Asked what actor's had the greatest influence on his career, Jason Segel doesn't hesitate to respond: Kermit, the gangly, green frog created 56 years ago by Jim Henson. For the 31-year-old Segel, the Muppets were never mere puppets. Instead, they were role models that legions of kids have been smitten by because of their unique combination of sweetness and edgy wit. Segel, who is best known for his role in TV's How I Met Your Mother and R-rated feature films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man, has long shown audiences his naughty side. Now he delves into his sappy self to explain why he loves the Muppets so much, and felt compelled to bring them back to the big screen after a 12-year hiatus.
The Muppets have had a remarkable run for more than five decades. What's the secret to them remaining culturally relevant to a new generation?
It's unbelievable and I can't think of another comedy troupe that's accomplished anything even close to what they've done. Comedy goes in such cycles, and even something like The Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, if you showed [their routines]now to a kid they'd probably be bored. These guys [Muppets]have some intrinsic quality that keeps them relevant.
So what's that intrinsic quality?
One, they're never mean to anyone. They're always nice, and they have this sense of wide-eyed wonder that I think, unfortunately if you let it, the world beats out of you when you become an adult. Every time you see the Muppets you're reminded of not losing that quality. You're reminded of the idea of not a care in the world. Two, it's viscerally important that the Muppets exist in our world. You can meet Kermit. You can touch him. A kid is never going to get to meet Shrek. He lives in a computer.
What influence have The Muppets had on successive generations of comedians and filmmakers?
My friend and writing partner Nick [Forgetting Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stollermy] put it best: The Muppets are a gateway drug for comedians. And it's really true. As a kid, they're your first exposure to real comedy that's subversive and cutting edge. The Muppets were all over the first season of Saturday Night Live, and they've always gotten pretty close to the line, without crossing it. They've stayed pure and kind and good, but still make you feel a little bit edgy. The Muppet Show felt like controlled chaos and you were being let in on a naughty secret.
What was one of the biggest challenges for you acting with puppets?
It's going to sound like a joke, but the hardest part for me was the fact that the puppeteers all have monitors because obviously the puppets can't see so they have to see what's going on. I could see the monitors as well. So I became obsessed with watching myself act, while I was acting. It was very distracting. I guess my vanity kicked in.
Who's your favourite soft cloth friend?
I get asked that all the time, and I keep thinking I should come up with a clever answer. But it's Kermit. I'd by lying if I said it wasn't. I love them all for different reasons but Kermit made me want to be an actor. When you're a kid, Kermit is Tom Hanks, or Jimmy Stewart, or Bob Hope. So he shaped who I wanted to be.
We haven't seen the Muppets on the big screen in over 12 years. Did you change them in any way to make them appeal to this tech-savvy generation of youngsters?
We really tried to stay true to the original spirit of the Muppets. The first three Muppet movies are the pantheon to me, and then The Muppet Show, and I didn't feel like they needed to be updated. The only thing I felt needed updating a little bit – just because of the way entertainment changes – is the pacing. If you watch the first Muppet movie – don't get me wrong, I love it, I grew up with it, so I'm pretty tolerant of it – but it's slow and it's long. Now kids might have a hard time with that pacing with this new, everything-at-your-fingertips kind of lifestyle. So we sped things up a bit, but besides that we tried to stay true to the spirit of the Muppets.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The Muppets, which Segel co-wrote and stars in, opened in movie theatres on Wednesday.