Get ready to light the lights! After a decade out of the headlines, The Muppets are back and set to make a new rainbown connection — all thanks to one die-hard fan who happens to be a Hollywood star

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated November 04, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
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  • ABC

In her prime, she was everywhere. A star of film and television, celebrated as a fierce feminist icon, she saw her face splashed across magazine covers, T-shirts, posters, and calendars. She had a best-selling advice book, a workout album, a perfume line, and a grassroots movement urging her to run for president. Over time, though, it all slowly faded. New stars captured the public’s affections, and an entire generation grew up only vaguely aware of who she was. But today, on a rainy January afternoon on a soundstage in Los Angeles, she’s filming a pivotal scene in what her fans hope will be her big comeback movie, a climactic showdown with a rival who’s trying to take her place. Her blond hair perfectly coiffed, a string of pearls around her neck, she strides toward her foe with a steely stare — then, letting out a piercing hi-ya!, dispatches her with a single karate chop. ”There is only one Miss Piggy,” she says, snout pointing proudly in the air. ”And she is moi.”

Yes, we’re talking about a hand puppet — and the puppeteer operating this porcine diva just below the frame, Eric Jacobson, is not even the one who first gave that character life 37 years ago. (That, of course, was Frank Oz, who has unofficially retired as a puppeteer.) Still, the love people around the world have felt for Miss Piggy and her fellow Muppets — the sweet Everyfrog Kermit, the neurotic comic Fozzie Bear, the maniacal drummer Animal, the weird whatever-he-is Gonzo, and all the rest — is very real. So are the stakes riding on Disney’s The Muppets, a star-studded, PG-rated, $40 million musical comedy opening Nov. 23. The last time the Muppets were seen on the big screen, in 1999’s Muppets From Space, Bill Clinton was in the White House and the Backstreet Boys were topping the pop charts. That film grossed just $16.6 million, and since then its stars have been largely out of sight. The Muppets, co-written by actor Jason Segel and Get Him to the Greek‘s Nicholas Stoller (both of whom are far better known for R-rated comedies than anything close to family fare), embraces this reality in its premise. Now split up and mostly forgotten, Kermit and the gang reunite with the help of a Muppet fan named Gary (Segel), his girlfriend, Mary (Amy Adams), and a new Muppet character named Walter to try to save the original Muppet Theater from being demolished by an evil oil baron (Chris Cooper).

It’s a tricky business trying to resurrect any dusty pop culture institution, let alone one as revered as the Muppets. ”They are one of America’s crown jewels — we’re incredibly aware of that,” says Muppets director James Bobin, who co-created the late, lamented HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords. With their blend of comic anarchy and heartstring-tugging emotion, the Muppets have influenced everything from The Simpsons to Pixar movies to the comedies of Judd Apatow. The legacy of their legendary creator, Jim Henson, who died of a bacterial infection in 1990 at age 53, is hardwired into the childhood memory banks of Gen-Xers weaned on the classic prime-time variety series The Muppet Show, which ran from 1976 to 1981. (”Kermit is my personal Jesus,” says Sarah Silverman, who has a cameo in The Muppets.) Disney, which acquired the franchise from the Jim Henson Company in 2004, is hoping that parents who grew up loving the Muppets will bring their children to the movie in droves, pumping new life into the brand. Yet it remains to be seen whether kids raised on CGI animation and 3-D spectacle will go for something as radically lo-fi as felt puppets.

”There’s a whole generation of kids who don’t know the Muppets as well as we’d like them to, and a lot will rest on this movie,” says Martin Baker, an exec producer whose history with the Muppets goes back to the 1970s. ”Years ago, if somebody said to me, ‘What would happen if Jim Henson passed away?’ I’d say, ‘Forget it, let’s pack our bags and go home.’ But thank God we’re here to tell the story that the Muppets lived on.”

Several months after the movie has wrapped, Segel is sitting in a bare-bones dressing room on the set of his CBS sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, remembering how he met the Muppets. Though the 31-year-old actor was only an infant when The Muppet Show went off the air, his mother played him videotapes of the show — as well as early movie spin-offs like 1979’s The Muppet Movie and 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper. (”She was a student of comedy,” Segel says. ”She was the kind of woman who made me watch Harold and Maude when I was 10.”) By the time Segel was in his 20s, his obsession was apparent to anyone who set foot in his tiny one-bedroom apartment: ”All there was decorating it were Muppet figurines and Muppet posters — until I realized maybe that was why I was still single,” he says.

