Bring on the cartoons! In honor of the late, great Casey Kasem, who voiced many a classic cartoon character, including both Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and Robin on Super Friends, this is going to be a Top 40. So, what constitutes the greatest animated TV theme song? Sometimes it’s a shockingly great instrumental. Sometimes it’s something that elegantly explains the premise for the show and sets up the action. And sometimes it’s just wacky.
Let’s grab a bowl of cereal, plunk down in front of the tube, and count down the best from Saturday mornings and after school.
40 (tie). Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995-1996) and Cowboy Bebop (1997-1998)
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing is part of the mighty Gundam franchise; the giant robot pioneer hit screens in 1979 and is still going strong. Gundam Wing is one of the series that stepped outside of the main Gundam continuity to tell its own story of rebellion and the cost of war. The J-pop theme “Just Communication” by pop duo Two-Mix is by turns propulsive and introspective, which are the two dominant moods of the series. Two-Mix also did the main song “White Reflection” for the wrap-up film, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz.
Cowboy Bebop is frequently held up as one of the great anime series. A kicky space noir, the show serves up deft characterization, swift action, and a knockout punch of a conclusion. The jazzy theme is called “Tank!” and it invokes the two-fisted P.I. tales that the show emulates.
39. Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
If you’ll allow a personal digression, Neon Genesis Evangelion is this writer’s favorite anime, period. A cryptic rumination on religion, depression, grief, and the possible futility of love that plays out against the seemingly hopeless series of battles of giant robots and their teen pilots against increasingly monstrous creatures that might in fact be angels, EVA (as its fans call it) is so incredibly popular that its creator has been doing a new rebooted edition for the past several years. The original theme, “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” starts off like soft rock, then gets increasingly frenetic.
38. Family Guy (1999-are you kidding? It’s still going?)
Somewhere in his insane heart, Seth MacFarlane is just a song and dance man. That’s evident in the opening to his most famous creation, Family Guy. Starting off as both a parody and tribute to All in the Family with Lois and Peter at the piano, it evolves into a Broadway-style showstopper. Well done, Captain Mercer.
37. The Smurfs (1981-1989)
Apologies in advance: just by mentioning The Smurfs theme, it’s already stuck in your head. Obviously a measure of greatness.
36. Alvin and the Chipmunks (1983-1990)
Alvin, Simon, and Theodore have had several animated series since Ross Bagdasarian brought them to life in 1958. And while the current Nick series ALVINNN!!! And the Chipmunks has been running since 2015, the longest-running and most popular was the ’80s iteration. The of-the-moment pop sound acknowledges in the lyrics that it had “been a while” since they’ve been on TV, but the bright and fun intro demonstrates that they are back to stay.
35. The Simpsons (December, 1989-the end of time, apparently)
Danny Elfman broke big in music as the founder and leader of Oingo Boingo, then transitioned to a long and successful career as a composer for such films as Batman, Beetlejuice, Spider-Man, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. But the theme that’s probably heard the most is his main title for The Simpsons. At 679 episodes and counting, it’s one of the most-played themes in prime-time TV history, let alone animation.
34. Popeye (1933-present)
“I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” was composed in 1933 by Sammy Lerner for the first Max Fleischer Popeye theatrical cartoon. The song has been used in some fashion for every iteration of the character since, including the jump to original TV productions in 1960. And no, he does not say that he lives in a garbage can.
33. Darkwing Duck (1991-1995)
“I am the terror that flaps in the night!” Darkwing Duck was an extremely popular series from Disney that debuted in the wake of the “Batmania” that followed the 1989 Batman film. A parody of The Shadow, Batman, and other classic heroes, Darkwing Duck routinely fights a rogues’ gallery of bizarre enemies while trying to raise his adopted daughter. The jazzy score fits squarely in the animated-noir-hero subgenre, and is sprinkled with the titular mallard’s catchphrases, like “Let’s get dangerous.”
32. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010-2013)
If you’re looking for the best adaptation of the Avengers outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s right here. Produced during the run-up to and just after the first film, Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes mines the rich legacy of comic book stories in a way that’s even more faithful to the books in many places than the movies. Chicago band Bad City performs the rocking opening theme, “Fight as One,” which articulates the notion of pulling together for a battle; it even includes a shout of “Avengers Assemble!”
31. Heathcliff (1984-1985)
Another character that’s had plenty of shows, the comic strip cat got the added bonus of frequently being voiced by vocal genius Mel Blanc. The series has some great animation and a fun theme song by legendary composers and producers Haim Saban and Shuki Levy. The vocals to the poppy throwback are by Noam Kaniel, who you’ll see hanging out with some mighty mutants later on.
