'The Muppets' Interview: Director James Bobin On British Humor & Cynicism

Muppets interview with director director James Bobin

As Jason Segel and puppet enthusiasts everywhere know, The Flight of the Conchords co-creator James Bobin brings his feature film debut, The Muppets, to audiences this Thanksgiving (read our review). Before you set out the turkey to dethaw, or start stewing the cranberries (here in the States) take a moment to see what this comic genius from across the pond has to say about Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo and the gang's return to the big screen for a foray back into Muppety madness after a 12-year absence.

If you haven't yet had the chance, make sure to check out our interview with the driving force behind The Muppets, co-writer and star, Jason Segel.

I walked in to find the director seated at a table at the font of a room filled with empty chairs, as if he were just awaiting an audience.

Screen Rant: Nothing would make me happier than if those chairs were filled with Muppets. 

James Bobin: (Laughing) "Yes an audience of Muppets with Muppet chairs on their bottoms."

Just judging me. Waldorf and Statler holding up signs to grade my questions. Let’s start with a 3.2. Tell me how you got started on the project.

"Nick (Stoller, "The Muppets" co-writer) and I are friends from outside of the world of work, so I heard about it through him and I remember reading about it in the trades and thinking, 'oh, that’s a good idea, a Muppet movie hasn’t been done in a while.' And I’m always interested  a new way of telling jokes. I've always worked in new comedy, being on 'Ali G,' which is a real character and an actor going into the real world and interacting with all these different people, or  a sitcom with songs in it (like 'Flight of the Conchords'). I like doing new ways of telling jokes and I thought, people haven’t done puppets in a while. So I thought it’d be interesting to try and create new comedy using puppets. And then I got e-mail, out of the blue, literally, from my agent, saying do you like the Muppets? And I said yes. Who doesn’t like the Muppets?"

Who indeed?

"It happened really quickly. They had a very ambitious idea in terms of the scale of this movie. It should be a big, big Muppet movie, which I’ve always loved. Because the Muppet movie, the original one, was very big, in the scale of it and the scope of it. Within a month I was thinking up new ways of doing songs."

You've all said that every comedy writer is influenced by the Muppets, how were you influenced specifically? Jason Segel mentioned that his take-away was that they would not make fun of people. That they were the laughing with, rather than at, sort.

"Yeah, that’s true, that’s definitely true. There’s a real heart to their humor which I’ve always really liked, and it’s just because as a kid - your sense of humor is obviously defined at a very young age. Because you kind of absorb stuff from, obviously parents, but also from what you just watch. And in England in the 70s, you’d watch shows like "Monty Python" and "The Goodies," which was very influential on the Muppets. The Muppets were in England."

The The Young Ones wasn't yet on the air at that time was it?

(For those who are not familiar, The Young Ones was a brilliant, frenetic, absurdist sitcom that aired on the BBC in Briton and then later late at night on MTV here in the United States.)

"Not yet, no, later. Young Ones was ’81. But again, it’s all that sort of surreal craziness. I think 'The Young Ones' is a thing that follows "The Muppets" in some ways. But 'The Muppets' is in the tradition of those sort of shows. That’s why when you watch 'The Muppet Show' it feels far more like a British show than it does an American show. In England, if you ask anyone on the street where the Muppets are from, they’ll go they’re English. Because the show was on in England for a long time. It was made in England, and it has a very English feel to it, the tone of the humor is very English. It feels more like 'Python' and 'The Goodies' and you know, 'The Young Ones,' and those sort of style shows. Rather than American humor from the time which is slightly more you know, broad, and less I guess surreal in some ways. I think it’s an amalgam. I think it’s a kind of a hybrid of humor."

Do you think it's the variety show element as well?

"That helps too. Obviously when they designed the Muppet theater, they built it in London, so they designed it based on London theater, so it’s a very British theater. And then after a while they had an English writer on the show. So the jokes became more British to a degree. As a writer myself, I know you can’t help but be influenced by your environment. So if you’re living in London and you make a show in London, and you’re in London for five years, you’ve got to be influenced by what you hear every night when you go home. Influenced by things you hear in the pub or things you listen to on the radio. Even the numbers they used to do are very old English, the musical numbers. As often as not they had English songs, and they have strange English guests who in America are not famous."

