The Muppets: The Adult Origins Of ‘Mahna Mahna’ And More Things You Didn’t Know
For over 60 years, the Muppets’ signature brand of slapstick, vaudeville and cartoony comedy has made them a favourite among kids and adults alike. From black and white lip-syncing skits and tinned soup commercials in the 60s, to a Disney acquisition that has led to two new movies, an ABC show and a theme park ride, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the Muppet squad’s journey to success has been a storied one. In honour of the long-running franchise, we’re counting down 20 facts about the Muppets you probably didn’t know.
20. The Muppet Show pilot was called ‘Sex and Violence’
Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine The Muppets as anything other than a family show.
It offered just enough chaos to keep the kids entertained but also some jokes to appeal to adults in the living room.
This is mostly due to Muppet creator Jim Henson’s work on Sesame Street, which meant his name was always connected to kids’ television.
As it turned out, Henson hated this association, and did everything he could to try and prove that the Muppets were not for kids.
He even went so far as to release a full-length pilot Muppet episode called The Muppets: Sex And Violence.
This parody special included skits about mating rituals, the seven deadly sins and even drug references.
19. Rainbow Connection was a nightmare to film
Rainbow Connection is maybe the most iconic song to ever be written for The Muppets, and it’s what a lot of people think of when they picture Kermit and his crew.
It was first performed in The Muppets Movie in 1979, and secured a spot in the Top 40 for seven weeks.
However, while the song itself may be relaxed and dreamy, the process of filming it was anything but.
Kermit sings Rainbow Connection on a log in a lake, which meant his puppeteer Jim Henson had to sit in a tiny glass tank underwater.
He worked for hours with both arms raised above his head to make Kermit move.
The tank was so cramped that Henson couldn’t move his body properly for days afterwards.
18. Kermit once testified in front of Congress
It might be hard to imagine puppets mixing with politics, but it happens more often than you might think.
Back in 1989, Big Bird met with several congressmen on Capitol Hill to discuss the issue of competition in children’s educational television.
Later Elmo also testified in front of Congress, urging for more funding for music education in schools.
Those two characters were created by Jim Henson, so it might not be surprising that Muppet characters have also had a chance to testify in front of Congress.
However, it is funny to imagine Kermit speaking on behalf of all Amphibian Americans, in order to raise awareness about endangered animals.
The star puppet joined a group of conservationists to speak to Congress about the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
17. Miss Piggy and Kermit have never been married
Kermit and Miss Piggy are the heart of The Muppets, and have been an on-again, off-again celebrity relationship for decades.
In fact, they’re one of television’s most beloved couples, and also have one of the longest-lasting relationships seen on screen, even if their relationship has had a lot of ups and downs.
However, you might be surprised to know that Kermit and Miss Piggy have never actually been married.
While they have a wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan, the whole film is just a story that the Muppet characters have written and are performing.
As a result, Kermit insists they have never actually been married in “real life.”
The pair split up in 1990, around 2011 and again in 2015. In the latter case, Kermit tweeted: “After careful thought, thoughtful consideration and considerable squabbling, we have made the difficult decision to terminate our romantic relationship.”
16. Jim Henson hated the show’s laugh track
Unlike most late-night television shows of the era, most episodes of The Muppet Show were not filmed in front of a live studio audience.
This is because the use of puppets meant that several takes were often necessary, and dialogue often had to be dubbed in.
Instead, almost every episode of the show had a laugh track in the background.
Muppets creator Jim Henson hated this, and never got used to the canned laughter.
He admitted it did make the show funnier, but he said repeatedly that he wished it wasn’t necessary, and even wrote jokes into the script that made fun of the whole idea.
For example, Kermit ends one episode by saying “Thanks a lot! You’ve been a great laugh track!”
15. There was an Office-style spin-off show
The Muppets have always been all about breaking the fourth wall, with characters literally reading the script on screen and joking about montages and sequels ever since the first film.
However, things hit another level of meta in 2015, when ABC released the show The Muppets.
The Muppets has a set-up like The Office or Parks And Recreation, in which the characters are being filmed by a documentary crew as they work.
The characters are all part of the production crew for Miss Piggy’s late-night talk show, and they must deal with the glamourous star’s often unreasonable demands.
Arguably a parody of a mockumentary, The Muppets received decent reviews, although some critics felt the shift to an adult genre was jarring.
In a review for The Washington Post, Hank Stuever described the series as “a smart and often witty update to the Muppet brand.”
14. Animal was based on hard-partying drummers like Keith Moon and Ginger Baker
Since the beginning, The Muppets have been set apart from other puppet shows by how real and lifelike the characters feel.
Kermit and Miss Piggy in particular were designed to feel like complicated and nuanced people, rather than just one-dimensional characters.
However, there are exceptions to this rule, and the main one was the infamous Muppet drummer, Animal.
Animal was created by Frank Oz to feel as simple and as much like a force of nature as possible.
