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Mahna Mahna at 50: fascinating facts about the unforgettable Muppets song

The Muppets made it famous, but where did the song come from? (Hint: a steamy Italian film...) Who performed it? And who is that fuzzy fella?

The Muppets made it famous, but where did the song come from? Who performed it? And who is that fuzzy fella?

The Muppets' rendition of Mah Na Mah Na first aired on November 27, 1969, and shot to fame after appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show November 30. (John E. Barrett/The Muppets Studio/Disney Enterprises)

If you grew up watching The Muppet Show, or have kids who did, you almost certainly know Mahna Mahna — also known as Mah Na Mah Na or Mah Nà Mah Nà.

The catchy song features two female singers who perform in an orderly way, but get interrupted by a far less restrained male singer.

An early version of the sketch first appeared on Sesame Street on Nov. 27, 1969, but it was an appearance of Jim Henson and His Muppets on The Ed Sullivan Show on Nov. 30 that cemented the song's fame.

But where did the song come from? Who performed it? And what is the name of that fuzzy little fella, anyway?

In honour of the earworm's 50th anniversary, we found the answers.

It's actually an Italian song

Most people know Mahna Mahna as a Muppets sketch, but the song  — titled Mah Nà Mah Nà — is actually by Italian composer Piero Umiliani. The Tuscan musician composed scores for exploitation films in the '60s and '70s, including spaghetti westerns and softcore sex films, but Mah Nà Mah Nà would be his most famous work.

It originally appeared in a steamy film about Swedish sexuality

The song originally appeared in a racy Italian film called Svezia, inferno e paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell), in a scene where a bunch of Swedish models crowd into a sauna wearing little more than bath towels.

It was performed by four session musicians from the RAI orchestra under the name Marc 4, was sung by Italian singer and composer Alessandro Alessandroni along with his wife Giulia. The song also appeared on the 1968 soundtrack album for the film.

The original Muppets version involved a character named Bip Bippadotta

In the original version of the sketch, which first aired on Sesame Street on Nov. 27, 1969, the singers are what Jim Henson called "Anything Muppets" — that is, random puppets that weren't assigned specific characters. They were voiced by Henson (best known as Kermit), Frank Oz (Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy) and Loretta Long.

In this version, the male character is more subdued, and the backup singers are less perturbed by his interjections. In the end the female singers wander off, and the male, who looks like a beatnik and was later given the name Bip Bippadotta, disappears into the background.

It appeared on other popular TV shows

While the tune became a signature song on The Muppets, it also appeared in other TV programs, including The Benny Hill Show and during a recurring blackout sketch on The Red Skelton Show. But when the Muppets performed the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, it became an instant classic.

It also hit the Billboard charts

Mah Nà Mah Nà definitely wasn't a number 1 hit. Still, the song peaked at a respectable #55 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also reached number 12 on the U.S. Adult Contemporary Chart, and in Canada, it hit number 22 on the RPM Magazine charts.

In the later Muppet Show version, things got a little crazier

In the 1976 version of the sketch, the backup singers are twin monsters called Snowths — a combination of snout and mouth — and the male singer's interruptions become longer, louder and more pronounced as the Snowths repeatedly mouth their disapproval. In the end, the male singer, now known affectionately as Mahna Mahna, appears to run directly into the camera and break the glass.

It incorporates other popular tunes

The song is hugely popular on its own, but it also references other popular songs. The original song includes snippets from Swedish Rhapsody by Hugo Alfvén, and the Italian song Santa Lucia. 

Meanwhile the "scat" portion of the Muppets version includes a melody from George Shearing's Lullaby of Birdland, made famous by jazz legends including Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

It's been referenced dozens of times in pop culture

Of course when a few generations grow up with the same song, especially one as earworm-ish as Mahna Mahna, it's bound to pop up in other corners of pop culture.

Some notable renditions include a live cover by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center, a cover by the band Cake, and an appearance in an episode of the UK version of The Office

And in a meta Muppets moment, it was referenced in the show itself

In a 1996 episode of Muppets Tonight, Sandra Bullock stars as a psychiatrist who welcomes Kermit the Frog as a patient. Kermit's problem, it seems, is that the Snowths appear every time the famous frog says the word "phenomena."

"That's the strangest thing I've ever seen," says Bullock, before being caught up in the effect herself.

Got Mahna Mahna stuck in your head? Check out this article about how to get rid of an earworm. Until then, here's one more version featuring some famous faces — including a Canadian. 

About the Author

Jennifer Van Evra is a Vancouver-based journalist and digital producer for q. She can be found on Twitter @jvanevra or email jennifer.vanevra@cbc.ca.

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