If you’re anything like me, and you’re a Friends fan, you probably feel like the TV series was created for you – and much of the reason for that is due to the infectiously upbeat Friends theme song, "I'll Be There For You."
After all, the theme song's lyrics are practically an anthem for just about anybody who feels like things aren’t working out as planned:
“So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s D.O.A.
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
When it hasn’t been your day, your week,
Your month, or even your year…”
So how did the Friends theme song come to be? What’s the history behind the tune? Well, let’s unpack it all.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
- The Friends theme song came at a time when theme songs were less popular
- Creating the Friends theme song
- Kevin Bright had a vision for the Friends theme song
- The Friends theme song was recorded over a weekend
- Those four hand claps
- "I'll Be There For You" was later turned into a song for the radio
- A little more about the people behind the Friends theme song
- How the Rembrandts felt about the Friends theme song
- Was the Friends theme song the last great theme song?
The Friends theme song came at a time when theme songs were less popular
By 1994, when Friends debuted, TV theme songs were still a thing, but they were getting shorter. For instance, think of Frasier, which started airing in 1993 and basically had a title card and a few seconds of music. It did have a memorable and longer theme song, called “Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs,” that ran over the closing credits.
Or consider Seinfeld, which began in 1989. It had catchy theme song music, but it was interspersed with Jerry Seinfeld doing his monologue act at the beginning of the show.
Murphy Brown, too, didn’t have much of a theme song. The series began in 1988, and each episode would open with music, but it was never the same tune twice. Generally, if not always, it was a different Motown song, and we’d quickly get into the story.
Friends, however, was not going to go with the short opening TV theme song, a trend that was happening because networks were nervous about audiences spotting a song they had heard a million times – and then instead of watching, going over to another channel where they could find a show already in progress.
"I was a strong believer that television had made a mistake discounting the value of theme songs," Friends executive producer Kevin Bright told a reporter in 2003. "I wanted to create a theme that would act as a curtain going up, that would give the audience 35 to 40 seconds to settle in and get excited about that week's show."
Creating the Friends theme song
The entire song was a team effort. Michael Skloff wrote the music. He was also conveniently the husband of Marta Kauffman, another Friends executive producer. But, still, obviously, Skloff was and is a huge talent.
A lyricist was brought in – her name was Allee Willis. She had an amazing career. More on her later.
Finally, the Rembrandts (two musicians: Danny Wilde and Phil Solem) gave voice to the song. Warner Bros., which produced Friends, wanted one of their bands or musicians to perform "I'll Be There For You." R.EM's Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant and They Might Be Giants were offered the opportunity to record the theme song. They declined. The Rembrandts ended up taking the gig.
As we know, that worked out just fine.
“They just had such a brilliant sound,” Skloff told Variety in 2020. “They had, like, a Lennon and McCartney kind of vocal sound and their approach to playing the guitars as well.”
Kevin Bright had a vision for the Friends theme song
Some accounts suggest that Bright wanted it to sound like The Beatles but also to have a contemporary feel to capture the Generation X mindset. But lyricist Allee Willis told a newspaper in 2008 that “the producers wanted a very Monkees-sounding song, which it is.”
The Beatles, the Monkees… either way, it worked.
The Friends theme song was recorded over a weekend
As Danny Wilde, one half of The Rembrandts duo, told Billboard magazine in 1995, "We went into the studio, and cut a 42-second version of the theme song... It was so fast. We cut it on a Saturday; we worked in a 20-hour session. We cut it and mixed it in the same session, because it had to be finished on Monday so that they could go on line with it, because the show was airing that Thursday.”
Those four hand claps
You know how in the beginning of the theme song, there are those four quick hand claps? Clap, clap, clap, clap. That wasn’t intentional. The producers were putting the finishing touches on the song, and near the start of the song, there was supposed to be a drum fill. That's a super short drum solo that fills in a gap between musical phrases.
Well, according to Variety, Skloff couldn’t find the drum fill that had been recorded. So he and the recording engineer came up with the idea to do the hand claps. Skloff, Kevin Bright and a couple of assistants stood around a microphone and made TV theme song history.
Later, according to another Variety article, the Rembrandts were given a chance to put a drum fill in where the claps were. But when they heard the clapping, they liked it and kept it in.
"I'll Be There For You" was later turned into a song for the radio
Charlie Quinn, a program director at Y107 in Nashville took the Friends theme song off a TV recording and then looped it, to make it a longer song, and went on the air with it – after listeners were calling in, asking him to play it. That spurred interest in having the Rembrandts going into the studio in March 1995 and cutting a longer song of “I’ll Be There For You.”
A little more about the people behind the Friends theme song
The composer. Skloff has created a lot of music for TV, film and theatre. He is a co-composer on Netflix’s comedy series Grace and Frankie, for instance, and he was nominated for an Emmy for the main theme song for the HBO comedy, Dream On. But “I’ll Be There For You” is the monster hit he’ll probably always be associated with.