"So, their guest selection and their tone was very English and that’s part of what attracted me to this. The idea I could do that again, because I’ve always loved that and it’s where I’m from. And my humor sort of grew from that. Like Jason, I guess. For me it’s more of that slightly surreal humor. Because you watch the show some nights and it’s really weird. The fact that could be on primetime TV is so awesome, you now. And long may that continue. 'The Young Ones' basically borrowed stuff from 'The Muppets.' In the way 'The Goodies' borrowed stuff from 'The Muppets.'They opened the door for something else outside of green screen."

a mashup of the trailers for The Muppets and The Avengers

The Muppets have always been pretty self-reflexive but one of the things that was really interesting about watching this film was it felt like it was so aware that the audience is cynical. As if it was almost parodying itself for being unabashedly cheerful.

"Well, I think the theme is that the world is cynical, although the world we live in, maybe, has become too cynical. And is there a place for the Muppet philosophy any more? When Tex Richman stands up and makes that very long speech in his office, and he says, 'You're done. Your whole idea is over. No one cares about singing and dancing and Dom Delouise anymore.' It’s like, maybe that’s what people do think, and I was really keen that the firm arc to this movie should be that that isn’t the case. That the world we live in needs the Muppets, needs that philosophy, needs that optimism, needs hope. And that’s a very sweet way of doing it, by having them win in the end. It doesn’t matter about the theater, doesn’t matter about the money. It matters about people. And that for me is the whole point of the movie, that’s why I did it. I felt it was great to do a Muppet movie, but I wanted it to have that message because as I say, 'it’s not really about just saying these are the Muppets, they were great in the ‘70s.' It’s about these Muppets are really important to everybody now, today, right now, they’re hilarious, being funny and cool and it’s great. And you should love them because they’re great. And to me that was kind of what I wanted to do."

Kermit starts out a little world weary.

"He does. Because I think it was an interesting idea that he would grow into the guy you once knew, rather than just meet him as the guy you once knew."

So it’s almost like the audience itself has lost what it once was.

"Yeah,I love that. And when you meet Kermit, he is in that kind of Miss Haversham, slightly reclusive way. But he’s still got a good heart, you know, he really believes in it. And that’s a lovely moment, when he turns and says, 'okay, we’ll do this.' Walter’s faith convinces him to do it again. It’s so lovely, I love that, when he says ‘you’re my watch.’ It’s a lovely little moment. But it’s nice to have that moment where you go, 'oh no, it’s Kermit, what happened to him?' And I always like the idea that people, that there’s a spark in them that needs reigniting."

Also, the entertainment industry isn’t necessarily warm and snuggly.

"It isn’t. It isn’t. But it could be."

Yes, it certainly could be.

"And some parts of it are. You know, I have kids, and we watch a lot of movies and a lot of movies these days are becoming more warm and snuggly because I think that’s good for the world to have that about it because innocence is something you  protect and keep as long as you possibly can. You don’t want it to be corrupted too early because you have that for a long time. You’re corrupted for a long time, so let’s be innocent as long as you can. I hope this film adds to the idea that, you know."

I do too. Where do you go from The Muppets?

"Good question. To sleep. I’m exhausted. Uh, I’ve literally just finished. This movie was right up to deadline, we finished it like a week ago, so I have been doing nothing but trying not to think of anything else for a while. I love working with HBO, no doubt I’ll do some more stuff for them at some point. But comedy. I mean I love comedy and music, so those two things I love, will do anything in that area, and I’ve done stuff from 'Ali G' to 'Muppets.' I have a broad range. Even though they’re different things, they’ve a part of my heart, so I don’t know. It’s impossible to say because I like doing things that aren’t X meets Y, they are the new thing, or the new idea, the new way of telling jokes. Often it’s up to me. So I’ve got to think of the idea."

Well I'm looking forward to seeing what that idea is. You know... Animal is my favorite Muppet.

"Good, he’s in the movie quite a lot. I like him."

Yes, I was excited to see that. He doesn’t really have an anger issue (as the movie indicates) though, he’s just excited... and crazy.

"Yes, but, he’s got control issues."


The Muppets is in theatres now!

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