Something strange happens when you talk about the Muppets. This phenomenon extends to everyone, and I mean everyone, who deals with them in one form or another. It’s like there’s this universal unspoken agreement to treat them as if they were actual, living characters and not just cleverly molded pieces of foam and cloth shaped like anthropomorphic frogs and pigs and bears. I bought into it, too. I mean, how can you not? When I told people I was covering a press conference for the new Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, I didn’t say that I was going to be talking to the puppeteers who performed as Kermit and Miss Piggy. I talked about it as if I were meeting the Kermit and the Miss Piggy (complete with an imitation of Kermit’s famous excited flailing motion). And when it was all over, I felt like I actually did.
The first thing that becomes clear when you meet the Muppets is that they’re really, really funny. It’s the kind of humor that everyone gets—kids, adults, everyone. And they don’t need a script to make you laugh. They’re on all the time. I mean when you’re in a room that includes Tina Fey and Ricky Gervais and they aren’t the funniest people in the room, that’s saying something. We had the good fortune to meet Kermit, his evil lookalike Constantine, Sam the Eagle, and, of course, Miss Piggy. They were topical, self-deprecating, even sometimes a little raunchy. It was everything I hoped an encounter with real, live Muppets could be.
The press conference happened in two parts. First to take the stage were Muppets Most Wanted director James Bobbin, producer Todd Lieberman, and songwriter Bret McKenzie. All three worked on the previous Muppets film, and McKenzie took home an Oscar for his original song, “Man or Muppet.” They talked about facing the challenge of how to top themselves the second time around.
“I was very clear in my head as to what we’d like to do next,” Bobbin said. “And it’s why the movie starts seconds after the last one ended. Because I felt the Muppets could just kind of address the problem that [writer Nick Stoller] and I had—kind of like, ‘What is the film going be about and what’s next?’ And I thought, ‘Well, let’s just address that and do it in the movie itself.’ So you have this thing where they go, ‘What should we do next?’ And then they sing a song called ‘We’re Doing a Sequel,’ which Bret so brilliantly wrote and it kind of addresses that issue up front.”
McKenzie spoke humbly about his Oscar win (it sits on his piano for inspiration) and explained a bit about his unique creation process this time around. He rented a retail space in a nondescript strip mall in Hollywood, added a piano and an old couch, and turned it into his private music studio.
“It was like this sort of dusty old shop to hide away and work on these songs,” McKenzie said. “And these guys came and visited, to listen to the demos. It was quite a funny scene because people would be walking by hearing this, me playing the piano, and occasionally they’d walk in and they’d say, ‘Is there music lessons going on here?’ Or, ‘What is this? Is this some sort of art installation?’ … We liked to call it Muppet Solutions.”
“You could go in there and think either you’re going to get killed or you’re going hear some music,” Lieberman joked.
It’s reassuring to know that the people in charge of such a beloved franchise are fans themselves. At one point, McKenzie showed off his “direct line” to Kermit—a phone featuring the famous frog himself. The Muppets have earned themselves a lot of big-name fans over the years. Celebrity cameos have always been a trademark of their films, and Most Wanted is no different. Bobbin talked about the various ways that people get involved.
“When Nick and I write the script, we’re writing people’s names in often, and obviously certain people have to be that person,” he said.” Like, you can’t do the Christoph Waltz joke with anybody else because it is about a waltz, so that’s impossible.”
“I think that one was reverse engineered in a way,” Lieberman clarified. “Christoph Waltz specifically was one where he was a massive fan of the first movie and really wanted to be a part of this one. And so that joke was reverse engineered. But there’s so many people who love the Muppets and it’s an interesting matrix to put together to figure out where people go correctly and how to fit all the people that love it in the movie.”
While some famous fans had to settle for brief appearances or a single line, other actors got big, juicy parts. Three of those were Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, and Ty Burrell. In the second part of the press conference, they joined their Muppet co-stars on stage. In between the two interviews, a few large poster boards went up to act as screens while the talent took their places on the dais. This is the level of commitment they have to maintaining the illusion. One minute there’s an empty stage, the next there are Muppets and humans interacting with each other, just as they do on-screen. You’d think it would take some getting used to, but the connection to these characters is so rooted in the magic we remember as kids that it comes quite naturally.
