I only have to sing, “Mahna mahna” and you will be forced to sing “doo doo da doo doo.” It’s kind of like, “Shave and a haircut,” there is a cultural imperative for you to finish the refrain. Even though it is a notorious earworm, I sometimes hear these irritatingly catchy songs in my head without knowing the source. Laugh-in? A game show? Luckily our Music Editor knows just about every song in the world. I asked him, “Where did that song, ‘Mahna-mahna come from?”
He replied, “A Swedish movie about sex.”
What? I had to investigate. Those of you with better memories than I have will remember it first from Sesame Street and later The Muppet Show. The Muppet Show even developed a pair of pink backup singing cows called Snouths especially for the song. The original version from Sesame Street is in the video above. Bip Bippadotta, the male singer on Sesame Street, and Mahna Mahna, his counterpart on The Muppets, were both voiced by Jim Henson, later replaced by Bill Barretta in 2005. Although the character of Mahna Mahna sang only this one song, Bip Bippadotta appeared on The Muppets singing a number of other songs.
According to Wikipedia, where it is spelled “Mah Nà Mah Nà” the song was written by Piero Umiliani. It was first performed in 1968 by a band called Marc 4 and sung by Italian singer/composer Alessandro Alessandroni and his wife Giulia. The song was part of Umiliani’s soundtrack for the Italian film Svezia, inferno e paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell. The film was “an exploitation documentary film about wild sexual activity…in Sweden.” The original title was “Viva la Sauna Svedese” (Hooray for the Swedish Sauna).
From 1968-69 the song was a hit in a number of countries. Excerpts were regularly played on Benny Hill and The Red Skeleton Show. A popular version was recorded by The Dave Pell Singers, there is a disco version, a Hebrew version, an Arabic version, and a Moog synthesizer version. It was also used in a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial. But it was The Muppets that turned the song into a cultural phenomenon. Even now.
That should be sufficient to sear this song into your memory forever. So do not shirk your responsibility if anyone starts singing this tune. Do your part. Even in the most extreme situation possible.