Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: Why go to the movies? We've got the Muppets' 20 best musical moments, complete with video, right here
“Mah Nà Mah Nà”
Written by Piero Umiliani. Performed by the Muppets
Written by Piero Umiliani and performed in its original incarnation by a band called Marc 4, this song first appeared in the 1968 psuedo-documentary “Sweden: Hell and Heaven,” then was used as silent comedy sketch music on “The Benny Hill Show.” Jim Henson’s Muppets did multiple versions of it over the years, starting in 1969 with covers on “Sesame Street” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The spelling of the song gradually evolved into the easier-to-write “Mahna Mahna.” The most beloved version is the one pictured above from the 1976 season of “The Muppet Show.” There’s a shout-out to “Mah Nà Mah Nà” in the Muppets’ 2009 viral video version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it also gets covered in the 2011 movie “The Muppets.” This is the ultimate earworm song. Hear it once and it’ll become your mental theme music for a week.
“The Rainbow Connection”
Written by Paul Williams. Performed by Kermit the Frog
The opening banjo strum and strings cause viewers of a certain age — maybe any age — to get a lump in the throat. This number is Jim Henson’s greatest moment as a performer.
Written by Frederic Weatherly. Performed by Animal, Beaker and Swedish Chef
A classic Irish folk melody performed by three totally unintelligible characters. Genius.
“Ode to Joy”
Written by Ludwig van Beethoven. Performed by Beaker
Maybe the most conceptually brilliant of all the new viral videos, this one uses split-screen to let Beaker perform the rousing melody from Beethoven’s Ninth in multi-part harmony with six versions of himself while keeping time with a violin, a kettle drum and a metronome. The pace quickens near the end, driving Beaker into a helpless frenzy. Technology defeats him as always; the poor sap even gets zapped with an electrical bolt. Statler and Waldorf show up at the end to complain. “I’ve seen anything like that before.” “And with any luck, I’ll never see anything like it again!”
Written by Feist. Performed by Feist and the Muppets
“Sesame Street” has a long history of inviting pop stars to cover their hits, but this version of Feist’s biggest hit “1234″ is really special. It’s modeled on the smash hit video, an elaborately choreographed dance number done in a single uncut take. The “Sesame Street” version preserves that vision, starting out with a lateral tracking shot and eventually adding all manner of Muppets to the background.
Written by Freddie Mercury. Performed by the Muppets
This video put the new Muppets on the map back in 2009, and deservedly so. Mimicking the original Queen video and adding Muppety touches, it might be the all-around best cover of the song — and superior to the sing-along version in “Wayne’s World” because it catches the gloriously bombastic qualities of Freddie Mercury and Queen. If the opening silhouette of Gonzo and the chickens doesn’t win you over immediately, Animal’s “Mama? MAMAHHHHH?” will.
“Old Fashioned Love Song”
Written by Paul Williams. Performed by Paul Williams and various Muppet Paul Williamses
One of the most cleverly conceived and staged numbers on the original “Muppet Show,” this one provides the perfect visuals for one of the most famous songs-about-songwriting from a decade that produced so many of them. (See also: “Piano Man,” “I Write the Songs” and “Your Song.”) Paul Williams sings his own composition while music issues from an old radio; behold, a Muppet Paul Williams emerges from the radio, followed soon after by another, and another, and by a string of characters who apparently were packed into the radio like clowns inside a Volkswagen.
Written by Joe Raposo. Performed by Ray Charles and Kermit
Kermit’s gentle anthem got its definitive interpretation courtesy of Ray Charles, who made the notion of being proud of one’s color something other than a metaphor. Jim Henson is under tremendous pressure performing opposite one of the great vocalists of the 20th century, but he rises (hops?) to the occasion. I love this “Sesame Street” performance because you can really feel the love and mutual respect flowing between Charles and Henson. At a couple of points Kermit and Ray reach out to pat each other on the back.
Written by Frank Loesser. Performed by Danny Kaye and the Muppets
The most beloved number from the musical “Hans Christian Andersen” gets a gentle reinterpretation from guest star Danny Kaye on one of the most charming episodes of “The Muppet Show.” An unpretentious sing-along, beautifully executed.
Written by Paul Williams. Performed by Miss Piggy
A fantastic trip inside the fevered brain of Miss Piggy, this is one of the great send-ups of the 1970s tradition of lovestruck romantic montages, sort of like the courtship montage from “Annie Hall” as reimagined by a deranged narcissist. So many great moments to choose from: the wild point-of-view zooms that accompany the lovers’ first eye contact; Piggy racing to hug Kermit in a verdant meadow and tackling him; Kermit getting knocked out of a rowboat and flailing wildly in the water. This is divine madness. Never before, never again indeed.
Written by Jeff Moss. Performed by Ernie
Ernie’s tribute to his beloved bath toy reached No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot Singles chart in 1970. Writer Jeff Ross performed the rubber duckie squeaking sound on the original recording and all subsequent ones. According to the Muppet Wiki, “The same Rubber Duckie has been used because nobody could find a duckie that could match the sound of the original.”
Poor Animal gives Buddy Rich a pretty good run for his money, but ultimately he just can’t keep up. Who could?
“Doin’ the Pigeon”
Written by Joe Raposo. Performed by Bert
A rare, great instance of a number where you could see the Muppet performer’s feet, Bert’s exuberant “Sesame Street” solo was done with several performers and a segmented puppet positioned against a bluescreened background. The anal-retentive Bert is really loose here, singing about the species that he loves more than any sentient creature. “Doin’ the (coo, coo) pigeon/ Doin’ the (coo, coo) pigeon/ Dancing a little smidgeon of/ The kind of ballet/ Sweeps me away …”
Written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell. Performed by Rita Moreno and Animal
Oscar-winner Rita Moreno was supposed to be able to steal the show with this cover of a number that was a huge hit for Peggy Lee. Unfortunately, it requires a subtle touch on drums, and subtle really isn’t Animal’s thing.
“(Day-O) Banana Boat Song”
Traditional. Performed by Harry Belafonte and the Muppets
Between “Muppet Show” guest star Harry Belafonte’s typically assured vocals and an enchanted set, this would have probably been a home run anyway. But add Fozzie Bear to the equation, asking what a “Tally Man” is and keeping track of things on a clipboard, and you’ve got magic.
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
Written by George Harrison. Performed by Floyd
A rare solo from Floyd, this regrettably brief cover of the Beatles classic seems to be taking place inside the Muppet musician’s head. With its fire escapes and surprisingly mournful silhouettes, it has a film noir flavor, very urban and very mature.
“Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover”
Written by Paul Simon. Performed by Floyd, Janice, Animal and Rizzo
There isn’t much irony or parody in this “Muppet Show” number, because raspy-voiced guitarist Floyd and his backup band (including Rowlf the Dog and Rizzo the Rat) are too busy being awesome.
Written by Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith. Performed by Steve Martin and the Muppets
Lovely, goofy stuff from Steve Martin and company — a call-and-response number that matches Martin’s banjo picking against Muppets’ instruments, vocals and makeshift percussion.
“I Love Trash”
Written by Jeff Moss. Performed by Oscar the Grouch
Oscar has never seemed less grouchy than in this I-gotta-be-me number, which speaks to the slob in children everywhere.
Does this count as a musical number? I think so, because it involves singing — but even if the answer was “No,” I’d include it anyway because it’s so amazingly cute. “Can you say the alphabet?” Kermit asks Joey. “Yes, I could,” she replies, and proceeds to strategically insert the name “Cookie Monster” into their her cappella song, cracking herself up and mock-outraging Kermit. The little Cookie Monster graphic is a beautiful touch.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.