I’m not sure whether the vibe is coming from the Muppets or from Jason Segel, but everyone is really happy on this set. Actually, I’m not sure there’s much of a difference between the Muppets and Segel, the 31-year-old star and co-writer of the new Muppets movie. Between takes, Segel out-Muppets the actual Muppets, his grin still Kermit-wide long after the real Kermit the Frog closes his mouth and collapses around puppeteer Steve Whitmire’s hand. In the right opera balcony above the stage — which looks a lot like the original Muppet Show set — crusty Muppet critics Statler and Waldorf shake their heads disapprovingly at Segel’s enthusiasm. In the left opera balcony, the movie’s producers shake their heads too. “If you could peel away Jason’s skin,” says producer Todd Lieberman, “there might be felt underneath.”
Segel took a lot of meetings with studios after the success of the Judd Apatow-produced comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Segel starred in and wrote. He played a frustrated puppet-musical playwright who, in the movie’s most famous scene, gets dumped by his girlfriend while he’s full-frontally naked. When Segel got to Disney, he pitched his idea for a movie with the Muppets, who had lost their way in the decades following the 1990 death at age 53 of Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets and the original voice of Kermit. They hadn’t had a theatrical release since the less-than-blockbuster Muppets from Space in 1999. “I had come off of all these R-rated Judd Apatow movies,” says Segel, who also appeared in Apatow’s Knocked Up. “They kind of chuckled. I think they thought I was kidding.”
But when Segel said he wanted to make a Muppet movie, he meant it. The script for The Muppets is sweet, old-fashioned and smart, much like the beloved first three Muppet movies. Segel plays Gary, a superpositive, supernaive guy from a Pleasantville-type town who goes to Los Angeles with his girlfriend (Amy Adams) to meet the Muppets, only to find they have disbanded. Miss Piggy is in Paris, where she is the plus-size editor of French Vogue. Gonzo runs a plumbing company in upstate New York, Animal is in rehab for anger management, Fozzie is in Vegas in a Muppets cover band called the Moopets, and Kermit is in Howard Hughes–esque exile in his Bel Air mansion.
“They’re all pretty lonely and miss their friends,” says Nicholas Stoller, who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and co-wrote The Muppets with Segel. “If this were real life, it wouldn’t work. It would be weird Facebook friend requests from people you went to junior high with.” But these being the Muppets — and this being Segel’s lifelong fantasy — they get back together to put on a show and save their old studio from Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), an evil baron who wants the oil underneath it. On the set today, Cooper yells at Kermit with such ferocity and stomps so convincingly around the stage off camera that some mistakenly think he’s spending the entire shoot in character as the villain.
There are moments when you get the feeling someone is going to walk in and tell everyone the Muppets aren’t real and a lot of people are going to cry.
Under the Influence
For a large group of comedians who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, “the Muppets were the gateway drug to comedy,” Stoller says. “You’d try it, and you’d want more of it, so you’d try Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. Then you’d fall down the rabbit hole. They’re so self-aware, and there are jokes flying everywhere. They’re like The Simpsons without cynicism.”
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“Watching The Muppet Show shaped what I find funny,” says Muppets director James Bobin, a co-creator of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, a show about two goofy New Zealand rock singers. (One of those singers, Bret McKenzie, wrote most of the songs in the movie.) Bobin grew up in the U.K., where The Muppet Show was shot and is thought of as an honorary member of the British canon, inflected with a Monty Python–like absurdity. “There has to be a time when stupid jokes and warmth and puns come back,” Bobin says. “It’s a change of direction.”
The Muppets’ producers compiled a list of more than 100 actors and singers who wanted to be in the film. Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Kathy Griffin and Mickey Rooney, among others, made the cut. (Christian Louboutin built platform stilettos for Miss Piggy, and Zac Posen made her a low-cut purple gown.) They created a celebrity-telethon scene so they could work everyone in. “We wanted an Elmo cameo, but that wasn’t going to happen,” Stoller says. “There’s too much money resting on that guy.”