Can Jason Segel Save The Muppets?

by maxmosher

The GQ magazine that I’ve previously posted about (whose cover with Taylor Lautner cover I rather embarrassingly lusted over) has an interview with Jason Segel of I Love You, Man or Forgetting Sarah Marshall or How I Met Your Mother or Freaks and Geeks-fame. Although perhaps 90% of viewers remember Sarah Marshall for the infamous penis scene, there’s a small cadre who were more impressed by the Dracula puppet show finale. We are Muppet fans, an often difficult dedication over the two decades since Jim Henson’s passing. We have sat through some terrible films and TV shows, and Jason Segel, as a Muppet fan himself, knows our pain. Indeed, he’s our last best hope for reclaiming Kermit and company’s former glory.

In the interview, he recounts a sad scene at the Henson Company, who designed the puppets for the Sarah Marshall vampire show. Segel asked if he could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy. After a pause, the Henson people admitted “We don’t have Kermits or Piggys. We sold everything to Disney.” Later, when he had a meeting at with Walt’s company during which a bunch of executives pitched him projects, he interrupted and said “Thank you, this is all very flattering, but listen. You guys own the Muppets and you’re just kind of sitting on ‘em. I really love the Muppets, and I think I know how to bring the franchise back.” After some laughter, and his pledge that he wasn’t going to make it ironic or Judd Apatow-esque, Disney relented. Jason Segel is getting to make his Muppet Movie.

Whether he’s able to succeed at taking on where The Muppets Take Manhattan left off will rest on how he balances the trinity of humour, music and heart. Humour for Segel will presumably not be a problem. I have faith that his funniness is not solely of the R-rated, penis-exposing variety. Music has proven an obstacle for post-1990 Muppet vehicles, partly because the scores of the original three movies were so legendary. But they’ve signed on James Bobin, co-creator of Flight of the Conchords, to direct, which is an inspired choice.

Then there’s the question of heart. It’s difficult to strike the right tone and not go schmaltzy. Surprisingly, the original Muppet Show TV show, which made Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo household names, had very little emotion in it; the show was largely made up of terrible Vaudeville one-liners, covers of classic and contemporary songs during which things would explode, and 1970’s guest stars attempting to achieve rapport with a green felt frog. All the heart came from the films; in The Muppet Movie, Gonzo’s melancholy song in the desert followed by Kermit’s outburst at the gang claiming he didn’t promise them anything; in The Great Muppet Caper, Kermit’s disillusion with Miss Piggy after she lied about being the designer Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg in a drag queen role); and, of course, The Muppets take Manhattan, whose ‘Saying Goodbye’ song and final wedding scene bring a tear to every Muppet-fan’s eye.

Segel had to reference the ‘Saying Goodbye’ song often during pitch meetings. “I kept getting notes from, like, the Muppet brass saying, ‘Muppets are never sad. Muppets never break up.’ And I had to be like, ‘No—they do. And that’s the best part.’”

Suddenly, the last few years of mediocrity are explained: Disney had no idea what they had bought! They thought they had acquired a pantheon of cheery, furry characters to stand alongside mindless Mickey and gang.

 (Mickey Mouse, it must be said, finally and loudly, is the single most uninteresting character in Western culture. His sole characteristic is having satellite-dish shaped ears, which turn his head into three perfect circles, becoming the ideal copyrighted logo, which is all Disney needs of him. Okay, I’m done.)

They completely misunderstood the characters. While the Muppets are zany, neuroses were always just below the fake fur. They’re all a bunch of losers. Fozzie is just a lost little boy, who has mistaken Kermit for his father and uses (bad) jokes to get attention. Ditto with Gonzo, only he likes daredevil stunts (I won’t get into his poultry-philia here).

And how to summarize Miss Piggy? Frank Oz didn’t like doing female characters and I think his being uncomfortable accounts for Piggy’s continual tension between the feminine and the masculine. She tries, desperately, to be glamorous and elegant, but she inevitably fails and when she does, she screams, and threatens, and karate-chops. Camp has been described as the failure of femininity, and Miss Piggy could be the textbook example.

Like all them, she wants Kermit’s love and approval and when it becomes too much for his nonexistent green shoulders he berates them. The fact that Kermit can be earnest and well-meaning but still get frustrated makes him very real.

But these are just my feelings about the Muppets. I’m sure Jason Segel has his own and they come from the same committed place. The Muppet Wikia site, which has literally everything you could ever want to know about the Muppets (and I know that people use that word incorrectly, but it’s an incredibly exhaustive resource) outlined two potential plots for the new movie. The first is classic Muppet and is about getting the whole gang out of retirement to save the Muppet theatre from an evil rich oil man. The second, a meta film called The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever, is based on an idea Henson himself  worked on before his death. In it, the Muppets have to make a film with a budget that keeps getting slashed, while the production values of the film you’re watching get visibly cheaper and cheaper.

The plots ultimately don’t matter much. The Muppet movies of the 1970’s and 1980’s revived the standard stories of classic musicals (“Let’s go to Hollywood/Broadway and become famous and make people happy!”), hopeful plots for a cynical time. What will matter is whether Segel can find a way to expose another organ, his heart, through Jim Henson’s complex creatures.