Interview With Gary Portnoy: The Cheers Theme Song Writer

By on December 20, 2012 in ArticlesEntertainment

I have always been fascinated by the world of TV theme songs. Whenever I watch a show like The Simpsons or Friends I always wonder how much the songwriter got paid to write the theme song. Did he/she get paid a one time fee or does he get a check every time the show airs? Does writing one hit theme song make you enough money to retire for life? Well, who better to ask than Gary Portnoy, whose song "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" from the sitcom Cheers is widely considered to be the most popular and famous theme song of all time. Cheers aired 275 episodes over 11 seasons and was eventually syndicated to 40 countries and 180 American TV markets. And now with the advent of technology like iTunes and Netflix streaming, it's very likely that an episode of Cheers is playing somewhere in the world 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. But how does that affect a guy like Gary Portnoy, who was a broke 20-something songwriter when he wrote wrote what would become one of the most famous songs of all time?

Gary gives a very detailed and fascinating history of how the song originally came about on his website I highly recommend everyone take a minute to check out his site and visit his iTunes page to hear some of his greatest hits including "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" as well as the themes to Punky Brewster and Mr. Belvedere!

The interview:

The song was recorded August 13th 1982. What did you feel immediately after finishing the track? Did you know it was going to be a hit? Or was it just another job?

→ As a child of TV, I grew up watching shows with classic themes like Andy Griffith and The Adams Family. And I would teach myself to play and sing as many of the theme songs as I could. So then, 20 years later, I was really excited to have the opportunity to actually write and sing a TV theme of my own.

You had written many songs before this for artists like Air Supply and Dolly Parton. When did you know this was something different?

→ As a young songwriter I wrote hundreds of songs one after another knowing that, 9 times out of 10, nothing would ever happen with them. I knew this song was special. But I also knew that 9 out of 10 TV shows go nowhere. So I was really worried that the show might fail and that, if it did, the song would most likely be lost forever. However, once I was shown an uncut version of the Cheers pilot I knew after just the first two scenes that, if there was any justice in the world, this show was destined for greatness.

When did your life change?

→ I guess it changed in stages. The day after Cheers first aired people were calling Paramount asking where they could buy my song. "Where's the sheet music, where's the record?" I had never experienced that kind of reaction before so, obviously, it felt great. In response to that, we quickly recorded and released a full length version of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name". However, most of America had not yet discovered Cheers and so the song had a hard time getting radio airplay. In hindsight, of course, the record should have come out during the third or fourth season. But, at the time, the idea was to try to use our theme song to attract interest in the show. And some people say it did exactly that.

In those early years the song and the show fed off each other and together they slowly grew in popularity. But I can honestly say that, for a very long time, I had no real sense of the song's place in the world. I pretty much just went about my life and enjoyed knowing that lots of people were hearing it on a weekly basis. I just didn't realize how much they were feeling it. And that really didn't change until the internet kicked into high gear. In 2003, a friend suggested I put together a website centered around the Cheers Theme. I did just that and it was shocking to me how quickly people responded to it. Shocking! (It was kind of like in the movie "Field Of Dreams"- if you build it they will come! ) Immediately I began hearing from people from all over the world saying the most amazing things and letting me know how much the song meant to them. I was caught completely off guard by this. Some of the emails and postings in my guestbook were lighthearted and humorous- others surprisingly serious. And I can tell you that the response to the "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" continues to this day- nearly 20 years after Cheers filmed their final episode. I am incredible grateful for this song that has left a little footprint in the world.

Did you watch every new episode of Cheers when they aired?

→ Yes.

How does TV songwriting ownership work? If I write a song today that is used on a TV show, do I own it? Do I get paid a one time fee or is it a residual thing? Do you still own the rights to your songs?

→ It depends who you are. If Lady Gaga were to write a TV theme today, she could no doubt demand to maintain ownership of every aspect of the song. But if you are a young and relatively unknown songwriter, as I was in 1982, then you are in no position to make those kinds of demands to a large Hollywood corporate entity like Paramount Pictures. Even though I had already written songs for major artists, I still had to sign over the publishing rights to the Cheers theme to Paramount. It was non-negotiable. "Do you want the song on the show? Then we own the publishing." It was as simple as that. I knew that meant that I would never control where and how the song would be used. (Not to mention that I would earn half as much as I would have if I had kept the copyright. Any time the publisher makes $1, the writer makes $1.) But certainly one would rather receive half the income from a hit TV theme than to own the whole song and make nothing.

That being said, for most writers- and certainly for me- there was another consideration to all of this that had nothing to do with money. There's a part of you that wants every song- each "child"- to have the best life that it possibly can. And making that happen at the start of a career invariably involves making unpleasant- even unfair- concessions. To get the song out there. To share it with the world. Had I not compromised the way I did up front, it is possible that "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" may have sat on a shelf, unheard, for perpetuity.

One perk that I have enjoyed over the years is the fact that since I am also the singer on the Cheers Theme, my permission is required if anyone wants to use my vocal performance outside the show itself. And the recording actually features six singers, all of whom are me, (his vocals were laid onto each other six times) so I can rightfully insist on being compensated as six separate individuals. When people resist I usually say "What if I had used five other singers with me on the Cheers Theme? You wouldn't be able to say to them ' well, we're only going to pay Gary' ". And if someone still objects, I can say to them, "That's cool. Go re-record it with a different singer". So, every now and then, there are brief moments where I actually have some small influence over how the song is used.

Do you have any advice for aspiring singers/songwriters?

