Dusting Off: The Sitcom Theme Song

Ah, those were the days. Archie and Edith agreeing in song, “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.” The All in the Family theme song — she wailing, he demonizing “the welfare state,” — had as much to do with setting the voice and tone of the working-class show as Meathead, George Jefferson and anti-Semitism.

That’s because sitcom theme songs used to be epic.

They contained second verses, pre-choruses, wholly unnecessary transitional bridges and a cappella clap breaks — seemingly none of which played with a great deal of urgency, at least when compared to the frantic, auctioneer-like cadences of theme songs today.

Seinfeld was the first to do away with the theme song altogether, favoring a series of bass slaps, tongue pops and guttural hiccups.

A couple years ago, I organized my favorites into eight categories: Expositional Ditties, Anthems, Liberated Women, The Jazz Age, Caucasian Sap, Funk Brothers, The Thinkers, Optimistic Groovers and, finally, The Bummers.

Did I miss any?

EXPOSITIONAL DITTIES Gilligan’s Island (above) The Brady Bunch Arrested DevelopmentThe Fresh Prince of Bel-Air The Beverly Hillbillies The Flintstones The Jetsons The Odd Couple

ANTHEMS Perfect Strangers (above) The Office (BBC) The Bob Newhart Show The Mary Tyler Moore Show Angry Boys Summer Heights High

LIBERATED WOMEN Alice (above) Laverne & Shirley Kate & Allie Gimme a Break!

THE JAZZ AGE The Cosby Show (above) Everybody Loves Raymond Frasier

CAUCASIAN SAP The Golden Girls (above) Cheers Silver Spoons Friends Punky Brewster The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (Sung by Harry Nilsson, incidentally.)

 

UPDATE: On January 15 2016, Richard Morgan publically rebuked my findings on Facebook.

Richard Morgan how dare you ignore DuckTales
Richard Morgan yes of course also:

Charles in Charge
GI Joe
Small Wonder
Growing Pains
Silver Spoons
Happy Days
Bewitched
The Love Boat
MacGyver
Knight Rider
LA Law
Doogie Howser MD
Full House
Gummy Bears
Thundercats
Silverhawks
Going Places
Marblehead Manor

C. Brian Smith  What the fuck is this Richard.

Richard Morgan it’s a grand life! was that not clear? also:

The Charmings
In Living Color
Jem
227
The Facts of Life
Welcome Back, Cotter
The Head of the Class
Are You Being Served?
A Different World
He-Man
Transformers
Martin
EastEnders
Hi Honey, I’m Home
Sesame Street
Square One
Danger Mouse
Empty Nest

ALF
Out of This World
Batman the animated series
and
Alice
Too Close For Comfort
…ok, gotta have breakfast

 

—C.B.S (via UrbanDaddy) (via C.B.S.)

 

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Great Moments In Sitcom History — PART 3 

Some of the most iconic moments in sitcom history were the result of delightful accidents and fortuitous blunders… 

Greg Malins (Head Writer: Friends): On the fourth season of Friends, we knew that Ross was going to marry that British girl Emily in the season finale, but we had no idea how it was going to end. Should Rachel stop the wedding? Should he stop it? Should Chandler and Joey talk him out of it? We were filming an episode a few weeks before and Ross had a scene where he was supposed to come into the apartment and say something like, “The cab is waiting downstairs, Emily.” But David mistakenly said, “The cab is waiting downstairs, Rachel.” I realized that’s what should happen in the finale: Ross should mistakenly say, “I take thee, Rachel” instead of “Emily.”

Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude AwakeningAccidentally on Purpose): It was the best modern season ending, ever. I was with my stepdaughter when I saw it for the first time and we both went, “Oh, shit!”

Greg Malins: It turned out to be a pretty cool moment that people seemed to really like and remember. I like that story because the answer to our problem didn’t come from hours of hard work racking our brains—it came from something as simple as David Schwimmer flubbing a line. I wish it were always that easy.

Accidental good fortune also resulted in one of the longest laughs ever recorded in a situational comedy. But as writer Jay Kogen (The Simpsons, Frasier, Malcolm in the Middle) explains, good fortune in a sitcom is only as good as the strength of its characters— and the actors portraying those characters.

Jay Kogen: I’m not sure if this counts as the greatest moment in sitcom history because it was on the radio, but it’s the greatest moment in program history. On The Jack Benny Program, Benny’s character was insanely, hilariously cheap. When a robber comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life!” the audience roars with laughter before Benny even says a word. Then the robber says, “Look, bud, I said your money or your life!” And Benny says, “I’m thinking it over.”

The genius of this moment is that it can only come from a show that you’ve established all this information over the course of years. We know Benny. So nothing needs to be explained. That’s perfection. When I have written moments on shows like Frasier and The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle where a look says more and gets a bigger laugh than words ever could, I tip my hat in gratitude to “Your money or your life.”

