Muppet mania: James Bobin guides return of Kermit & Co.

If you were among the legion of children who grew up watching “The Muppet Show” during its initial syndicated run on U.S. television, you probably assumed that the series was as American as baseball, apple pie and “The Electric Company.” But, in fact, we owe the very existence of this seminal bit of TV history to our friends across the pond.

As the story goes, back in the mid-’70s, Mississippi-born puppeteer Jim Henson was trying to sell the Big Three networks on the idea of a puppet-oriented primetime series designed to appeal to both kids and their parents. Although Henson had already achieved great success with “Sesame Street,” which had debuted in 1969 to instant acclaim, American TV execs doubted that his “Muppets” would be a big hit in the evening hours. But he found a believer in British television bigwig Lew Grade—the head of England’s ATV station, then part of the country’s biggest commercial broadcaster, ITV—who set Henson and his merry band of puppeteers up at his studios in Elstree, where they would shoot all five seasons of the show between 1976 and 1981.

A smash hit right off the bat, “The Muppet Show” was eventually seen by more than 235 million people in over 100 countries…including the U.S. But it was especially beloved in England, where kids and adults alike tuned in on a weekly basis to see which big-name celebrity would drop by the Muppets’ theatre to sing songs and/or get caught up in hilarious comic high-jinks.

One of those impressionable young British viewers was a six-year-old named James Bobin, who credits “The Muppet Show” with shaping his sense of humor at an early age. “It was very different from anything else on TV,” he says, on the phone from Los Angeles. “It had the anarchic sense of humor that was in the tradition of Monty Python, but at the same time it had a vaudeville/variety show feel borrowed from Broadway and the English music hall tradition. You also had these brilliant American performers and writers working in an English environment, which created a very interesting American-Anglo hybrid of a show. It really appealed to me at the time and it has stuck with me ever since.”

With the Muppets as a guiding influence, Bobin grew up and entered the world of television himself as a writer and director, gravitating towards such cutting-edge comic programs as the HBO series “Da Ali G Show” and “Flight of the Conchords,” the latter of which clearly took its cue from Henson’s series in its offbeat, slightly surreal blend of music and laughs.

Considering Bobin’s history with “The Muppet Show”—not to mention the show’s connection to his homeland—it’s only appropriate that he’s now making his feature filmmaking debut as the director of The Muppets, the first big-screen vehicle for Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest of the colorful cast of felt puppets in over a decade. Besides rebooting a film franchise that has lain dormant since 1999’s Muppets from Space, hopes are high that this new Muppet movie will make lifelong fans out of a generation of kids that have been mostly raised on CGI creations like Sheriff Woody, Shrek and Lightning McQueen.

“I had to make a movie that people who had never heard of the Muppets would appreciate,” Bobin says of the Herculean task that confronted him when he agreed to direct the movie in early 2010. “But at the same time, I wanted Muppet fans to laugh because there’s a huge history to these characters. I’m very pleased with how the movie has come out, because it works on a huge number of levels. If you know the Muppets very well, there’s lots of stuff hidden in the movie you’ll recognize and be pleased to see again. But at the same time, it stands by itself. That was my charge from the beginning and I’m happy we’ve been able to achieve that.”

Bobin’s involvement with The Muppets began with a one-line e-mail that he received from his agent not long after he wrapped work on the second and final season of “Conchords.” “It said very simply, ‘Do you like the Muppets?’ And I e-mailed back, ‘Yes. Who doesn’t like the Muppets?’” (This wasn’t the first he’d heard of a new Muppet feature, though. As a friend of The Muppets’ co-writer Nicholas Stoller, Bobin says that he had been aware of the project’s existence for some time, but hadn’t discussed it with his pal in any professional way.) Following that exchange, he embarked on a series of meetings with the film’s production team, including producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, Disney executive Kristin Burr (Disney has owned the rights to the Muppets since 2004) and, finally, Stoller and his fellow scribe Jason Segel (who had previously collaborated on the hit 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall), who was also attached to star. “When we all sat down together, it was clear that we were all talking about making the same movie,” Bobin recalls. “I had a few ideas, but the script was already in great condition. My main pitch was the idea that, for me, the Muppets’ sense of humor—with the pun-making, fourth-wall breaking and basic innocence yet huge gag potential—was coming back into fashion. I felt we had a chance to do something more traditional and old-school, rather than the comedy we see a lot these days, which tends to be more observational with quick camerawork. I’m a part of that style too and I love it, but these are the characters that are the best proponents for this kind of high-concept comedy, so why not bring that back?”

Beyond the Muppets’ sense of humor, Bobin was also keen to preserve the most radical element of the original Muppet Movie: that Kermit, et al. would be out and about in the real world, interacting with flesh-and-blood actors in actual locations. Prior to their 1979 feature film debut, the characters had remained almost exclusively on studio soundstages. But Henson believed that his characters’ already vibrant personalities would be further enhanced by getting them outdoors and into contemporary surroundings. It was a gamble that paid off. “Seeing the Muppets in daylight in real situations is one of the great joys of the first movie,” Bobin says. “‘The Muppet Show’ itself took place entirely in the theatre and really only every had one human on it and that was whoever happened to be the guest star that week. But in The Muppet Movie, Muppets and humans co-exist happily all the time and there’s never any reference to why that is—it just is. By putting them in the real world, the characters not only survived, they thrived. And that was such an important part of this movie for me, going out and shooting on location and keeping them in the real world.”

