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Published: Wednesday, 11/16/2011

Jason Segel realizes his 'Muppets' dream

BY IAN SPELLING
NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE

Tom Hanks, Bob Hope, Jimmy Stewart and ... Kermit the Frog?

"Kermit, to me, was like those guys, the everyman I loved when I was growing up," Jason Segel says. "I remember watching The Muppet Show [1976-1981] and the Muppet movies. I'd see Kermit and think, 'That's who I want to be when I grow up.'"

Segel didn't grow up to be Kermit, of course, but rather a comic actor best known for Freak and Geeks (1999-2000), Undeclared (2001-2002), Knocked Up (2007), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), and the current sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

He never shook his Muppets obsession, though, collecting Muppets memorabilia through the years and even including an entertaining, Muppets-like puppet arc in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he wrote. And on Nov. 23 Segel's talents and Muppets obsession will converge in The Muppets, a $40 million love letter to Muppets creator Jim Henson and his legacy.

Segel stars in, co-wrote, and produced the musical comedy, in which Kermit, Miss Piggy, Animal, Fozzie Bear, and all the other Muppets reunite, after years out of the limelight, in order to save their old Muppet Theater from the wrecking ball. Joining forces with the Muppets are Gary (Segel), his infinitely patient girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and his Muppets brother, Walter.

Speaking by telephone from a Los Angeles hotel, where he's busily promoting the Disney film, Segel says that his goal was to recapture the sweet essence of the Henson characters and the playful, old-school "Let's put on a show!" tone of the Muppets movies and variety series. Oh, and it should be noted that the film shows no hint of Segel's bawdier side, frequently on display in his R-rated films.

"It's a very abstract idea," Segel says, "but the Muppets remind us of the best version of ourselves. The world is very cynical and something kind of gets beat out of you, the wide-eyed innocence and the idea that you can accomplish anything, and just being nice to everybody. And the Muppets managed to maintain that. If you turn on anything with the Muppets, you're reminded of who you wanted to be when you were a kid, before the world got hold of you.

"I think people are hungry to go back to that, to go back to the idea of naivete and that the world is what you make of it. Every news report counters that, but the Muppets refuse to believe it. They continue to dwell in this world of hope and kindness. We, as adults, learn that that's not reality, but the Muppets don't accept that, and that's a big part of what this film is about."

Anyone who sees The Muppets will know that Segel was in his glory during the shoot. There's a scene in which Gary and Mary ride in a car brimming with reunited Muppets. A long sequence finds Gary looking on as the Muppets return to a restored and gleaming Muppet Show stage.

Neither of those, however, was "the" scene, the one that signaled that Segel's dream had come true.

"The scene that clicked for me and made me think, 'My God, this is really happening,' is the finale on Hollywood Boulevard," Segel says. "We shut down Hollywood Boulevard, we had 1,000 extras there and every single one of the Muppets was there singing and dancing. It was also my birthday. So that night I walked out of my trailer and onto set, like I normally do, and all of the Muppets and all of the extras sang 'Happy Birthday' to me.

"I was like, 'This is the greatest moment of my life.' "

Segel's voice conveys pure joy as he recounts that anecdote, and barely dips as he acknowledges the challenge facing his film at the box office. The Muppets last appeared on a movie screen more than a decade ago, in the mostly forgettable Muppets from Space (1999). Millions of kids out there ages 12 and younger have grown up without the Muppets and might be entirely unfamiliar with them. It makes one wonder: Who will go to see The Muppets?

"I think what it will be is my generation and older, people who love the Muppets and want to see them again," says Segel, who is 31. "Those people will also want their kids to come, because they'll want to introduce their kids to the Muppets, to what they loved as kids. I think what we've accomplished is kind of what Pixar nailed with a movie like Toy Story 3 [2010]. Kids were watching a movie about kids saying good-bye to their toys and parents were watching a movie about saying good-bye to their kids. Everyone enjoyed it on a totally different level, but they all enjoyed it. And I think that's what we've accomplished with The Muppets.

"It's definitely a family film. Parents will be taking a trip down memory lane, and kids will be enjoying something new that I hope they'll enjoy for the rest of their lives."

Despite his exhaustive commitment to making and now promoting The Muppets, Segel hasn't missed a beat at his day job, How I Met Your Mother. Now in its seventh season, the CBS sitcom continues to attract more than 10 million viewers a week. The show follows five longtime friends as they live, work, and love in New York, and current episodes are tracking the married couple Marshall (Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) as they anxiously await the arrival of their first child.

"I'm ready for Marshall to be a dad," Segel says. "I'm very excited to work with a baby -- because their hours are limited. Babies don't know that they're acting, and they can only work for four hours at a time. So I think my days are going to get much easier."

How many of those days are yet to come remains to be seen. How I Met Your Mother is still a hit, and a deal for an eighth season already is in place. Moreover, no one involved, Segel included, seems to be in a rush to move on.

"I think we've all done so much for each other," Segel says. "The producers let me do The Muppets. It would have been very easy for them to say no, that I was contractually obligated to the show, but they worked out the schedule so that I could achieve my dream. So I think the very least we can all do is see this story through to the end."

Beyond the show and The Muppets, Segel has several upcoming films awaiting release, and big plans beyond them. His current list includes Jeff Who Lives at Home, a comedy/drama from directors Jay and Mark Duplass, and This Is Forty, a Knocked Up spin-off in which Segel reprises his character from that movie for a cameo. He also has wrapped The Five-Year Engagement, a comedy that he stars in and co-wrote with director Nick Stoller, who also directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and co-wrote The Muppets.

Writing, producing ... can directing be far off for Segel?

"I love acting, but I'm really getting into the beginning-to-end process," he says. "I love that an idea starts in your brain and you see it all the way through. It's a very satisfying feeling to know that you've created something from beginning to end. I also like to have a little bit of control.

"But I don't think I'll wind up directing something I write. Here's how I think of it: Right or wrong, and I'm not saying I'm right, but when I think about acting a role, I don't do it unless I feel that, 'No one else could do this better than me.' When I write a script, I feel like, 'No one could write this better than me.'

"When I think about directing, I feel like I always know four or five people who could direct it better than I could. So I'd prefer the movie be great versus my doing it for some sense of pride, and it's not quite as good as it could have been if I'd put my pride aside and let someone better direct it."



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