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The Original "Mahna Mahna"

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YouTube / rapr1

It's a fair bet that you've heard "Mahna Mahna" from The Muppet Show. If you're of a certain age, just mentioning "Mahna Mahna" starts the tune in your head, and you're off to the races! (Doo-doo-dee-doo-doo, doo-doo-dee-doo!!) But while most of us think of the song as the opening number on the original Muppet Show, its first Muppet rendition came on an early episode of Sesame Street, performed by a trio of then-nameless "anything Muppets" just messing around. Check this out, and note how the backing vocals go "bah-dee-pee-tee-pee" rather than "doo-doo-doo":

The song got more play on The Ed Sullivan Show later in 1969, now with the characteristic Snowth singers. By now, the male singer is a character named Bip Bippadotta and has flaming orange hair:

Versions then appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, This is Tom Jones, and Pure Goldie before its most famous turn on The Muppet Show in 1977 as the first sketch ever aired on the show. This is the version I know best, and it defines The Muppet Show for me:

But let's rewind once more -- the original song was written by Piero Umiliani for an Italian film about...wait for it...sex in Sweden! What?! The film Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (translated: Sweden, Heaven and Hell) first used the song in 1968, making that its first appearance ever (albeit with no Muppets). In those days, it went by "Mah Nà Mah Nà" and served as the score to this scene involving a sauna (don't worry, everyone remains clothed):

And that, my friends, is the original, original "Mahna Mahna." In 2011, the Muppets released it as a single and it's been stuck in my head ever since.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images

On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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Sesame Workshop
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Meet Zeerak, the Newest Afghan Muppet
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Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street isn't just an American show—it has co-productions around the world, localized for kids in different countries and cultures. In Afghanistan, Baghch-e-Simsim ("Sesame Garden") just began its sixth season. Last year, the show introduced 6-year-old Zari, the first Afghan Muppet. Now, Baghch-e-Simsim adds its second Afghan Muppet, Zeerak, to its cast.

Zeerak, whose name means "smart" and "talented" in Dari and Pashto, is Zari's younger brother. He's 4 years old. He enjoys painting and playing games, and is just learning to read and count—though he's not going to school just yet. Zeerak marks the first time a male Afghan Muppet has ever existed, and he will likely become a role model for kids in the region. Baghch-e-Simsim is the most-watched TV program among young children in Afghanistan.

Zeerak sits with his older sister Zari. They're reading together.
Zeerak sits with his older sister Zari. They're reading together.
Sesame Workshop

Like Zari, Zeerak has multicolored yarn hair. He's orange, with a purple nose, glasses, and an outfit appropriate to the region. In a press release, the Sesame Workshop explained early interactions between Zeerak and Zari:

In one segment called “Going to School,” Zeerak eagerly awaits Zari’s return from school and is excited to hear about her day. Zari explains that Zeerak will have the opportunity to go to school too someday, and that working hard in school will help him achieve his dreams. Zari encourages Zeerak to think about what he might become when he grows up, and offers to teach him a few lessons before he’s ready to go to school himself.

It's hard to overestimate the impact of this TV show on Afghan children. The Sesame Workshop reports:

...[A]mong children who watch TV, over 80% report watching [Baghch-e-Simsim]; 3.1 million children ages 3-7 are tuning in, up 45% from 2015. And Baghch-e-Simsim isn’t only engaging children—more than 70% of parents and caregivers watch the program alongside children, with Baghch-e-Simsim surpassing other Afghan children’s shows in terms of adult-child co-viewership.

Zeerak is on the show now, and you can catch up on segments via YouTube if you happen not to be in Afghanistan. For a look behind the scenes of the show's production (in English), check out this delightful video in which (among other things) Muppeteers in the US videoconference with their counterparts in Afghanistan. Enjoy:

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