Fortunately, Segal and Stoller’s script gives him plenty of opportunity to do just that. The story the pair devised follows a pair of brothers living in present-day small-town USA, Gary (Segal) a goofy six-foot human, and Walter (performed and voiced by Peter Linz), a goofy 18-inch Muppet. As in our world, it’s been several decades since “The Muppet Show” left the airwaves and the stars of the series have long since scattered to the four winds. But their legacy lives on in the heart of the world’s number-one Muppet fan, Walter, and he takes it upon himself to get the band (not just Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem, of course—Kermit, Fozzie and even Gonzo as well) back together for one big benefit performance to save the old “Muppet Show” theatre, which is in danger of being torn down to make room for an oil rig belonging to bigwig businessman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper). Accompanied by his brother and Gary’s love interest Mary (Amy Adams), Walter crisscrosses the country rounding up the missing Muppets and, of course, meeting plenty of big-name guest stars along the way. (Mila Kunis, Zach Galifianakis, Katy Perry and Danny Trejo are just some of the recognizable faces that turn up in cameo roles.)

Anchoring the film around an entirely new Muppet could be viewed as a risky decision, considering that a large portion of the audience will be turning up expecting to spend time with the characters they know and love, not a new face. But Bobin is confident that viewers will take an immediate shine to Walter. “In the beginning, it was mainly a question of finding the right person to play him, because the Muppet characters are very much informed by the puppeteer. We met Peter and he was this naturally nice guy with an incredibly good heart. Walter is meant to be the torch carrier for the Muppets and Peter had this strength about him which I felt would communicate that.”

And if you notice a certain resemblance between Walter and the most iconic of all the Muppets, one Kermit the Frog, that’s not at all accidental. “We based Walter’s design on the same one they used for Kermit—he’s basically a hand puppet with a more advanced mouth. That design gives the puppeteer’s hand maximum freedom of movement, so with the smallest amount of finger change, he or she can create a huge range of expressions. With a few flicks of his left finger, Peter can make Walter look incredibly different all the time and because the camera is close enough in, you swear you can hear this puppet thinking and that conveys the emotion of the movie.”

Although he had little experience directing puppets prior to coming on board The Muppets, Bobin made a conscious choice early on to avoid employing digital effects, even if they could make his job easier. “One of the things I’ve always liked about the Muppets is that they aren’t perfect and my worry with digital is that things get too perfect. I wanted the audience to be able to see Fozzie’s fur and Kermit’s green felt and really get a sense of the puppeteers performing. When you’re trying to make characters that are basically pieces of cloth feel real, I think you’re better off acknowledging your limitations rather than trying to get rid of them. And the puppeteers were absolute geniuses at being able to convert my direction into acting. They use their hands and the puppets’ rods to convey emotion in the same way humans use their faces. Once you have that spark of life from the puppeteer, it’s just a matter of maintaining it onscreen. The bottom of the frame is absolutely key in every single Muppet movie, because beneath the frame, you have the puppeteer and above the frame you have the puppet. So the bottom of the frame is where the Muppet world begins and maintaining that illusion can get very complicated when you start putting together a sequence of shots. Once you’re out of coverage and into wider shots, you end up having issues because the wider you go, the more you see of the puppets’ bodies. You have to be judicious about how you cut each sequence, always keeping in mind how the puppet can exist [in the frame] without the puppeteer.”

If the frame is the key visual element of every Muppet movie, the songs are their most crucial audio component. From “The Rainbow Connection” and “Movin’ Right Along” to “Happiness Hotel” and “Saying Goodbye,” the first three Muppet films offer up one terrifically funny—or, as in the case of “Saying Goodbye,” gut-wrenchingly sad—musical number after another. To craft tunes that could stand alongside those classics, Bobin enlisted the aid of his “Flight of the Conchords” collaborator Bret McKenzie, one half of the titular band.

“Comedy music sounds easy,” he explains. “Lots of people are good at comedy and lots of people are good at music, so how hard can it be to put them together? And actually, it’s incredibly hard because you have to be excellent at both. You get found out if you’re good at one and only okay at the other. My experience with ‘Conchords’ was useful, because we had to have two or three songs a week in a half-hour sitcom, so you had to really think about how to integrate the music into the show and make sure there was some narrative drive to each song. For example, we found it was always useful on the show to insert a song when someone was having an emotional crisis. So one of the ideas we had early on for The Muppets was a song that comes two-thirds of the way through the movie where Gary and Walter experience an existential moment about their own identity.”

Other songs to watch out for include a big opening number that introduces us to Gary, Walter and the world they inhabit, as well as a solo for Kermit in which he reminisces about “The Muppet Show”’s ’70s heyday. Bobin also reveals that the movie climaxes with a performance of “Rainbow Connection” on a set that recreates a memorable scene from The Muppet Movie. Informed that that musical cue will likely cause anyone over the age of 30 to start sobbing in the theatre, Bobin laughs knowingly. “I hope so! That was my plan. There’s something about that song that’s so heartfelt—it’s fantastic. I even tear up at that scene and I made the movie!”

Beyond the music and the merriment, Bobin’s primary goal with The Muppets was to recapture the same message that kept him glued to “The Muppet Show” all those years ago. “The Muppet philosophy was always about positivity and seeing the best in people,” says the director, who adds that he’s in the process of writing other potential feature projects for himself to helm and has recently signed a first-look deal with HBO to create another comedy series. “The question is whether that [attitude] can still prevail in today’s cynical world and I think this movie answers that with a resounding ‘Yes.’ Even though we live in difficult times, we should never let go of that.” Or, as a wise frog once sang, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending, keep believing, keep pretending.”