Sitcoms haven't always felt the need to wax poetic and/or preach life lessons, but there was something about the 1980's in which the songs were not only catchy but came with a probing message. So gather 'round, young goslings, and sit at the feet of mother goose as she reveals her most profound secrets via lyrics of popular 80's sitcoms.
If I had a heart song it would sound something like this; "Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got, taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn't you like to get away?" Oh yes, my friend, and might I ask how you know the deepest secrets of my soul? "Sometimes you've got to go where everybody knows your name, where they're always glad you came. You want to be where you can see the troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name." The great insight of this particular theme song is the solemn recognition that a man sometimes needs a place for fellowship that is not his home, but is rather his home away from home (i.e. the pub). Of all the eighties sitcoms premises, this one is probably the most brilliant, particularly for recognizing that one can do a lot of comedy in a place which quite naturally draws a wide variety of people in a bid to drink from the fount of rejuvenation. Perhaps the producers were even perceptive enough to recognize that there must be something to the fact that so many jokes begin with a most unusual set of characters walking into a bar.
Some may accuse this show of being a kind of rip off of Different Strokes, but I can assure you that Emmanuel Lewis had his own thing going on. Nevertheless, it does seem more than a little odd that the 1980's had such a fixation on under-grown African-American children. At any rate, the theme song of Webster is quite revealing about the nature of the show itself; "Set in my ways, losing track of the days, only me to live for. Had no need to give more than I wanted to... It was you, then came you, you made me leap without taking a look. Never thought forever was the best I could, then came you." Ah yes, the age old tale of a white self-centered male narcissist, who finds love late in life, and then subsequently decides to a adopt a vertically challenged black child. What TV audience wouldn't clamor for more shows like this? The truth is there were no boundaries in the 80's when it came to a family construct. However, what distinguishes the 80's from today is that the unconventional family was a matter of necessity in order that the child might have some some sense of stability, whereas in today's comedies a broken family is practically the only respectable way to find happiness. Indeed, audiences (or at least producers) would never tolerate something so mundane and banal as the Cosby Show today.
8. Punky Brewster
The show Punky Brewster is another in a long line of shows which detail the wackiness that can ensue in the heart of an unconventional family situation. "Punky", as she is called, is an orphan abandoned by her mother and father. The story centers around her and her foster father "George" who is an old widower who also happens to be a bit of an old coot. Thus the stage is set for the bittersweet lyrics of the theme song; "Maybe the world is blind, or just a little unkind... don't know. It seems you can't be sure of anything anymore, although... You may be lonely and then, one day you're smiling again. Every time I turn around, I see the girls who turns my world around... What's gonna be? Guess we'll just wait and see." And the coffeehouse patrons go wild! The age old question is, do men do evil because they are ignorant or is it because they are simply wicked? Sadly, the Punky Brewster theme song does not attempt to answer this great riddle, "although..." in the midst of the uncertainty of this age, it does suggest that one should not lose heart, for you never know- just around the corner there may be something which leaves you "smiling again". And indeed, this widower and orphan did manage to find a common purpose, at least for three seasons (which is like 30 years by TV reckoning). Thanks to a preteen and a 70 year old grouse, we were all able to laugh, cry, and become better people together. Where is that type of TV today, I ask you? Though the theme song never promises imminent happiness for this dynamic duo (nor for us) it does leave us with these tantalizingly suggestive words; "What's gonna be? Guess we'll just wait and see".
