I’m dating myself here, but I remember the very first episode of The Muppet Show.
Clarification: I don’t really remember sitting in the living room of the house in Charleston, S.C., where I grew up, watching the debut of The Muppet Show itself (not the way I recall watching Ultraman as a kid, anyway), but I do remember the very first sketch of the show’s premiere, which was in 1976. Is it possible my memory of the sketch was from a later rebroadcast? Yes, but I’m not interested in quibbling over such details right now, and anyway I’m talking about the sketch, not the date, so relax about the whens and the wherefores already, okay? Thank you.
My point is that I’ve been recently reminded that I remember the Muppet’s first sketch because I can’t get the song that accompanied it out of my head. For two weeks now, I’ve been humming it virtually non-stop – or at least in the rare moments when my brain hasn’t been occupied with endless repeats of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which I’ve been singing with my students at the American Club a half-dozen times each weekday since the middle of November, and which now occupies a neighborhood of my brain’s dimly lit limbic region formerly reserved for “Happy Birthday” and the theme song to One Day at a Time.
While I’m on the subject, let me state for the record that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a really shitty Christmas song. This is a point that’s doubtless been made countless times before me, but having sung it approximately one hundred and twenty times in the last month, I feel I’m in a position to comment critically on this work with some authority. I’m not talking about the melody here; I’ll let others sharpen their knives on that aspect of its many shortcomings. I’m talking about the message it sends. And you know perfectly well what I mean.
Rudolph is despised, ridiculed, and ostracized because he looks different. This condition prevails until a popular authority figure legitimizes him with attention. After which all the other reindeer, who formerly couldn’t stand the sight of him, suddenly “love” him and everything is understood to be just peachy. Does this strike anyone else as a pitch-perfect description of junior high school? There’s no way this is an exemplary life lesson for children we don’t wish to grow up to be complete social pariahs. But you ask people to name their favorite Christmas carols (never mind that this is about as far from a real carol as Christmas music gets), and “Rudolph” almost always lands at or near the top. Christmas spirit? Please. Between messages like this and the standard holiday season sanctimony, I’ll take a good old-fashioned pagan celebration of the winter solstice any year, thanks very much.
Back to the Muppets. The reason I’ve been thinking about that first episode, as I said, was because of the song featured in the first sketch, which, unlike “Rudolph” and the theme song from One Day at a Time, I’ve recently realized is trapped inside my head because it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. And also because it appears on the new Cake CD B-Sides and Rarities, where it receives a splendid update. If you don’t know the song I’m talking about yet (or the sketch), here are a couple of clues: it was originally written by Piero Umiliani, but made immortal by Jim Henson and, now, a droller-than-thou indie rock band from Sacramento.
That’s right, I’m talking about “Mahna Mahna.” No fat elves, no flying deer, no miracle babies, no wise men or merry gentlemen, no figgy pudding or wassail, no supernatural astronomical events, no jingling bells or Christmas trees, absolutely no virgins, seraphim or otherworldly agents of any kind. In other words, my kind of Christmas carol.