Weekend Viewing: Weird TV Songs

I don’t mean theme songs. There are lots of those (or used to be), but sometimes a show needs an original song written for the episode, either because they’re doing a musical, or because it’s cheaper to have the staff write a song instead of paying for one. (Or, a third reason: if the show isn’t covered by the Writers’ Guild, writing original songs is the only way for the writer to get royalties for the episode.) I just thought I’d collect a few of the stranger songs — some good, some bad — that have been written directly for TV.

One of the good ones, weird though it is, is from the weird one-hour TV musical (part of a short-lived ABC anthology show) “Evening Primrose,” written by James Goldman with songs by Stephen Sondheim. This episode starred Anthony Perkins as a guy who decides to live in a department store, only to discover that there’s a whole cult of people who live all their lives in department stores, and anyone who tries to leave is killed and turned into a mannequin. It’s The Twilight Zone meets Brigadoon. I posted one song from this show a while back, but the following song is the most famous, and occasionally sung in recitals by musical-comedy singers who want to give the audience a song they’ve never heard of: “I Remember,” sung by Charmian Carr (Liesl from the movie of The Sound of Music), about the outside world as vaguely remembered by a woman who has grown up in a department store, and therefore has no point of comparison beyond department-store products. In a way it’s ahead of its time; today you could set the same story in Wal-Mart.


But sometimes an episode of a popular sitcom needed an original song too. (Although Sondheim, who spent a couple of years writing for the sitcom Topper, doesn’t seem to have written any songs for that show. Too bad.) When The Dick Van Dyke Show did a dance-craze episode called “The Twizzle,” one of many episodes putting the lie to Carl Reiner’s claim that he avoided topical references in his show, they called in the veteran pop songwriting team of Jerry Livingston and Mack David, who wrote the songs for Disney’s Cinderella and the “This Is It” Bugs Bunny theme. This is what they came up with, as sung by Broadway journeyman Jerry Lanning and, thankfully, danced by Mary Tyler Moore.

The team of Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox is best known for their many TV theme songs, but they were also a successful pop songwriting team in the ’70s, their biggest hit being Killing Me Softly With His Song. So when Garry Marshall got another one of his wild hairs and decided to try and make Anson “Potsie” Williams into a pop singing star, he turned to his favourite songwriters to write an original song for Williams to sing in an episode. The sudden tranformation of a ’50s prom into a ’70s pop number, complete with prism lighting effects, is weird enough; what pushes it into mega-super-weirdness is that his backup band is led (onscreen anyway) by Al “Al” Molinaro and includes, as the drummer, Garry Marshall his own self, who liked to cameo as a drummer in every show he did. I can’t imagine why Anson’s singing career didn’t take off.

Finally, here is an article by Sandy Thorburn, a Canadian academic and musician, called “Insights and Outlooks: Getting Serious With Television Musicals,” about the history of musical episodes in series TV. There have been a bunch of them.

P.S.: one of the writers behind those musical episodes ofThe Love Boat, Ray Jessel, was a Broadway musical songwriter who worked with Harold Prince and Richard Rodgers, and who is now a successful cabaret artist performing his own songs — one of which he wrote for an episode of Head of the Class.