GLENDALE, CA – Disney’s new movie “The Muppets” features two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, a new Muppet named Walter and a slew of your favorite Jim Henson creations, but the picture is really the Jason Segel show. Even if you hadn’t heard the “How I Met Your Mother” star wax during interviews about his love of The Muppets, the final scene in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (which he wrote and starred in), you knew there was a connection between Segel and the Muppets. That love turned into an original screenplay, co-written with Nicholas Stoller, that could make the beloved franchise a family favorite once more.
Talking to the press during a break shooting a scene outside the old ABC 7 Studios (also right down the block from DreamWorks Animation), you can see the joy on Segel’s face even though he’s been working 7 days a week juggling the film and “Mother.” While director James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords”) is also a huge Muppets fan, the passion Segel has for the project is palatable. And while much was seen and revealed on this sunny Saturday over Golden Globes weekend in January, it makes sense to let Segel answer some questions about his latest endeavor first.
And clear warning for all Muppet fans, spoilers are definitely ahead.
How did you bring Jim Henson Studios into the production?
That was something I wanted to do. The idea was born at the Jim Henson Studios. They designed the ‘Sarah Marshall’ puppets and while I was there I asked if I could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy and they said ‘We don’t have them anymore. We sold them to Disney. Disney owns all the Kermits and Miss Piggys.’ And that literally the idea that the movie was born — that the Muppets weren’t at the Henson Studios anymore and then it grew from there. And Nic Stoller, I must say, is just a tremendous writing partner and came up with a lot of the ideas. James Bobin, when he signed on really polished the script. Yeah, we’re a good triumvirate. Not since the days of Rome.
Will there be lots of cameos from long lost favorite Muppets?
A lot of the guys from the old ‘Muppet Show’ make appearances. I can’t give too many away, but I’m kind of excited. Marvin Sax and the Muppet-Phone. There are some old favorites of mine.
Will this movie be closer to the first three Muppet movies or the more kid-focused productions since?
We are trying to harken back to the original three. I think one of the things the first three Muppet movies do really well, and its what Pixar does really well now, is that they don’t condescend children by feeling they have to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. And when you don’t do that you get a family film in its truest sense. The worst equivalent is ‘Barney the Dinosaur’ where parents have to sit there while their kids watch this and the parents want to blow their brains out, y’know? This is gonna be the exact opposite. I think parents will be laughing as much as their kids are. We have jokes geared toward children and jokes geared specifically towards adults. Goes right over a kids heads.
Yep, it’s a Muppet musical
We knew it was going to be a musical from the start and when you look back at the great lineage of great Muppet music things like ‘Rainbow Connection,’ that is not a joke of a song. That is a serious song. If a legitimate musician put that song out they would win a Grammy. And so we really wanted the music to be great. James Bobin was the perfect choice for this movie because he’s been doing Flight of the Conchords’ and it almost seems like he’s been training for this. And then we brought on Bret [McKenzie of ‘Flight of the Conchords’] and it’s been a perfect union of their styles and the Muppet styles.
How self aware is the humor in the movie?
There is some self aware humor. In the original script there was a lot more. We realized you only need a few of those moments to get that joke. But, yeah, we have all the original style of Muppet humor. James was great student of [it and] we just tried to pay homage to that.
This project was no joke for Segel
I think maybe there was a moment of weariness [from the puppeteers] that I was doing this with a sense of irony, that there was a ‘wink, wink’ about it. Like, ‘Oh, cute, R-rated Jason Segel is going to do the Muppets and make fun of it.’ And I think as soon as everyone arrived on set and saw that this wasn’t the case and that this was coming from a very genuine and true place we were all on the same team very, very quickly. We all share a love of the Muppets and a love of comedy. it’s funny. It’s really easy to dismiss — part of the illusion of the puppetry is that you lose the illusion of the puppeteer. So, you forget that these are amazingly talented people. They are not just actors and puppeteers, but singers and great comedians in their own right. It’s been an honor to work with this group.
Do Muppets improvise?
There is surprisingly. I did not expect that for a minute, but some of the best lines [are improvised]. These guys know the characters so much better than I do. I can imagine what I think the character might say, but these guys have been playing them for 10, 20 sometimes 30 years.