But as George Balzer explains, the punch line was, essentially, an accident.

George Balzer (Writer: The Jack Benny Program): John Tackaberry and Milt Josefsberg [Jack Benny writers] came to a point where they had the line, “Your money or your life.” And that stopped them. Milt was pacing up and down, trying to get a follow. And he got a little peeved at Tack, and he said, “For God’s sakes, Tack, say something.” Tack, maybe he was half asleep—in defense of himself, says, “I’m thinking it over.” And Milt says, “Wait a minute. That’s it.” And that’s the line that went in the script. [via The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age]

The final scene of my favorite Seinfeld episode was also a product of fortuitous blunder.

After miserably walking around a parking lot for hours in search of a car, when they finally got in, it wouldn’t start: a perfect, accidental blow that embodied everything magical about the series.

—C.B.S. (via UrbanDaddy) (via C.B.S.)

More to come this weekend.

 

The Newhart Finale

 A 20 Year Callback

The Bob Newhart Show ran from 1972 to 1978 and featured Bob Newhart as a Chicago psychiatrist named Robert Hartley. 

Newhart, on the other hand, ran from 1982 to 1990 and featured Bob Newhart as an author named Dick Loudon who owned and operated The Stratford Inn Vermont.

 

 

In the final episode of Newhart, a Japanese firm buys up all the land in the town to build a golf course. After being knocked out by a stray golf ball, the scene cuts to a darkened bedroom: Bob Hartley’s bedroom from The Bob Newhart Show, where we learn that the entire Newhart series was all a dream.

Wayne Federman (Actor/Writer: Curb Your EnthusiasmLate Night with Jimmy Fallon): It was a superb gag that was 18 years in the making. Nothing else is even close in my book. (By the way, my “book” is currently out of print.)

Bob Newhart (Actor/Comedian, The Bob Newhart ShowNewhart): We were apprehensive. We didn’t know how it would be received because St. Elsewhere had been received negatively—people said, “We devoted all this time to this show and cared about these people and now you’re telling us it’s a dream?”

David Pressman: I had the honor of being on the last episode of Newhart, playing Mr. Rusnak, the town’s racist shoe salesman. To this day, that was the best job I’ve ever had. Anyway, I didn’t know the big reveal of it all being a dream until tape night. Don’t remember how they kept it a secret, but they did.

Bob Newhart: No one knew.

JJ Wall (Writer/Comedian): I did the warm-up for the Newhart finale. I was specifically positioned to keep the studio audience looking away from where the old bedroom set was. Their reaction, when they realized what was going on, was phenomenal. Never heard anything like it. Felt a little bad for Mary Frann (Bob’sT.V.wife on Newhart), as, no one had ever told her what was going on. A great moment to be a part of.

Bob Newhart: That scene never appeared in a script, because we knew the tabloids would get ahold of it. I told some of the cast that morning. Later on, when the crew came back from dinner I said, “We’ve added a scene. Camera ‘A’ goes here, camera ‘B’ goes here, ‘C’ goes there, and when we pull the floater which hides the set from the audience, just start your cameras and keep shooting, no matter what happens.”

Nell Scovell: My first sitcom job was on the last season of Newhart, so I was there and got to stand in The Bob Newhart Show bedroom set. I’d watched that show as a kid so it was a very strange feeling. Like I’d ventured through the looking glass.

TV GUIDE named it “The Most Unexpected Moment in TV History”—including sporting events.

Unknown

Bob Newhart: We brought Suzie [Suzanne Pleshette, who played Bob’s wife in The Bob Newhart Show] in from two sound stages over and snuck her into the bed. When they pulled the floater away, the audience recognized the bedroom set and started applauding even before they saw Suzie or me. We were apprehensive, but when we got the audience reaction we said, “That’s it.”

—C.B.S. (via UrbanDaddy) (via C.B.S.)

More to come…

Sitcom Writers on Favorite Sitcom Moments

The “sitcom moment” — Sam proposing to Diane on the boat, Seinfeld’s “Master of Your Domain,” Lucy at the chocolate factory — has died.

In memoriam, a couple years ago I asked some of the most respected sitcom writers and actors in the world whose e-mail addresses I had  to pick their favorite moment in sitcom history.

What’s yours? Let’s let this premium Wordpress comment feature sing…

 

Phil Rosenthal (Creator/Writer: Everybody Loves Raymond): One moment? That’s impossible.

Jonathan Schmock (Writer/Director: Real Time with Bill Maher): There are so many.

Eric Gilliland (Writer/Executive Producer: Roseanne): By asking me to choose only one moment, you do realize you’re asking me to ignore “Vitameatavegamin.”

