  SWAT, Barney Miller, Bonanza, Laverne & Shirley, Taxi.

Good theme songs, but just not as good as others in their genre:  WKRP in Cincinnati, Night Court, Charlie's Angels, Law & Order, Seinfeld, Psych, South Park, Entourage, The Simpsons, Magnum P.I.

Overly sappy / cringe-inducing theme songs (memorable doesn’t mean good):  Sesame Street, The Greatest American Hero, The Golden Girls, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Radio hits masquerading as TV theme songs:  Dawson’s Creek, Friends, Party of Five.

So, which songs did I get right? Where did I botch it horribly? What is your top five? What TV theme song did I utterly overlook? Comments are open!!

Corn earworms (image source).


  1. Weak, seriously weak. No Sanford & Son and your excuse for keeping Magnum PI off the list is also very weak.

    I'm done with your blog.

  2. It's interesting that most of these are shows of, um... and older generation. Is it that there are no good new songs? Perhaps there are so many good new ones that they get lost in the shuffle? Or maybe the old ones have been around long enough to mature into earworm material. Either way, it was fun hearing these songs again in my head.


  3. Funny, I came to comment about the absence of 'Sanford & Son' from your list, and see someone else beat me to it. I have this song in rotation on my iPod as my "randomizer reminder". Since I tend to play too tight, it helps prompt me to play the occasional 'junk' hand. I think these clips demonstrate that it meets all of your listed criteria, especially the crossover aspect:


    (The 'Scrubs' theme is catchy, too, but, sadly, the show didn't have a wide enough audience to make the same lasting impact).

    I would also take (minor) issue w/ your characterization of 'Taxi' in the "largely forgotten" category. I can still name all the characters, though Andy Kaufman's Latka Gravas & Christopher Lloyd's Rev. Jim Ignatowski remain my favorites. Just the other night I was telling someone about one of my favorite 'Taxi' scenes: http://youtu.be/j6FmbMiIxws (it even showed up as the first choice in the anticipatory search results, after entering only 'taxi y')

  4. How did both of you omit Different Strokes?

  5. Dude. COME ON GET HAPPY!!


  6. I guess since "Hawaii Five-O" is my ringtone, I'll have to go with it.

  7. Bah to the both of you. No Get Smart? No Man from U.N.C.L.E.?

    Also, most of your "good but not as good" and "overly sappy" should replace a good chunk of the main list.

  8. @ Anon & BuzzedSaw: Sanford & Son is a catchy theme, but it just doesn't resonate with me at all, probably because the show just wasn't watched in my house growing up.

    @ BuzzedSaw: I liked Taxi and Scrubs a lot, along with Arrested Development. I'm the only person I know who regularly watched any of them and can quote from them.

    @ atlien: Different Strokes? I'm going to assume this is a joke, because if you're serious, I will have to silently judge you.

    @ Drizz: Partridge Family? Please put down the booze, put on some clothes, and go to bed.

  9. @ Astin: Your socialist Canadian TV experiences have warped your fragile mind.

  10. @ DrChako: I think part of the reason most of the TV theme songs I picked are from the 70s and 80s is that there is a certain nostalgia factor in play. Also, TV shows changed in the 90s, with theme songs being less emphasized and much shorter (15-30 seconds now, not a full minute). There are a few notable exceptions, but off the top of your head, what shows of the past 10 years do you really find had memorable, catchy theme songs? As always, the good ol' days were gooder ...

  11. Great! Now my head is running full blast with these songs. Funny how, as you run down your list, the song just pops in to your brain. Shows how much TV we have watched..way too much if we can recite the lyrics..

    Great job guys..

  12. Beside Sanford & Son, the omittance of the theme from Monday Night Football is sad.

    What about the best theme on TV today, the Big Bang Theory. If Monk can make the list, this should rank higher.

    Quirky but fits the show, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

  13. No major quibbles- except I think Seasame Street is a glaring omission. Automatic earworm anytime I catch a bit of it.

    Also warranting honorable mention from childhood IMO is Reading Rainbow.

    I agree with your assesment that newer shows have gone away from spending any time on the theme song. The League is a good example, I think its theme song is about 3 seconds. That being said, HBO has some shows that warrant honorable mention: The Sopranos and True Blood for sure.

  14. I also believe Sanford & Son is an omission though I don't know what songs in your list I would replace. Theme from SWAT was always a fave of mine but its a total ripoff of the theme from Shaft. But then one I would have to include is the theme from F Troop.

  15. Hawaii Five-O is definitely the best. But one that people forget about is Get Smart!

  16. Speak for yourself about Rawhide. I used to watch it as a kid. And it was on Encore just the other day. And i also like the lyrics to Suicide is Painless (can be heard in the movie) Give meaning to the word black comedy

  17. Solid list, but I would have to find a spot for Welcome Back Kotter and Chico and the Man.

    My personal favorite instrumental theme is the original first-season Barney Miller.

    (Looks like I'm stuck in the '70s on this.)

  18. I poseted most of my comments on Grump's site (sorry, got there first) but I did want to protest that neither of you listed the theme from St. Elsewhere, a great show and an fantastic theme by Dave Grusin.

    Another great theme you both missed, "thirtysomething." OK, maybe no one wanted to admit they even remember that show, but regardless of your view of the show, the theme song was excellent.

    If I keep thinking about this I'll spend the whole day on this so I better stop now!

    Good job for trying to both of you!

  19. you are too young prehaps "Peter Gunn" and "Alfred Hichcock" and St Elswhere" top of the list Hawaii Five-O