The Great Theme Song Dispute

Recently I was embroiled in an earth-shakingly important discussion. The topic was which TV show theme song was better: The Beverly Hillbillies or Gilligan’s Island? We weren’t debating whether they were the best theme songs in TV history. (That exalted designation must certainly be reserved for the theme song to Mission: Impossible.) Instead, we were engaged in a careful comparative analysis of these two theme songs, both of which tell a story that sets the context for the TV show itself.

I would have thought that this was an easy call. In my view, the uplifting tale of a happy, hard-working rustic who discovers oil on his property thanks to an errant rifle shot at some furry woodlands creature and then moves to Beverly Hills–all told to the accompaniment of some rollicking pickin’ music–is clearly superior to the improbable story of seven passengers on a boat who, thanks to an undetected storm, find themselves cast away on an unknown island within boat ride distance from southern California. But to my astonishment, other participants in the conversation, after giving the matter the serious consideration it deserves, voted for the Gilligan’s Island theme over The Beverly Hillbillies.

That conclusion is just wrong on many levels, so let’s set the record straight. The Beverly Hillbillies music–The Ballad of Jed Clampett, performed by Flatt & Scruggs, with its banjo-picking frenzy as the Clampetts drive into Beverly Hills–blows the forgettable Gilligan’s Island tune out of the water. The Ballad of Jed Clampett, which was released in 1962, hit number 1 on the Billboard country music chart, was on the charts for 20 weeks, and even rose to number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island was never released as a single, so far as I can tell. Musically, it’s like arguing about whether the Beatles are better than the Four Freshmen.

And the lyrics for The Beverly Hillbillies are better, too, telling a classically American Horatio Alger-type story in which the “kinfolk” offered supportive advice to the upwardly mobile Clampetts. It includes some great rhymes, too, like “Jed” and “fed” and “food” and “crude.” Gilligan’s Island, on the other hand, featured the annoying repetition of “a three-hour tour” and made clear that the show’s characters were caricatures defined by their circumstances (“the millionaire and his wife,” “the movie star,” and “the rest”) rather than giving us the kind of rich context we learned about the Clampett clan.

And the key test is which song you’re less likely to forget in your dotage. For me, that’s undoubtedly The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

I rest my case.

Live Long And Prosper

I was very saddened to learn today of the death of Leonard Nimoy at age 83.  He was an accomplished stage and screen actor, poet, and photographer — but to those of us who loved Star Trek, he will always and forever be the man who created Mr. Spock.

Books have been written about Spock and Kirk and McCoy, the complex relationship between that trio that made Star Trek such a terrific show, and the half-Vulcan character who struggled mightily to keep his human side in check in compliance with the dictates of Vulcan culture and its relentless emphasis on logic.  Nimoy made Spock a believable character — and thus a great character — when he very easily could have been as silly as Jar Jar Binks.  After all, an alien with pointed ears, green skin and super-human strength who eschews all emotion?  But thanks to Nimoy’s deft touch, Spock was as real and complex and layered as any character in the TV or film universe.  And, for those of us who were awkward adolescents at the time, dealing with a rush of weird new emotions and our own feelings of not quite fitting in with the rest of the world, Spock was enormously appealing.

I also liked that Nimoy seemed to struggle with the Spock character almost as much as Spock struggled with his human side.  Nimoy knew immediately that Spock was an iconic character, and he wanted to avoid being typecast.  When the Star Trek series ended, he promptly took on a completely different role as Paris on Mission: Impossible, wrote an autobiography called I Am Not Spock, and seemed to constantly reject the great character he created.  But ultimately he relented, reconnected with the role, and played Spock in a long series of movies and TV appearances — and Star Trek fans are grateful that he did.  Indeed, his connection with the character became such that he wrote a later autobiography called I Am Spock, and by the end of his life, as Richard points out, Nimoy ended his tweets with LLAP — a reference to Spock’s great Vulcan salutation.

Live Long and Prosper.  What a wonderful, simple sentiment from what was supposed to be an unemotional culture!  Nimoy lived that sentiment and gave us an unforgettable creation.  He will be sorely missed.