→ Well, first and foremost, follow your muse and your dreams to wherever they take you. But, secondly, be sure to have solid legal representation along the way. Certainly it is important to be aware of the advantages of copyright ownership. And to never surrender it lightly. On the other hand, don't be stupid. Don't cut off your nose to spite your face. If a TV or movie studio is offering to expose your work to millions of people- and the deal is all or nothing as far as the copyright is concerned….. hand it over and suck it up. I know many talented writers who refused to ever forfeit any piece of their ownership and, in almost every case, their career never took off.

Did you see The Simpsons send up of the song in the Flaming Moe's episode? What was your reaction to that? Did they need your permission?

→ As mentioned above, no one needs my permission to use "Where Everybody Knows Your Name". They need only the publisher's permission. That was Famous Music (Paramount) back in the day. Today it is SONY/ATV Music. Also, it was not my voice on the Simpsons. I'm not even sure whose it was. At first I thought it was Paul Simon– which would have been incredibly flattering. Whoever it was did a great job and I loved it.

If you wanted to, could you have never worked again and lived a comfortable life off your Cheers royalties?

→ (Laughs) Yes, it has been a comfortable life. At its height, the theme was played all over the world every day of the year in at least 40 countries- and, as the co- songwriter, I get paid for each performance. In recent years, the publisher has been open to licensing it for outside commercial use and that has become the primary source of income for me. So, in some sense, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" has outlived the vehicle to which it was originally attached.

How do you actually get paid? Where does the check come from and how often? Do you get royalties or a lump sum? By check or direct deposit? Who actually writes the check? Do you really get paid any time the show airs?

→ First of all, a songwriter must never accept a lump sum. In fact I think the "buyouts" that used to happen a lot in the early days of pop music are illegal now. Songwriters earn royalties every time their song is played or sold. In the case of "public performances"- those on TV, radio, internet, etc- the size of the royalty will vary depending on whether a song is used on a major television network or on just one local station… and whether it is played on a radio station in a big city or on one in a sparsely populated rural area. There are performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC) that track all of these various performances and collect fees on the writer's behalf. These monies are generally distributed on a quarterly basis. And in these modern times, more often than not, they are deposited directly into the writer's bank account.

The income from a song that is sold on a record or CD- or downloaded on iTunes- is called Mechanical income. It is collected by the song's publisher who then distributes half of it to the songwriter(s).

And if you are lucky enough to sing a TV theme, you would receive vocal residuals through the union now known as SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.)

Did you see a big increase in mechanical royalties with the advent of iTunes and Shazam now that people can hear a song and instantly purchase it on a whim?

→ YES. A massive uptick occured in 2003 when iTunes came on the scene. Prior to that time the song had somewhat fallen between the cracks. The only way to really buy the Cheers Theme was on a compilation like a Reader's Digest "Best TV Theme Songs" CD that might have cost $20. I remember asking a friend if I should sign up for "this iTunes thing." There was I think a $30 or $50 fee to open an account with them and my friend said "Don't do it, it's just a scam for Apple to make 50 bucks off every aspiring singer in the world". Thankfully, I did it anyway and proceeded to upload the full-length recording of "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" that, fortunately, I own. And immediately the sales kicked in. And as iTunes continued to grow and extend its reach around the globe, the digital downloads of the Cheers Theme kept pace with it. I was amazed at how many people wanted "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" on their iPods and their cell phones after all those years. It was kind of crazy. And very gratifying!

Most people end up buying the full 2:30 version that has a few extra verses?

→ Yes. I think it costs 99 cents. iTunes has become a major player for me. I'm still amazed at the steady a stream of sales I get off there. And any time the song is used in a commercial I see a huge spike in iTunes sales. I also saw a big uptick when the show became available on Netflix streaming. Thirty years later new people were finding the show for the first time and old people were re-discovering it.

How often do you hear the song and what does it make you feel now? Do you ever get sick of it?

→ That song is like my child. So, of course, I love it. But I am also really lucky that I LIKE it, as well. It has my heart and I've never gotten sick of it. When I hear it today I get a very warm feeling. I feel incredibly blessed that "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" is over 30 years old (is that possible???) and people still want to have it in their lives. And now a whole generation of people who weren't even born when Cheers had its heyday have come to discover and embrace the theme. It seems to have a life force all its own. Sometimes I just have to shake my head.

The song has become somewhat of an anthem at many bars. Often patrons sing along with a piano player at closing time. Have you ever been in a situation where someone or a group of people started singing the song around you without knowing who you are?

→ Just this year I was in a pizza place waiting to pick up a pie and one of the workers and one of the other customers began singing the Cheers Theme- and rather robustly at that. I didn't know what had precipitated it and, normally, I would never have said a word. But on this particular day I told them that they were singing my song. What a mistake. They both looked at me with pitiful eyes as if to say " yes, sure, it's your song." And then they went right on singing. On a more serious note, many years ago my mother had a very bizarre experience. She was an alcoholic and had just started to attend AA meetings. One time at a meeting she had never before been to, the entire group started singing "Where Everybody Knows Your Name". As it turns out, the song was part of their regular routine- which is incredibly ironic when you consider its genesis. My mom was stunned to say the least.

Have you ever performed the song live in a bar?

Yes and it was an amazing experience. I was in Nashville to participate in a "writers round" at the landmark Bluebird Café. I had played several of my other songs and not really gotten much of a reaction from the crowd. Then I announced, "I've always wanted to play this next song in a bar". Well… no sooner had I played the first few notes of the piano intro "da, da da da da da da…" than the crowd went insane. For the next few minutes I understood what it feels like to be Bruce Springsteen. LOL I was shocked at the power that my fingers had.

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