Saturday, September 10, 2011

Portnoy's Compliment

If one day one of my grandchildren ever comes up to me and asks, "Grandpa Victor? What did you do during Hurricane Irene?" I would smile, pick them up with my newly implanted cybernetic Jax arms, sit them on my lap and say to them, "well, I suppose I spent most of that weekend inside watching re-runs of 'Cheers', they had the whole series run on Netflix."

That probably will be my lasting legacy from the great tri-state hurricane of '11, watching episode after episode of the delightful early "Sam and Diane" years of the show and discovering a great classic sitcom that I was far too young to appreciate or be aware of during its initial run. I haven't yet moved onto the latter, equally successful, half of the show's life with Woody Harrelson and Kirstie Alley replacing the late Nicholas Colasanto (I'm really going to miss Coach, definitely my favorite supporting character) and Shelly Long respectively; but I have to say the bar has been set pretty high (I just noticed the unintentional pun there) from what I've seen in the early years.

While I wholeheartedly recommend anyone with a Netflix streaming account to check out the series (start with the much lauded pilot episode, it's a rare example of a long running series whose first episode is actually considered one of it's best), one danger I must warn anyone watching multiple episodes of "Cheers" in a row is that you will get the show's iconic theme song stuck in your head for an extended period of time. Did I even need to include a reference link? You all know how it goes. Even if you haven't seen a single episode of the show (which was my case until just the storm), you will most likely be able to still sing along with the chorus. Aside from being insidiously catchy, the lyrics convey a comfortable sweater warmth that finely walks the line between genuine sympathy and empty saccharin; perfectly fitting the theme of the show. It is really the crowning achievement of its singer/co-writer Gary Portnoy.

While he has enjoyed a successful career outside of television as a songwriter for the likes of Dolly Parton, Englbert Humperdinck, and Air Supply since the early 80s, his obituary headline will clearly start off with "Writer/Performer of Cheers Theme". While "Cheers" is his unquestioned lasting legacy, I also found out that he is responsible for two of my other all time favorite television theme songs: the themes to "Punky Brewster" and "Mr. Belvedere".

Oddly enough, growing up I never really saw a full episode of any of the three Portnoy theme songed shows. Like "Cheers", "Punky Brewster" and "Mr. Belvedere" were just slightly out of sync with my prime sitcom watching years (the early 90s). However, whenever I did catch the beginning of a rerun of any of these shows I would often hang around long enough to take in the introductions before switching the channel, a true testament to the accomplishments of Mr. Portnoy. Considering how much I enjoyed the songs I'm not really sure why I never made that logical next step into watching an episode. It can't all be blamed on my age gap because I did watch a fair amount of contemporary shows like "Who's The Boss" (also another great theme song) and "Golden Girls" (total classic).

I think "Punky Brewster" just looked a little too sad and gritty for me. Compared to the cushy, middle class suburban, loving nuclear families of the TGIF line up, the premise of an abandoned child living illegally with a grumpy senior citizen in a run down tenement, made it about as grim and gritty as "The Wire". Most of the elements of the "Cheers" theme are pretty apparent in "Punky", most obvious being Portnoy's distinct vocals. It also the follows the same theme of acknowledging the often difficult and seemingly cruel nature of living and sympathizing with the audience; then singing of a welcome repast from the hardships of life, in the case of "Cheers" a neighborhood bar with all your best friends to commiserate with and give you support and in this case a special young girl whose innocence and boundless optimism brightens your day and melts the most coldly cynical of hearts. Also, dig those killer synths.

In the case of "Mr. Belvedere", I suspect that the re-runs of the show coincided with my usual after-school homework time (5:00 pm), so I never really got an opportunity to get into it. The theme song is in striking contrast to the other two Portnoy tunes. The familiar vocals have been replaced by the almost cartoonish, old timey sounding, voice of Leon Redbone along with a similarly old time jazzy accompaniment. Not really sure how that sort of music fits in with a story about a prim British butler coming to work for an uncouth suburban clan in Pittsburgh (technically Beaver Falls), but hey it was still catchy as hell. I guess the tune also follows along the lines of the themes of the other songs in that the character of Mr. Belvedere is helping the family through the daily trials and tribulations of life and showing how much fuller it can be (my favorite line: "According to our new arrival, life is more than mere survival."). Since the show never really became a huge rating hit or developed a dedicated cult following, I don't think this song nearly gets as much credit as it should.

While he won't be confused with Mike Post anytime soon, Gary Portnoy's contributions to 80's sitcom television deserves all time merit in my book. If he never accomplishes anything else of merit ever again, he can still stand proud of this impressive trio of themes. And for those of you out there wondering, yes part of the motivation to write this post was to have a chance to use that title.

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