Nell Scovell (Creator/Writer: Sabrina, The Teenage Witch;The Simpsons): And the life raft inflating in the Petrie living room on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Greg Malins (Writer/Executive Producer: FriendsWill & Grace): It’s hard to pick one moment because I watched so many sitcoms growing up, they’ve all kind of melded in my brain into one giant episode. Like, The Brady Brunch goes to Hawaii where Mallory has to confront a teacher who touched her inappropriately played by Mork’s son, Jonathan Winters who lived in an egg. Willis tried tried to tell his brother about it but he didn’t understand what he was talking about then Newhart woke up and it was a dream. Then at the end Ted Danson pulled off his wig and it gave me nightmares about going bald.

Phil Rosenthal: Every moment with my family on Raymond was a gift. Here’s one off the top of my head. MARIE: Don’t you tell me to be quiet. I have a mind of my own, you know, I can contribute. I’m not just some trophy wife. FRANK: You’re a trophy wife? What contest in hell did I win?

Eric Gilliland: There’s Rhoda’s Wedding…

Nell Scovell: And the substitute teacher (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) handing Lisa Simpson a note that read simply: “You are Lisa Simpson.”

Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude AwakeningAccidentally on Purpose): And Mork’s first appearance on Happy Days. But maybe that’s just because Robin Williams had been sleeping on my floor for a month.

Jay Kogen: I’m not sure if this counts as the greatest moment in sitcom history because it was on the radio, but it’s the greatest moment in program history. On The Jack Benny Program, Benny’s character was insanely, hilariously cheap. When a robber comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life!” the audience roars with laughter before Benny even says a word. Then the robber says, “Look, bud, I said your money or your life!” And Benny says, “I’m thinking it over.”

The genius of this moment is that it can only come from a show that you’ve established all this information over the course of years. We know Benny. So nothing needs to be explained. That’s perfection. When I have written moments on shows like Frasier and The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle where a look says more and gets a bigger laugh than words ever could, I tip my hat in gratitude to “Your money or your life.”

Stephen Root (Actor: King of the HillNews RadioOffice Space): And Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker.

Claudia Lonow: And when Phyllis suspects Mary Tyler Moore of sleeping with Lars and says: “Did you know Lars has a pathological fear of getting hair stuck in his throat?”

Merrill Markoe (Writer/Creator: Late Night with David Letterman): On The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Burns played a guy who had a show. When he wanted to find out how the rest of the plot was progressing with his wife Gracie in the scenes he wasn’t in, he’d go upstairs, turn on the TV and watch his own show: Gracie, plotting behind his back with other characters. That double-edged surrealism so killed me that I kind of tuned out sitcoms for a long time afterward.

Nell Scovell: There’s Taxi when Alex opens the door for Death (a Girl Scout).

Stephen Root: And Opie shooting a bird with a slingshot and raising the baby birds on The Andy Griffith Show.

Eric Gilliland: …and Roseanne, Dan and Jackie getting stoned in the bathroom.

 

Jim Vallely (Writer: Arrested DevelopmentThe Golden Girls): I was sick when I was a kid and got to stay home for a year, which is the first time I saw Bilko in reruns. It was also the first time I laughed at an “adult” show. (Actually, it was the first time I laughed at any show except for Bugs Bunny).

There’s an episode where Bilko accidently inducts a monkey into the army. After they’ve learned they’ve inducted a monkey, they decide that the only way to get the monkey out of the army is to court martial him. Bilko defends the monkey (because even a monkey needs a lawyer at a court martial) and of course, the monkey (not the best trained one) goes off his mark and the brilliant Phil Silvers does some of the best ad-libbing in television history. It’s almost sixty years old, and I saw it recently and it made me laugh just as hard as it did forty or so years ago, which makes me either a very mature 12 year old or a very immature 56 year old.

Kevin Rooney (Retired Comedian/Writer): I don’t know what these people are talking about. My favorite moments of sitcoms I worked on (all bad) all concern personal interactions with other writers and staff in the writing room.

Kevin RooneyKevin Rooney, Retired Comedian/Writer

Jonathan Schmock: Those types of moments are not to be shared with “civilians.” Sorry. I don’t know if winemakers save the best, most complex wine for themselves, but sitcom writers do. They come in a flash and are gone, unexplainable.

Kevin Biggins (Writer: The Cleveland ShowTosh.O): The jokes that don’t make it into scripts are often the funniest. Dirty stuff. Sometimes sexist. Mostly racist.

Kevin Rooney: …but the shows themselves and the scripts we were working on? No moment stands out as funny or interesting. Nothing. Junk. Distractions used to sell soap.

