Jason Segel has a filthy sewer of a mind. What other possible conclusion could one reasonably draw from the 31-year-old’s body of work? Since appearing in the lone season of NBC’s cult high school series Freaks and Geeks, Segel has become closely associated with its executive producer Judd Apatow’s profane juvenilia. It was Segel in Knocked Up earnestly asking Seth Rogen for his blessing to plow Rogen’s unborn daughter once she reached legal age. It was Segel in the Apatow-esque bromantic comedy I Love You, Man proudly displaying his “jerk-off station” to a new friend. And, most unforgettably, it was Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall—which he cowrote—shooting a breakup scene totally nude, his flaccid Segelness on display for a full 73 frames. He’s a dude who goes there.
So when it was announced that the actor had been anointed to breathe life into the moribund Muppet movie franchise as star and screenwriter, gasps from the peanut gallery were understandable. Consider the other players: Segel’s cowriter on the project, Nicholas Stoller, wrote and directed Get Him to the Greek, in which the protagonist is forced to ferry a rock star’s heroin through airline security, Papillon-style; the film’s director, James Bobin, was directing HBO’s Da Ali G Show when Borat led a barroom crowd in a rousing refrain of “throw the Jew down the well.” These men were to be entrusted with Jim Henson’s most beloved and famous creations? The Muppet faithful trembled, imagining the worst: Miss Piggy working a donkey show; Dr. Teeth and Fozzie on a meth bender. The possibilities were endless—and endlessly horrifying.
But tonight, on a chilly January evening on the set of The Muppets, Segel’s junk is safely hidden inside a pair of jeans. And far from readying an infusion of raunch for the franchise, he’s sounding like a Muppet Moses, delivering his felt buddies from an Egypt of crappy sequels and development hell. “I’m not saying I’m the guy who’s going to swoop in and fix it,” he says, “but I sure thought I’d try.” He’s well aware that his fitness as a guardian of Henson’s legacy is in question—”People thought, ‘Hey now, watch them dirty up the Muppets’”—but in truth, it’s hard to imagine a more vigilant champion of the Muppets than Segel. Ever since starting work on their big-screen comeback, he’s been hewing closely, almost obsessively, to what he sees as sacred Muppet orthodoxy.
Of course, because Henson died of a bacterial infection in May 1990, this divining of intent presents a quandary of its own. There’s no question about who owns the trademark and tons of felt that are Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest of the gang; Disney acquired them from the Jim Henson Company in 2004. But one existential question remains: Do Muppets have a soul, and if so, who owns that? Is it Segel and the nostalgia-mongering arrivistes? The aging puppeteers who have dedicated their lives to Henson’s felt creations? Or is it Henson’s five children, who have been maintaining his legacy in the 21 years since his death? To those of us of a certain age, the Muppets—like The Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who—are that rare fictional universe so pervasively influential as to implant itself in our DNA. (And the granddaddy of the generation’s touchstones, Star Wars? Even a Muppet of its own it has, in Yoda.) We naturally think the Muppets are ours. So can Kermit survive getting pulled in so many different directions?
Segel is seated at a French café table—or, rather, at a table on a French café set on the Universal lot. A few dozen feet away, Kermit, Fozzie, and Animal are being tinkered with by Muppet wranglers inside a Rolls-Royce. It’s a shock at first; seeing them carted around by their fuzzy necks between takes feels a bit like watching a dead relative being dragged through the funeral home by the hair. Segel, who has said that he shed a tear or two when he first saw Kermit deliver his lines at a table read—yes, the Muppets go to table reads—has been around lifeless Muppets long enough now that he doesn’t give them a second glance. Or it could just be that he’s too exhausted to notice; to complete his leading role in the movie, he’s had to work seven-day weeks for much of the shoot, dividing his time between the set of his CBS show How I Met Your Mother and The Muppets locations and sets here at Universal.
By Hollywood standards, it’s a low-key production. Whereas The Amazing Spider-Man, Sony’s summer 2012 tent pole also filming on the studio’s lot, is rumored to have a $220 million budget, The Muppets will cost Disney less than $50 million. And sure, $50 million is still a considerable sum—until you realize that Sony was willing to pony up $110 million for a dusty children’s franchise as patently lame as The Smurfs. “It’s thought of as a movie for children,” says Steve Saklad, the film’s production designer, who had to scrap almost all of his elaborate set designs when he realized the budget. “You and I know that it’s a much richer thing than that, but in the Disney paradigm it’s basically a movie for kids and whichever adults will come with them.”