Oz said Animal could be fully summed up in just five words: drums, sleep, food, sex and pain.
The character partly parodies famous partying rock drummers like Keith Moon from The Who, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Ginger Baker of Cream.
13. Saturday Night Live hated having them on the show
Before The Muppets became The Muppets, Jim Henson created a short comedy puppet show called Sam and Friends.
It aired several nights a week just before Saturday Night Live, and it was soon embroiled in a feud with its network neighbour.
Sam and Friends eventually got so popular that Jim Henson was asked to bring his puppets on to SNL.
It was a huge break that helped the Muppets to thrive, but it wasn’t a good fit, since the Muppet team were only allowed to perform the sketches, not write them.
Meanwhile the SNL writers resented being forced to write sketches for a group of puppets.
They reportedly made complaints about “writing for felt,” and were hostile to the Muppet puppeteers on set.
12. The ‘Mahna Mahna’ song’s origin isn’t very family-friendly
The Muppets have sung a lot of catchy and iconic songs over the years, but none are harder to get out of your head than the Mahna Mahna Song.
In fact, it’s actually a good thing the song is now associated only with The Muppets, since originally it had a much more adult context.
The song was performed by The Muppets because a producer working on Sesame Street heard it on the radio, and thought it was catchy enough to work for the pilot.
It was only later on that they found out the song was from a film called Sweden: Heaven And Hell.
This was actually an Italian soft-core adult movie about Swedish lesbian nightclubs and the pornography industry.
The Benny Hill show also spotted something funny about this song by Piero Umiliani – and it used the number as background music for various slapstick scenes.
11. Kermit was originally not a frog – and he was made from an old coat
Kermit The Frog isn’t just the most iconic Muppet of all time, he’s also perhaps the most famous puppet ever created.
He enjoys celebrity status in his own right after decades on television and in movies.
With that said, even die-hard Kermit fans might be shocked to know that he wasn’t always a frog.
That’s right – when Kermit was first created, he was more turquoise than his signature green, and he lacked his webbed feet and hands.
For the show Sam and Friends, Henson made Kermit from a pair of old jeans and his mother’s coat, with ping pong balls for eyes.
There were no mentions of flies or lily-pads until much later in his development, and he was just referred to as Kermit the Thing.
10. The Muppets Show was made by a British company because nobody in the US wanted it
Much though he loved working on Sesame Street, Henson was keen to break out of children’s entertainment.
But his aforementioned Muppets pilot Sex and Violence, produced for ABC, failed to convince anyone to invest in a Muppets series in the USA.
However, a lifeline came from CBS, who wanted to broadcast Henson’s The Muppet Show if he could find a producer.
Lew Grade, who worked for the British channel ATV, also spotted the Muppets’ potential and struck a deal with Henson.
ATV’s studios in Elstree, England, produced The Muppet Show, and in return the show was broadcast across the British ITV stations (ATV among them), as well as CBS.
As a result, this American classic probably never would have been made without this support from a peaceful English village.
9. Henson made over 400 Muppets in total
While Muppets creator Jim Henson was studying studio arts at the University of Maryland, College Park, he joined a puppetry class.
He found his passion crafting flexible puppets from rubber and fabric, and dreamt up his TV show Sam and Friends while he was still in his first year of university.
What followed was a 34-year career in showbusiness, which saw Henson creating over 400 different Muppet characters.
He also provided the voices for Kermit the Frog, Ernie of the Bert and Ernie duo, Rowlf the Dog and the Swedish Chef to name a few.
Henson admitted that he picked the name ‘Muppets’ for his creations simply because he liked how it sounded.
However, he used to claim in interviews that ‘Muppets’ was a clever portmanteau of the words ‘Marionette’ and ‘Puppet’, just to sate curiosity.
8. Muppets are typically left-handed
The especially keen-eyed viewer may notice that the majority of Muppets characters are left-handed.
The reason for this is that most of the Muppet puppeteers are right-handed.
Using their dominant hand, the experts behind the Muppets have to control minute facial expressions.
As a result, the weaker left hands of the puppeteers are given the challenge of manoeuvring the arms.
That’s why, in sync with their human counterparts, Muppets tend to appear left-handed.
Operating Muppets can be very complex. Reportedly veteran Muppeteer Dave Goelz once said, “It takes maybe five years to do everything without thinking about it. In fact, I still find it difficult.”
7. Fozzie Bear is named after late Muppet puppeteer Faz Fazakas
Kermit’s best friend and a fan favourite, Fozzie Bear is memorable for his terrible stand-up comedy routines.
For years, many fans believed the name ‘Fozzie’ was a shortened version of his co-creator’s name, Frank Oz (or ‘F.Oz’).
But in 2018, Oz cleared up the matter on Twitter, explaining that Fozzie Bear was named in honour of the puppeteer and mechanical designer Faz Fazakas.
Fazakas designed Fozzie Bear’s hands-free ear-wiggling, using a unique radio control system.