With his star rising after the success of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel was called to a meeting at Disney to discuss potential projects with the studio — a seemingly unlikely fit considering that his best-known film work at the time included toting a bong in Knocked Up and going full-frontal in Sarah Marshall. ”They were pitching me ideas but, I mean, especially at that point, I wasn’t a Herbie the Love Bug kind of dude,” Segel says. ”I said, ‘Listen, this is all amazing, but my big thing is that you guys own the Muppets.”’ Unbeknownst to the Disney execs, Segel and Sarah Marshall director Stoller had already sketched out a story for a new Muppet movie. ”I pitched them our idea, and at first they thought I was joking,” he says. ”They didn’t know what to say.”

Aside from some Web videos and the 2005 TV movie The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, Disney hadn’t done anything major with the franchise since acquiring it, and some Muppet fans feared that the brand was languishing. (A Muppet movie to be directed by Oz, based on an idea Oz and Henson had developed in the 1980s, came close to fruition but was scuttled when then studio head Dick Cook was ousted in 2009.) Still, Lisa Henson, who along with her brother Brian had orchestrated the sale of the Muppets to Disney, says her father had always regarded the studio as the best home for the characters. ”It’s no secret Disney got a slow start,” says Henson, who serves as CEO of the Jim Henson Company. ”But [my father] had fully anticipated that Muppet movies would be made without him, and he felt Disney could put all the pieces together.”

Incoming Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross saw Segel and Stoller as the ideal candidates to get the Muppets back on the big screen. ”They’re not only Muppet fanatics but they had a story to tell that would bring the characters back in a bold way,” says Ross. ”You just couldn’t say no.” Hiring two guys known for risqué humor to write a kids’ movie may seem odd on paper, but the fact is, the Muppets have always straddled the line between children’s entertainment and grown-up comedy. From the start, Henson intended the Muppets to be aimed more toward adults than his kid-focused Sesame Street characters were. In 1975 the Muppets were regularly featured on the first season of Saturday Night Live. The Muppet Show appealed to parents and kids alike with its unique blend of absurdist comedy, old vaudeville songs, slapstick, wordplay, satire, and general insanity. ”The Muppets’ humor is a real witches’ brew,” says Segel.

Even before his new Muppet movie was officially greenlit, Segel started mentioning the project in talk-show appearances as a way to not-so-subtly nudge Disney into moving forward. ”I was like, ‘I either want a yes or a no, so I’m just going to announce we’re making a movie and if you guys want to say we’re not, go for it.”’ He mimes moving a chess piece. ”Check.”

The English-born Bobin, who’d never directed a feature before, was brought on board based on both his work as a writer and director on Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords and his intense love of the Muppets. Then he and Segel set about corralling the rest of the human cast. Hoping to persuade Adams to play the role of Mary, Segel sent the actress a direct video appeal featuring his costar Kermit. ”Jason was singing a song with Kermit, and then they turned around and started talking to me about how they wanted me to be in the movie,” Adams remembers. ”I knew they had me when I started crying.” Cooper was cast as the sinister villain Tex Richman — a departure, to put it mildly, from the Oscar-winning actor’s usual dramatic fare. ”I thought it was a great idea to take a break from these more heavy roles,” he says. ”And I looked forward to the hip-hop number that was in there.” (Yes, Cooper raps in the film.)

As the Muppets team began reaching out to celebrities to make cameos, Internet rumors spread wildly about the cast list. ”It was really annoying, because someone leaked one of our very early scripts, and some of these names were just meant to be placeholders,” says Segel. ”We’d write ‘Lady Gaga sings with a bunch of Muppets’ or ‘Katy Perry sings ”I Kissed a Squirrel” with squirrel puppets.’ Names were flying everywhere. It was a bummer, but it worked out.” In the end, the film features more than a dozen stars, including Jack Black, Neil Patrick Harris, and Zach Galifianakis. Alas, there are no singing squirrels.

Driven by their passion for all things Muppet, Segel, Stoller, and Bobin were bent on keeping the film as close in style and substance to an old-fashioned Muppet movie as possible. No winking hipster irony. No straining-to-be-relevant Twilight references (though in one of the movie’s parody trailers, Pepe, the Spanish-accented shrimp, does make a joke about ”Breaking Prawn”). And perhaps most important, absolutely no CGI characters. ”We were trying to create a sense that the Muppets are something you can touch, rather than zeroes and ones,” says Bobin. ”We even went back to things like remote-control Muppets, which they used in the ’70s. They’re hilariously old-school — they run on, like, AA batteries — but they feel natural in the movie.”

