Jason Segel will see the realization of a lifelong dream when The Muppets opens in theaters this Wednesday, just in time for the Thanksgiving Holiday. It’s a rare thing to have a film or television show that is genuinely “family-friendly” in the sense that the humor works across generational lines. The Muppets have always had the ineffable quality that allows them to reach past the barriers of even the grumpiest of cynics, and reignite that part of us that just can’t help but smile in the face of the unabashed enthusiasm expressed by Jim Henson’s most beloved creations.
We had the chance to sit down with Segel recently to talk about the impending spread of Muppet fever, the creation of a brand new Muppet (Walter) and ‘frogging up.’
In this film, The Muppets must reunite to save their old theater from a greedy oil tycoon (Chris Cooper) with the help of three fans: Gary (Segel), Mary (Amy Adams) and Walter. Though Segel was an enthusiastic fan of Kermit, Piggy and the gang (who he says are the initial inspiration for nearly all comedic writers), he didn’t really begin to pursue the notion of turning his Muppet fantasy into a reality until he worked with The Jim Henson Company on the puppets for “The Dracula Musical” in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The actor is frequently asked if he would ever consider expanding said “Dracula Musical” into a full-scale production – something that he feels may be best left to the realm of the imagination:
“I don’t know that it could be sustained for a full-length opera because it’s intentionally 10 percent bad and I think eventually you’d get tired of it,” he confessed. He did, however, concede that it may work for, “a half-hour special some day.” So, hope springs eternal for all of us puppet and Dracula nerds.
When it comes to the Muppets, we each have our favorite - the one we either relate to or would most like to emulate. Animal happens to be the Muppet I cherish above all the others. He is an unabashed (and highly entertaining) expression of the id, has no restraint, no hesitation, and no fear. Also, he plays a mean set of drums and is a handsome shade of red. For Segel, however it’s all about the basics.
Jason Segel: “I always try and think of an answer that will make me seem clever, like some really obscure Muppet. But it’s Kermit, you know? I know that’s kind of boring, but - and I’ve said this a bunch - when I was a kid he was like Tom Hanks. He’s the everyman, and he’s the moral center of the Muppets and sort of defined who I wanted to be as an actor to some extent.”
Screen Rant: The structure of the film itself is very meta. How meta does it get for you in terms of ushering the Muppets back into the public sphere?
JS: “The movie is about getting the Muppets back together to put on a show, and while the Muppets didn’t break up and move around the world or anything like that (laughing) because they’re not real, (yes they are Jason — not laughing) they haven’t had a big-screen movie in 12 years, and so I felt like it was important to acknowledge that. I think there’s something less exiting about just another Muppets movie vs. the Muppets come back or the idea of the Muppets being brought back to where they needed to be. I wanted to address that rather than pretend like it wasn’t an issue.”
For those who are unfamiliar, The Muppets introduces the world to a brand new Muppet — Walter. Walter is the brother of Segel’s character, Gary. The fact that the film never addresses how that is possible is part of its magic – as well as a reference to The Great Muppet Caper, in which Fozzie and Kermit are (inexplicably) twin brothers.
One of the trickiest aspects of this is the creation of a new Muppet. I wanted to ask about the creation of Walter, other Muppets that you had in mind and what you based him on. Also, so much of the crux of this movie relies on him being a good Muppet. If you’ve got Jar Jar — the whole movie falls apart.
“Oh, I know! Absolutely. Walter, in terms of us writing it, was sort of meant to be the eyes and the ears of the audience, of giant Muppet fans out there. He’s me to some extent. Just the crazy, crazy, Muppet fan that grew up with them and they meant so much to him, and he can’t bear the thought of them going away. And I think the people who are going to see this movie because they love the Muppets will feel exactly like Walter. When Walter finds out that that studio is going to be torn down it’s devastating. He might as well be hearing that the world is about to be destroyed.”
- Walter and Gary (Jason Segel) in ‘The Muppets’
In terms of developing the script with Stoller, the film hits all of the elements of the Muppets, it’s self-reflexive, it’s warm hearted, you’ve got the pop culture references. But it also has this new element where Kermit is a little world weary at the open.
”Kermit misses his friends. One of the messages of the movie is the Muppets are better together than they are apart. I don’t think that Kermit is sad that he’s retired, I don’t think he’s sad that he’s not famous, I think that he’s sad that he’s not with his friends.”
We know that The Muppet Movie has the road element, but I felt like there was this Blues Brothers vibe as well in terms of the idea of getting the band back together.
”I wasn’t thinking specifically about “The Blues Brothers” but I definitely was paying homage to, (laughing) or copying, the first Muppet movie. That’s one of my favorite parts: meeting the gang along the way. And so we really did just want to copy that section.”
The response has been so overwhelmingly positive. Do you feel somewhat vindicated in terms of Frank Oz’s resistance to the project?
”Well, I feel like he made those comments before he saw the film. David Hoberman, one of our producers, made a great analogy: these guys have been a family for so long and there is some version of us being a step-parent. And no matter how nice the step-parent is, the kids are going to be skeptical of them. So I’m hoping that we’ve earned their trust now that they’ve seen the movie because I feel the same way you guys do. I like, love it. I think it’s such a good movie. I watch it constantly. So yeah, I guess I feel vindicated just in that the movie is everything I hoped it would be.”
In a perfect world, let’s say this is a big hit and they come to you, Stoller and Co. and say you can make a Muppet TV series, another movie. What do you want to do next?
“I think bringing back “The Muppet Show” would be absolutely amazing. I think they’re primed and ready for it. And I also think the Muppets belong on the big screen, so I guess hopefully we’ve set the stage for maybe the Muppets themselves to take the torch and decide what they want to do. Because they were always best when they were a singular vision of themselves and, you know, it is a big franchise and there are things like rides and toys and all that that get involved when something becomes so big. But the Muppets being a small, self-contained band of comedians is sort of how I think they’re best.”
There’s this idea in this of ‘frogging up,’ or manning up in the film, which I absolutely loved. Especially in terms of the song “Man or Muppet” (my favorite out of a great soundtrack). Is that your shout out to what may be a generation of man-children (and women-children)? Or is that my projection?
“No, it’s an incredibly interesting question. But yeah, I mean, that is the theme of the Gary/Walter storyline is that at some point you have to man or Muppet up and decide what you want to be and have the courage and convictions to be true to who you are.”
Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Segel, in which we discuss the cameo that never was, being the least masculine dude in Hollywood, and the script that has been 21 years in the making (with puppets!).
You will have your chance to experience the joy of seeing The Muppets back on the big screen yourself beginning Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc