entertainment

Behind the scenes with The Muppets.

.

The Muppets walked into the room. I know, right? They’re Muppets! How on Earth do they propel their little footsies and motor into the press room? But there they were: Miss Piggy and Kermit themselves commanding a room of the world’s media before they’d even sat down.

At the tender age of 24 I’d effectively reached the pinnacle of my career in the shadows of a pig and a frog who’d been dominating showbiz for more than 30 years. Yes, the Muppets have been around for longer than I have been alive. And they don’t look a day older then when they began. Funny that.

Now the fuzzy, adorable team are back together in a brand new movie written, executive produced by and starring humanity’s closest approximation of a Muppet, Jason Segel. He’s here too wearing a big, ridiculous grin. There’s no pressure, he says. He’s a bit like Fozzie Bear, the joke cracking Muppet.

“He is the coolest. He is … every comedian feels like him at some point. You have this kind of totally meritless confidence [laughs] to keep telling jokes despite the fact that no one is laughing. Fozzie is just completely undaunted by no crowd reaction. It’s hilarious,” he says, explaining the innocence of the Muppets characters and the franchise itself.

“The thing I have always responded to, they are just so kind. Their humour is never mean-spirited. It’s so easy to get cheap laughs out of people. The Muppets managed to be around for 40 years without ever resorting to that. There must be something special in that.”

And a face-to-face meeting with Miss Piggy and Kermit goes some way to proving that innocent humour need not be boring. It’s just a few days after what would have been Jim Henson’s birthday. He created Kermit in 1955 and passed away in 1990.

“He’s very important in my life. I wouldn’t be here without him. He kind of raised me to new heights … never quite sure what he did though. He was always there, working behind the scenes though,” says Kermit.

Miss Piggy pipes up: “I always thought he was a stalker! That’s my job! I stalk the frog.”

They’re here, of course, to talk about the movie, in which they and the rest of the Muppet gang are the true stars.

It tells the story of Kermit’s biggest fan Walter. He looks like a Muppet, but he’s the brother of Gary [Jason Segel] who has lived a pretty sheltered life in Smalltown, USA. They’re best buddies and together with Gary’s perpetually waiting girlfriend of 10 years Mary [Amy Adams] they head off to LA to take a tour of the Muppet Studios which is, coincidentally, where we’re having this interview.

[Fun fact, the Muppets Studios are among the oldest in Hollywood and are in fact the original Charlie Chaplin Studios built in 1917].

ADVERTISEMENT

But the world has moved on. The Muppets have disbanded and an evil oil baron (Tex Richman) plans to raze the Studios to gain access to a vast well of the black gold beneath. That’s the part that had Fox News label The Muppets as a bunch of communists.

“It’s amazing how far the left will go just to manipulate your kids, to convince them, give the anti-corporate message. They’ve been doing it for decades. Hollywood, the left, the media, they hate the oil industry,” one talking head on the business program said.

Of course, it seems odd to not realise a frog would be an environmentalist (Kermit comes from the swamp) but more to the point, the Muppets just want to raise the $10 million needed to buy back the Studios. How to do it? One last show of course. The magic of song and dance. And an arsenal of celebrity cameos.

The film is directed by Flight of the Conchords co-creator James Bobin with music supervised (and written by) one half of that show’s creative talents Bret McKenzie. It shows. The songs are utterly delightful and responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the film.

Of working with Jason, Kermit said: “We’d seen Jason Segel. A lot of him, actually, in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. We both tend to do nude scenes.”

They get along great, both assure me, and Jason goes one step further.

“It’s tough to be in a bad mood around Kermit. It just feels wrong to complain about the hours when he’s around, and more importantly when there is a puppeteer stuffed under the couch that I am literally sitting on. All 220 pounds of me. It didn’t feel right to complain! He, like, has to get shoulder surgery every two years and I’m like ‘oh, I had to sit in my trailer it was so hard’,” he laughs.

Walter, Gary and Mary (Jason Segel and Amy Adams)

The movie does what it promises. The laugh-out-loud moments are belly-heaving and the self-aware moments will leave you with a stupid grin. I asked Kermit about how the Muppets have been doing ‘meta’ for decades.

“We’ve always done that. We break that fourth wall. Sometimes literally. We like relating directly to our fans. I know it can be confusing to our fans. I just want them to understand we are both the actors in our movies and the characters. You know, we play these roles. But it’s not necessarily our real lives. I would like to do a movie soon that is a reality show of our lives,” he said.

Which makes his relationship with Miss Piggy hard to track. They got married in a movie, but it was just in the movie. So I have to ask, are there any plans afoot?

“No, definitely not. A hoof, in Miss Piggy’s case. A cloven hoof. I care a lot about Piggy and we’ve been together on again off again for 35 years. I hate to be so non-committal, but it is tough to commit as a middle-aged male frog. I’m not sure our families would get along. Part of it is, she doesn’t like to come to the swamp. She’s not exactly proud of her pig past. And heaven forbid you mention bacon! Very touchy subject,” he adds.

ADVERTISEMENT

She’s the polar opposite of him. A diva, destined for the limelight. He’s a version of lime-coloured, but wants for nothing more than the simple life.

“I actually like that better. I’m a fairly simple frog. I don’t get into the Hollywood scene too much. I’m not always recognised. I’ve been confused for other stars … Patrick Stewart. I think the important thing is never believe your own PR. Remember that, like the swamp, there are plenty of rats in Hollywood.”

Kermit says profound things, often, in our interview. And in all that it’s kind of hard to believe he’s, you know, made from felt and cut-in-half ping pong balls. But there was never any doubt I was talking to Kermit. Or Miss Piggy. None.

Jason Segel tells another story when I asked him if he thought working with the Muppets would unravel some of the mystique.

“I don’t even like to think about it. But there is this table … where, you know, the Muppets go to have a rest when they aren’t been operated by a puppeteer … and it’s usually kept completely covered. But I walked in one day and I saw some of the Muppets laying there like this [he throws his arms behind him, tilts his head back and sticks his tongue out the side like he is in a coma]. It is the scariest thing. And they make sure that if a kid comes to set that that table is covered and no-one sees it because it is very, very disconcerting,” he said.

“They stay in character a fair amount in between shooting breaks. I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s a little disconcerting at first! But it’s pretty impressive, you get pretty used to just talking to Kermit.”

But in the end it doesn’t matter because, as Jason says, you can still meet Kermit. You can still touch his tiny green fingers.

And, truth be told, there was more substance to our chat than many actual people I’ve interviewed before.

That’s pretty cool.

Did you grow up with The Muppets? Who’s your favourite? What movie are you looking forward to this Summer?

Rick travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Disney, the studio which made The Muppets. He most resembles the Muppet Fozzie Bear in both mannerisms and looks.

The Muppets will be released in Australia on January 12, 2012.