As for the musical numbers, the filmmakers passed over teen-friendly pop songs Disney execs may have favored for tunes more akin to Muppet classics like ”The Rainbow Connection” and ”Movin’ Right Along.” ”My aim was to make the music feel Muppety, for lack of a better word,” says Conchords star Bret McKenzie, who wrote most of the new movie’s songs. That typically involved dialing back some of his own comedic instincts: ”I removed all the swear words. You can’t say things like ‘motherfrogger.”’

Despite their abiding Muppet fandom, though, there was no escaping the fact that Segel & Co. were coming into the franchise as outsiders. Building a level of trust with the veteran puppeteers — a couple of whom go all the way back to The Muppet Show — proved a delicate process, and creative frictions arose almost from the start. Oz met with the producers early on and opted not to participate. ”I wasn’t happy with the script,” he said in a recent interview with a British newspaper. ”I don’t think they respected the characters.” (Oz declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Some tension may have been inevitable. Since Henson’s death, there’s always been a conundrum: Who can — or should — speak for the Muppets? Like the balcony curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf, some in the old Muppet guard may have been predisposed to find fault with the new project. ”The puppeteers had always been a family,” says producer David Hoberman. ”And now here come the stepparents — and who are they? In a situation like this, I would have been shocked if we were hailed across the board. But I felt there was a lot of camaraderie between the puppeteers and the production group.”

While Segel and Stoller were honing the script, they deferred to the longtime puppeteers’ notions about Muppet mythology. In early drafts, for example, Kermit lived in a giant mansion, but the puppeteers pointed out that the Muppets are always underdogs, so it was changed to a more decrepit mansion showing its age. ”There were a number of rules like that,” Stoller says. ”In our original draft, Jason’s character was a ventriloquist on the Venice boardwalk and Walter was his puppet, but the puppeteers were like, ‘The Muppets don’t think of themselves as puppets.’ We also had a couple of scenes where Kermit kind of insulted people — and they were like, ‘Kermit is never, ever mean, no matter what.”’

There have been reports that some longtime Muppet writers and performers were not on board with all of the creative decisions, feeling that some of the humor — such as a gag in which Fozzie straps whoopee cushions to his feet to make ”fart shoes” — might be beneath the Muppets. (For the record, Fozzie’s fondness for whoopee cushions is well-established in the Muppet canon; in The Great Muppet Caper he included one on a checklist of items he needed to foil a diamond heist.) Steve Whitmire, who plays Kermit, reportedly even considered removing his name from the movie’s credits. ”Those contractual things are always between the company and the performer,” says Bobin. ”But Steve did an incredible job — the scene where Kermit sings a song about his past is one of the most emotional moments in the movie. That alone speaks to his commitment to the project.” (Whitmire was not available for comment.)

Head puppeteer Bill Barretta, who performs characters including Rowlf, Pepe, and the Swedish Chef, is diplomatic about the relationship between his crew and the production team. ”Not everybody can have what they want — that’s impossible,” he says. ”So you find the best solution. You find the best thing that works for the character and the movie, all of it.”

For her part, Lisa Henson is totally supportive of the new movie — and that Henson stamp of approval should carry a lot of weight with Muppet fans. ”I can’t speak to how anybody was treated during production, because I really don’t know,” she says. ”But I think the movie is like a big, glorious love letter to the Muppets. The whole gist of the movie is ‘These guys are important — let’s bring them back!”’ Seeing her father’s characters out in the world again carries a special thrill: ”I’m so excited when I drive around and see Miss Piggy on a bus-bench ad. I’m like, Whoa! Look at that!

It’s no accident that the release of The Muppets coincides with the kickoff of the holiday shopping season. For months Disney has been giving the movie a major marketing push, targeting parents and kids simultaneously, and with The Muppets finally poised to hit theaters, the company’s merchandising operation is primed to go into high gear. Plush toys, clothing, books, pillowcases, toothbrushes — you name it and you’re likely to see a Muppet’s face on it. For Segel, discussions about all the ways to capitalize on the Muppets have at times proved surreal. ”I was asked once, ‘Which scene in the movie do you think would make the best ride?”’ he says. ”I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to tell you — I was not thinking that way when I wrote any of this.”’

