Unforgetting the Muppets

Published: May 11, 2008
Categories: Commentary, Feature

If you have access to popular media in just about any form (and you’re reading this article, so that’s a pretty good indicator), you’ve probably heard at least one reference to Jason Segel’s private parts recently. The writer and star of the new Apatow-gang comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall forgoes his inhibitions in the name of his art repeatedly over the course of the film. Which brings only one question to the minds of Tough Pigs everywhere: Will he do the same for the Muppets?

What you may not have seen in the movie trailers, but have read in just about every interview Segel has given on the subject, is his new favorite story. It begins with the Henson Company designing puppets for a scene in Sarah Marshall, continues with Segel asking the Henson folks and then a roomful of Disney representatives what forthcoming projects to expect from the Muppets, then includes a moment of Segel’s anguish at the Muppets’ hackneyed abuse in recent years (“Enough with Muppets in the Old West and Muppets Underwater,” he’ll usually sigh at this point), and culminates with Segel signing on with fanboyish glee to write his very own Muppet movie.

Let Muppet enthusiasts everywhere rejoice! With Segel (and by extension, comedy hitmaker Judd Apatow) backing the project, nothing could possibly stand in the Muppets’ way! Unlike that America’s Next Muppet reality show and that Bert and Ernie travel series and the Fraggle Rock movie, this promise might actually deliver. Or will it? Now that we’ve seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall, how much excitement can we allow ourselves over this curious new prospect?

The nail-biters among us cringe. A novice to this genre, I wasn’t fully prepared for the degree of unabashed vulgarity in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even though I laughed throughout, part of me wondered whether the same mind that just made a herpes joke could write in the Vaudevillian house style of the Muppets — rotten puns, corny gags and all. What if the “pearl necklace” joke in all the trailers were to be recast on our favorite pearl-wearing swine? Is the world ready for foam rubber full frontal?

Then again, Segel consistently touts his eagerness to return the Muppets to their roots. Reluctant to admit Muppets Tonight-era characters into his plans, Segel comes off as something of a Luddite; he’d rather see his old pals back in the spotlight, acting in their own story rather than in a recycled plot a la Muppet Treasure Island. He’s made abundantly clear that in his movie, the Muppets play only themselves, putting on a show to save their theater and featuring a healthy dose of celebrity cameos.

Let’s see how this sentiment plays out in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. As per Segel’s vision, the movie features plenty of familiar faces. These actors, including many of Segel’s friends now clamoring for Muppet movie cameos, look familiar in 2008 – but Muppet fans have cause to hold out for larger-than-life stars. (Feel free, incidentally, to join the hubbub over an expected Charles Grodin cameo and then name your top celebrity cameo choice on the Tough Pigs forum.) It’s all very well to see Kenneth from 30 Rock basically playing himself in Sarah Marshall, but will it stand the test of time in the manner of Joan Rivers powdering Piggy’s nose?

While we’re on the subject of keeping the material timeless, I’d like to pitch my own plea for Segel to resist the temptation to write overtly topical material (i.e. no Miley Cyrus jokes). The Muppets became famous performing pass old songs; they risked irrelevance when nearly-outdated pop culture references became the easiest way to entertain. As Segel well knows, the Muppets revolve around more than gags; it’s the particular wackiness of each character that makes the whole package funny. The Forgetting Sarah Marshall characters mostly fit this bill, ranging from believable (the hero, a self-destructive schmo), to regrettably predictable (the two lead females), to a supporting cast of genuinely amusing, almost Muppety in their singularity, one-note buffoons.

To Segel’s credit, the warm-heartedness and essential good cheer at the center of the more beloved Muppet projects show in the tone of Sarah Marshall. The movie pares the population of the Turtle Bay resort down to a handful of guests and employees, all interacting as though no one else were present, all running into only each other and making neighborly inquiries after each other’s shockingly public sex lives. Even the celebrity hotel guests play along and mingle with the commoners. It’s like watching a Love Boat episode, only with more reasonable hairstyles. If the Muppets were here, they’d even have their own ready-made Gopher.

All signs indicate Jason Segel’s intentions to be pure. We know for certain that he’s sick of Muppets Underwater (and after the third or fourth time reading an interview that references this fictional folly, so are the rest of us — though I estimate that it would stand a decent chance of rating higher than The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz on the watchability scale). If nothing else, the numerous Muppet references throughout Sarah Marshall, not to mention the Henson Company-heavy Dracula musical at the movie’s conclusion, reveal a deep-seated affection for puppets in Segel. His reported childhood admiration for Kermit touched even my curmudgeonly old heart. After ensuring that no one forgets Sarah Marshall, can Jason Segel be trusted to retrieve the Muppets from oblivion, too?

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by Michal Richardson

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