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Mahna Mah Wha?

Mahna Mah Wha? published on No Comments on Mahna Mah Wha?

Anyone that has ever watched the Muppet Show is familiar with that catchy little ditty with the refrain “Doo dooooooo doo-doo-doo.” I didn’t even have to play you the audio. You knew it.

I was watching the Muppets the other day for the sake of good ol’ nostalgia (which I used to feel more and miss so I guess these days you would call me nostalgic for nostalgia- nostalgicgic) and I was surprised both by the fact that Mahna Mahna was in the pilot episode and by some subtextual things I had not noticed before- possibly because they exist only in my imagination.

Take a moment below, if you will, to refresh yourself on this timeless classic. Even if you don’t read any of this, who doesn’t love the Muppets?

So… if you’ll allow me to flex my critical muscles a little, I’m about to pretentious out on y’all. Firstly, the skit opens with only the Snowths (that’s what they’re called- google, son!) and their peppy little chorus without a hipster artist in sight. This is what struck me as society, or the audience. They are synchronous, fun, repetitive, catchy, flashy, bright and superficial. They’re a jingle. Cue the introduction of the hipster. When he inserts his Mahna Mahna, it fits neatly in between the chorus. It challenges nothing. It disrupts nothing. It enhances only what is already there. But it is not long before the hipster grows bored with Mahna Mahna and starts to play with what he has already invented and that’s where trouble brews and society turns. He’s stepping on the doo dooooo doo-doo-doo.

The hipster retreats to the safety of mahna mahna and ONLY mahna mahna and tranquility returns. For the Snowths. Hipster is clearly bored and not allowed to deviate from form, he tries new angles and distances, to change up the approach. He does everything he can to make Mahna Mahna fresh again, all without the notice of the Snowths who doo dooooo doo-doo-doo oblivious to the throes of creation that surround them. Finally this boils over until the hipster can no longer contain himself. His scatting becomes louder, more aggressive, more insistent and the retribution is far more pointed. He retreats- beaten, pushed back to the simple mahna mahna which becomes increasingly distant until he is literally phoning it in before he disappears forever.

It’s a chilling indictment of the creative process and the relation of an artist to his audience. It’s an adorable skit about aliens and jazz. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping. It’s Jim Henson and the Muppets at the pinnacle of their craft.

I wonder how much of what I see is intentional. I wonder how much I Rohrschach’d this through my own creative frustrations. I thought it was the inaugural episode of the Muppets, so how burned out could Jim have been? But it was a full twenty years or so that he had been doing puppetry professionally, starting with the low key black and white Sam and Friends in Baltimore and when I was looking for the clip for this blog entry I found this:

This was Sesame Street in 1969 and the things I thought I was imagining are far more explicit here. The cute but ultimately weird snowths were presaged by the traditional and adorable little girls that are looking for a *nice* song. The singer is no hipster but one of their full on hippie forefathers and far more menacing a figure to middle America. I thought no wonder so many government scrooges wanted to defund Sesame Street. It was out there (and Out There) giving people… ideas.

All I know is that when you feel the need for some joy in your life, you could do worse than to watch some classic era Muppets from the Golden Age of Henson. Here’s another favorite from me to you:

Grouchy at the World

Grouchy at the World published on No Comments on Grouchy at the World

Recently I took one of those online quizzes that are so fascinating (because ultimately the subject is me and who isn’t totally fascinated by themselves?). This particular one informed me that of all the Sesame Street characters, I was Oscar the Grouch.

I don’t really mind this, nor am I that surprised. Oscar was always my favorite as a kid. Inspired by this netvalation (it’s like a revelation you get through an ethernet cable), I decided to watch I am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story. Because Carol has played not only Big Bird for longer than I have been alive, but he’s also The Man Behind the Grouch.

I now have to say that Carol has been added to my list of personal heroes, along with people like Mahatma Gandhi and John Lennon. Not just extraordinary, but extraordinary for having endured extreme human cruelty and emerged a kinder, better person than most of us. After an abusive childhood and a terrible first marriage, he met the love of his life and then after Jim Henson he met his  current wife (ba dum bump; in fact he and his wife are adorably in love onscreen and one of the most delightful parts of this film).

What I found striking about his time at Sesame Street is that Carol is a man apart from the other performers. This is true in both the physical and the emotional sense. Muppet performers crouch beneath a stage together to perform, but due to the nature of Big Bird and Oscar, Carol has to perform inside what is essentially a bright yellow isolation chamber or from behind a trashcan. There’s a kind of camaraderie between the puppeteers from which he is perpetually and continually absent. So absent that he spent his first year at the Muppet Studios thinking about quitting every day. And if you’re tempted to forget how massive the Muppet group can be, just look at the size of the crowd on this 1985 album (do not look for this; this is made up). That is a big group from which to be excluded.



Despite his self doubt and his sadness, he powered through his early challenges in the context of the show to become one of the most beloved performers in the world. He pushed the idea of Big Bird being essentially a big kid so he could be the voice through which the youngest viewers explored the biggest concepts. He came up with the idea of Oscar being grouchy but not cruel so he could be deserving of empathy and kindness even if he didn’t always display it himself. He’s living proof that success is not incompatible with class and kindness and according to my netvalatory experience, I would apparently not be the person I am today without him (hear that parents? It’s not your fault- TV raises your kids). For all of this and more, I want to thank the world for putting Carol Spinney in it.

You don’t have to tell me. I know how to get to Sesame Street.



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