Eventually, Segel saw the light, buoyed by the encouragement of Apatow and old Freaks writer and pal (and now regular collaborator) Nick Stoller. Segel parlayed a key supporting role in Knocked Up and his newfound industry currency as part of the spitfire How I Met Your Mother ensemble into a chance to write and star in the 2008 raunchy-sweet romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Stoller directed and Apatow produced. The film grossed more than $100 million worldwide and put Segel at the charge of a wave of ordinary guys (think Steve Carell and Ed Helms) carrying studio films. He was the anti-Cary Grant, and he became a beloved film star because of it.
“Jason is a great everyman,” says Stoller, who co-wrote The Muppets with Segel. “Girls see him on-screen and want to date him and think they might be able to. Guys see themselves in him and all his foibles. He was born knowing how to get laughs, and he’s learned how to be a leading man. Everybody loves him.”
Segel’s swamp-dwelling Muppets co-star, Kermit, believes his human doppelganger has everything he needs to reach great heights, even when compared with the legendary Orson Welles, a player in 1979’s original The Muppet Movie. “They’re both great talents, but I think Orson’s Shakespeare is better than Jason’s — and Jason’s spit-take is better than Orson’s,” deadpans the frog.
Already guided by Muppet mottos, Segel took as gospel truth the Disney promise that “when your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme,” first discussing a Muppet revival with the company in 2007, when the company was producing Dracula puppets for an indelible sequence in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. When Segel and Stoller took their pitch to Disney — a new take that’s radical only in its back-to-basics approach — the studio spilled ink on the spot. Four years later, the film is set to unspool in theaters nationwide on Nov. 23.
“To tell you the truth, making The Muppets was one of the only times I’ve ever felt scared in my life. Nobody wants to be the guy who messes up the Muppets,” he says. “When I told people I was doing this movie, the first thing they said was, ‘Oh my God, I’m so excited for a new Muppet movie!’ The second thing was, invariably, ‘Don’t mess it up!’ ”
Segel feels confident he did right by his Muppet mates; indeed, he’s at risk of bursting into song just talking about the film and the exhilaration he felt through every stage of production. Kermit, for one, can vouch for Segel’s joy and sense of accomplishment. “We were shooting the finale of the picture at night in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard,” Kermit recalls. “I looked up and there was Jason, surrounded by literally hundreds of Muppets — and he had such a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eye, like this was a childhood dream that had come true.”
Kermit wasn’t just imagining things; it truly was a dream come true for Segel. The towering 12-year-old with a proclivity for puppets finally got to make the movie he’d always wanted to. But even with all his successes — delivering multimillion-dollar box-office grosses, fronting a hit show currently in its seventh season, being entrusted with a franchise as historic and beloved as the Muppets — Segel still feels like an underdog. And it’s that hunger that keeps him going.
“You stop being an underdog when you start repeating your successes, and I am an underdog,” he says. “I made a really good, raunchy, R-rated romantic comedy, and I could’ve done that again and again, and people would expect me to top that and then top that. Then they’d figure out I was only phoning it in, and most of them would be bored of me anyway. You can’t get bored of a guy who does an uncomfortably long breakup scene totally naked in one movie and then dances with frogs and pigs in the next. You might not like that guy, but you won’t be bored.”