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Awesome True Story: Muppets “Mahna Mahna” came from a 60s porno

By / 11.29.11

I was watching The Muppets movie the other day, and one of the very first questions I had about it was where the “Mahna Mahna” song came from. It’s a hard question to ask without feeling like an idiot, because while everyone knows the song, and it feels as familiar as “Happy Birthday,” you assume there must be more to it besides the melody and wonder if you’re just forgetting the rest. Someone at Slate must’ve wondered the same thing, and the ensuing investigation led to the discovery that song originally came from a 1968 Italian softcore porno (using the term pretty loosely here, it seems) called Sweden: Heaven and Hell.

In the tradition of the shocking, factually questionable Mondo Cane, Heaven and Hell was styled as a documentary about Scandinavian sexuality, which provided a thin veneer of respectability for its leering exploration of lesbian nightclubs and meter maids who moonlight as nude models. In the scene where “Viva la Sauna Svedese”—as the song was originally titled—makes its appearance, the camera follows a bevy of statuesque, fur-swaddled blondes as they make their way through the snow to a sauna, then cuts to the same women clad only in carelessly draped towels, giggling as they soak up the heat.

Ahh, those good-old 1960s. All the ladies were fur-swaddled back then.

Composer Piero Umiliani’s C.V. includes the 1958 classic Big Deal on Madonna Street, but by 1968, he seems to have been more concerned with quantity than quality; Heaven and Hell was one of 11 credits for him that year; he’d had a dozen the year before that.* But he was onto something with this brief, catchy snippet, which, when released as a single under the title “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” made it to No. 55 on the U.S. charts. The nasal, kazoo-like vocals by Alessandro Alessandrini have the hallmarks of an instant novelty hit, which is to say they’re at once annoying and unforgettable.

The Slate piece goes through the various iterations of the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna” character, and his backing vocalists, The Snowths (god damn the Muppets are awesome), but it never says exactly when or where Jim Henson first heard the Umiliani song, or whether he ever said. But we’re all adults here. I think we can safely assume it was probably while he was tugging off to busty Swedes. The film in question, by the way, sounds more like an exploitation film, not a “softcore porno,” as those troglodytes at Slate have so carelessly categorized it. Though I will admit that the credited director, Luigi Scattini, has a name that does sounds like a bad parody of a fake Italian porn name. “Mamma Mia! This-a directing a-porn, she’s-a so hard! Who’s-a gonna clean-uppa alla this-a scattini!”

(above) The familiar version of “Mahna Mahna” from 1976.

The first appearance fo “Mahna Mahna” from 1969.


TAGSITALIANSjim hensonLUIGI SCATTINIPIERO UMILIANIPORNOSWEDEN HEAVEN AND HELLthe muppetsTRIVIA

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