His work on this system, alongside Henson, won the Muppets team the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 1992.
You can see the original Fozzie in the Brandreth bear collection at Newby Hall, near Ripon, England.
6. Frank Oz turned down the chance to direct the 2011 Muppets film
Jason Segel, star of How I Met Your Mother, and the director Nicholas Stoller were entirely new to the Muppets franchise when they pitched a new Muppets movie to Disney in 2008.
After Disney signed a deal with these co-writers, Frank Oz was the top choice for director – but he rejected the film.
In a 2012 interview with Collider, Oz said he felt this new movie was “a little too safe, a little retro; I prefer more cutting edge with The Muppets.”
It marked the first-ever Muppets film without any of Oz’s involvement. The actor and puppeteer provided the voices for Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Sam the Eagle and Animal in all of the previous TV shows and films.
However, Oz said was pleased by the film’s eventual success. “The main thing is that it brought people back to The Muppets,” he noted, “… so I’m happy that people are happy.”
The movie won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, and many critics praised it as a winning revival of the franchise.
5. Rowlf the dog was the first Muppet to become an international star
Far lesser known than Kermit or Miss Piggy today, Rowlf, the dishevelled dog Muppet, actually reached fame long before the rest of the Muppets.
Jim Henson first performed as Rowlf in a Canadian dog food commercial in 1962. Another name in the running for this laid-back canine was Beowulf.
After appearing in more commercials, Rowlf was talent-spotted by The Jimmy Dean Show.
As a sidekick character, he sang duets with Dean and performed in comedic skits.
His rise to TV stardom was an opportunity for Henson to develop Rowlf’s easy-going and unflustered demeanour.
This would later prove to be a great comic foil when he joined the chaotic Muppets Show in 1975, as their resident pianist.
4. Scooter’s uncle owns the Muppet theatre
It may come as a surprise that the meek Scooter, Kermit’s loyal stagehand who has stage fright, was originally a more villainous character.
In The Muppet Show, Scooter secures a spot on the team thanks to his nepotistic and very wealthy uncle J P Grosse, who owns the Muppet theatre.
At first, his character is ruthless and demanding, expecting better treatment than his Muppet colleagues.
He is hired as a ‘gofer’, so-called because he is told to ‘go for’ various errands on the crew’s behalf – and Scooter’s appearance may also be a pun, as he vaguely resembles a gopher.
By later seasons, Scooter becomes a far more helpful character, and is promoted to stage manager.
In the 1984 spin-off Muppet Babies, Scooter has a twin sister called Skeeter, originally voiced by gameshow host Howie Mandel.
3. The first Muppets host was the conductor, Nigel, not Kermit
In The Muppet Show pilot Sex and Violence, the host wasn’t Kermit – it was instead the Muppet orchestra conductor, Nigel.
Now little-known, Nigel’s shot at leading the Muppets was ruined by poor reviews.
Henson’s biographer Christopher Finch noted in Jim Henson: The Works that Nigel was “totally lacking in spunk and charisma.”
Nigel was gradually moved to non-speaking roles, and he was occasionally seen singing in the chorus.
He was absent from the team for two decades, though he does appear in the orchestra pit in the 2011 movie The Muppets.
Meanwhile Kermit grew to be the de facto leader of the Muppets. He’s currently played by Matt Vogel, who started off as a Sesame Street puppeteer in the late 90s.
2. Statler and Waldorf are named after New York City hotels
No matter where the Muppets perform, two figures always show up in the audience with jeering criticisms.
Their names are Statler and Waldorf, and these two inseparable gentlemen Muppets have been heckling the troupe since the pilot episode of The Muppet Show in 1975.
Designed by Bonnie Erikson, Statler and Waldorf are named for two classic New York landmarks.
Statler gets his name from the Statler Hilton hotel, which is now known as the Hotel Pennsylvania, located next to Madison Square Garden.
Waldorf is named after the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Midtown Manhattan – and Waldorf’s wife, who stood in for Statler in one Muppets Show episode, is named Astoria.
You may recognise the pair from The Muppet Christmas Carol, in which they play the ghostly Jacob and Robert Marley.
1. ‘The Great Gonzo’ only ever performed a few stunts on The Muppets Show
Billed as The Great Gonzo, this is one of Henson’s wilder characters, famed for his death-defying stunts (often with a chicken in tow).
But across The Muppet Show’s 120 episodes, the resident stuntman actually only performed 20 feats.
In the John Cleese episode of season 2, the Muppet catches a cannonball in his open palm.
In season 4, performing in the episode with Dudley Moore, Gonzo recites Percy Shelley’s poetry while defusing a bomb.
Unlike many of the other Muppets, Gonzo isn’t any discernible species, a fact which became a running gag for this furry purple creature.
In a web column on the fan website Askhenson.com, Gonzo’s creator Dave Goelz was asked what Gonzo is, to which he replied: “Nobody knows except his parents, and they’re not talking. It was always one of those taboo subjects around the dinner table.”