“Jason’s a lot like me,” says Kermit. “He’s a kid/tadpole whose dreams came true. He’s funny like Fozzie, musical like Rowlf, outrageous like Gonzo, and he can really let loose like Animal. I’m sure he has a Miss Piggy side to him, too, but thankfully I haven’t seen it.”
“There’s something about Jason that just invites you to love him and his world,” says good friend and frequent collaborator Paul Rudd. “You can’t help yourself, even if you totally hate puppets or think he’s a total weirdo. He does everything with so much love and sweetness and purity. Like, making The Muppets had to be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him. I can just picture him meeting Fozzie Bear for the first time and bursting into tears. How do you not love that guy?”
As a skyscraping child of the Palisades, Segel found safe haven in the rainbow connection and puppetry, but he wasn’t remotely headed toward a career in show business; instead, he was the backup center and comic relief on his high school’s champion basketball team, lumbering through his academics, restless and always a fish out of water. “Not only was I ridiculously tall, like an octopus on stilts or something, but I was raised Jewish and Christian — the only Jew in the all-Christian school and the only Christian in Hebrew school. And, of course, I loved puppets. That’s not easy, man,” he laughs. “You either become a jerk or you become funny. I went with funny.”
One day, while sleepwalking through art-history class, he grabbed a bound play from the adjacent drama classroom and devoured it during a lecture on pointillism. This became his habit. When he discovered Edward Albee’s Zoo Story and its mammoth, 20-minute-long monologue about a boy and his dog, Segel had found his Kilimanjaro. “I went to the drama teacher that day and asked if I could borrow the auditorium to put on that play,” Segel remembers. “And the teacher said, ‘But you don’t do drama,’ and I said, ‘I know, but I want to see if I can do this.’ He said yes.”
Life has always been like this for Segel, a never-ending vision quest of curiosity and fearlessness. He’s not sure where his courage comes from — “I was loved a lot as a kid; maybe that helped,” he suggests — but he’s never let pride or shame stand in the way of trying something new. So Segel tackled his high-school production, and the rest of the story, he says, “is just some weird L.A. business.” The mother of a prospective student visited campus and stopped in to watch Segel’s Zoo Story, mesmerized by the novice actor’s presence and chutzpah. She turned out to be the president of casting at a Hollywood studio.
Such kismet happens to lovers, dreamers, and Segel, and before he could legally drink, he became part of the Judd Apatow repertory players on the short-lived but enduring Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, shows that also launched the careers of Seth Rogen and James Franco. The quick cancellation of those shows, widely considered to be ahead of their time, put Segel, not traditionally handsome and still learning his craft, on the map. Universal Pictures reportedly dumped Segel from a role in Apatow’s commercial breakout, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. By his own admission, Segel didn’t handle the rejection well, wasting away the days packing on pounds and playing with puppets.
“I try to dwell mentally in those rough, lean years today,” Segel says. “That has driven me more than anything — not intellectually, but viscerally. I feel that hungriness every minute of every day, so I’m never complacent.”