Though Segel has great expectations for The Muppets, he doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself. He knows that for every successful attempt to resuscitate some old childhood staple like The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks, there is a Land of the Lost or a Speed Racer. Still, he has his own private fantasy about what the future might hold, a dream that goes back to his childhood days spent watching his mom’s VHS tapes. He actually wrote his fantasy into the first versions of the script, hoping to plant a seed in the minds of the powers that be at Disney. ”Early drafts ended with Kermit saying, ‘And you know what? If we can do this, I’d like to announce that next summer I’m bringing back The Muppet Show on ABC! Yaaay!”’ He laughs. ”I did it half-joking. But it only took, like, one reading of one draft before they called and said, ‘Nice try, kid.”’

Meet the New Kid
On the set of The Muppets, we chatted with Walter, the newest member of the Muppet repertory

You’re a Muppet fan who’s also a Muppet. How does that work?
That’s a great question. I am a huge Muppet fan but I don’t quite fit in, and one of the stories is how I actually become a Muppet. In the movie, I’m not a Muppet — until I am.

That hurts my brain.
I know. [Rubbing his head] Mine too. That’s why I’m not quite sure how to respond. I’ll have to ask Jason Segel about that one.

At one point in the film, you get electrocuted.
Yeah, I get kind of pummeled in this film. But I want to tell your readers I am doing my own stunts. It’s okay, though, because they said if I do my own stunts, I get to take this suit with me. [Shows off his blue suit] Powder blue — that’s going to be the big color for next year. And did you see my watch? [Flashes his watch]

Cool, it has Kermit on it.
Indeed it does. [Pauses a beat] eBay.

As the new guy, is it intimidating to be around the rest of the Muppets?
I’ll tell you, it’s intimidating to do scenes with Miss Piggy. I had a scene with her, and the first time I had a line, I went, ”Aah!” [Opens his mouth wide in terror] The acting came easy to me there.

So what’s the most challenging thing you’ve had to do on the movie?
The most challenging thing has probably been reaching the doorknob to the soundstage. Also reaching the top of the craft-service table where they keep the brownies.

Are you prepared for your life to change when this movie comes out?
Everyone says that’s going to happen. They keep saying I’m the star of the movie. I’m like, star? I’m not Kermit the Frog. I’m just Walter. Anyway, my life already has changed. I mean, did I mention the suit?

Secrets of a Muppeteer
Bill Barretta has been performing with the Muppets for two decades. Here, the 47-year-old puppeteer shares a few tricks of the trade.

Study the history.
When Barretta began playing Electric Mayhem bandleader Dr. Teeth, piano-playing dog Rowlf, and the Swedish Chef — characters originally voiced by Jim Henson — he did his research. ”[Gonzo puppeteer] Dave Goelz told me that when Jim performed Dr. Teeth, he always had a big smile on his face and he spoke through his gritted teeth. Once I started to do that, I could hear a difference. With the chef, Jim was listening to a cassette of someone speaking Swedish and he just figured, ‘This is ridiculous,’ so he decided to just make it up. So I try not to make it sound like it’s some real written thing — just don’t think about it and be ridiculous.”

Build up the right muscles.
”One of the things you learn early on is to try to release the weight of holding your arm up into your shoulder and your back, so your arm becomes light. You don’t want it to become stiff. Then you can last a lot longer.”

Learn to contort your body into small spaces.
”When you go into the real world with the characters, you need to figure out logistically: ‘Okay, if you want Kermit there, how can we get somebody into that tiny cramped space so they’re just comfortable enough to be able to perform?”’

Less is more.
”To me, the most interesting thing is if you can get the audience to believe that the character is thinking. The trick is not to do too much.”

Stay in character between takes.
”I try to keep the puppet alive between takes because it keeps me in the character,” says Barretta. ”The crew also gets a kick out of it — they’re long days, and you want to entertain them.” Star Jason Segel says that much of what the puppeteers do off screen is very entertaining — and often more grown-up than their scripted material. ”They’ll talk dirty,” he says. ”They’ll tell inappropriate, risqué jokes. Or at the end of a long day, the director will say ‘Cut!’ and you might see one of the puppets pretend to blow their brains out. That stuff is kept under lock and key because you’ve got to maintain the purity of the Muppets.”

Episode Recaps

The Muppets

ABC revival – 2015 series
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