This is a story that’s never been told. It’s about the tragedy that dogs every triumph and the fallacy that underlies fame. It concerns a true entertainment icon – the Muppet known to millions as Mahna Mahna.
Until now no one has dared breathe a word of this showbiz sob story. Maybe they feared for their careers should the truth come out. Perhaps they wanted to protect the Muppet brand at all costs. Or possibly, just possibly, they didn’t have to write a column in just under two hours without a single idea in their heads. Whatever the case gentle reader, the telling of this tale falls to me, a lowly horror comic writer with nothing to lose (except for the two hours I spend writing this).
Before he found fame
Like that other musical phenomenon The Beatles, our purple skinned prankster first hit the big time when he played The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969. From the moment he opens his mouth in this first appearance, that gravel gargling growl is unmistakeable, but Mahna had yet to perfect his trademark appearance. He had the flaming orange hair and beard but the fluffy green waistcoat (made, it’s rumoured, from the nasal hair of a congested yeti) was sorely missing. As was the purple skin. Some claim that, like Michael Jackson, the colour change was due to plastic surgery to fix a skin condition, while others insist he simply fell into a hot wash with a purple sock while drunk.
Whatever the case he performed under the name Bip Bippadotta in his early days and flaunted his skills as a multi-instrumentalist. In his second appearance on the Ed Sullivan show he played Beethoven’s minuet in G Major with a string quartet, but instead of a violin he chose to play his part on a drum kit. It’s not known how much Keith Moon was influenced by this performance, but it is quite certain that a young muppet called Animal was in the audience that night. Animal’s ability to copy Mahna’s performance would later win him fame and fortune with Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It may have been the first time someone else got rich off the back of Mahna’s talent, but sadly it wouldn’t be the last.
Goats and saunas
The song that would inevitably shape Mahna’s whole career was written by Piero Umiliani and is said to have been inspired by the traditional cry of the amorous Swedish goatherd calling his flock home to bed. It was written as part of a soundtrack for Svezia, inferno e paradiso an Italian soft porn film set in Sweden. The song was originally called ‘Viva la Sauna Svedese’ (Hooray for the Swedish Sauna) because it accompanied a scene depicting Swedish sauna hi-jinks.
Quite what this all says about the Italians’ view of saunas or the Swedes’ peculiar love for their goats is anyone’s guess. However, the song became a minor hit in Europe in 1968, which is where Mahna may have first heard it. Though the song perfectly suited Mahna’s vocal stylings and he would go on to perform it not just on the Ed Sullivan show but also Sesame Street, it was still missing the one vital ingredient that would propel not just Mahna, but the whole Muppet Show to fame – namely the Snowths.
Enter the Snowths
Not much is known about the Snowth sisters, neither where they come from nor even what sort of creature they are. They were originally called Snouths, because their faces were crosses between a snout and a mouth. However, like many foreigners trying to break into Hollywood, they probably changed their name to suit an American audience.
Though the Snowths’ talents are severely limited in comparison to Mahna’s, it’s fair to say that they were far cannier when it came to the business end of showbiz. From the moment they latched on to Mahna all their fortunes would improve but for Mahna, it would be a double edged change.
It’s time to put on make up, it’s time to light the lights…
On January 26th 1976, Mahna Mahna and the Snowths made showbiz history when they performed the opening number of the first ever Muppet Show. They and the Muppet Show were an overnight hit, topping the ratings and the charts all over the world. This short opening song would come to be the quintessential Muppet sketch. Ask any person of any age to name a Muppet song and the first thing they’ll mention is the ‘Mahna Mahna song’ it has become synonymous with the Muppet brand.
Mahna went on to appear with guest Juliet Prowse and the two ageing hecklers Waldorf and Statler in the same episode. The public couldn’t get enough of him. In the next episode he showcased his drumming skills as he showed up both Scooter and Zoot in a skit called Sax and Violence that ends with him being blown up by Zoot. An act that ominously seemed to sum up Mahna’s career from that point on, as his whole tenure on the show seems to explode.
While the Snowth’s went on to enjoy a long, if unvaried career, singing the same song with such luminaries as Miley Cyrus, Matt Vogel and Peter Linz, from that point on Mahna would only ever appear in the background or as a member of the audience. Quite how Mahna went from being the show’s unofficial mascot to an unnamed member of the audience in such a short space of time is still a hotly debated topic on Muppet forums. Why Mahna never went on to be a household name like Kermit, Miss Piggy or Gonzo the Great continues to baffle scores of middle aged men, still living with their mothers, to this day.
However, gentle reader, I can now reveal to you that the seeds for Mahna’s downfall are all there to see in his one moment of crowning glory. It’s my contention that this two minute and twenty six second skit is more than just a reworking of a cheesey piece of Eurosleaze. It’s a mini psychodrama that perfectly sums up the creative artist’s struggle between commercial success and artistic integrity.
