The Best TV Theme Songs To Know if You Somehow Get Transported Back in Time

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

I’m not proud to admit this, but the percentage of my life I’ve devoted to thinking about going back in time is truly staggering. I don’t anticipate it ever happening, mind you, and honestly my fingers are crossed that it never does, as being a time traveler of color, going back any significant period of time means things really start getting exponentially worse in a hurry (I once told a White friend that I often wondered what I could do, if I went back in time, that would impress everyone I saw. He responded “If you went back in time?” and there was really nothing more that needed to be said).

As you might imagine, this exercise is far more enjoyable if it’s not legal to own you for a significant percentage of your country’s existence, so I ignore the obvious drawbacks, tweak the difficulty settings so I’m considered 5/5ths of a human, and proceed to waste countless hours picturing my trip back in time.

Say, through some miracle of science not at all important to the rest of this story, I end up in the year 1780. Since I bring an almost impressive amount of nothing to the table (I don’t hunt, I don’t fish, and I’ve never been on a farm — I’m practically a newborn baby with a vocabulary and a goatee, the difference being an actual newborn baby with a vocabulary and a goatee would make a fortune in ticket sales), I’m going to have to try exploiting my futuristic knowledge to make some money. You often hear people say that they’d invest in certain stocks like Amazon or Microsoft, or they’d bet on sporting events, but that would not only require them to land in an ultra-specific time and location, but to have some means of already-invented capital at their disposal. Even if you went back to 1995, for example, your big-faced hundred dollar bills wouldn’t work as legitimate currency, so good luck trying to spend a bill that doesn’t exist yet.

I love the idea of going the “Take credit for writing some hit songs you didn’t actually create” route, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than it seems. For example, even if I do know the ins and outs of the song, if I wake up in 1780, I’m still not going to be like “Where’s the studio, I gotta get ‘Rump Shaker’ on wax,” and honestly, I don’t think the town square is going to have much appreciation for a live performance either. Personally, I think the safer move is avoiding the notoriously fickle Top 40 and going straight to TV theme songs — they’re short and catchy enough to please the most casual of listeners, they were constructed with the hopes that people would enjoy them every single week, and they just feel more likely to survive the trip than many of the songs we call classics today. And yes, I am absolutely calling “Rump Shaker” a classic.

Now that we’ve established a potential source of revenue, it’s time to ask a very important question: What TV theme song would be the biggest hit if you performed it in the year 1780?

To solve this mystery in the most scientific manner possible, we’re going to have to establish a few ground rules. First, we’ll assume you possess more than enough talent to vocally and instrumentally replicate the song of your choosing. However, to be clear, you’re the only one doing the performing (no orchestra or backing vocalists), and while you can choose your instrument, you can only use one that existed at the time. With that in mind, you could sit down at the fanciest harpsichord in town and never produce anything that sounds like the themes to Knight Rider, Sanford & Son or Beverly Hills 90210, so let’s go ahead and take those and their ilk off the table right now.

Second, since we’re looking for TV themes in their truest sense, let’s say the song couldn’t have been a hit prior to its TV show. This eliminates songs such as “I Don’t Want to Wait” and “Rock Around the Clock” from Dawson’s Creek and the first two seasons of Happy Days, respectively, but 1) Keeping them eligible just feels like cheating, and 2) I don’t think they were going to win anyway.

Note: I honestly expected “Thank You for Being a Friend” from The Golden Girls to at least make the medal stand in this competition (thanking someone and being a friend are timeless and universally appreciated, people have been bringing gifts to parties since at least Baby Jesus’ birthday, let’s be real the song’s a straight-up banger, etc.), but it’s unfortunately, and much to my surprise, a cover of a 1978 Andrew Gold song, and therefore must be disqualified.