It’s not easy acting with puppets or Muppets for a technical reason
I have a bit of a challenge, as does Amy, in that the puppeteers need monitors so they can see what is going on because puppets don’t have working eyes so they are working off monitors. But, a lot of times we can see the monitors so we can see ourselves act. And my acting is like mesmerizing. (Laughs.) So, lots of times I just find myself watching myself act when I should not be doing that.
Jason Segel’s hand has been inside Fozzie Bear…and other Muppets
I just operated Fozzie about a minute ago. I’ve done Fozzie, Dr. Teeth and Beaker to so far. This is going to sound different than I mean it, but my hand is inside Fozzie? That’s amazing. I never thought that would happen.
New Muppet Walter is a Stoller/Segel creation in everything but look and feel
We did not get to design him physically, because then they would owe us a lot of money so we came up with him on paper and then they were very clear we could not be involved with any aspect of the physical design of Walter. But it is pretty crazy when I saw him and I knew he was born in our brains. It was like Nic and I had a little baby with our brains. Pretty crazy.
How much did the script change from when you first started writing it?
The concept has stayed the same. Some of the particulars have changed after having found out more about the Muppets. In the original script, to be honest, I think it’s fine to talk about this – I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. In the original script, I was a ventriloquist and Walter was my puppet. But one of the things you find out that you really don’t want to cross the line into mention ‘puppet.’ It becomes very, very complicated, because the Muppets are not puppets. They are living creatures in this world. So, as soon as I realized that made things really complicated to have a puppet one thing is a puppet, one thing is a Muppet we cut that aspect of the story and it actually really simplified the story. That was one of the things from just working with these guys.
Will audiences warm to Walter?
I’m not worried about Walter one bit. He’s like the sweetest, little guy you’ll ever meet. He’s like a really young Kermit. He’s naive and he’s sweet and Walter’s thing is that he has never met anyone like him. He’s my best friend and we grew up in Small Town U.S.A. — literally the name of the town — and he’s never seen anyone else like him except for the Muppets on television, so his dream is to go meet the Muppets and maybe have a family. It really does have tones of a young Kermit. There are some other new characters, they are not specifically Muppets. They are adorable, I can’t give too much away about them.
Are there any Easter eggs from the original movie or show?
We have some mention of the standard rich and famous contract from the original “Muppet Movie” a lot of things like that in there, because to me I just really wanted to pay homage to those films that meant so much to me growing up.
Amy Adams was always Segel’s choice for his leading lady
I wrote it for her. She was in my mind from the beginning, ever since I saw her in ‘Enchanted’ and this role is very different. First of all, she’s like the best actress alive. To go from ‘Enchanted’ to ‘Doubt’ to ‘The Fighter’ this woman can do anything. But, she’s able to do this wide-eyed naivete that is not part of her personality in real life. She’s one of the most smart, on top of it women I’ve ever met. My character, her character and Walter are true innocents. And, she’s able to do that. She channels it through her eyes. She’s totally game. She’s up for it and she really gets the joke. She was the perfect choice right from the start.
Juggling ‘The Muppets’ and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ has been tough
It’s been tricky. I am doing seven day weeks and true seven day weeks. My hard day is Tuesday into Wednesday. I do Tuesday-day on the TV show, come here and do Tuesday night, night shoot, and then immediately go back to the TV show to do Wednesday- day. So, it’s a 36-hour-day. I sleep in my trailer or when they drive me to the set. I usually get back to the TV show at 7 AM and they start at 8 AM so I usually get a quick nap-aroo. But it’s my dream come true so you can’t complain about it. It’s what I had to do to get the movie made and it’s really tough to be in a bad mood around Kermit. As corny as that might sound. And they bring out Kermit and it’s ‘Hi ho,’ and ‘Awwww, alright. I’ll smile.’ And the TV show is a pleasure to be on. We’ve been doing it for six years now and we’ve kind of got it down to a science. So, they have been incredibly kind to just make this schedule work because they have shot me out of a day of filming every week. And my cast has been very patient about it. They knew it was my dream. When I told them I was selling this three years ago I think all of us thought, ‘Oh, awesome’ but we knew it would be an uphill battle to get it made. Once they said they were going to make it, everyone in my life was like, ‘Alright, whatever you need, let’s get this thing made.’ I’ve had Muppet or Muppet figures in my house since I was a kid.
Were you star struck when you got to meet the Muppets for the first time?