30. The Tick (1994-1996)
Doug Katsaros wrote the whacked-out jazz-inspired theme for super-hero parody The Tick. Featuring the slightly dim, but nigh-invulnerable do-gooder of the comics, the show follows the adventures of the Tick, his moth-costumed accountant sidekick Arthur, and their various super-hero allies as they battle incredibly strange threats, including one gangster that has a chair for a head.
29. Spongebob Squarepants (1999-present)
Let’s just put it this way. “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?”
You know you just answered out loud.
28. Teen Titans (2003-2006)
DC Comics debuted the Teen Titans in the 1960s as a team composed of the sidekicks of prominent Justice Leaguers and led by Robin, the Boy Wonder. The comic relaunched in the early 1980s under writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez; Wolfman and Perez combined classic characters with new creations and the book became a massive success. The animated series features Robin, Beast Boy, and three Wolfman-Perez creations: Cyborg, Starfire, and Raven. The J-pop theme comes from Puffy AmiYumi, and it was so popular that the band got their own show in the States for a while.
27. Inspector Gadget (1983-1986)
Inspector Gadget sits squarely in the center of old-school gumshoe and science-fiction. The lead is a detective (voiced by none other than Don Adams of Get Smart) that is also a cyborg, capable of sprouting springing legs and helicopter rotors from his head when the need arises. The Saban-Levy theme song juggles inspiration from Henry Mancini and Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” and is known for its repetition of the lead’s name and the refrain of “Go, Gadget, Go!”
26. Speed Racer (1967-present in various incarnations)
Here’s a huge asterisk. Yes, this is an anime import. However, the theme was completely redone and rewritten with English lyrics, resulting in one of the most well-known songs from an animated production. The 1967 take saw Peter Fernandez (one of the American producers and voice-actors) put together a new arrangement of Nobuyoshi Koshibe’s original with new lyrics; the song is performed by Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass.
25.Hong Kong Phooey (1974-1976)
Hong Kong Phooey is a Hanna-Barbera series capitalizing on the martial arts fad of the early ’70s, making its debut in the same month that Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” was on the charts. The lead character is voiced by Scatman Crothers, who also sings the theme. Hanna and Barbera wrote the song themselves with their longtime musical director Hoyt Curtin.
24. George of the Jungle (1967)
Though short-lived on its original run, this show from Jay Ward and Bill Scott (creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle) consists of three segments, two of which make this list. In the cartoon pantheon, George is probably most famous for his theme, which contains everything you need to know about the show.
23. Super Chicken (1967)
The other two segments on George of the Jungle are racing cartoon Tom Slick and this classic super-hero send-up. Henry Cabot Henhouse III drinks his super-sauce and becomes . . . Super Chicken! The show’s most beloved quote, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it,” does indeed make it into the lyrics.
22. Mighty Mouse (1955-1967)
Originally called “Super Mouse” in his 1942 debut, the heroic rodent was renamed and redesigned with his familiar red and yellow costume in 1944. Though several theatrical shorts were made, the character didn’t really get mass popularity until it shifted to TV. The theme by Marshall Barer is perhaps most recognizable for the line, “Here I come to save the day!” It was also put to memorable use in an early Saturday Night Live bit by Andy Kaufman.
21. Underdog (1964-1973)
One of the longest-lasting Superman parodies, Underdog features the canine superhero battling villains like mad scientist Simon Bar Sinister and often rescuing his reporter love interest Polly Purebred.
20. Duck Tales (1987-1990; 2017-present)
The much-loved Duck Tales puts Donald Duck’s Uncle Scrooge McDuck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie together for a wide-ranging series of adventures. Inspired by the classic comic books by Carl Barks, the show regularly introduces villains and supporting characters from the comics and, via Scrooge’s pilot Launchpad McQuack, sets up the unofficial spin-off Darkwing Duck. The show was rebooted in 2017, but kept the original theme song, albeit in a new version.
19. Pinky and The Brain (1996-1998)
This spin-off of Animaniacs features the popular titular lab mice. Brain is an evil genius, and Pinky his significantly less-intelligent assistant. A number of lines from the show became pop culture catchphrases, but the most famous is the regular exchange, “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world!”
18. X-Men (1992-1997)
Bonus: Japanese theme songs
Originally seen as sort of middle children from the initial burst of creativity that was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s vision of the Marvel Universe, the X-Men were rebooted into an international team in 1975 and rose to become Marvel’s most popular book. 1980’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and its aftermath firmly implanted Uncanny X-Men as the best-selling regular comic of that decade. When a new spin-off (simply titled X-Men) was launched in 1991, the first issue sold over eight million copies. The animated series launched in its aftermath and became an immediate hit, paving the way for the film franchise. The propulsive theme song is a genre classic, combining elements of spy and science-fiction themes of the past. As a bonus, we’re including the two opening sequences that were made for the Japanese release of the show; they rock in their own right.
