How the ‘Friends’ Theme Song Helped Save TV’s Main-Title Tunes From Going Extinct

Variety writer Jon Burlingame’s new book, “Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring,” is published today. The product of 35 years of research and more than 450 interviews, it tells the backstory of every great TV theme dating back to 1949. What follows is an excerpt from the sitcom chapter.

In the summer of 1994, ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert (in response to a question from this writer at a network press conference) admitted that he was asking his producers to eliminate the traditional main-title sequence – and with it, the musical theme – from all new shows.

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“I think it’s an antiquated practice,” he said. “It gives the audience an opportunity to take the little remote and zap around. We really have to find ways to stop them from doing that. The 60-second, or in some cases 90-second, main title that they see week after week, given all the choices they have, just doesn’t make sense to me anymore.”

The growing trend of channel-switching by anxious viewers instilled fear in network executives. Their radical decision turned TV themes (both songs and instrumentals) into collateral damage, destroying any chance for a composer to make a definitive opening musical statement – a long-held and appreciated television tradition.

TV critics were outraged. “Are you robbing a future generation of theme songs?” New York Daily News critic David Bianculli demanded to know. (The headline on his next column read: “Ban theme songs? Dumb-dee-dumb-dumb,” a clever reference to the famous “Dragnet” signature.)

In fact, the practice had already begun. CBS’s “Murphy Brown” and NBC’s “Frasier”and “Wings” featured brief openings; ABC was making it mandatory except in rare instances. “A theme song that really adds to the enjoyment of the show? I just think they’re few and far between,” Harbert insisted, admitting “the research is inconclusive. It’s based on a ton of anecdotal experience. I need to stop people from zapping.”

NBC president Warren Littlefield dismissed lengthy title sequences as “clutter.” He cited “Seinfeld,” “[where] we keep the action going even though the titles are over the picture. We have to keep more entertainment on the air so people don’t race away from the screen.” Yet David Poltrack, CBS’s executive vice president for planning and research, found that “in the early stages [of a series], title sequences are important if they provide a prologue to viewers who are coming for the first time. It’s a mistake to categorically make a creative decision like that based on imprecise minute-by-minute ratings.”

TV veterans were skeptical. Producer David E. Kelley (“Chicago Hope”) felt that “a theme sets a mood for the show. I like having that table set for me. Is it hugely crucial to a show? Probably not. Is it subliminally important? I think so.” And, asked about the elimination of TV themes, actor James Garner (who was then launching a series of “Rockford Files” TV movies on CBS) responded: “Maybe they ought to eliminate some of the TV executives. If they’re going to eliminate the music, let’s get rid of some of them.”

That fall, however, the opening song for a new sitcom on NBC saw network executives rethinking their position. The theme from “Friends” became an unexpected hit.

It was an ensemble comedy about the lives of six Manhattan friends (Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer). “I’ll Be There for You,” an infectious, lighter-than-air song by composer Michael Skloff and lyricist Allee Willis, introduced the Thursday night half-hour.

Skloff had written the theme for HBO’s “Dream On,” which, like “Friends,” was created and produced by his then-wife Marta Kauffman and her longtime partner David Crane; Willis was a 1985 Grammy winner for her contribution to the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, the Pointer Sisters smash “Neutron Dance.” The song was performed by the Rembrandts, a pop duo who only reluctantly released an extended track when it became clear that the series was shaping up into a giant hit and the demand for a recording of the theme was growing.

Skloff was initially inspired by the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”: “It just felt so right for the show, that sort of happy, guitar-riff feeling.” Skloff came up with the song hook, the title and the melody; Willis, brought in by another of the series’ producers because of her pop-tune track record, wrote the now-famous words: “So no one told you life was gonna be this way / Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A….”

“The bulk of my hits have been very black, funky, pop stuff, and this was as white as could be,” Willis laughed. “However, for some bizarre reason, I actually had a very good time writing it.” The lyrics “went back and forth on rewrites” (with Crane and Kauffman, who had written musical theater works with Skloff, including a musical based on the movie “Arthur”) until just two weeks prior to the series’ premiere. For the extended version, Crane, Kauffman, and Rembrandts Danny Wilde and Phil Solem received additional writing credit.

Jon Burlingame writes about “Friends” and many other themes in his new book “Music for Prime Time”
Jon Burlingame writes about “Friends” and many other themes in his new book “Music for Prime Time”

Those famous hand claps originated when the producers cut together footage of the cast dancing (in a fountain on the Warner Bros. lot) to Skloff’s demo; but when the Rembrandts’ final version was added, it was missing Skloff’s original drum fill. So Skloff and three studio colleagues clapped four times, and TV history was made. Only when Skloff attended one of the Friday-night tapings, and witnessed the studio audience clapping perfectly in time to the theme, did he realize the impression it had made. “What seems like something so insignificant became a signature of the song,” he later said.

Added Skloff: “It’s a perfectly likable song that’s reminiscent of the Beatles and the Monkees, which is from a time in our history that was idealistic and fun, that whole ‘our generation’ kind of thing, and just brings back good feelings. And it’s connected with a wildly popular show. People like the song on its own, but they also say, ‘Oh, God, I love that show.'”

Added at the last minute to the Rembrandts’ album “L.P.” (“we don’t want to hang our hats on the theme from a TV show,” said Solem), the song spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard adult contemporary charts, and eight weeks at No. 1 on its radio airplay chart, during the summer of 1995. The commercial success of the “Friends” theme caused network executives (temporarily, at least) to rethink earlier policies about cutting back main-title themes to just a few seconds.

Still, as the years progressed, more and more network shows – not just the half-hour comedies but also hour-long dramas – were forced to skip a traditional opening title sequence. Titles, from the names of the actors to writer and director credits, tend to be superimposed over the first few minutes of the action. (Composers, with rare exceptions, have long been relegated to the closing credit roll.) Familiar and popular themes like the Emmy-winning “Game of Thrones,” “The Mandalorian” and “Succession” are the result of longer, sometimes 90- or 100-second main-title sequences made possible with the greater creative freedom of cable and streaming services.

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