In the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, television programming saw quite a of bit of innovation. There were more socially conscious series like The Jeffersons, more female-fronted shows like Charlie’s Angles, and more programs geared toward younger folks like Three’s Company. But there was one thing that managed to stay the same—and that was theme songs you could sing along to. Whether you were watching a police procedural like 21 Jump Street or a sitcom like Diff’rent Strokes, you could rely on your favorite ’70s and ’80s television shows to begin with catchy earworms. Herein, we’ve rounded up some of the best TV theme songs that every 40-something remembers.
The theme song to Diff’rent Strokes introduced audiences to “a man of means,” wealthy white widower Phillip Drummond, and the two black boys he adopted, Arnold and Willis Jackson. The family was certainly unconventional for its late ’70s and early ’80s audience, but as the theme song reminded viewers, “it takes diff’rent strokes to move the world.”
“You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have” this spinoff of Diff’rent Strokes, which saw the Drummond family’s former housekeeper, Edna Garrett, take on the role of housemother at an all-female boarding school. The catchy theme song to this spinoff was penned by Alan Thicke, the same man who wrote “It Takes Diff’rent Strokes” a few years prior.
Although Taxi was a largely lighthearted sitcom about a group of taxi drivers in New York City, the somber instrumental theme reflected the series’ occasionally more melancholy tone. The title of the Bob James tune, “Angela,” refers to a character from the third episode—an unhappy and unpleasant woman whom Alex takes out on a date.
Scott Baio starred in this ’80s sitcom as Charles, a college student who moves in with a family and serves as caretaker to their three children in exchange for room and board. The theme song laid out the arrangement well: “The new boy in the neighborhood lives downstairs and it’s understood, he’s there just to take good care of me like he’s one of the family.”
Sometimes a great theme song can have an impact on the show it’s written for. Case in point: Welcome Back, Kotter. The series, which centers on a teacher returning to his alma mater to take over a remedial class, was originally going to be called Kotter. But it ended up borrowing its title from its theme song “Welcome Back,” written by Lovin’ Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian.
Though the catchphrase “Kiss my grits” may be Alice’s most lasting cultural impact, those who watched the series when it was on in the ’70s and ’80s also fondly remember the theme song. Performed by Linda Lavin, the actress who starred as waitress Alice Hyatt, “There’s a New Girl in Town” brilliantly (and melodically) reflected Alice’s journey as a widow who moves to Phoenix to start over.
Few shows captured the generational divide of the ’80s quite like Family Ties, in which former hippies Steven and Elyse Keaton butted heads with their Reaganite son Alex, played by a young Michael J. Fox. However, the show’s theme song, “Without Us,” reinforced its main idea that family ties could conquer anything: “And there ain’t no nothing we can’t love each other through.”
Was there anyone cooler than Jem, the alter ego of Jerrica Benton and the lead singer of Jem and the Holograms? Sure, she wasn’t real, but the music of the animated series was electric enough to make viewers forget that. The song used for the opening theme, “Truly Outrageous,” focused on the “fantasy” of Jerrica’s “different role” as Jem—and if you grew up in the ’80s, then you definitely remember this classic, catchy tune.
“Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” You may not know what these words mean, but if you say them out loud, don’t be surprised when every 40-something in the vicinity starts singing the theme song to Laverne & Shirley. The optimistic tune, “Making Our Dreams Come True,” was just one of many reasons audiences fell in love with Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney.
It might not have any lyrics, but anyone who came of age in the ’80s can hum along to the theme from Hill Street Blues. It was written by Mike Post, the same man who composed the catchy intro tunes for Law & Order and NYPD Blue.
While there were always new passengers on the S.S. Pacific Princess, the one constant was the show’s theme song, “The Love Boat.” “Set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance,” the theme song promised—and with the various romantic misadventures of the boat’s crew and passengers, suffice it to say it delivered every episode.
The TV show Fame borrowed its theme song, as well as its name, from the original 1980 movie. By the time the show aired in 1982, the song was already a huge hit—it earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song the year prior—and the lyrics captured the aspirational theme of the series, which continued to follow the students at the fictional New York City High School for the Performing Arts.
