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The Wonderful Stories Behind 6 Classic TV Theme Songs

Many of today's TV shows have dispensed with the traditional theme song in an effort to squeeze in more commercial time, which fills traditional television fans with a sense of melancholy. Does anyone out there still remember a time when a show's theme song told the back-story of the series, or was catchy enough to become a Top-40 hit? As Archie and Edith might sigh, "those were the days." Stroll down memory lane as mental_floss takes a look at the stories behind some of TV's classic theme songs.

1. All in the Family: How Budget Restrictions Turned Actors into Singers

The cozy picture of Archie and Edith Bunker sitting at the piano singing "Those Were the Days" seems so in context with the series, it's hard to picture All in the Family without that opening. However, that homey tableau that seemed so perfectly designed to set the tone for the series was concocted strictly out of necessity. Producer Norman Lear had used up his allotted budget by the time he'd filmed the pilot, leaving no money to hire professional singers or musicians to perform the theme song. Series stars Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton stepped in at the last minute to help him out.

2. Gilligan's Island: Explaining a Show's Premise in a minute (or less!)

Cheers, The Addams Family, and of course, Gilligan's Island, all after the jump.

When producer Sherwood Schwartz first showed network executives his pilot for Gilligan's Island, the suits liked parts of it, but demanded some changes before they bought the series. By the time the first episode aired, new actors had been cast as the Professor, Mary Ann and Ginger and the group was already shipwrecked. In order to explain the premise of the series, Sherwood Schwartz jotted down some lyrics and worked with George Wyle, who came up with the melody and fine-tuned the words to "The Ballad of Gilligan's Island." Their intent was to explain precisely why these seven disparate personalities had ended up shipwrecked on an uncharted tropical island. By the way, it was series star Bob Denver who went to bat for Dawn Wells and Russell Johnson and demanded that the theme song lyrics be revised for the second season from "...and the rest" to "...the Professor and Mary Ann."

3. Happy Days: How Royalty Fees Changed the Show

Happy Days premiered in 1974 to the strains of Bill Haley & His Comets performing their classic "Rock Around the Clock" as the opening theme song. The show became a massive hit, and programmers expected it to have the legs to run in syndication for several seasons. Studio bean counters, however, quickly realized that they might lose money in the deal because of the steep royalties they had to pay for the song. The good news was that Paramount had commissioned (and owned the rights to) the show's closing theme, written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox. So beginning with Season Three, the familiar "Sunday, Monday, Happy Days"¦" song was repurposed as the opening theme for the series.

4. How Cheers got its Theme Song

The first collaboration between Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo began in 1981, when they were brought in to write the songs for a proposed Broadway musical called Preppies. One of the first tunes they churned out was "People Like Us." Months later, out of the blue, a Hollywood producer contacted Portnoy; he'd somehow heard a demo tape of "People Like Us" and wanted to use it as the theme to a new TV show scheduled to appear on NBC. Unfortunately, the song contractually belonged to the Preppies folks, and they refused to let it go, especially for use on a [derisive snort] sitcom. Time was running out "“ the airing of the show's pilot was quickly approaching "“ and the duo frantically wrote and submitted five more songs before NBC finally decided that "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" was the perfect fit for their new show, Cheers.

5. Snapping to It: The Addams Family opener

Vic Mizzy is a legend when it comes to TV and film songs; he's the man responsible for everything from the Green Acres theme to the spooky organ theme from the Don Knotts film The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. But his most popular composition is undoubtedly the theme song for The Addams Family. Filmways was tight with their production dollars, so Mizzy ended up not only composing the tune, but also singing it. (He recorded his vocals on three separate tracks and then blended them together in the final mix.) Once the song was in the can, it was time to film the opening credits. Mizzy approached director Sidney Lanfield and explained his vision of close-ups of finger-snapping cast members. He added that a "click track" (the steady beat of a metronome on tape) would be required so that the actors could snap on cue. Lanfield basically replied, "What do I know from click tracks? Do it yourself." So Mizzy ended up directing the opening scenes where the cast members impassively stared at the camera while snapping their fingers when prompted.

6. How a pair of Monkees Wannabes Turned Lemons into Lemonade

Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart had a successful track record as a songwriting duo; they'd composed the 1961 hit "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" as well as the theme song for the soap Days of Our Lives. Boyce & Hart were not only songwriters; they were also performers. That led them to audition for parts in a new NBC sitcom based on a rock and roll band. Neither Tommy nor Bobby made the final cut for The Monkees, but their musical ability impressed producers enough for them to be brought on board for a steady gig as the show's chief songwriters. The duo composed the show's theme song "(Hey Hey) We're the Monkees," as well as "Last Train to Clarksville," "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" and 20-some other tunes for the Prefab Four.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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