Jason Segel on The Muppets, Their Evolution, and Frank Oz's Criticism
Jason Segel claims he cried when "meeting" Kermit the Frog for the first time, but the self-declared Muppets purist does not sound like a lachrymose superfan when explaining his update of Jim Henson's brand. As the co-writer and star of The Muppets (out Nov. 23), Segel proves his Muppet mettle with a slick, but classically jovial take on the old troupe. Its swiftness is reminiscent of charming '90s efforts like A Muppet Christmas Carol while Amy Adams and Chris Cooper's performances smack of the original Muppet trilogy's celebrity gusto; the Muppets themselves even conjure the old-school showmanship of the immortal The Muppet Show.
I caught up with Segel to discuss his favorite Muppets, the best Muppet Show host ever, and how he feels about Frank Oz's less-than-optimistic commentary.
You balance kid humor and adult humor well in The Muppets. I can't even remember the last live-action "family film" that's tried to do that.
You know who does it well is Pixar. Toy Story 3 is the perfect example. Kids were watching a movie about saying goodbye to their toys, and parents were watching a movie about saying goodbye to their kids. Parents and kids are both weeping for totally separate reasons. The parents are crying harder than the kids are, you know? So I thought they nailed it. I think The Simpsons has kind of nailed it too. Kids are watching a fun cartoon show; they have Bart and Lisa. Their parents have Homer and Marge. But there aren't too many examples. The big mistake is that a family film has somehow come to mean a kids' film. It shouldn't. Those are two separate things.
I'm sure Muppet zealots have quizzed you on your favorite characters. Do you have a thrillingly bizarre Muppet that you consider a favorite?
I do get asked that a lot. I wish there was an answer that would make me seem cool -- a really subversive, like obscure Muppet. But it's Kermit. And Fozzie, but it started with Kermit for me. He was the everyman for a kid. He was Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart or something. I really wanted to be like Kermit. There was something about Fozzie Bear that I related to, the total unearned confidence. Even if he's getting booed, he's like, "Aaaah! Wakka, wakka!" And he just keeps going with the jokes. [Laughs.] I always liked that aspect, being undaunted by failure.
I really liked The Muppet Show's presence in the movie. Very unexpected. Who's your favorite Muppet Show host?
Peter Sellers. I remember watching the Peter Sellers episode when I was young, and it didn't really mean that much to me. I didn't really know Peter Sellers well. Then, I remember watching it as I was older, and I was a huge fan then -- he starts that episode with the weirdest monologue of all time where he has this existential crisis after Kermit's like, "All you have to do is be yourself!" And [Sellers] is like, "Who's the real Peter Sellers? I lost the real Peter Sellers sometime ago." I remember thinking, "Of course I didn't get this when I was a kid. And this is the funniest thing ever." The best comedian of our generation is -- because I know he really felt that way from reading about him. He's having a total existential crisis in front of a bunch of Muppets on The Muppet Show. It was awesome. It was like he was talking to a psychiatrist.
Walter, a new Muppet who acts as your brother in the movie, is a very big presence. How did you feel about introducing a new Muppet that ends up getting more screentime than regulars like Rowlf and Gonzo?
Walter was an important vehicle in that he's the eyes and the ears of the true Muppets fans. He's like how I felt -- the biggest Muppet fan, so wide-eyed, can't wait to meet them, and he's devastated to find out they're not as famous as they used to be. He's terrified at the notion they could go away forever, which I was. He sets out to reunite the Muppets and put them on a show to bring them back. It's such a thinly veiled metaphor, what's happening in this movie. But Walter was important because kids of the new generation might not be that familiar with the Muppets. They get to be introduced to them through sort of an accessible, childlike character. That's Walter's function.
The current generation of teenage/kid moviegoers may not have any familiarity with the Muppets. What's it like to cater to them?
We didn't have to change the tone of the Muppets at all. In fact, we reverted back to the late '70s, early '80s tone of the Muppets. We tried to go hardcore back to the original tone, because something like The Muppets' Wizard of Oz is not indicative of the tone of those Muppets. That's like a Muppet-themed movie. That's not what the Muppets did when I grew up with them. The only thing we had to adjust from that era was pacing. Kids' attention spans have gotten a little shorter. If you watch the first Muppet movie, it's slow. It's the pace of '70s movies. So one thing we had to do is be pretty strict about keeping it 90 minutes and keeping it a decent pace. But that's all.
Like those old movies, this one is very scenic -- and it's definitely a love letter to LA.
As an LA resident, I feel like the tourist destinations here are often the last place I want to take visitors, but those places are prominently and attractively featured here. How did you feel about "casting" LA as a character in The Muppets?
We wanted -- and we ended up not making it as heavy a plot point as we envisioned it, because it was too big a tangent and we had so many plots going on -- but we really wanted to juxtapose a small town perception of glamorous LA with gritty LA. We wanted stuff to be run down; we had a scene where when they first arrive, they get ripped off by a homeless guy in a Superman outfit in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre. You know, we had those jokes! I grew up in LA and I love it very much, but I feel sort of the way you do that the nice places in LA aren't necessarily the tourist destinations. So, the idea of these guys being so enthusiastic about the LA they've seen in movies and being confronted with the fact that LA's seedy was funny.
Jim Henson is not just Christlike to Muppet devotees -- his whole demeanor was downright messianic. Did his rather commanding presence haunt or linger over you?
What it did was inform us -- so much. We weren't trying to recreate anything or fill anyone's shoes. It was more just honoring the legacy he created. What he "preached" with the Muppets, to use your analogy, is very clear. They're kind, they haven't lose their sense of childlike wonder, and they're not even trying to destroy their villains. They're trying to reform their villains. They're trying to get their villains to come along. In the first Muppet Movie, Doc Hopper [Charles Durning] was running a frogs legs franchise. He wanted to cut off Kermit's legs and eat them, but Kermit doesn't even want to destroy him. He says, "You should think about why you don't have close friends in your life." So the road map was really clear as laid about by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. We just had to follow it.
Finally, Frank Oz recently criticized the script of the film. Do you regard his comments and think he might just feel precious about the characters evolving?
Yeah. I also just wished he had seen the movie. I mean, you saw it. I don't think you walk away feeling anything but that it's a total love letter to the Muppets. I get being scared of some new blood coming in, and thinking, "What are they going to do to this?" But I have a hunch that if he sees it, he's going to walk out feeling really proud of having creating this legacy.