It is through music that Henson first showcased his craft. He allowed his creations to move through the rhythms, experiencing emotions as dictated by the sounds. It was during these moments that Henson first connected with us, and it stands as a testament to his appeal across generational and linguistic boundaries.
The premise is simple. Two identical creatures are singing a song that an outsider wishes to join in. When the newcomer threatens the integrity of the song with improvisational scatting, the original singers disapprove, raising the frustrations of the free spirit.
I present to you, "Mahna Mahna."
The Snowths and Mahna Mahna
Although it had been performed before on Sesame Street (with different puppets), it wasn't until its appearance on a 1969 episode of The Ed Sullivan show that the "Mahna Mahna" song gained its popularity. Eventually, the song became synonymous with the Muppets as Henson and his crew would repeat the act on multiple other variety shows. So it was no question about what song would be the opening number for the premiere episode of The Muppet Show.
It is this incarnation that I share with you today, for it benefited from repeated polishings and multiple takes (unlike the live versions, which have their share of errors). This version also explores the limitless possibilities Henson saw in putting puppetry on television. Dating back to his original college works in 1955, Henson loved the idea that the television screen created a natural border to present his puppets in. Because the puppeteers could be completely obscured through clever camera editing, puppets had a wider range of travel. As seen in the following clip, Mahna Mahna can travel from the foreground to the far background and can suddenly appear from the left, right, bottom, or top of the screen. In this simple staging, the notion that we are watching puppets shatters, and we are left with abstract creatures inhabiting a three-dimensional space.
What is a "Mahna Mahna" indeed?
Why do we find this sketch so charming? It falls into a simple pattern that escalates with each verse. Mahna Mahna (the character) runs through the full gamut of emotions over this silly issue of being able to sing his own way and he explores various avenues to get his material into the song. First, it is just accidental. Then he tries to alter it to fit the needs of the Snowths. Then he tries to sneak it in unnoticed. But it's no use. Ultimately he decides, it does not matter what the others approve of. This is his music and he is going to have the final word.
Fittingly, Mahna Mahna is performed by the free-spirited Henson himself. His need for unguided artistic expression defined his entire life. He knew what he wanted to make, and more importantly, he wanted to have fun making it. The unassuming Snowths (both played by Frank Oz, Henson's main creative partner) do not intend to cause pain. They simply just reinforce the rules as they know them. There is a structure to the song and alterations are not bad; they are just incorrect. You can see the pain in their eyes as they must continue to crush Mahna Mahna's dreams. It's not his fault, he's just not a right fit for this world. One of the Snowths almost starts to like one of his scats, but after confirming with the other one, realizes that, no, not now.
Fortunately for Henson, he did not listen to the Snowths in his life. He yearned to try new things because it made him happy to make others happy. As Henson's company grew and grew, it was amazing to see how many eggs he had to juggle. With so many different shows and movies in production, one would expect Henson to be a heartless money-making machine. But despite his intelligent, calm, reserved nature, Henson never lost respect for the silly and whimsical.
Every time you see an old clip of Kermit flailing his body around shouting "YAAAAAAAY," he is attached to Henson's arm.
Henson understood the need for absurd entertainment. For him, it was as pleasurable to create as it was to share. It appeals to the child in us as much as it appeals to the adult. If we aren't willing to sit back and laugh at the ridiculous, we have misguided values. Our world is filled with rich colors, fascinating sights, and unique sounds. Life can get serious yes, but it pays to stop and look at the happiness and humor that is all around us. Nothing matters if it does not make you smile. During Henson's memorial, Frank Oz noted of his departed friend that he did not see Jim as a creator, but "as an appreciator. He appreciated so much.... He appreciated...just beauty.... I really don't believe that Henson could have been such an extraordinary creator if he hadn't been such an extraordinary appreciator..."*
So, as Waldorf explained to Statler, the question is not "What is a 'Mahna Mahna?'"
"The question is, 'Who cares?'"
*Oz, Frank "Jim Henson." Remembrances and Celebrations: a Book of Eulogies, Elegies, Letters, and Epitaphs Ed. Jill Werman Harris. Pantheon Books: New York, NY, 1999, 145–147.