The lyricist. Willis co-wrote Earth, Wind & Fire's hit song, "September" and the Pointer Sisters' "The Neutron Dance," among others. She died in 2019 at the age of 72. Bonnie Raitt, Sister Sledge, Ray Charles and the Pet Shop Boys are among the giants that have recorded her music. Willis, who came off as a fun-loving free spirit in interviews, loved being associated with the theme song. “I'm totally grateful,” she once told a newspaper reporter. “That show exploded. I went along for the ride."
Kevin Bright, David Crane and Marta Kauffman
The producers. Crane and Kauffman created the series, but they were all three executive producers on Friends. Bright is generally credited in the media with spearheading the theme song, but obviously Crane and Kauffman deserve plenty of plaudits as well.
The singers. Wilde had been in the music scene since the 1970s, and in the early 1980s, he and Solem were part of a band called Great Buildings. They teamed up to form The Rembrandts in 1989.
How the Rembrandts felt about the Friends theme song
For awhile, not so great, actually. "I think we had always hoped our careers would take a slow and steady climb, where we could make the music we wanted and have a fan base that would support the touring,” Wilde told a news wire service in 2003.
Instead, Wilde said, "We went from being a cool, cutting-edge band to a pop flavor-of-the-month."
But the Rembrandts came around to the idea that the theme song gave them more than it took away. At least Solem told Variety in 2020, “I’m proud we did it, even though there was a period of wondering, ‘Did we make a mistake?’ More people today care about the rest of our music than if we hadn’t done it. You try for years to become successful, then a little opportunity comes along and usurps the entire game plan. It’s been magical.”
Was the Friends theme song the last great theme song?
In a way. There have certainly been memorable TV theme songs after Friends. Veronica Mars, for instance, had an intense, memorable earworm called “We Used to be Friends” as a theme song. (If Friends ever comes back as a reboot, where the characters haven’t seen each other in years, maybe they can use that.)
The Office had a catchy tune. The Walking Dead came on the scene in 2010 with a haunting theme song.
But they tend to not make TV theme songs like they used to, because many series purposefully shorten them. TV shows are shorter than they were in the 1990s due to having more commercials, and a longer theme song means a shorter script.
Still, part of why the Friends theme song caught on was that it captured attention spans and imaginations when the country was largely watching the same thing. In 1994 when Friends began airing, the internet wasn't a huge thing. Social media and streaming didn't exist. In fact, Netflix wouldn't rent out DVDs for another three years.
By the time Veronica Mars and The Office came on the air in 2004 and 2005 respectively, the TV landscape had changed rather dramatically in the last decade. There were far more cable channels and even TV networks.
Veronica Mars was on a network -- UPN -- that didn't exist when Friends began airing. It came on the scene in 1995 and ceased operations in 2006. Chances are, if you had said to a friend, "Wow, Veronica Mars has an amazing theme song," that friend would have said, "What's a Veronica Mars?"
By the 2000s, there could be a major TV hit that was never seen by a majority of TV watchers. The Sorpranos and Game of Thrones were extremely popular, for instance, but if you didn't get HBO, you weren't in on the fun. Anybody with cable or old-fashioned TV antennas could sample Friends.
So when David Crane and Marta Kauffman did interviews with Variety in 2020 about the iconic "I'll Be There For You," they weren’t wrong to feel that they probably wouldn’t have been able to make the same theme song today.
“We were one of the last real theme songs,” David Crane said. “I grew up on Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, but as shows have gotten shorter, so have opening credits. Today you barely get a three-second musical sting, so I feel lucky – like we got in just in time.”
“‘I’ll Be There for You’ proved that theme songs can be a powerful way to start a show,” Marta Kauffman added. “Ours took on a life of its own; people know all the words and clap in the right place. Who wouldn’t want that?”
Indeed. I remember being in my 20s and practically running for the TV, to make sure I didn't miss an episode of Friends. This was in the days before you could watch shows "on demand" and before DVRs were on the market. And part of the reason for my excitement, I'm sure, was that happy-go-lucky theme song.
Being early in my career and very much stuck in second gear, I would listen to those lyrics and watch the show, slack-jawed, and think, “Friends gets me.”
It was a genius move on the part of the executive producers. While the entire show was hilarious from beginning to end, the theme sung is what initially in millions of fans. You hear those familiar lyrics, “I’ll be there for you (when the rain starts to pour), I’ll be there for you (like I’ve been there before),” and especially if you’ve had a bad day and need a good laugh, you can’t help but feel reassured and happy. Corny as I know that sounds.
But it's true. That song comes on, and the tune and the TV characters are, indeed, there for you. Just like an old friend.
Where to watch Friends (at the time of this writing): Friends (the entire series) and can be found on HBO Max.
Articles similar to this Friends theme song one: Perhaps you would like to read about another classic TV theme song, “Those Were the Days,” from All in the Family?