Finally, you’ve got to keep the lyrics completely intact, with no altering or reverse-updating them to make more sense for the era. For example, you can’t change a line like “Driving in my car” to something like “Riding on my horse,” everything must play as is. This rule only seems fair, but it’s also extremely unfortunate, because the theme to Gilligan’s Island unapologetically slaps in 1780, and I’ve literally never in my life said that a song “slaps.” Imagine singing the tale of the S.S. Minnow in front of a packed tavern, the entire crowd hanging on your every word. Will the tiny ship break apart in the stormy sea? Will the crew make it back alive? You’ve got them on the edge of their seats, time to bring it in for a landing:

“With Gilligan *do do do-do-do,*
The skipper too,
A millionaire, and his wife,
A movie star — doggone it”

and suddenly everyone’s hands launch into the air like a second grade class because nobody knows what a movie star is. When it comes to performing theme songs in 1780, Gilligan’s Island is like a pitcher taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning, leaving a curveball over the plate and giving up a home run that literally crashes into the moon.

In accordance with that third point, your song’s lyrics are going to have to make sense to your audience. For example, while the theme to WKRP in Cincinnati is a great tune for a Sunday drive with the top down, it’s a terrible option for a time traveler, because the lyrics go, “I’m living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati, WKRP,” and since neither radio stations nor the city of Cincinnati existed at the time, you’re opening yourself up to a lot of questions from the audience, and it’s really best to keep things moving.

Imagine you get out of work and head down to the local bar to meet some of your friends for happy hour. Suddenly a guy with a guitar walks up to the microphone, says “Hi everybody, I’m Bill Thompson and I’m from the year 2235. Here’s a song I wrote,” and rambles his way through some mess like “Robo maid can’t clean your fleebarps, Robo dog ate your bleep bloop pie...” I don’t care how popular that show is in his time, its theme song is not going to work in ours. Remember, if you’re in a tavern trying to make some cash in the year 1780, those people aren’t there for the stranger killing the vibe with futuristic gibberish (also, and I can’t stress this enough, they might call you a witch and murder you, so play it cool on the “Hey guys I’m from the future” stuff), they’re there to drink beers, complain about taxation without representation, and kick back with their crew after a hard day of churning butter or whatever it is they’ve been doing, so choose your song wisely.

After taking the rules into consideration, and eliminating all songs that failed to comply, the following are, in my opinion, the three best theme songs to perform in the year 1780:

3. The Brady Bunch

The theme to The Brady Bunch is a strong candidate, but it loses points because it runs the risk of putting its time traveling performer in some extremely difficult positions. On one hand, it’s a light-hearted bouncy number that’s both easy to learn and sing. On the other hand, the lyrical content might trip you up, because somebody in the crowd is almost definitely going to be like “Wait one second: What of the husband and wife that the man Brady and his lady took before marrying one another? Is this a tale of six children born of wedlock?” Suddenly the whole place goes silent like a Wild West saloon where a guy just called someone “yella,” and if you’re like “Umm..maybe?” That’s their cue to start throwing tomatoes and run you out of town like the filthy smut-peddler you are.

The show never spent much time discussing exactly what happened to those other parents, so you’re going to have to be quick on your feet and make up some reasonable causes of death or this thing’s going sideways fast. Having grown up playing Oregon Trail, I feel like I’d probably just blurt out “Dysentery!” and keep it moving, but if you choke under the pressure and say something like “Hit by a bus” or “Ebola,” you’re good as done.

If you successfully overcome that major obstacle, however, the song’s narrative element might get the people asking for updates on these characters, which could lead to a steady playwright gig pretending to make up “Brady Bunch” plots for profit. Just remember to skip the episode where Marcia gets Davy Jones to sing at her prom (they think Davy Jones is an evil sea spirit with three rows of teeth, horns, and a tail), and you should be in pretty good shape.

Breaking out the theme to The Brady Bunch in 1780 is a real home-run swing; there’s ample room for opportunity here, but it’s also a path riddled with serious danger and unnecessary risk, which is why it has to settle for the bronze.

2. Cheers

“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” is a lovely, incredibly pleasant song, you can sit down alone at a piano and practically reproduce it with total accuracy, and best of all, it conveys a sentiment we’ve all probably experienced at some point in time.

In fact, the theme from Cheers might have actually been more relatable back in 1780 than it is for many of us right now. Its premise sounded great prior to 2020, but since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve spent roughly 97% of my life sitting in my apartment, and the thought of going to an establishment where literally everyone in attendance knows my name just sounds exhausting. Today I’d probably change the chorus so it went:

“Sometimes you wanna go, back to your bed and just, like, stay there.
Maybe spend a couple days there.
You wanna go watch TV shows, or maybe just sit and stare.
You wanna go to bed and just stay there.”

