All his life, Jason Segel has loved puppets. So it’s only fitting that, this month, he’s bringing Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of Jim Henson’s beloved troupe back to the big screen in The Muppets.Somewhere around the age of 12, already 6 feet 4 inches tall and a rangy 105 pounds, Jason Segel had the kind of epiphany that drives some men to drink and others to church: Everything I love has puppets in it.
But Segel, raised in the affluent California hub of Pacific Palisades, where the Santa Monica Mountains meet the ocean, did not seek fitting for a straitjacket nor refuge in a high-altitude monastery. Instead, he bought puppets — a lot of puppets — and began talking to them, then videotaping the effigies, delivering machine-gun bon mot, arias to adolescent angst and slapstick routines. Much of this mayhem was inspired by puppet pioneers the Muppets, a group that Segel believes to be “a powerful, ridiculous, amazing spiritual thing — a force for good.”
Twenty years later, Segel has added 100 pounds and seven-figure paydays to his oeuvre, but he’s still the same sweet, people-pleasing, puppet-playing Gulliver he was then. In shorthand, the Segel of 1999’s groundbreaking, star-making TV series Freaks and Geeks lived in a dingy one-bedroom apartment, literally and figuratively hungry, surrounded by Muppet figurines; the 21st-century Segel, on the other hand, knows where his next meal is coming from and has a few extra bedrooms into which his Muppet menagerie can sprawl.
“When it comes down to it, everything I needed to know came from Judd Apatow and the Muppets,” Segel says over a stop-start breakfast in room 54 at Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont. “Judd believed in me and gave me so many chances to learn and to be great, and the Muppets, they taught me this other thing, you know: They’re never mean. They’re not even mean to the people that are trying to hurt them — they sympathize with them; they try to reform them. They kind of taught me that maybe people would be better if they were loved a little more. And they’re also, like, totally hilarious.”
He unfurls a throaty, barreling laugh — something he does often — that lasts just a little longer than you think it will. When Segel laughs, it’s futile to resist laughing too because he really means it, and then you stop laughing, but he’s still laughing, and pretty soon you’re laughing again, even though nothing’s changed except he’s still relishing a moment you’ve abandoned.
While most of us learned long ago that gravity tugs down what goes up, the 31-year-old Segel seems oblivious to the laws of physics. He’s on a romantic, perpetual ascent that calls to mind none other than Segel’s own hero, Kermit the Frog. And in a perfect twist of fate, the two share top billing on this month’s hotly anticipated Disney reboot, The Muppets, which Segel also wrote. “A job I was born to have,” he says.