It’s been a while since there has been money resting on the Muppets: the past 20 years haven’t been kind to them. There were direct-to-DVD films. Miss Piggy did Pizza Hut commercials. Felt gathered dust. “I’m probably a bigger fan of what I grew up watching than what I’ve been a part of,” says Eric Jacobson, who has played Miss Piggy (as well as Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam the Eagle) since 2001. But a real-world need for Muppets kept simmering. Unauthorized “Sad Kermit” videos — in which a Muppet impostor crooned depressing rock songs, did drugs and performed sexual acts he didn’t seem all that excited about performing — became a viral sensation in 2007. In the past couple of years, the legit Muppets produced a series of cooking shows with chef Cat Cora and some music videos for classic rock songs. Their mock-serious take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” has racked up more than 20 million YouTube views.
Even a snarky gossipmonger like Perez Hilton, a recent visitor to the set, gets a little Muppety around the Muppets. “He was a really nice guy,” says Walter, a boyish new Muppet, who in the movie is Gary’s best friend from their small town and likewise idolizes the Muppets. “Perez asked me if I was involved in any scandals. I said, ‘Not any that I know, but I’m sure you’ll tell me if I have.’ “
Surprisingly, it’s not that strange to interview a Muppet. Peter Linz, who plays Walter, doesn’t feel weird talking to me with his hand in my face. So I don’t either. The rule is that you have to ask to interview the Muppet and its handler at separate times, even though I can totally see that Linz’s hand is up there.
In fact, sometimes it’s weirder looking right into Segel’s wide-open, happy eyes. Even with all this Muppet love on set, Segel’s Muppetphilia seems a little intense. “I have somebody on watch outside my trailer because he’s so into the Muppets and moi,” Miss Piggy says. “I’m thinking of getting a restraining order.” Amy Adams can sing every lyric of every song I can name from 1979′s The Muppet Movie — and even she was freaked out. “You kind of sign on to the man-child thing when you work with Jason,” she says. “The only creepy thing is the idea of whoever marries him. Every time we have a new thing on the set, he says, ‘Do we own that? Do I own that? Can I own that?’ I told him, ‘You can’t have the Muppet Show sign over your driveway. You’ll never get married.’ ” At one of his first meetings at Disney, the executives brought out some Muppets, and Segel immediately stopped paying attention, putting a Muppet on his hand and playing with it until Stoller got him to stop.
Segel says he has watched The Muppet Movie more than 50 times — and that was before he even thought of pitching a new version. “I relate to the Muppets on a very deep level,” he says. “They care about being nice to people. I don’t really care about much besides being nice.” For example, when a fan asked Segel to officiate at his wedding, Segel got a license online and performed the ceremony on The Tonight Show. He is thoughtful, cheery and calm and wants to make comedy that’s much the same way, if that’s possible.
It hasn’t been for a long time. “There was a Christopher Guest mocking comedy wave, a Farrelly brothers gross-out comedy wave, a cringe-factor wave,” Segel says. “The Muppets stuck around by not being cynical.” And now Disney is spending $50 million on a movie with singing and puppets and old friends saving the day by putting on a show! Either Segel knows something about America that the rest of us don’t, or he’s about to go back to full-frontal nudity.
LIST: The All-TIME 100 Movies