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.
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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.”
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.
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