Don’t believe me? Well let’s take another look at the famous number shall we:
Mahna Mahna vs. Doo Doo DooDoo Doo
The piece starts out with the Snowths carrying the melody that we all know and love, soon they’re joined by the star of the show, adding his signature ‘Mah Na Mah Na’ to the mix. All well and good until about 24 seconds into the song and Mahna remembers that he has the temperament and soul of a true artist and he just can’t keep it under wraps any longer. So he launches into an irrepressible burst of life affirming skat singing, riffing off the melody with all the assurance and artistry of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis.
How do the Snowths respond to this? Certainly not with encouragement and approbation. Their admonitory stares seem to be saying: “Stick to the script, give the public what they came to hear. Remember what you’re famous for, everyone knows you as the Mahna Mahna guy. We’re on to a good thing here. We could be made for life. Don’t mess this up!”
So reluctantly Mahna gives them what they want to hear, the four syllable, single bar phrase “Mah-Na Mah-Na”. The Snowths are happy once again and the song goes back to its normal state. But Mahna isn’t happy, some of the spring is gone from his step and the Snowths eye him warily as he paces back and forth across the screen.
Then forty-five seconds into the song Mahna loses control and the skat just comes pouring out of him. Only now he’s not singing to the millions of viewers watching all across the world. He’s directing his skat at the Snowths, as though he’s trying to show them the endless possibilities that lie within the tune. “Look how good this number could be if we only pushed ourselves as musicians,” he seems to be saying. The Snowths just stare at him blankly, completely unable to understand his artistic yearning till finally his verve crumbles and he gives up trying to win them over and returns to the old commercial formula “Mah-Na Mah-Na”. Only now his performance of the phrase becomes more anarchic and disruptive. The Snowths sense this and try and keep up a unified front.
Then at around one minute thirteen Mahna adopts a different approach. Like the film noir makers of 40s and 50s Hollywood, who snuck expressionist art and psycho-sexual themes past the censors of the day, by slipping them into the background of a sensational story. Or the rock musicians of the 60s and 70s who tried to hide complicated classical and jazz themes in an otherwise commercial art form, Mahna tries to sneak around the back of the Snowths and smuggle his envelope pushing skat into the song.
The Snowths close ranks and Mahna looks as though his heart is going to break as he goes back to that same little phrase he’s been singing endlessly for the last seven years “Mah-Na Mah-Na”. He slinks off into the background hardly engaged in the song anymore. The skat singing that he just can’t stop becomes a defiant mumble, the rebel mutter of an artist worn down by the bitter truths of showbiz.
Then, just when all seems lost, he rushes back to the front of the screen and yells “Mah-Na Mah-Na”. At first the Snowths look overjoyed. However, what seems like a return to form for Mahna is anything but. “This is what you want is it?” he appears to be saying as he spits the phrase out at the audience. “Okay you can have Mah-Na Mah-Na, but you won’t take my spirit and you can’t crush my soul”. And with that he exits the stage, angrily rebuking Kermit, as he leaves the theatre, with the same phrase that has just made him a household name.
Next, like every true artist ground down by the crushing truths of the entertainment industry, who still has to make a buck, he gives up hope and he stops caring. Like Marlon Brando in every movie after Apocalypse Now or David Caruso in every episode of CSI Miami, Mahna simply phones in his performance and closes the number.
The entire trajectory of a once promising career, cut short by the hard nosed realities of popular culture, is traced in just over two minutes.
The question is, what’s a Mahna Mahna?
If, like those two grinches Waldorf and Statler you think the question is “Who cares?” Then I’d ask you to think again.
This little skit is a modern day fable for every artist, singer, poet, musician or creative individual who’s ever struggled against an uncaring world that seems hellbent on snuffing out the one thing that makes them unique.
It’s a parable for everyone of us who’s ever pushed against the boundaries imposed on us by a soul destroying job. Who’ve gazed out of the window of our workplace and longed to open our throats and shout: “Why are we doing this mindless, repetitive crap? We could all be so much more than this!”
Maybe Mahna Mahna burned a little too brightly and faded from view a little too fast. Maybe he never became the household name that he should have been. Or maybe I’m just reading way too much into a programme that’s principally aimed at eight to twelve year olds with no attention span.
All the same I’d like to raise a glass to a kindred spirit and salute a patron saint of every wild eyed dreamer who’s ever battled with the Snowths in their own lives. Here’s to a true artist and a musical visionary.
So what does this have to do with horror comics?
Almost nothing, except it perfectly sums up how I feel every time I have to water down a great plot, tone down some excellent dialogue or change a brilliant scene because some editor thinks it’s not ‘commercial enough’.
I’d like to say that normal service will be resumed in my next column, but as I’ve yet to actually establish anything like a ‘normal service’ I wouldn’t hold your breath.
See you in thirty days.
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