1969-1970 Variety Show Appearances

The original "Mahna Mahna".

The original “Mahna Mahna”.

Before proceeding on with Sesame Street‘s second season, today I took a look at a number of variety show appearances that Jim Henson and his Muppets team continued to do, both during Sesame Street‘s opening season and afterwards, during the summer hiatus.


The first is an extremely significant moment in Muppet history, being the debut of one of their most iconic songs and sketches, “Mahna Mahna”! Well, technically it was the second time the Muppets had used it. The first was in a 1969 Sesame Street sketch, which you can watch here, and which feels practically primitive today because, rather than the pink, furry, snoutish, round-mouthed Snowths, who have become indelibly linked to the song, the back-up singers are simply two nondescript Anything Muppet girls, and rather than “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo,” they sing something closer to “pa tee pa tee pee”. The lead singer is basically a sketchy prototype of what he’d later become (interestingly, he’d inspire two similar characters, Bip Bippadotta on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show‘s character, Mahna Mahna). The idea of him excitedly riffing and making strange noises while the more proper back-up singers look on is there from the start, but it’s far more restrained and not as funny as what happens later on.


The best part about it, though, is that this seemingly innocent nonsense song by Pier Umiliani actually wasn’t composed for the Muppets but was originally used in an Italian softcore sexploitation film disguised as a documentary about Swedish life called Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso, which translates to Sweden, Heaven and Hell! Not that there is any evidence of this in the song itself, but it’s great trivia for people today who try to inaccurately characterize Jim Henson as some sort of innocent prude who would never allow his Muppets to indulge in naughty humor.


But returning to the variety show appearance, the first time that “Mahna Mahna” looked and sounded like the song we know and love today was during an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on November 30th, 1969. It’s pretty fascinating to see just how much the skit developed in the month or so since it had been filmed for Sesame Street. Now, we have the Snowths–whose wide eyes and “o”-shaped mouths allow for much funnier silent reactions–in all their glory and a Muppet much closer to the Mahna Mahna of The Muppet Show, albeit with shorter hair and larger eyes (or eye holes, rather). He also goes much crazier and broader in his riffing than the Sesame Street Muppet.


The first "Mahna, Mahna".

The first “Mahna, Mahna”.

Jim’s performance here is actually even crazier and broader than the best-known version today from The Muppet Show, throwing in lots of fun little bits of stage business, like blinking one eye at a time, peering directly into the Snowths’ mouths, running even further away into the distance than in the latter version, and in the end, running back so quickly, he collides with the Snowths, knocking all three of them into the camera, blocking out the light, and causing the Snowths to yell.


I hadn’t expected it, but I actually found this one even more fun than the one I knew best. It’s a bit less polished than it would later become but the frenzied madness of it all makes for even more hilarity. Jim goes so off-the-wall, you can almost be fooled into thinking he was improvising the whole thing, and you can also really feel him feeding off the energy of the extremely enthusiastic audience, who are laughing riotously by the end, vs. The Muppet Show version, which didn’t actually have one (though it’s easy forget, due to the laugh track and Muppet audience). You can watch this incredible piece of Muppet history here.


Next up is a performance of “Octopus’ Garden” from The Ed Sullivan Show. This one happened on March 1, 1970, and unfortunately the only copy I was able to find cuts off after only 30 seconds. It’s a fun snippet, however, including a male Anything Muppet swimming underwater and interacting with a mustachioed Octopus with a Frank Oz/Cookie Monster voice and a penchant for puns. You can watch it here.


Fortunately, I was able to find a complete version of a classic Tonight Show appearance, this time from May 31, 1970, and featuring a rare team-up of Kermit and Grover, singing “What Kind of Fool Am I?” from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s musical, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off! In a way, this sketch is a spin on the old Kermit-tries-to-perform-and-is-interrupted-by-a-monster scenario, although here, he’s in no danger of being devoured. Instead, good old, cuddly Grover just wants to join in his song and keeps interrupting Kermit’s piano-playing (Kermit seems to even have taken over Rowlf’s instrument of choice by this point!).


Kermit and Grover on "Ed Sullivan"

Kermit and Grover on “Ed Sullivan”

Interestingly, Grover still sounds more gruff and monstrous than he would in Season 2 of Sesame Street, but he’s also already much more of the enthusiastic kid he evolved into as the show went on. At the same time, his manners and impulsiveness are a bit closer to Cookie Monster’s personality, not being able to control his desire to talk over Kermit, despite repeated promises to keep quiet, and funny interjections like “You play good!…For a frog” (Incidentally, despite using a Sesame Street character, Jim and Frank are clearly trying to make it less of a child-friendly sketch. For example, when Grover won’t shut up, Kermit rather harshly calls him a “furry dumb-dumb”!).


Eventually, when Kermit demands he stop singing, Grover runs off…and then returns, playing a banjo over Kermit’s piano (“You told me not to sing!”), which causes the green guy to really lose his temper. In response, Grover begins to apologetically sob, asking the “froggie” to forgive him, not unlike when Kermit threatened to tell Cookie’s mommy on him on Sesame Street, and just like when Cookie immediately proceeded to eat Kermit’s sad face drawing as soon as Kermit forgave him, here as soon as Kermit finally says, “Maybe I should’ve let him play,” Grover takes advantage of the situation, calling off-stage, “Come on, guys, he said we could play!” And suddenly the entire stage is overwhelmed by musical, singing monsters!


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