Celebritology: For Jason Segel, ‘Muppets’ is a labor of love

Scott Garfield - From left, Walter, Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) in the new theatrical update ‘The Muppets.’

Could the antidote for a crass pop culture universe — one that focuses on “Jersey Shore” bar fights and the exploits of Kim Kardashian — be found in another celebrity whose name also begins with a K: Kermit the Frog?

Jason Segel thinks so. The writer and actor — best known for roles in films such as “I Love You, Man” and TV shows including “Freaks and Geeks” and “How I Met Your Mother” — has been on a three-year crusade to start a Muppet revolution.

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That crusade reaches its apex with the Thanksgiving weekend release of “The Muppets,” the first major movie in more than a decade to star Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the felt-covered gang, a puppet posse born right here in Washington. (University of Maryland grad Jim Henson introduced the Muppets on the WRC airwaves in the 1950s.)

After pitching a new Muppet film to Disney in 2008, co-writing it with Nicholas Stoller and starring in it alongside Amy Adams and Animal, Segel is hoping the Muppets become trendy again.

“That’s why I fought so hard to get this movie made,” said Segel, 31, during a phone interview from New York, where he was preparing to host “Saturday Night Live.” “There’s a value system that the Muppets offer that we’ve sort of forgotten about.”

Of course, the Muppets have not exactly disappeared from the cultural landscape. TV movies, Disney theme-park rides and “Muppet Show” episodes on DVD and online have ensured that neither Gonzo nor Beaker slips our minds.

But, to Segel’s point, the Muppets aren’t riding the same wave of relevancy they enjoyed in the ’70s and ’80s, an era unofficially dubbed the innocent, optimistic “Rainbow Connection” years and one that “The Muppets” unabashedly celebrates.

Too young to have watched original broadcasts of “The Muppet Show,” Segel remembers seeing episodes and Muppet movies that his mother preserved on VHS tape. Those early experiences sparked an interest in both Henson’s universe as well as puppeteering in general. (Remember Segel’s character in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the one who staged a puppet rock opera about Dracula? That guy is not that different from Segel.)

Working with the Muppets, then, was the realization of a childhood dream, something Segel felt profoundly when he shot the massive musical finale on his 31st birthday.

“I walked out on set that night, and all the Muppets were waiting for me,” he said. “They and the thousands of extras sang happy birthday to me.”

The box-office response will probably determine whether Disney greenlights additional theatrical releases — or a new TV show — starring Kermit and the crew. Segel is heartened by the affection expressed by fans who share his desire to once again start the music and dim the lights, including those who spearheaded a failed campaign to persuade Oscar producers to draft the Muppets as this year’s Academy Award hosts. What is it that makes children, as well as grown men and women, light up at the mere mention of Muppets?

“They remind us of the best versions of ourselves,” Segel explains earnestly. “They remind us of who we wanted to be before the realities of this cruel world got hold of us.

“I think there is a part of us,” he concludes, “that wishes we were all a bit more Muppety.”

 
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