Interview: James Bobin and Jason Segel Bring the Muppets Back to Center Stage

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James Bobin and Jason Segel on the set of The Muppets
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

From the late ’70s through the ’80s, “The Muppet Show” was a staple in many households and while Jim Henson‘s creations never completely disappeared, their prominence has since dwindled, but now Jason Segel along with his his Forgetting Sarah Marshall director, Nicholas Stoller, have written a screenplay bringing the Muppets back to the forefront. With unemployment rates rising, a European debt crisis and war across the globe, perhaps the innocence of the Muppets are just what we need right now and when I brought this up with The Muppets director James Bobin he seemed to agree.

“I think it’s a perfect time to bring the Muppets back, and I hope the audience agrees with us. The thing about them is, they’re not cynical at all.” Bobin responded. “I think we need them now more than ever.”

A little later, Jason Segel went even further saying, “I think that’s why it was time for the Muppets to come back. I’ve thought a lot about this, but I think the Muppets remind us of the best versions of ourselves. You’re instantly transported to who you wanted to be when you were a kid, this sense of wide-eyed wonder that the world beats out of you eventually. The Muppets have refused to let that go away, and so I think in this cynical world where a lot of comedy now comes at making jokes at other peoples’ expense, the Muppets refuse to go there. And they’ve endured for 40 years as a result.”

A lot has been made about current comedy favorites like Segel and Bobin being picked to bring the Muppets back in 2011. Isn’t Segel a card carrying member of the Judd Apatow gang, the crew who took potty humor out of the junior high locker room and into the mainstream? Isn’t Bobin part of the Ali G gang that took that sensibility worldwide?

Yes, and no. Anyone who has taken the time to watch Segel’s work in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man knows much of his humor, like that of the Muppets, is more about poking fun at Segel himself and his situation than making fun of other people. The best known scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, after all, is a naked Segel.

James Bobin and Walter on the set of The Muppets
Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

Bobin, on the other hand, is a lifelong fan of Jim Henson and his creations, “I’m from England, and in England the show is very much considered an English show, because it was made in England in the ’70s, it was kind of an English production. I mean, Lew Grade financed it, it was an English director, an English crew, and Jim [Henson] and Frank [Oz] and Jerry [Juhl] lived in England for five years making the show. It felt like an English show, which happened to have Americans in it. So really, it was a thing I used to watch regularly every Sunday afternoon, I think, at my grandmother’s house. So I remember watching it and then going home and having school the next day so I remember it being a quite sad thing. I watched ‘The Muppet Show’ and that was the last good part of my weekend, but I really remember it very well. Also, we used to watch it on breaks during filming of the Conchords.”

The connection between Bobin’s “The Flight of the Conchords” and the the Muppets goes even further on this new Muppets film, as Segel pointed out, “Bret McKenzie, from Flight of the Conchords, wrote the songs, which was a perfect match. Flight of the Conchords is very Muppet-y, you know, two wide-eyed innocents kind of making their way through tough New York, it’s a very kind of Muppet-y thing. And I personally believe he should be nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Man or Muppet.’ I don’t know if we’re allowed to say this, but it was just voted from International Music Magazine the best song ever written.”

Not all the songs were written by McKenzie, however. Some classic pop tunes are given the Muppet treatment as well as a couple of songs from the Muppets’ past. I asked Segel if one of those songs was deliberately placed to get the waterworks flowing from certain audience members who will no doubt get in touch with their childhood while watching the flick. He admitted, “We were kind of hoping people might.”

“You got me,” I said. “I was bawling my eyes out.”

“Wow, that’s great. I think that’s the best thing anyone has told us today.” He said with that sweet sincerity that makes him so successful on screen. “Thanks a lot.”

The Muppets comes out this week at the start of the the Holiday season with a lot of buzz and a lot of good will from fans of all stripes. Are the Muppets ready to Occupy the Multiplexes? Even more to the point, Are they ready for their close up, Mr. Segel?

“Our goal was to set the stage for the Muppets to do whatever they wanted from here on and to let them take the torch and run with it. It really was just about giving them an opportunity to get them back on the forefront of comedy,” Segel explained. “It’s kind of what we hope to achieve in this movie.”

After seeing the film. I think they just might.