17. The Bugs Bunny Show; The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour and iterations (1960-1983)
In 1960, the Looney Tunes stable came to TV with an anthology format that pulled from theatrical shorts stretching back to 1948. Over the years, the show would switch formats, titles, timeslots, and networks, but the opening theme “This Is It!” would remain a constant until it was abandoned in 1984. The song combines a sort of Vaudeville sensibility while presenting the main cast; the opening also includes a snippet of another theme that lies ahead in the countdown.
16. The Jetsons (1962-1963)
In terms of lyrics, you can’t get simpler than Hoyt Curtin’s The Jetsons theme. The song simply introduces George Jetson, his boy Elroy, daughter Judy, and Jane, his wife. Originally shown in prime-time on ABC, it was the first series broadcast in color (stablemates The Flintstones were made in color, but only shown in black and white for the first two seasons).
15. Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-1992)
The first of several series co-produced by Warner Bros. Animation and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin’ Entertainment, Tiny Toon Adventures opened the door for Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain, among others. The approach is that the original Looney Tunes characters are teaching a whole new class of young cartoon characters at Acme Looniversity in Acme Acres. Most of the big name characters have young analogues like Babs and Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, Hampton (a pig like Porky), Dizzy Devil, Montana Max (a young, rich Yosemite Sam type) and so on. The exposition-heavy theme comes from famed composer Bruce Broughton, who’s won 9 Emmys and scored countless TV shows and films.
14. Super Friends (1973-1986)
Though there are spoken-word narration bits that vary from season to season, the main Super Friends theme stuck around (with minor changes here and there) for 13 years. It was another stellar piece from our old friend, Hoyt Curtin. In the late 1990s, the theme was remixed by Michael Kohler for a Cartoon Network promo called “That Time is Now!”
13. Freakazoid (1995-1997)
Cut from the same cloth as the theme to The Tick, the boppy and jazzy Freakazoid theme is filled with explanations of the show’s premise paired with oddball non sequiturs. That pairs perfectly with the frequently-distracted, internet-powered hero.
12. Pink Panther (1963-present)
Why is this a classic? Because you heard it in your head the second you read the name. The creation of the Pink Panther has a strange genesis. The Pink Panther was originally a diamond in the Inspector Clouseau series of films, so named because the diamond contained the image of a panther if held up to the light. Beginning with the second film (The Pink Panther), the credits were animated, with the diamond panther becoming the familiar character. The animated panther then spun-off into theatrical shorts and various animated series on TV. In every iteration, it’s kept the Henry Mancini tune from the movies.
11. Road Runner
As part of the The Bugs Bunny Show and later its own separate program, the Road Runner comes equipped with a quirky, bouncy, slight countrified tune that details the eternal struggle between Wile E. Coyote (Overconfidentii vulgaris) and the Road Runner (Disappearialis quickius). The Chuck Jones shorts are remembered for the Coyote’s reliance on ACME devices and the continual beating he takes in trying to catch his prey.
10. Josie and the Pussycats (1970-1971)
Everybody’s favorite feline-inspired band sprung from the pages of Archie comics to the screen in 1970. The adaptation was actually driven by the fact that The Archie Show cartoon of the late 1960s delivered a hit single in the form of “Sugar Sugar,” and the producers wanted to see if they could pull it off again with other Archie Comics characters. Though no Top Ten hits resulted, a couple of important things came from the show, aside from its excellent theme song. One is that Valerie, voiced by Patrice Holloway, was the first black female character in Saturday morning cartoons. The other is that it was the first significant Hollywood job for the speaking and singing voice of Melody, Cherie Moore; you’d know her better as Cheryl Ladd of Charlie’s Angels.
9. Jem (aka Jem & The Holograms, 1985-1988)
In the 1980s, Hasbro caught lightning in a bottle twice in a three-partner collaboration with Sunbow Productions and Marvel Productions. The partnership resulted in huge hit comics, toys, and TV shows with G.I. Joe and The Transformers. Turning their attention to the girls’ market, Hasbro launched a doll line with a tie-in show that featured a female band that was led by an enigmatic figure with a secret identity. That was Jem, whose singing parts were performed by Britta Phillips of the acclaimed dream pop band Luna. Though the toys weren’t a huge hit, the show was, and was the # 3 show among kids in 1987. Overall, 151 different songs were created during the tenure of the show.
8. Animaniacs (1993-1998)
Part of the WB/Spielberg deal, Animaniacs was the anthology show that introduced Pinky and the Brain as regulars. The main segments featured Yakko and Wakko, “the Warner Brothers and the Warner sister, Dot.” The three leads would wreak giddy havoc over a number of pop culture institutions, memorably destroying a Barney lookalike and sneaking an incredibly inappropriate Prince joke past the censors. Some of the songs from the show are still used in classrooms, like “Nations of the World” (23 million views on YouTube) and “Wakko’s 50 State Capitols.” The Emmy-winning main theme explains the plot, and has a number of variations with sight gags for the penultimate line; as they rhyme with “totally insaney,” different versions have the characters singing everything from “here’s the show’s namey” to “Citizen Kaney” to “Dana Delaney.”