7. Silver Spoons
Much like the previous sitcom, Ricky, the main character of the show, is a child that is initially rejected by both parents (apparently childhood abandonment was a popular theme in the 1980's). But as the story line gets solidified we see that the son and the father, whether they like it or not, are stuck together. The father is a wealthy man-child who wants no responsibility. And of course the antidote, at least from the writer's perspective, was to introduce a son who never knew he had. In the 80's whenever a sitcom needed a dramatic kick-start, all you had to do was make a child magically appear out of no where, and presto the series all of sudden had second life. "Here we are face to face a couple of silver spoons, hoping to find we're two of a kind, makin' show, makin' grow. Together, we're gonna find our way... to learn about those things you just can't buy." The best way to read this is not to sing it, but rather to say it out loud in the style of spoken word. Perhaps even doing it with some of the flair of a William Shatner, reciting Rocket Man, but I digress. As I read these words, I can't help but to be silent in contemplation at their significance. In a sense, both Ricky Stratton and his father Edward are lost. They have all the money in the world (they are silver spoons, after all), yet they need each other to "find their way". Why? To "learn all about those things you just can't buy" Not only is this a brilliant insight, but it is a brilliant insight wrapped within a play on words, which ever so eloquently contrasts the truly "priceless" things in life, with those that are no doubt worthless by comparison.
6. Perfect Strangers
Just like you remember where you were the moment you heard the news about the Space Shuttle Challenger, so also you remember where you were the first time you saw Balki Bartokomous does his special Balki dance. Moreover, whenever he waxed nostalgic with stories about his strange and magical homeland known as Mypos, admit it, your heart leapt for joy! The show features two characters who are the classic odd couple. One character is a bit of a curmudgeon (cousin Larry), while the other, Balki, is an easy-going, though annoyingly naive figure. Despite the fact that they are distant cousins, they are in truth "perfect strangers", for they have never met before. The story begins with "cousin Larry" moving to Chicago to start a new life away from his family, but just when he thinks he is truly free, here comes a cousin whom he has never met- who must nevertheless must depend on him in order to get on his feet; "Sometimes the world looks perfect, nothing to rearrange, sometimes you just get a feeling like you need some kind of change (hence, you move to Chicago). No matter what the odds are this time, nothing's gonna stand in my way, this flame in my heart, and a long lost friend, gives every dark street a light at the end. Standing tall on the wings of my dreams. Rise and fall on the wings of my dreams. The rain and thunder, the wind and haze, I'm bound for better days. It's my life and my dreams, and nothing's gonna stop me now (except perhaps Balki)." This world is a crazy place, but you know what, don't ever let anyone "clip your wings", and that includes any pesky family members. In spite of the rain and thunder, or the wind and haze, you've just got to give your dreams a shot. Yet we dare not forget, as per the the advice of the song, that the "flame in your heart" is only part of the equation. Yes, in order to achieve perfect fulfillment, you may want to consider acquiring a distant cousin from a heretofore unheard of island in the Mediterranean.
5. Family Matters
Of the theme songs on the list, this is the only one which is about traditional domestic bliss. In fact, the late 80's and early 90's saw a brief renaissance of the celebration of the conventional family (e.g. The Cosby Show, The Hogan Family, and Just the Ten of Us). Yes, those were the golden years for dinner in front of the television. "It's a rare condition in this day and age, read any good news on the newspaper page. Love and tradition of the grand design, some people say is even harden to find. But then there must be some kind of clue inside these tearful walls... As days go by we're gonna fill our house with happiness." Yawn. I mean really, can't we just return to those happy stories about abandoned children and families constructed in a loose affiliation of individuals brought together by chance? Is not Steven Urkel (I call him Durkel) the best argument against even having children? Didn't you watch the movie Pleasantville? Leave it to Beaver is dead. For these reasons (and many more), let us get with the times, abandoning all hope, and further disposing of such naive little myths about happy families, and other wicked people who, for some undefinable reason, think that there is such a thing as love, tradition, and of all things, a "grand design."
4. Laverne and Shirley
"One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!". You really cannot add to that introduction; that is enough to chew on for days. But if you look further, you will see an ode to woman's empowerment that perhaps is only rivaled by the show Alice ("There's a new girl in town and I'm feelin' good..."). If this theme song had a male counterpart it would "I Did it My Way" by Satan, I mean Sinatra. It's the old, OK, so I had to crack a few eggs/skulls to make the omelette, but hey, it's a damn tasty omelette! "Give us any chance we'll take, give us any rules, we'll break it. We're gonna make our dreams come true, doin' it our way!" These ladies have "never heard the word impossible" (or so they say), but whatever the case, do not get in their way, or you too may be the next casualty in their glorious march to the head of the assembly line.
