By far one of the catchiest television jingles of all time, the "Nanny" theme song was heard weekly in my family's home, since we never missed an episode of the long-running ‘90s sitcom starring Fran Drescher.
In honor of the CBS series (finally) coming to streaming via HBO Max, TODAY interviewed Ann Hampton Callaway, the creator and voice behind the popular jingle, to get the story behind one of television's most iconic theme songs.
“It has to be really crisp and you have to understand all the words and it has to be fun and perky and there's a certain thing that you do in a TV theme to make sure it's an earworm, because if you have a TV theme that you don't remember, it doesn't help the show,” Callaway, 62, told TODAY.
Callaway met Drescher in the late 1980s after she performed a cabaret of her original songs at Don’t Tell Mama, a popular cabaret spot in New York City.
“She came up to me after the show and with that unmistakable voice, she said, ‘Oh my God! You’re so talented,'" Callaway remembers. “She told me she wanted me to work on projects with her and so I started writing theme songs for her pilots that never went anywhere. I mean, every entertainer tries to come up with some great show and with everyone you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, I hope this one works.’”
After a few failed attempts, Drescher called Callaway about “The Nanny,” but not without a caveat. “She said that this time, she was inviting several songwriters who are well known to try to write the song, and so I thought, ‘Oh, now I've got competition. Sounds more serious.’”
Callaway said she felt the pressure was on, so she decided to write two theme songs instead of just one. “I was so bound and determined to have a TV theme with Fran that would work and would be a series,” she said. “So that's why I wrote two themes... to just be a contender against all the Hollywood famous writers.”
Callaway also took some valuable advice from her father, who was a journalist. He always told her to “get the story,” so she went to Drescher to really understand the character and her origin story.
“I wanted to be able to tell this story really, really well in 42 seconds... that's all I had,” she said. “So I'm taking notes laboriously, I'm asking her lots of questions.”
After a long conversation, Callaway says she still didn’t understand the essence of the character, so she asked one more time. “I really need to know exactly who is your character. In a nutshell, who is Fran Fine? She paused for a second and she said, ’Well, you know what… she's the lady in red when everyone else is wearing tan.”
Callaway thought that was brilliant, so she added that line to her song. She did submit two themes, but she says she can’t remember what the other one sounded like.
“I think Fran really appreciated how much I worked to get to the spirit of Fran Fine, after talking to her," Callaway said, adding that Drescher picked her theme almost right away.
After her song was selected, Callaway started recommending other performers to sing it, including the vocal group Manhattan Transfer. Much to her surprise, Drescher said she wanted only Callaway to record it. “That was really wonderful of her.”
Because Callaway had lost so much money on demos that didn’t go anywhere for Drescher in the past, when Callaway’s entertainment attorney asked if she wanted to pay him by the hour or pay 10%, she picked the latter, thinking she would finally save some money.
“I didn't realize what a hot ticket this was going to be, so I said 10%, and for several years, I was paying 10% of my royalties, which was one of the first really successful songs I ever wrote besides the hits I did for Barbra Streisand,” she said. “So it ended up being a lot of money. So finally I told my attorney, I think you've gotten your money's worth here.”
Another business decision that she regrets is not becoming more involved with the musical version of the television show, which Drescher has been working on for years. (Callaway thinks Katharine McPhee is a shoo-in for the part of Fran Fine onstage.)
“I sat with Fran and Peter (Marc Jacobson) in Fran’s home and we had a very nice conversation,” she said. “I did some spec songs and I talked to a friend and he didn't think it was, as busy of a schedule I have as a performer, he didn't see how it would become a hit show. Now, I have regrets because I have a feeling they’re making a hit out of it, but he advised me against doing the show, given how demanding my life is already.”
“Maybe they'll call me at the last minute and say, ‘What do you got?’ I'd love to write something if they needed some additional material.”
Regardless, the "Nanny” theme song has gotten her recognized internationally, and it's something she is very grateful for.
“It just became this really wonderful surprise, year after year, more people would fall in love with it,” she said. “It was such a part of people’s childhoods. I just love Fran, and I'm so proud to be the writer of one of the last really authentic TV theme songs that told the story of the characters, you know like ‘Gilligan's Island’ or ‘The Brady Bunch’ and some of those.”
“I think more TV shows should have this kind of song because it's very engaging. It helps you understand, you can enter the show at any part of the series or season, and get the important story in the first few seconds. It also makes you care about the characters more. I mean, you feel like they're a part of your lives in a very close way. Anything that makes you care about the show or care about the characters and relate to it more gives it much more potential for it to become iconic.”