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Jason Segel on “The Muppets” cameos and why you don’t mention puppets in a Muppet movie

Jason Segel on “The Muppets” cameos and why you don’t mention puppets in a Muppet movie (photo)

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Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the Muppets return to the big screen this week in their first theatrical release since 1999’s “Muppets From Space.”

A project several years in the making for “The Muppets” co-writer and lead Jason Segel, the film has been the subject of much attention since it was first announced back in 2008 — with many wondering whether the classic characters will retain their relevance in today’s culture.

IFC spoke with with Segel about bringing “The Muppets” back to the big screen and the tricky task of balancing the needs of longtime Muppets fans and the desire to introduce Henson’s creations to a new generation of children.

IFC: Jason, you’ve talked about growing up with the Muppets and how this is such a passion project for you, so what’s your earliest Muppets memory?

JS: My mother is a comedy dork like me, but I was a bit too young for “The Muppets Show.” I was born in 1980, and I think the show ended in ’82 or ’83, but my mom had very dilligently taped all the episodes of “The Muppet Show,” and as soon as I was old enough to watch them, she started showing me the VHS tapes. So my earliest memory is really me and my mom sitting on the couch and watching “The Muppets” together.

IFC: They say you can learn a lot about someone by knowing his or her favorite Muppet. Do you have a favorite Muppet?

JS: Yeah, it’s Kermit. I know that’s the easy answer, but when I was a kid, Kermit was Tom Hanks. He really formed my opinion of who I wanted to be as an actor.

IFC: The script for “The Muppets” went through a lot of changes over time, including some major edits to Walter, your character’s brother in the film who also happens to be a puppet. The original story had a completely different take on your character’s relationship with Walter, right?

JS: The ventriloquist issue was actually pretty interesting. In the original script we wrote, I played a ventriloquist on the boardwalk and Walter was my puppet, but the big secret was that Walter was really alive and always wanted to be part of the Muppets. But then the Muppets team came to us and said, “We’ve learned something over the years. You really don’t want to ever evoke the idea of ‘puppets’ within the Muppets, because Kermit is not a puppet. Kermit is a frog. Miss Piggy is a pig.”

IFC: Yeah, that’s always been one of those things you try not to overanalyze…

JS: Suspension of disbelief is part of the seed of the Muppets. It would’ve been very hard — and very meta — for a child to wrap his head around the idea that Walter is a puppet but Kermit is not a puppet, Kermit is a frog. It just becomes very confusing. So with movies like this, you try to eliminate as much reference to puppets as you can.

IFC: So we always hear about the danger of working with children or animals if you’re an actor. What can you tell us about working with Muppets?

JS: Well, it’s incredible logistically complicated. All the sets have to be elevated, and puppets don’t have eyes, so you can really only shoot with one camera at a time. It was funny, when we started we would be like, “And then when he walks in, Kermit looks over there.” The puppeteers were like, “Um, you guys understand that Kermit can’t see, right? When you say look over there, Kermit doesn’t know what that means.” So there’s no frame of reference, and we had to learn some particular logistics when it came to puppets.

But the thing I really walked away with was how talented these puppeteers are. They’re really the unsung heroes of this whole thing. Their job during the day is to be invisible. You’re never supposed to think about the puppeteer. The guy who plays Miss Piggy also plays Fozzie Bear and Animal, and in any other context, that’s like a Peter Sellers-like feat, you know?

IFC: Was there ever any temptation to use digital effects or other modern techniques to make things a little simpler?

JS: No, we specifically wanted to go back to the purist Muppets point of view. There’s something visceral that you can’t put your finger on about knowing that you can touch Kermit or meet Miss Piggy. You’ll never meet Shrek. Shrek lives inside a computer. But a kid can come to the set and hug Kermit. Whether or not he can articulate it, he can definitely feel it — he can feel the difference.

IFC: What about all the film’s cameos, and the involvement of so many people with various levels of exposure to the Muppets? Have you run into any trouble discussing the Muppets with people in and around the industry?

JS: It’s funny, because people’s memories of The Muppets are a little off sometimes. A while ago, someone asked me if I was going to play Kermit in the movie. I was like, “No… Kermit plays Kermit, guys.”

IFC: When it came to the cameos, were you surprised by all of the people who were interested — especially the actors who are much younger than you or I and might not have the same connection to them?

JS: The thing is, we didn’t really approach anybody for cameos. We made very few outgoing calls for this movie. As soon as word got around that we were doing the next Muppet movie, people were calling us to be a part of it, because it’s sort of a rite of passage to get to work with the Muppets. To be able to show your friends that you’re friends with Kermit — people were excited about that idea. Also, for comedians, the Muppets were a gateway to comedy. “The Muppets Show” was the first variety show you saw as a kid. That leads to “Monty Python” and “Saturday Night Live” and things like that. So for me, there’s a very sweet spot in my heart for the Muppets.

IFC: I sat in front of a pair of kids during an early screening of “The Muppets” and was pleasantly surprised by how much of the humor they got — especially with some of the more adult, self-aware jokes. How did you find that balance between entertaining kids and adults simultaneously?

JS: It really was a four-year process of finding a balance between the nostalgia factor for our generation and just humbly acknowledging that there is a generation who might not know who the Muppets are. Ego-wise, not just for the Muppets but for a Muppets fan like myself, it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that the last Muppets movie was released 12 years ago. So kids ages 0-12 have not had a Muppets movie in their lives. So yes, we worked hard to find that witches’ brew of honoring the Muppets we grew up with and introducing Muppets to some people for the first time.

IFC: So if all goes well with “The Muppets,” can we expect a sequel? Is this something you’d like to do again?

JS: I think the way that I feel is, I serve at the pleasure of Kermit.

“The Muppets” opens November 23.

Related: “The Muppets” music supervisor Bret McKenzie teams with Kermit to sing “Life’s a Happy Song”

Let us know what you think of Segel’s comments about the film and The Muppets below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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