3. Whose the Boss?
"Who's the Boss" is the Robert Frost of 80's wisdom lyrics; "There's is more to life than what you're livin' so take a chance and face the wind; an open road and a road that's hidden, a brand new life around the bend. There were times I lost a dream or time, found the trail and at the end was you. There's a path you take and a path untaken. The choice is up to you, my friend. The nights are long, but you might awake to a brand new life around the bend." I am so confused about which path I am supposed to take! Is it the open road or the road that's hidden? I am told that if I take the path that is "taken", versus the one that is "not taken," I will be fine. Or is it the other way around? Please help me, oh sage of the 80's theme song, help me to know which road to take in order to find a "brand new life around the bend!"
2. The Facts of Life
Just from the title of the show you know you are about to get schooled (pun intended) on the great secrets of life. Indelible in my the memory are those crazy girls known as Tootie, Jo, Blair, and Natalie. Enrolled at a rather cushy boarding school, these girls are given weekly life-lessons- in thirty minute intervals- based on the zany predicaments they find themselves in. The "mother goose" of the series is the matriarch Mrs. Garrett (a.k.a. Mrs. G), who speaks from her treasury of wisdom in order to help these young ladies turn into fine upstanding citizens. Such is the wisdom revealed in the theme song; "You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have, the facts of life, the facts of life. There's a time you've got to go and show you're growing now you know about the fact of life, the facts of life. When the world never seems to be living up to your dreams, and suddenly you're finding out the facts of life are all about you-hoooo." And thus I close the great compendium of all quintessential knowledge, putting to shame all the great thinkers of history who poured out so many unnecessary words, just to say what this theme song said in one fifty second spot.
1. Different Strokes
From the great TV series which brought us Arnold's unforgettable riposte; "What you talkin' about Willis?" comes the final series to be honored in this list. I guess it is no surprise that this show and the previous are paired together considering that the Facts of Life was a spin-off of "Different Strokes". In any case, Different Strokes is the last in a string of comedies which involve some sort of unconventional family situation. In other words, nothing can be hilarious unless one is living in a broken family, or at least a family that is put together through happenstance. I grant you this can provide a plethora of interesting plot-lines (not to mention good lyrics in the theme song), but must there be so much domestic carnage? Only in fairytales could there be so much abandonment, strife, and domestic disillusionment. But I suppose in the midst of that chaos, there is comedy to be had; there is an opportunity to lay down roots in a rootless society. Different Strokes provides perhaps the oddest of odd couples. A rich widower with a daughter from uptown Manhattan decides to take in two orphans from Harlem; "Now the world don't move to the beat of just one drum, what might be right for you may not be right for some. A man is born, he's a man of means, then along came two they got nothin' but their jeans. But they got different strokes; it takes different strokes to move the world. It don't matter that you got, not a lot, so what. They'll have theirs, you'll have yours and I'll have mine. And together we'll be fine." Like a catchy little jingle chalk full of truisms about walking to the beat of a different drummer, and allowing others the opportunity "live and let live" (even if they do only have a pair jeans to their name). The sages of this period never saw the need to explain what they meant by their tired cliches, nor did they feel the need to clarify phrases that could be interpreted in one of any number of ways. And I applaud them for that! After all, what would the eighties have been were it not for this kind of simplistic moralizing about a whole range of important social issues? They were offering us solutions in a soda can, and as you can see, we savored every last drop!
Honorable Mention: Charles in Charge and Small Wonder were oh so close to making the list. The truth is I do want Charles in Charge of my "wrongs and rights", but I must draw the line of having him in charge of my "days and nights." As for that little robot girl who is lovely and bright with soft curls. I have to say she is fantastic, made of plastic, with microchips here and there. However, the truth is I find the lyrics of the theme song remind a little too much of that song "Barbie Girl" and that kind of creeps me out a bit.