Meeting Kermit for the first time was pretty crazy. We did a photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly where it was the first time they arranged all the puppets. They did something called armature them so hey were all in a pose. And I was sitting at this table and I looked around and it was every single one of them. It was like 20 puppets and I think what struck me is that I’m not an arrogant dude, but to be even the tiniest footnote in the Muppet lineage is nuts to me. That is insane. So, I feel very honored.
What was your favorite episode of ‘The Muppet Show’?
Peter Sellers episode just slaughters me. It’s so weird. No, its truly is. it’s exactly why I love the Muppets. Scooter comes in at the beginning of every episode and he’s like, ‘Five minutes to curtain Mr. Sellers.’ And Peter Sellers is like, ‘What should I do when I get out there?’ [Scooter], ‘All you should be is yourself.’ [Sellars] ‘There is no Peter Sellers. I lost Peter Sellers some time ago. All I know how to do is inhabit a character.’ And he goes on for like five minutes. And it’s like the dude is having an existential crisis. And then he sings a song called, ‘Whisky, Wine and Wild Women.’ And it’s why I love the Muppets. Kids are thinking, ‘Fun. This guy is singing a song with Muppets.’ Parents are like, watching Peter Sellers singing ‘Whisky, Wine and Wild Women.’ And that’s exactly my point. You know what I mean? It’s working on every level. it’s firing on all cylinders.
Don’t make him talk celebrity cameos
I’m not allowed to talk about a lot of them. We have some great cameos. Mickey Rooney kind of harkens back to that. Alan Arkin. We’ve got some really great cameos in there.
The phone rang off the hook from friends wanting to cameo in the movie though
I got a lot of calls. Especially my contemporaries who have kids. They all wanted to be a part of it for their kids. And the idea of bringing their kids to see the Muppets or even being able to show them the movie eventually. So, yeah, people love the Muppets. There is a lot of Muppet love out there.
Did you write any of the new songs?
No, Bret McKenzie wrote most of the songs and we have a couple of reprises of the classic songs. I wrote one of the songs, but it’s a jokier song. Britt really just took the songs and ran with them and they are awesome. Really, really gorgeous. yeah, they are catchy so kids will be bopping’ along, but definitely some of the lyrics are adult based. Part of the movie is Kermit trying to come to term with the fact the Muppets aren’t together anymore and there is a beautiful song that Kermit sings that’s truly heartbreaking.
Segel also dreams of playing a creepy superhero villain
I’d like to play a villain in a superhero movie. I’m like 20% creepy. (Laughs.) No, I really am. I am 20% creepy. But if you watch ‘Sarah Marshall’ the Dracula musical is funny, but it’s 20% creepy. So, I really want to play a villain in a superhero movie.
What about paying Vector in ‘Despicable Me’?
Yeah, yeah, but i didn’t get to do my creepy face.
More impressive to meet: Kermit or Julie Andrews?
I must say Kermit. Julie Andrews was not one of my childhood idols. I’ve said this before ad nauseam, but Kermit truly formed my sense of comedy. When you are a kid, Kermit is Tom Hanks. He’s Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart for kids. He’s the every man. Even as a kid wanting to be an actor I thought, ‘That’ what I want to do, that’s what I want to be. He’s running the show. Everybody loves him.’
Segel can sleep when his career is over
We write in my trailer a lot. We begin shooting ‘Five-Year-Engagement’ as soon as this ends. Which we also wrote and Nic is directing. Y’know, it’s hard, but I spent 21 to 25 totally out of work. And so, now that I have a chance to do stuff there is a part of me that feels like I’m not letting this opportunity pass by because you see it go away so quickly. It’s very fickle. And I like writing. I genuinely do. I get tired an all that stuff. It’s like the movie ‘Alien’ when the alien is gonna burst out of your chest. When I get an idea, it’s kind of hard not to do something because it feels like the alien is gonna burst out of my chest. I’m not good at setting aside and ‘I’ll get to this eventually.’ I want to start writing it. Even if it means staying up all night which is basically what’s happening at this point. I dunno. I’m a pretty lucky dude. It’s tough to complain. I mean, look there are a million Muppets over there? That’s insane. I bought a house. What do I have to complain about? A little lack of sleep? That’s OK.
To check out photos from behind-the-scenes with Segel, Walter, Chris Cooper and director James Bobin, click here.
Look for more from the set of “The Muppets” later today including the answer to the perplexing question: Is that a Muppet in drag?
“The Muppets” opens nationwide and not in 3D on Nov. 23.