How a ditty from a soft-core Italian movie became the Muppets’ catchiest tune.
Snowths & Mahna Mahna photograph by John E. Barrett. © The Muppets Studio, LLC. © Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved.
Also in Slate, Dana Stevens reviews The Muppets.
With guest vocalists ranging from Joanna Newsom to Mickey Rooney, the soundtrack to The Muppets reboot leaves no demographic unserved. But the song audiences are likely to be humming on the way out of the theater wasn’t composed, or even recorded, for the new film. Jim Henson’s immortal creations have lent their distinctive voices to plenty of great songs—“Bein’ Green,” written by Henson standby Joe Raposo, or Paul Williams’ “Rainbow Connection”—but none quite have the nagging persistence of “Mahna Mahna,” which helps bring The Muppets to a rousing finish.
“Mahna Mahna” is as catchy as a song can be, like a fishing hook stuck in your tympanum. Most people know the tune from a classic sketch that aired during The Muppet Show’s 1976 premiere, in which an orange-haired hepcat unsuccessfully tries to persuade two hot-pink creatures with long, disapproving snouts to get into the “Mahna Mahna” groove. But the bit goes back further, and the song further still, originating in, of all places, an Italian soft-core movie called Sweden: Heaven and Hell.
In the tradition of the shocking, factually questionable Mondo Cane, Heaven and Hell was styled as a documentary about Scandinavian sexuality, which provided a thin veneer of respectability for its leering exploration of lesbian nightclubs and meter maids who moonlight as nude models. In the scene where “Viva la Sauna Svedese”—as the song was originally titled—makes its appearance, the camera follows a bevy of statuesque, fur-swaddled blondes as they make their way through the snow to a sauna, then cuts to the same women clad only in carelessly draped towels, giggling as they soak up the heat.
Composer Piero Umiliani’s C.V. includes the 1958 classic Big Deal on Madonna Street, but by 1968, he seems to have been more concerned with quantity than quality; Heaven and Hell was one of 11 credits for him that year; he’d had a dozen the year before that.* But he was onto something with this brief, catchy snippet, which, when released as a single under the title “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” made it to No. 55 on the U.S. charts. The nasal, kazoo-like vocals by Alessandro Alessandrini have the hallmarks of an instant novelty hit, which is to say they’re at once annoying and unforgettable. (To listen to Umiliani’s complete original, untainted by the sight of buxom Swedes, click here.)
As “Mah Nà Mah Nà” climbed the charts, the fledgling Children’s Television Workshop was struggling to settle on a format for their educational TV program, Sesame Street. CTW co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney had recently given the OK to bring in Jim Henson, whose Muppet characters had at that point been seen only in commercials and on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. Henson, a bearded bohemian with no experience in children’s programming, was something of an odd choice, but that was just why Cooney wanted him.
Mahna Mahna, as the character would come to be known, made his televised debut on Nov. 30, 1969, on the Ed Sullivan Show. The setup is identical to the more familiar Muppet Show version, with Mahna Mahna’s hoarse scat pitted against the dulcet “doo dee doo” of the twin Snouths (a portmanteau of “snout” and “mouth”), who shake their heads and purse their lips in disapproval when their irrepressible colleague strays from the script. In Street Gang, Michael Davis’ history of Sesame Street, several of Henson’s colleagues describe his artistic style as “affectionate anarchy,” and it doesn’t take much in the way of exegesis to see an anti-conformist message at work here. As Mahna Mahna’s antics grow wilder, the Snouths grow more uneasy and eventually counterattack, smother him with their bodies. But Mahna Mahna eventually breaks free and runs right at the camera, making contact to the sound of shattering glass.
A rough draft of the Sullivan version appeared a few days earlier, during the first season of Sesame Street. Here the performers were not the familiar characters, but three of what Henson and his colleagues called “Anything Muppets,” generic characters who could be fitted into any scenario. Taking the place of Mahna Mahna is a scrawny Muppet whose face is shrouded in scraggly black hair, his slim body encased in a striped shirt, suggesting either a stereotypical beatnik or a recent prison escapee. He was later given the name Bip Bipadotta.
The staging is more constrained—Bip doesn’t duck below the frame only to zip back in from a different direction, nor does he throw himself around the stage with the same abandon as he had on Sesame Street—but it’s the far less inventive voice Henson uses for the character that makes the bit feel substantially less inspired. The conflict between Bip and the female Anything Muppets is more subdued, the spirit of anarchy substantially diluted. Rather than smashing the camera, Bip simply walks off, alone, into the background, more like a lonely playmate who’s failed to fit in with his friends than an avatar of wanton chaos.
Given that Sullivan was a ratings powerhouse and Sesame Street a mere children’s show, it’s not surprising that the former version was the one to catch on. In subsequent years, the number turned up in prime-time specials by Tom Jones and Goldie Hawn, and was even replicated on stage in Las Vegas as part of Nancy Sinatra’s show. So it wasn’t surprising that when it came time for Henson to launch his own show in 1976, a new version, honed by years of practice, turned up on the first episode.
Mahna Mahna and the Snowths, whose name had mutated in the intervening years, look the same, but the pacing is now more precise. The two Snowths now interact with each other rather than moving in perfect lockstep, and for a fleeting moment (1:21 in the clip below), one of them seems to consider giving in to Mahna Mahna’s joyful chaos, giving him an absent half-nod before returning to a dismissive shake of the head. Rather than the bland soprano of previous incarnations, the Snowths’ voices are now clearly those of Henson’s inseparable partner Frank Oz, best known as the voice of Miss Piggy. What’s more, the backing band swings as never before, culminating in the machine-gun blast of a snare drum as a disheartened Mahna Mahna gets a second wind, sprinting toward the camera from the distant background. (An even more detailed dissection of the clip can be found here).
“Mahna Mahna” has been reworked and restaged endless times since, but each version owes a debt to that Muppet Show debut, a miniature masterpiece that can be watched and rewatched dozens of times without losing its shine. (As the father of a 2-year-old, I speak from first-hand knowledge.) It also made Umiliani’s original a belated top-10 hit in the U.K. and helped push the Muppet Show soundtrack album to No. 1 in the United States. And it laid the groundwork for yet another sublime comic bit, which illustrates just how enduring the Muppets’ version has proved to be:
Correction, Dec. 8, 2011: An earlier version of this article transposed the dates of the Sesame Street and Ed Sullivan Show airings. It has been revised to reflect the correct order.
Correction Nov. 23, 2011: This article originally misspelled Umiliani's name.
Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.