TORONTO -- If you've seen raunchy movies along the lines of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Knocked Up, or the raunch-lite TV series How I Met Your Mother, you could be forgiven for not immediately thinking of actor Jason Segel as the likely guy to relaunch Muppet movies.
Remember Segel's breakup with Sarah Marshall? Sure you do. He was rendered extra vulnerable to the hurt caused by Kristen Bell by his awkward full-frontal nudity.
You must recall the dire circumstances of his character getting a case of pinkeye in Knocked Up?
This is the guy who came up with the idea of writing and starring in a relaunched Muppet movie?
Well, if you survived the opening break-up and stayed all the way through Sarah Marshall, you'll know Segel is a puppeteer himself (as he demonstrates in the film's climactic puppet production of Dracula).
Segel, 31, has always been a huge Muppet fan, though he was too young to catch the original episodes of The Muppet Show on TV. (It ran from 1976 to 1981. Segel was born in 1980.) His mom collected them on videotape and turned the juvenile Segel into a major fan.)
Still, the raunchy iteration of Segel was very much on the studio's mind when the writer-actor surprised Disney studio honchos with a pitch to write and star in the first theatrical Muppet movie in more than a decade.
"I was there for a general meeting and in the back of my mind, I knew this was going to be weird when I pitched them The Muppets.
"There was a left-hand turn," he says. "And it changed all of our lives.
"The only trepidation was that there was some sense that I was doing Muppets with a sense of irony," he says.
In a way, the Muppets had already been through the irony-laden adult entertainment mill courtesy of the Broadway musical hit Avenue Q, a Tony Award-winning Sesame Street pastiche featuring a cross-section of puppets who resemble real-life New Yorkers, singing songs such as The Internet Is for Porn and Everyone's a Little Bit Racist.
"Avenue Q was something people were afraid I was going to do with the Muppets," Segel says, acknowledging he's a fan of the musical. In fact his Muppet co-star Walter, the brother of his character Gary, is actually puppeteered by Avenue Q star Peter Linz.
"But I feel so purely about the Muppets," Segel says.
"The real challenge was we didn't want it to become a nostalgia thing because while that would be fun for our particular generation for half an hour, we had to, with some element of humility, acknowledge that some kids don't know who the Muppets are. So nostalgia is lost on them. You have to start at square one to some extent."
Segel found he had to start at square one himself when it came to the technically daunting task of animating Muppets for a movie.
"I had never done something where I truly had to hide the puppeteers," he says. (He has worked, Avenue Q-style, onstage with the puppets.)
"Logistically, it's one of the harder movies I've ever worked on," he says. "The whole set had to be elevated to hide the puppeteers and figuring out how to shoot certain things was technically difficult but it was a blast, as you would imagine."
That experience only galvanized his respect for the mostly anonymous puppeteers behind the characters.
"We all know who Kermit is, but it takes a fanatic to know who plays him," Segel says. (Everyone is aware the character was created by Jim Henson but few know he was adopted by Steve Whitmire after Henson's death in 1990.)
"Those guys deserve so much credit," he says. "They're not only actors, they're musicians and comedians and puppeteers. And their entire job is to be invisible," he says. "They don't get the credit they deserve. These guys are the stars of the movie by far."
That is not to say Segel's own efforts weren't heroic, especially since he was shooting How I Met Your Mother simultaneously with The Muppets.
"It was a little bit trying," he says. "I was doing literal seven-day weeks for three or four months. That was tough.
"But it's hard to be grumpy around Kermit," he says. "You show up for work and they're singing The Rainbow Connection. It's tough to be in a bad mood."
The Muppets opens at Grant Park, Polo Park, St. Vital and Towne cinemas Wednesday.
Frog in your throat?
During a press day in Toronto, Disney staged a press conference with Kermit the Frog himself. (I can only assume puppeteer Steve Whitmire was under the desk on which Kermie sat.) Apart from giving me the opportunity to address him as Mr. The Frog, it allowed Kermit to weigh in on the making of The Muppets.
On any trepidation he felt working with Jason (Knocked Up) Segel:
"Our movies are for a family audience. But the truth is: If you've seen the opening scene of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I actually inspired that for Jason, because I always appear naked. I'm afraid I might have started it."
On why he signed on to the film:
"I think part of it was that it was called The Muppets. That drew me right in. That kind of gave me a clue. And then Jason gave me the script and as soon as I opened it up and read it, about halfway through, it says: 'Kermit the frog enters.' So I thought: That's me. I think I have to do it.
On the challenges of working with Miss Piggy:
"We aren't married, but we are significant others and when your significant other is a pig, there are challenges. For instance, you have to give up eating bacon. That's very important. You have to make sure there are truffles in the dressing room. It's always tough to work with someone you're close with, but it can be wonderful."