Bret McKenzie Talks 'Muppets', Oscars & 'Hobbit' Jam Sessions

Bret Mckenzie sings a duet with Kermit

There is something inherently incongruous about the idea of an enraged Bret Mckenzie. The Oscar-nominated composer of The Muppets' musical numbers seems simply too energetic and affable to maintain any lasting ire. So we were fairly certain that he wasn't truly "furious!" with the news that the Best Original Song nominees would not be performing at this year's Academy Awards; rather he, like most of us, was a bit disappointed. We would have loved to see The Muppets - or at the very least Walter and Jason Segel - take the stage.

"In my experience it’s good to have a couple of songs in a show," McKenzie says. "People love a good song and dance number. I'm not complaining about having to go to the Oscars, though."

"As a foreigner it's like America is welcoming me into the movie industry," McKenzie reflects on the bizarre, singular and somewhat overwhelming experience of being and Oscar nominee. "It's not like anything else, really. Or maybe it's like a mixture of a school ball and a school prize giving. Everyone is dressed up in their tuxedo and their prom dress and then they have to give speeches..." Pausing to reflect on that scenario McKenzie concludes: "Uh, God it sounds like a nightmare!"

But so much fun for us to watch at home!

As a result of some arcane and nonsensical voting regulations, the actor/songwriter's "Man or Muppet" was one of only two Best Original song nominees this year (the other is from Rio). Many fans of The Muppets were frustrated by the Academy's failure to nominate at least two of the songs from the film (as three would have been against the rules).

"I could have been nominated against myself," McKenzie quips. "That would have made the night much more relaxing, but as it is, my chances are as good as they’re ever going to get: 50/50." There is still a chance that we may see the fuzzy bunch perform come next Sunday, however. Oscar-cast producers Brian Grazer and Don Mischer are being notably secretive about their plans for the show.

If the Oscars does fail to include Kermie, Piggy and the gang in the production, McKenzie has vowed to bring a pocket-sized Muppet along for the ride, if not to shut down Hollywood Blvd. again for an impromptu rendition of "Life's A Happy Song." (We'd actually like to see that on a Hollywood Blvd. that isn't shut down.)

McKenzie faced a particular challenge writing for The Muppets, in that the characters have such distinctive and unique voices. "First I write the songs so I can sing them using my voice," he explains. "And then to suit the character. So Jason Segel can’t sing as high as I can but Amy Adams (not surprisingly) can sing much higher. But Piggy and Kermit's ranges are very specific so we needed to adjust to that. We also changed the direction of the melody to stay with the narration."

The composer says he is thrilled that it was "Man or Muppet" that ultimately received the nod. "This is my favorite song in the movie and I’m really proud of that moment in the film." The moment in question is one of felty-reckoning for Jason Segel and his Muppet brother Walter. Each must confront and overcome their individual identity crises and take the final steps into fully-functioning adulthood, in true Muppet style.

"Man or Muppet" is my favorite song in the film as well, because, as I have previously indicated, I find it to be a hilarious but also oddly soulful shout-out to a generation (or three) that appears to be stuck in a state of arrested development. "It's true that there are a a lot of man-children in Hollywood films," McKenzie agrees. "A lot in Judd Apatow films. It's also true of our generation that we haven’t been given very good grown-up role models and growing-up isn’t something we’re good at, we’re just all kids."

In McKenzie's case, that childish sense of enthusiasm has paid off. Prior to his Oscar nomination, he was best known as one half of of HBO's folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (the other half is of course Jemaine Clement) or to another demographic as The Lord of the Ring's Figwit.

Will Bret McKenzie Reprise his Role as Figwit in The Hobbit

McKenzie, as many know, was an elf extra in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. As was "every available man in New Zealand at the time" the actor recalls. But not every extra was spotted by a devoted fan and dubbed Figwit (Frodo is great, who is that?). Perhaps one of the most significant indications of his increased fame is the bump-up to a named character that Jackson gave McKenzie in the upcoming The Hobbit.

"I think the nomination just trumps being a speaking elf," McKenzie quips. "But it’s close, a close call."

Worlds collided on the set of The Hobbit when McKenzie broke out his guitar and began a freestyle jam, Shire style. "It was Gandalf's song," McKenzie recalls laughing. "He was singing 'it's a beautiful day in Rivendell, do da do do do.'" Now if that is not a perfect fit for Oscar night 2014, I'm not sure what is. "It would be fun, and Ian Mckellen is a really funny guy so I think he’d be well up for it," McKenzie says. Keep those fingers crossed, Conchords and Figwit fans.

The comedian describes his musical style as what happens when Harry Nilsson and R. Kelly meet, saying, "that's my world." And a wonderful and in-demand world it is. McKenzie is going on tour this year with Jemaine Clement, and is considering doing a Flight of the Conchords movie, which he says "there is always a lot of pressure to do." There is some talk of  doing a project on Broadway and a possibility of a Muppets TV show (which McKenzie may or may not be involved with) but there is no clear indication of a The Muppets sequel at this time.

"It’s a tricky thing to work on," McKenzie muses. "It took a lot of love to make the film. Without Jim Henson and the original team there it’s a lot harder to get the Muppets right."

"I would like to do a drum instruction video with Animal," he adds. "That seems very achievable."


Watch for McKenzie and his pocket Kermit when the Oscars air on ABC on February 26 at 8/7c.

Follow me on twitter @jrothc

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