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Readers Poll: The Best Television Theme Songs

Selections include tracks from ‘Cheers,’ ‘Friends’ and ‘Sanford and Son’

tv show theme fresh prince of bel-air

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air cast. Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

The Fall TV season kicks off this week, but fans of the TV theme song will probably be very disappointed: The era of the long television theme song is almost entirely over. Back in the 1960s, Sherwood Schwartz pioneered the explanatory theme song with Gilligan's Island. If you tuned into the show and wondered who those crazy castaways were and why they were on an island, all you had to do was "sit right back and hear a tale…" Later in the decade Schwartz created The Brady Bunch, and viewers heard a "story about a man named Brady." Most theme songs weren't that direct, but shows from All in the Family to Friends all set the tone for the show with their themes. Click through to see your 10 favorites. 

By Andy Greene

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7. That 70s Show – ‘In The Street’

The first season of That 70s Show featured Todd Griffin covering Big Star's 1972 song "In The Street." The show was a surprise hit, so by season two Fox ponied up the money to have Cheap Trick record a cover of the song – ending with a bit reprise of "We're all right!" from their own classic song "Surrender." What better way to create a 1970s vibe than by having one power pop band covering one of their peers? 

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6. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – ‘Theme Song’

Will Smith took a page out of the Gilligan's Island playbook when he wrote the theme to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air by explaining the show's entire backstory in extreme detail. The original song stretches it to two minutes, but they cut that down after just a few episodes. Watch this video to see the original. You can finally see Smith packing his bags, flying on the plane and pulling into the Bel-Air mansion. Didn't you always wonder what he did right before he whistled for the cab? Now you know. 

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5. The Sopranos – ‘Woke Up This Morning’

It's tough being a rock band that's solely known for writing a TV theme song. Just ask the Rembrandts. They've been a band since the 1980s, but people only want to hear them do the Friends theme song. To make matters worse, people only know about half the song. It's a rough fate. Alabama 3 can probably relate to their pain. No, not the country band Alabama. Alabama 3 is actually a bizarrely named British band that fuses dance with gospel, blues, rock and country. In 1997 they wrote "Wake Up This Morning" about Sara Thornton, a woman who killed her husband after years of abuse. The tale of murderous fit in perfectly with the vibe of The Sopranos, but it insured that Alabama 3 would forever be linked to an HBO crime drama. There are worse fates than being known for being a part of one of the greatest shows of all time, but it's sort of tough to move past that. 

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4. Friends – ‘I’ll Be There For You’

Friends was such an insanely popular show when it debuted in 1994 that radio DJs began looping the 40-second song and playing it as a regular song. The song was written by the producers of Friends, one of whom was married to a member of the Los Angeles power pop band the Rembrandts. They cut a short version of the song for the opening credits, and then expanded it into a full-length. The cast of Friends appeared in a video for the song, which reached Number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. Needless to say, they never had another hit – but their song defines the 1990s in the same way that the Miami Vice theme defines the 1980s. 

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3. M*A*S*H – ‘Suicide Is Painless’

If the lyrics to "Suicide Is Painless" from the movie M*A*S*H ever sounded a little juvenile, that's because they were written by Robert Altman's son Mike Altman when he was just 14 years old. Composer Johnny Mandel wrote the music, which is all you heard when the song was used as the theme to the M*A*S*H television show. 

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2. Hawaii Five-O – ‘Theme Song’

The instrumental theme to Hawaii Five-O is another theme song that was so incredibly popular that it charted all across the country. The Ventures version of the song reached Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969, and it has since become a standard for marching bands. The new version of the show originally updated the song with synths, but after a huge negative reaction they quickly returned to the original sound – albeit at half the length. The days of a one-minute theme song are long over. 

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1. Cheers – ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’

What song other than "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" could have possibly topped this list? The opening credits to Cheers were meant to evoke a simpler time in America, but watching them now it just makes you nostalgic for a better era of sitcom. The track was written by Gary Portnoy, who made his name writing songs for Air Supply and Dolly Parton. After the huge success of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," Portnoy wrote the theme song to Punky Brewster. He hasn't done much in recent years, but in 2010 he released a CD that included the previously unheard original demo of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name."