7. ThunderCats (1985-1989)
Rankin/Bass may be most known for their awesome array of holiday specials, but they’re also the production team behind one of the best cartoons of the 1980s, ThunderCats. The series was developed and co-written by comic book artist Leonard Starr and writer Stephen Perry. They gave the show a rich fantasy and science-fiction background and packed the series with action. Throughout the decade, Rankin/Bass developed two other shows with similar approaches, Silverhawks and TigerSharks. When ThunderCats was rebooted in 2011, the show explicitly tied new versions of the other two sets of characters into a shared continuity.
6. G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1983-1986)
Hasbro developed the original 12-inch G.I. Joe action figures in the 1960s. America’s Fighting Man had a dip in popularity after Vietnam and shrunk to the 8-inch scale for a bit. In 1982, the figure was reborn as a whole team in the Stars Wars 3-3/4” scale; the unique personalities (and Cobra villains) were created by comic writer Larry Hama in a cooperative deal with Marvel that saw Hasbro finance animated commercials for the new comics. It was only a matter of time before the new toys and comics became a TV series, and it arrived with the instantly recognizable theme that incorporates the line’s subtitle: A Real American Hero.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)
In comics in the early 1980s, the two biggest crazes were mutants (see, X-Men) and ninjas (by way of Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil). Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird parodied the concepts with their black and white indie comic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and a cult hit was born. The cartoon lightens up the darker comic quite a bit; the lighter tone is set by the theme, which was composed by D.C. Brown and Chuck Lorre (who would go on to create Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, among others).
4. The Flintstones (1960-1966)
The Flintstones holds the distinction of being the first animated series to be broadcast in prime time. The Hanna-Barbera sitcom draws inspiration from The Honeymooners, but combines domestic comedy with an immersive world filled with Stone Age and dinosaur puns. You won’t be surprised that Hoyt Curtin wrote the theme; you might be surprised to discover that the first two seasons had a totally different theme and that “Meet the Flintstones” didn’t become the theme until Season 3. The original theme was called “Rise and Shine,” but it’s been replaced in rebroadcast for decades with the more familiar “Meet the Flintstones,” which is, of course, the entry here. By the way, the line after “Let’s ride/with the family down the street” is “Through the/courtesy of Fred’s two feet.”
3. The Transformers (1984-1987)
Following up their massive success with G.I. Joe, Hasbro, Sunbow, and Marvel again collaborated on a new Hasbro acquisition. Hasbro had bought the rights to a number of disconnected toy lines, all of which had the common denominator of being robots that transformed into cars, planes, and more. Marvel writer Bob Budiansky took the Larry Hama role and fleshed out names and backstories for the characters, based on Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter’s idea to break the bots into Autobots (good guys) and Decepticons (bad guys). Every piece of the franchise was a huge hit. The Ford Kinder-Anne Bryant theme combines the two marketing taglines for the toys “More than meets the eye” and “Robots in disguise” into lyrics. Since that time, the Transformers have appeared in a number of TV series, films, and constantly reinvented toy lines; the theme has also been repurposed and covered a number of times, including Lion’s version for the animated Transformers: The Movie and Cheap Trick’s take for the live-action Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
2. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (1969-today in various incarnations)
Last year, the Post covered the long history of Scooby and the gang. While there have been a few different themes with different iterations of the show, the original “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” theme is the most well-known and the one that keeps coming back. A classic premise-setting tune, the song gives you the basic gist of the plots that revolves around Mystery Incorporated. The theme was composed by David Mook and Ben Raleigh. When the popular direct-to-video Scooby movies began in the late 1990s, a number of high-profile musical acts recorded versions for different films, including The B-52s, Third Eye Blind, and MxPx.
1. Spider-Man (1967-1970)
Commonly referred to as the “Ralph Bakshi Spider-Man cartoon,” even though the storied animator didn’t take over as Executive Producer and Animation Director until Season 2, Spider-Man took off based on its use of villains and plots from the comics and its devotion to the trippy visual stylings of Spider-Man co-creator and original artist Steve Ditko. Spider-Man’s other dad, Stan Lee, was a consultant on the show, as was John Romita Sr., who was drawing the comics by that time. The much-loved theme song was written by lyricist Paul Francis Webster (who was nominated for 16 Best Song Oscars, winning three) and composer Bob Harris. The song is so pervasive in pop culture that people that have never even seen the 1960s cartoon know it. Iterations and samples of it are still used in the Spider-Man franchise today. An orchestral version of it even replaces the Marvel Studios fanfare in the openings of both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far from Home.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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