But we’re not talking about today, we’re talking about 1780 for some reason, and after that warm and cozy piano intro that feels like the musical equivalent of undoing your necktie and putting your feet up on an ottoman, the song presents a simple question:

“Making your way in the world today, takes everything you got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure could help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?”

Of course it takes everything they’ve got, these people are living in the 1700s. The average lifespan is about 38 years, burritos don’t exist yet, everybody’s sweaty and gross and their clothes don’t breathe, the whole scene just sounds terrible. Don’t these sound like people who would like to get away? I certainly think so.

“Where Everybody Knows Your Name” may not carry the same potential for career growth as the theme to The Brady Bunch, but it’s also just a flat-out better song; it’s a safe bet with a lower ceiling but a higher floor, a solid B+ jam for the risk-averse time traveling musician.

  1. American Dad!

Sitcoms have dramatically scaled back on lyrical theme songs over the past few decades, but Seth MacFarlane’s animated projects have consistently adhered to the tradition, and “Good Morning USA” would go especially hard in the Revolutionary-era United States. Think about it, America’s just a few years old, “Yankee Doodle” is hot in the streets, and a stranger rolls into town, slides up to one of those old-timey pianos and drops something new for the club:

“Good morning USA, I’ve got a feeling that it’s gonna be a wonderful day
The sun in the sky, has a smile on his face, and it’s shining a salute to the American race.
Oh boy it’s swell to say, Good morning USA.
Good morning USA!”

Note: It’s not as bad as the one in Gilligan’s Island, but there is a bit of a hiccup towards the end of this song: In 1780, the word “swell” is still about thirty years away from gaining traction as the positive adjective nobody really uses anymore. That said, if America figured out “bling bling” and “no diggity” on the fly, “swell” shouldn’t be that tough to crack, especially since 1) It’s clearly being used in a positive context and 2) “It’s swell” sounds exactly like “it’s well.” It’s a risk I’d be willing to take, but if you’d rather play it safe with the theme to Cheers, I completely understand; I just wanted to make sure you had all the information available before choosing. You know, just in case.

Since they’d only been using the term “USA” for about four years at that point, the crowd would probably get pretty excited about the reference (like when you go to a concert and the singer drops the name of your city in their song), and as far as additional opportunities are concerned, there’s really no limit whatsoever.

Think about it — We’re still 34 years away from Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and since it wouldn’t be officially adopted as the national anthem for another 117 years, I feel like there’s a decent chance you could mess around and at least get your catchy new song put up for consideration. First of all, we’re still in the midst of the Revolutionary War; it’d probably boost patriotism to have an official anthem that’s 100% American, instead of sampling some British song and laying an unrelated poem over it like we eventually ended up doing with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” After all, are we starting our own country here or not? We’re trying to form a more perfect union and we’re still relying on foreign beats? Frankly, we should be ashamed. America’s current national anthem is a perfectly okay song about literally one flag, but if we had another chance back in 1780, I feel like we might have gone, even temporarily, in a different direction. Don’t get me wrong, If we’re looking to replace the national anthem today, I’m not saying the theme to American Dad! has even the slightest chance of being nominated. I am, however, saying there are far worse choices out there. If we’re being honest, “America the Beautiful” probably sits atop the list for the best possible replacements, with “Int’l Players’ Anthem” by UGK & Outkast no further down than 1a. We’re talking six of one, half dozen of the other, pretty much.

In conclusion, when it comes to maximizing earning potential, boosting citizen morale, and not getting burned at the stake by those who frown upon futuristic gibberish, I believe “Good Morning, USA,” the theme to American Dad!, is the best theme song to have at your disposal in the year 1780.

Note: The theme to American Dad! was composed by Walter Murphy, perhaps best known for his 1976 hit A Fifth of Beethoven. This has nothing to do with anything, but since I just learned that fact, I thought perhaps you’d like to learn it as well. Take it home, Walter.

You may know me as Joe the policeman in the What's Going Down episode of That's My Momma.

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