Laraine Newman (Actor, Saturday Night Live): Although I suppose SCTV can’t be classified as a sitcom, this sketch absolutely blew me away. I Cry Each Day I Die was a soap opera setting that kept changing reality with a consistent cast of characters. You thought you were seeing a screen test at first but then the ingénue who seems to have gotten the part (Kathrine O’Hara) stands up, goes over to her director and has an argument with him as if she’s been doing the show for years. They yell “cut’ as if that were a scene, then another scene commences and so on and so on. A show within a show within a show. The thru line is Andrea Martin as the alcoholic actress saying the last line of each scene. So if the last line was “Wasn’t she good?” Andrea would say “Sure…I was good once” Then she throws back her flask and sucks on it. IF the line were, “Wasn’t that funny?” She’d say “Yeah… I was funny once.” Flask.

I was on Saturday Night Live at the time and with all due respect to our brilliant writers I felt that we never really touched the edginess of SCTV’s style. What was exceptional about that moment for me was understanding the tone being set by Canadian sensibilities. The entire cast wasn’t Canadian but the show was idiosyncratic and personal — so different from anything that could be seen in America. It’s no wonder it was assimilated so quickly.

David Pressman (Actor/Comedian: NewhartMr. Sunshine): I loved the “very special” episodes. Like when Gary Coleman was molested by a photographer (Gordon Jump) on Diff’rent Strokes. Or in Growing Pains when Tracey Gold’s boyfriend (Matthew Perry) drives drunk and dies. Good Times seemed to have a “very special” episode every other week.

But my personal favorite was when Edith was raped on All in the Family.

 

More on this tomorrow…

Dusting Off: The Stylish Fallout Shelter

Header-Fall-Out

On October 6, 1961, President Kennedy directed American families to begin building bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout in the event of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. We now know that digging a 10-foot hole in your backyard and stocking it with two weeks’ worth of Spam will not, in fact, save a family of four in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

But that’s no reason to ditch the concept altogether…

6

Think of it as an investment in the psychosomatic well-being of yourself and the people you love. Errant coastal tornadoes aren’t a thing now, but if that ever changes, you’ll be prepared.

In the meantime, your bucket list has a soundproof playground. No one wants to listen to you realize your dream of fronting a Black Sabbath cover band. But that’s no reason to ditch the concept altogether.

11

Bomb shelters won’t protect you from bombs, but they make adultery a lot less tricky.

21

So go ahead and dust off those fallout shelters, ladies and gentlemen…

31

…because everything feels slightly better for a while when we convince ourselves that nothing is wrong.

5\

 

—C.B.S. (via UrbanDaddy) (via C.B.S.)

The Most Intimidating Men Since LBJ

As I mentioned Sunday, Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest intimidators of all time. It was known as the Johnson Treatment: unrelenting mental and physical intimidation by any means necessary. Here are some other Treatments…

sugeknight_crop

The SUGE KNIGHT Treatment: Presently standing a murder trial for running over two men in a parking lot in Compton in 2015, took on leadership role as Bobby Brown’s muscle by employing negotiation tactics involving lead pipes, baseball bats and dangling Vanilla Ice off a 20th-story balcony until he signed away all publishing rights to “Ice Ice Baby,” having sampled music from Knight’s label without his permission.

The BOB GIBSON Treatment: Holstered a dozen or so pitches whose singular purpose was to intimidate batters crowding the plate. Among them were “two different fastballs, a couple sliders, a curve, a change-up, a hit-batsman, a brush-back and a knockdown.”

The MIKE TYSON Treatment: “From the moment I step in the ring, I never take my eyes off of my opponent. I keep my eyes on him, I keep my eyes on him, I keep my eyes on him. And once I see a chink in his honor—one of his eyes move just a little—then I know I have him. Even when he gives me that piercing look again in the center of the ring, he already made that mistake—he looked down for one tenth of a second, which means he’ll fight hard for the first two or three rounds, but I know I already broke his spirit.”

The BOBBY KNIGHT Treatment: Choked Indiana University’s communications director after a negative press release; assaulted a Puerto Rican police officer while coaching Pan American Games in San Juan; threw a chair across the court to protest a referee’s call during game; told Connie Chung, “I think that if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it”; choked, punched and mock-bullwhipped Indiana players Michael Prince, Neil Reed and Calbert Cheaney, respectively; threw a potted plant at a female secretary; attacked assistant coach Ron Felling by throwing him out of a chair after overhearing him criticizing the basketball program in a phone conversation; fired a shotgun in the direction of James Simpson after he asked Knight to stop hunting too close to his home; bid farewell to an Indiana University crowd by saying, “When my time on earth is gone and my activities here are passed, I want them to bury me upside down and my critics can kiss my ass.

The DONALD TRUMP Treatment: Why does Trump intimidate? To win. Jeb Bush has nightmares about Donald Trump, despite shaking his fists and declaring, adorably, how much he just HATES THAT BULLY!!

The JACK LAMBERT Treatment: Have a look.

 

—C.B.S.