During its first two seasons, Eight Is Enough used an instrumental theme that was largely forgettable. From the third season on, however, Grant Goodeve—the actor who played David, the oldest of the show’s eight children—sang the vocals in a new theme song, one with actual lyrics. This later version is the one you probably remember; it was a wholesome declaration that “eight is enough to fill our lives with love.”
A young Tom Hanks starred alongside Peter Scolari in Bosom Buddies, a comedy about two single men who disguised themselves as women to live in an affordable all-female apartment complex. Admittedly, this plot probably wouldn’t fly in 2019, but that doesn’t make the show’s theme song any less timeless. Its opening tune was actually the Billy Joel song “My Life,” though it was re-recorded by a different vocalist for the show.
The “perfect strangers” mentioned in this show’s title were Wisconsinite Larry Appleton and his distant foreign cousin Balki Bartokomous. Could this mismatched pair learn to live together and get along? The theme song, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” certainly seemed to think so!
Thanks to the repeat episodes that air coast-to-coast even today, The Golden Girls remains one of the most well-known and beloved television series of all time. And of course, almost as cherished as the show’s characters is its theme song, “Thank You For Being a Friend.” It’s a celebration of the tight bonds of chosen family—whether you’re young, middle-aged, or a group of sassy retirees sharing a house in Miami.
Although its characters were introduced on an episode of The Golden Girls, Empty Nest underwent some major changes when it emerged as its own spinoff. And in addition to a new plot, it also got a catchy theme song of its own, called “Life Goes On.” Like “Thank You for Being a Friend,” the song has a fairly universal message: When bad things happen, take it day by day.
With an impressive 11-season run, The Jeffersons managed to be on the air for longer than the show it spun off from, All in the Family. And though All in the Family was a perfectly popular series, most people would agree that The Jeffersons also had a much catchier theme song than its predecessor.
Though the instrumental theme song to ALF was not composed by the Alien Life Form himself, it was composed by someone of the same name: Alf Clausen. If you recognize that name, it’s probably because Clausen has also done some notable work on The Simpsons. Although the ALF theme isn’t as instantly recognizable as the music on The Simpsons is, former fans of the sci-fi sitcom certainly still know it by heart.
“As Long As We Got Each Other,” the theme song to Growing Pains, captured the warmth of the family sitcom. It helped that the opening titles featured childhood photos of the cast, making the Seavers feel like a real family.
Who’s the Boss? starred Tony Danza as Tony Micelli, a retired-basketball-player-turned-live-in-housekeeper for a hard-working advertising executive played by Judith Light. Though the title of the series reflected the power struggle between the two main characters, the theme song, “Brand New Life,” focused on Tony’s dramatic career change.
What does it mean to “smurf”? Well, if you want answers, you probably shouldn’t turn to “La La Song,” the theme of the popular animated series. Based on the song’s lyrics, “smurf” is something of an all-purpose verb with a meaning that changes depending on the context it’s used in. That’s really the only logical explanation for how you could get lyrics like, “Smurf the whole day long” and, “Smurf yourself a grin,” right?
21 Jump Street star Holly Robinson pulled double duty on this hit ’80s series about young cops. Not only did she play Sergeant Judy Hoffs, but she also sang the show’s theme song, which underlined the bond between the officers with lyrics like, “Don’t have to stand alone, we’ll never let you fall.”
One of the most famous TV theme songs of all time, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” is almost as beloved as Cheers itself—and with good reason. Gary Portnoy, who also wrote the themes for Punky Brewster and Mr. Belvedere, delivered a song that captures the warm, nostalgic feel of a second home—even if that place happens to be a bar.
Marla Gibbs, who had previously made a name for herself on The Jeffersons, starred on this show as gossiping housewife Mary Jenkins. She also sang the show’s theme song, which also celebrated the concept of home—or, in this case, 227 Lexington Place, the predominantly black apartment building where Mary and her family resided.
The roommates may have changed over the course of Three’s Company‘s eight seasons, but the theme song always stayed the same. “Come and Knock on Our Door” is another one of those lively themes that instantly hooks you (even if you still don’t know what “where the kisses are hers and hers and his” means).
