There is something about the unabashed enthusiasm of the Muppets that in turn inspires exuberance, and for most of us a lighthearted, positive response. The same can be said of the creators behind the project. We spoke with The Muppets co-writer Nick Stoller at the close of three very long press days, and when we asked if he was all “Muppeted out” he replied, “Never! It’s impossible to get Muppeted out.” And we believe he sincerely means that.
Of course, we all know that The Muppets was a passion project for Stoller’s writing partner/star of the film Jason Segel, but Stoller himself has a passion for the felty friends, who he refers to as, “The gateway drug of comedy.”
Stoller and Segel met on Judd Apatow’s short lived television series Undeclared (where Segel was an actor and Stoller was a writer) and formed a lasting and fruitful working relationship. Stoller went on to direct Segel in the hilarious and oddly relatable Forgetting Sarah Marshall (the sans Segel spin-off Get Him To The Greek) and the upcoming Five Year Engagement.
For those who have not yet had the chance to see The Muppets, pause, go catch a showing and head back this way, for Stoller and I do touch upon some specifics from the film in our chat.
Screen Rant: If you had to pick, who is your favorite Muppet?
Nick Stoller: “I love all the Muppets! Fozzie is pretty dear to my heart because he’s always telling jokes and failing which is my great fear. You have your favorite Muppet who fills your heart with bittersweet joy and for me that’s Fozzie. My superficially favorite Muppet, the one that I think is the funniest is Beaker. When I was a kid whenever Beaker was on screen I was both delighted and terrified. I had a bit in the script that involved Beaker but there wasn’t enough real estate in the movie.”
Reader, as you probably know, the correct answer to the question who is your favorite Muppet? is always, always Animal.
In my interview with director James Bobin he mentioned that he felt that The Muppets has a particularly British sensibility. Do you find that to be true?
“I think its a perfect mix of American and British humor because Jim Henson created the Muppets but Frank Oz was a founding influence on the Muppets and he’s English. So they met somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean to create the Muppets. It has some of the vaudeville. It kind of is a nice meeting of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Monty Python.’ It kind of has the sketches of ‘Saturday Night Live’ and some of the absurdest humor of ‘Monty Python’ along with the singing and dancing and stuff.”
Since we’re on the topic, how do you feel about Frank Oz’s response to the film. Do you think he may have a change of heart now that it’s out there and being well received?
“I’ve never met him so I don’t know. There were many drafts of the script and I’m sure he read an early draft. We took notes from puppeteers and from Disney so there are any number of drafts that he could have read. He also started this franchise and I’m sure he felt weird to have other people doing it. But I’m sure once he sees the movie he’ll think it’s good because we really were just trying to imitate what they did in those first movies. Or carry it into the present.”
How did you strike that balance? Maintaining the essential Muppety quality and modernizing it?
“The road trip is very the Muppets, putting on a show to save the studio is very Muppety, and then James has his own awesome style — those musical numbers just fly and are awesomely directed — but I would say the big difference between our movie and those first three movies is ours is a faster pace. And that’s just the way movies are different. But we tried to load it with cameos the way those movies are loaded with cameos, and we broke the fourth wall, and we kind of tried to have a big sweet heart to the movie. Which is why those movies are timeless.”
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
Speaking of the cameos, can you talk a bit about how you selected Jack Black as your kidnapping victim?
“We had lots of discussions early on about whether it should be a comedian or someone who would be actually mad about being kidnapped. And we decided that it would be funnier to pick someone that actually lives in this world the way that Steve Martin was the cameo in early movies. And Jack Black, besides being a friend of ours, is so funny and he loves the Muppets so much, his wife has actually puppeteered in the past. So we were thrilled he would do it. He’s also really good at physical comedy, so there’s a lot of him getting beaten up by the Muppets – he’s the best out there for physical comedy.”
One of the things that felt unique for me about the film was its own awareness of itself as a Muppets movie set in a contemporary context.
“That was pretty intentional. We wanted to immediately put the viewer in Smalltown, and we have this joke that I think is kind of in there now but has been basically cut out, that kind of set the tone for what we were trying to do. They get on a beautiful 1950s Greyhound bus in Smalltown and they leave, and then they drive into LA and the Greyhound bus is just dirty and disgusting. They’ve come from the beautiful naive world of MGM musicals, beautiful 1950s into this cynical world. Tex Richman even says that the Moopets are a hard cynical act, for a cynical world, and we were trying to bring back the innocence of the Muppets. But I also think the best big entertainment comedy does have that kind of big sweet heart feel. The Pixar movies. Even the R rated movies that I’ve directed I like to have a big heart.”
It goes to a whole new place in that moment where Kermit says to Piggy, “You’re always so dramatic and it forces me to say things that hurt you.” I just sat back and thought, “Man, that’s just so real.”
“We went a little real because the best comedies are essentially dramas that have jokes in them. So we wanted to keep the movie engaging like we were trying to get to the root of all of these relationships. And that really is the problem between Kermit and Piggy – that she is so needy that she drives him away. We just wanted to say that in their big fight. And part of it, a little bit, is that when I’m doing an R rated relationship movie I’m trying to get to the truth of whatever that relationship is, so we were just trying to get to that.”
That feels a little bittersweet.
“There’s only a little bittersweet thing to The Muppets. It’s about growing up. So for Kermit it’s about putting “us,” putting Ms. Piggy ahead of “we,” ahead of the whole group. It’s not just about hanging out with all of your friends but putting your girl ahead of that. For Gary its about putting Mary ahead of just hanging our with Walter. And for Walter it’s leaving Gary behind and joining the Muppets where he belongs. So it is a growing up and by growing up it makes the group stronger.”
It’s sort of inviting audience participation in that sense.
“There’s a meta feature to it where a lot of people are tearing up when Kermit is walking down and singing ‘Pictures In My Head.’ There’s a little bit of like, ‘That’s my childhood and I’m not a kid anymore.’ It’s sad to grow up. I too am missing the Muppets when I watch that and I too am missing when I saw them as a child. So I think that there is that element as well.”
Right, but this is the kind of film that needs to appeal to young and old, fans and new viewers alike. How does that play into the crafting?
“The Muppets set the stage for a kind of comedy that is prevalent now, be it ‘The Simpsons’ or Pixar where you do jokes that are for kids – Fozzie falling off the stage — and jokes that are for adults – breaking the fourth wall. As you watch the movies as you are growing up you get more of the jokes. When I watch a movie with my four-year-old she gets five percent and the five percent she loves. The rest totally flies over her head. But that’s the process of growing up.”
The Muppets is in theaters now.
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