Sam the Eagle was the first to greet, calling us the “Hollywood media elite.” He would later excuse himself to take care of some hotel security business. Not long after that (and quite coincidentally, I’m sure), Miss Piggy joined the panel, fashionably late, naturally.
One of the first questions was for Kermit, about why he didn’t take on the dual role of his evil twin Constantine in the film. His answer gave us all the first big laugh of the interview: “I don’t really work on green screen.”
Constantine, it turns out, is a distant cousin from Russia (which did not please Sam at all). Here’s some of the banter that ensued after that revelation, just to give you an idea of how much of the press conference went:
Sam Eagle: He is actually from Russia?
Kermit the Frog: Well, I’m afraid so, Sam. I’m afraid so.
Sam Eagle: My goodness. Good thing you’re sitting between the two of us. That’s all I can say.
Constantine: But the weird thing is, I cannot speak any Russian words.
Ricky Gervais: Just an accent?
Constantine: Just accent.
Ricky Gervais: Just any place with a Russian accent?
Kermit the Frog: That is very weird.
Ty Burrell: A weird part of Russia that’s all English?
Constantine: That is correct.
Tina Fey: You were born in the Russian airport?
When Constantine was asked if he would like to leave the criminal life behind and get into show business with the rest of the Muppets, he said that he was thinking about doing his own Netflix original series. “I will call it House of Toads. I will executive produce and show run. So let’s take meeting, yes?”
One of the great things about the Muppets is their ability to transcend age groups. Your kids may not get a joke about House of Cards, or any of the other oblique references that appear in the film, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find their own enjoyment in it.
“Yeah, it doesn’t patronize kids,” Gervais said. “It doesn’t aim at an audience. It aims higher. And I remember when I was a kid watching the Muppets. I had older brothers and sisters and they were laughing and I sort of knew that it was cool.”
“They’re going to like how funny the movie is,” Fey added. “Because, you know, I think there’s a lot of jokes in the movie and kids who are like eight, nine, 10 years old, they take a lot of pride in getting the jokes. It makes them feel big.”
“I, for one, do not get any of the jokes in this movie,” Kermit deadpanned.
As for Fey’s own kids, they’re not all that impressed with her being in a Muppets movie.
“They’re very excited to see the movie, but as far as me being in it, it’s mostly like, you know, ‘Oh, you’re in the poster. Now you be Queen Elsa.’ They just want me to be either Queen Elsa or Mr. Smee.”
The fun really started when Miss Piggy finally arrived. There were some comments about how she couldn’t tell Kermit and Constantine apart (a running gag in the film) and a bit of rivalry with Tina Fey, who spent most of her time shooting with Kermit.
I’ll wrap this up with one of the best exchanges from the press conference, kicked off by a question from Gervais about why the movies always show Kermit and Miss Piggy’s children as pigs or frogs.
Ricky Gervais: In the movies, right? When you get married and you have children? They’re either pigs or frogs.
Kermit the Frog: Yeah.
Gervais: Why is there no sort of, you know …
Tina Fey: Abomination?
Kermit the Frog: Well, you know, we’ve never …
Gervais: Well, yeah. Just like yeah, no. Some sort of a fat, green sort of sworkling, hoppy, greedy pig? You know? I mean, why? Haven’t you worked that out yet?
Miss Piggy: I don’t know.
Kermit the Frog: Well, we haven’t actually consummated the experiment so we don’t really know.
Miss Piggy: That was the filmmaker’s visualization, all right?
Gervais: It’s a house of cards.
Kermit the Frog: What are we doing?
Gervais: I don’t know.
Kermit the Frog: Holy cow.
Gervais: I’m just thinking.
Miss Piggy: Oh, there he goes again.
Muppets Most Wanted opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 21.