No lyrics? No problem. When you’ve got the great Henry Mancini composing a theme, you’re going to remember a song regardless. Yes, in addition to writing the famous Pink Panther theme and the Academy Award-winning “Moon River,” Mancini gave us the theme to Remington Steele. The show starred a young Pierce Brosnan as a former con-man-turned-detective.
If you grew up in the ’80s, there’s a pretty good chance you wanted to be Punky Brewster. And who could blame you? Punky, played by Soleil Moon Frye, was bright, precocious, and lovable. The show’s theme song captured her ability to cheer up everyone around her: “Every time I turn around, her spirit’s lifting me right off the ground.”
The idea of having two dads in 2019 isn’t as shocking as it was in the ’80s. But the two dads in My Two Dads weren’t a couple—they were uptight Michael Taylor and free spirit Joey Harris, two men who happened to romance the same woman and were left to raise her child after her death. It was a comedy for the ages, and its theme song, “You Can Count on Me,” captured the tone perfectly.
There’s meta, and then there’s this show, which took things to a whole new level. Unlike other sitcoms, the characters on this series—like Garry Shandling, played by Garry Shandling—knew they were on a TV show. The theme song, “This Is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” was naturally just as self-referential.
The Owens were in for a shock when they hired the prim and proper Mr. Belvedere, as was the butler, who felt just as out of place in the chaotic household. That culture clash was central to show’s theme song “According to Our New Arrival,” which noted that while the house used to be a mess, there was now “a change in the status quo.”
Because Reading Rainbow ran for so many years, it’s not only 40-somethings who know its theme song. Anyone who grew up over the past few decades should be able to recite it from memory. Like the series as a whole, the theme song expressed the power of reading, reminding young people that in books, they can be anyone and transport to anywhere.
The song “Love and Marriage” has become so associated with this long-running Fox sitcom that you’d be forgiven for forgetting it was written more than 30 years before the series even premiered. And you’d be just as forgiven for not realizing that the Frank Sinatra tune was meant to be sincere. After all, in the context of the sardonic, often mean-spirited show, marriage feels more like a death sentence than a blessing.
Long before Destiny’s Child or Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus, and Lana Del Rey sang themes for Charlie’s Angels’ big screen adaptations—in 2000 and 2019, respectively—there was the theme to the original TV series. You can’t sing along to it—seeing as there are no lyrics—but if you’ve been a fan of these Angels from the beginning, you surely know the tune well.
Georgia was a major part of Designing Women, a show that followed a group of women working at an Atlanta design firm. So, it made sense to use the official state song—”Georgia on My Mind”—as the TV show’s theme. The version on Designing Women, however, was just instrumental.
While it began as a spinoff of The Cosby Show, with Lisa Bonet reprising her role as Denise Huxtable, A Different World broadened its scope when Bonet left after the first season. The setting remained the historically black Hillman College, but the focus shifted to new characters, and the theme song got a new singer: the legendary Aretha Franklin.
It was never as successful as Rhoda, but this other spinoff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show still had its fans, thanks in large part to star Cloris Leachman. Perhaps knowing the series could never be as popular as its predecessors, the opening titles opted for a cheeky tone, parodying the unbridled optimism of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with a sarcastic Broadway number.
As a general rule of thumb, if Nell Carter is starring on your show, you should have her sing the theme song. And thankfully, that’s just what Gimme a Break! did. Carter played Nell, housekeeper to the Kanisky family. Although the series was a family sitcom, the theme showcased some serious drama: “Gimme a break! The game is survival!”
It wasn’t until the final season of Roseanne—well, of the original run, at least—that the theme song got lyrics, performed by Blues Traveler lead singer John Popper. And if you don’t remember the words, you definitely at least recall the sax-heavy tune that blared through your speakers for the better portion of the ’90s. Plus, who could forget Roseanne’s brash laugh at the end?
The sweet, childlike tone of “Together,” the theme song to Silver Spoons, makes sense when you consider that the show was about a kid, Ricky Stratton, and his estranged man-child of a father, Edward. Despite their differences—and the decades that separated them—Ricky and Edward continuously searched for common ground, and the theme song promised a happy ending for the unlikely pair. “Together, we’re gonna find our way.”