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Different Categories Of TV Intros (Part 1)


 

Last week I was advocating a return to the full-length TV intro, as opposed to just the title or a 20-second blink-and-you-miss-it sequence. I thought I would follow up by mentioning a few of the different types of intros that a show can do, and what they do for the show. Since doing them all at once would lead to a post about seventy kajillion words long, I’ll do four at a time. I’ll do part 2 later this week, but in the meantime, feel free to mention the ones I haven’t got to yet and which types of intros you like best. And also check out Lee Goldberg’s Main Title Heaven, collecting YouTube videos of main titles both famous and obscure.

1. The Vignette. This is an intro that consists of one short, usually silent scene with the main character or characters. They are in-character, unaware of the camera. In this short scene, they do something that makes it clear who and what they are, and what the show will be.

The classic examples of the Vignette are both, interestingly, only about 20 seconds long — proving that today’s shows could do them, even with the limited running time. I’m talking about The Andy Griffith Show, with Andy and Opie walking to the ol’ fishin’ hole, and The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s alternating intros, with Rob either tripping or not tripping over the ottoman. Dick Van Dyke is an example of how a Vignette can give a show a stronger identity. The first season’s openings consisted mostly of stills and freeze-frames of the cast members, and told us very little about what kind of show this would be. So they filmed a little scene that would tell us that Rob lives in a suburban home with his gorgeous wife (and the kid, but who cared about him) and that we can expect plenty of physical comedy. The scene sums up so much about the show that we can almost forget our questions about why Buddy and Sally are at Rob’s home before he is — or, as Richard Cheese pointed out, the fact that Rob shakes hands with Buddy twice.

Today, most of the Vignette intros can be found on pay cable: two of the most famous ones are Dexter proving how gruesome breakfast can really be, and Tony Soprano driving home. Here’s the Sopranos intro parody from The Simpsons (which of course has a very famous “Vignette” intro, also involving the characters driving home).

2. Fun And Frolic. In this type of main title, we see the character or characters doing many different things, but all of the footage is newly-created for the sequence (though there may be a few clips from the show thrown in when the footage is out of date or doesn’t work any more). It shows the characters doing all the cool things the director can fit into one minute of screen time. Often the star or stars will be flown out to the real setting of the show to do the main title: so Mary Tyler Moore went to various places in Minneapolis and was filmed doing cool stuff and making it after all. Sometimes the director will choose to make the character look like he’s not having much fun, as when Tony Randall walked around Philadelphia in his self-titled show. But usually it’s about showing the characters mugging, playing, horsing around and generally having great lives.

I was originally going to call this type of intro “the Miller-Boyett” because nobody did it more than the Full House folks; as a commenter put it: ” I think having the characters loving doing stuff together and then mugging for the camera is what I love most about the M-B shows.” In my opinion the definitive intro of this type is the truly horrifying yet somehow epic Out of the Blue, but the most famous is Perfect Strangers, the “Perfect” combination of Chicago location shooting, goofy gags and buddy-buddy mugging. Here it is reenacted by two college students:

3. The Clip Montage. The most common intro: you take a bunch of clips from the show and edit them together to make it seem like a collection of highlights from the show. Sometimes a clip montage will have a few newly-created images, like the spooky-stuff bits in the intro of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the shots of New York at night in [fill in name of show set in New York]. But it’s mostly about finding the right clips to promise cool stuff (action shows always used to have at least one car flipping, one helicopter, and one explosion in the intro) and make the regular characters look adorable. You can tell who the leads are because they are usually given more than one clip, showing them in a variety of moods. This kind of intro depends particularly heavily on the song, since there’s rarely anything very eye-catching about the clips, and it can be done short:

Or long (never heard the song before? They use a different song in Italy):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mi4zXfrt7gY

4. Narration, Narration, Narration. Some shows use the main title as a place where one of the characters, or the announcer, can tell you the premise. Sometimes the narration is followed by a regular main title, like on Charlie’s Angels or The A-Team or Star Trek. (And when you see a show add narration mid-way through its first season, like Bosom Buddies did, you know it’s having ratings trouble and is trying to clarify its premise.) Often the narration is the fun part and the actual main title is an anticlimax:

And sometimes the entire title sequence is used to tell us the premise. Arrested Development had only 20 seconds for the title sequence and they used it all for Ron Howard. The good thing about that sequence is that it’s easy to fit new images to the rather generic narration; here it is with the Family Guy characters.


 

Different Categories Of TV Intros (Part 1)

  1. I love TV main title sequences. It’s my guilty pleasure. You can also learn a lot about television from them. I believe there are basically three different kinds: FORMAT sequences, that actually tell you in narration, song, and/or in text-on-screen what the show is about; MOOD sequences that convey the type of feeling and tone they are going for; and CHARACTER sequences, which delineate who the characters are and how they interact. Many main titles are combinations of these three sequences.

    I go into more detail about it in this old blog post…

    http://leegoldberg.typepad.com/a_writers_life/2006/10/why_i_love_main.html

    …and in my book “Successful Television Writing,” which I co-wrote with William Rabkin.

    Lee

  2. Gawd, a simple glimpse of your topic led to about 20 minutes of sampling tv theme songs (and a sidetrack to some gawdy but fuzzy hee haw clips)… those are moments wasted at least with a grin on my face.

  3. I, too., enjoy main titles and am happy to have worked on a show that helped to, if not bring them back, then to save the art form. in the 1990’s due to shrinking air time many shows like “Wings,” and others backed off from (or never had) main titles…more like a quick ten second theme with the logo…but then came “Friends,” which I worked on. The producers wanted a classic main title sequence, so along with a catching song and various clips (some staged at the fountain at the Warner Ranch) they got themselves a wonderful main title sequence…and after that most tv shows went back into competition for the same.

  4. The intros that immediately came to mind are Cheers, and it’s spinoff Fraser, where the intro offers virtually no information about the characters. If I recall correctly, all those intros really did was told you which city they were in. Of course the songs did provide some sort of context/mood (going where everyone knows your name), but there was a very distinct lack of information about the characters. I suppose that means the category I would add would be the intro which features none of the main characters.

    Are we including game shows in these categories? I suppose many of them fit into the Narration category, but somehow they seem distinct from narrative shows.

  5. Don't know if you check old postings for new comments, but I came across this tv intro parody I thought you might be interested in:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIKGFLfBMwQ

    Incidentally, in this post it says you would post part 2 "later this week". Did that ever happen?

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