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Interview: Bret McKenzie from The Muppets and Middle Earth

Bret McKenzie at the Muppets premiere in 2011Oscar's music branch has been known to throw an unpleasant curveball over the years  in the Original Song category (no Cher performance last year? Ouch! No Springsteen in 2008?! It still stings.) but if they don't deliver us a performance by the resurgent Muppets on the February broadcast, felt fur will surely fly. We get so few original musicals these days so The Muppets was the go to musical comedy last year.

Bret McKenzie has given Oscar ample reason to include the beloved characers on the big night. The actor/musician, most famous as one half of the Flight of the Conchords duo and soon to be seen as an Elf in Middle Earth (however briefly) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wrote two songs that have landed on Oscar's Best Original Song eligibility list: "Life's a Happy Song" and "Man or Muppet". (The third eligible song from the movie "Pictures in My Head" has different composers).

I spoke to him recently on his awards buzz, his cult hit show and (very briefly) Middle Earth. He calls the response to his Muppets songs "Pretty incredible. I did not expect to get awards for this movie."

Nevertheless, the honors have been coming. Both of his Oscar eligible songs are up for the Critics Choice Award this Thursday (imagine competing with Elton John!) and who knows? An Oscar nomination (or even two!) could follow. 


Nathaniel R: Did you feel crazy pressure about taking on this job. The Muppets have "The Rainbow Connection" which is an all time classic. The music is very connected to their whole mythology. 

BRET MCKENZIE: It was a very intimidating job, taking on Paul williams shoes. Luckily I wrote one song at a time for it. Initially I wasn't writing three or four so I didn't feel so much pressure. But one of my friends was like 'Oh man, you're never going to write another 'Rainbow Connection' [Laughs] I was like 'Yeah, you're right!'

But, you know, we just did our thing really. Luckily James  [James Bobin director of The Muppets who also had a hand in Flight of the Conchords] and I had just spent the last five years doing Conchords. We had done a lot of comedy musical numbers so we were pretty comfortable with the genre. The challenge was just to make sure that the songs felt like Muppet songs.

Nathaniel: Was this a situation where they knew exactly where they wanted a song. "It goes here and it's about this!"? 

Bret: That's exactly it. When I came on they'd already done the script. I went in to James' office and he had the film mapped out on script cards on the wall, white cards. A blue card was a song. There were songs scattered throughout the movie. That's how we did Conchords as well, so you didn't have songs back to back. They had these sort of loose ideas for what the songs should be. They'd actually -- by the time I came on -- already had dozens of demos submitted. They got lots of people to write songs and they went through and chose their favorites. It was surprising how difficult it was for people to write songs that fit into the musical format.

So you knew which characters your songs would be for ahead of time.

Yes. I was writing for Gary and Walter who didn't exist. I knew who Jason Segel was. I had seen Forgetting Sarah Marshall so I knew him.  I knew he could sing a bit which is always good. Then I got the job of writing the rap for Chris Cooper which was one of the highlights of the film, teaching him how to rap. He's a very serious actor, an Academy Award wining actor. He was quite method! [Laughs] We're quite different people. I'm quite bubbly and he's very serious. 

Even about rapping?

He took it very seriously. He wanted to make sure it was a solid rap performance. I taught him over Skype how to rap! 

Did you test the Muppet music on your kids to see how they responded?

Musical Comedy Divas & Muppet-like Middle Earth Directors ...after the jump!


BRET MCKENZIE: I've got a couple of babies. My eldest daughter is two. I would test them on her. She really likes "Life's a Happy Song."

Nathaniel R: Of course.

BRET: But then I got trumped by "Nellie the Elephant" a classic British children's song.

Kids are so fickle!

You think your kid likes it but then they listen to  -- then I got trumped by "Rainbow Connection"! Yeah, she wanted Kermit's song. We didn't test them more than that on kids. The music  has a playful innocence so I wasn't really worried about that. To be honest I wasn't aiming the work at children. I was just making songs that I like and making sure to keep them clean. I think that's what good about the Muppets. It's children entertainment which is also entertaining for adults. It doesn't patronize the children.  

I have to talk about Flight of the Conchords for a minute. 

Yeah, yeah, sure.

Jermaine and Bret "The Flight of the Conchords"

Nathaniel R: I came to it really late, actually.

BRET MCKENZIE: What, just a few hours ago googling? To prep for this assignment. "Who is this guy?! all right all right!" You watched a few YouTube clips. 

[Mutual laughter]

No! No! I swear. I watched the entire thing.  I was visiting one of my best friend's for a week and she is really into it. 'You have to see this show!' So I watched the whole thing.

Wow, a marathon. You probably know it better than I do know.

Flight of the Conchords and their #1 fan "Mel" Well, it's fresh in the mind.

Yeah. It's a show that the people who love it really love it. It has a semi cultish following. It's not really popular but the people who do like it hold it very dear.

I felt like I was being brainwashed. Even when we left her house she would play the CDs in the car. I'm not kidding. It was 24/7. 

[Laughs] She's obsessive! Jermaine and I went through a phase where people would come up to us saying "I'm the real Mel!"  Which is obviously a terrible thing to say to Jermaine or I on the street. It immediately makes us nervous. They think it's funny but it genuinely makes us think they're crazy stalkers. 

I do have one bone to pick with you about the show. Sutton Foster is the greatest. She's such a great singer and she's on your show and she doesn't get to sing?!

When we cast her we didn't know she was a Broadway actor! We found out -- we were in New York and we saw her on these billboards and we were like "What the hell is she doing?!" Then we found out she was a Broadway star. If we'd known. Doing it now, I'm sure we could have given her an epic. We could've written a really good number. 

She didn't offer to sing?

No, she was very humble. She didn't really talk about the fact that she was a Broadway legend. That is a shame, you're right.

I'm now just complaining to you randomly about musical comedy divas -- Miss Piggy was not in The Muppets enough!!! Did you get frustrated you didn't get to write much for her?

Well I worked on the "Me Party" song for Miss Piggy but that was added at the very end. We made the film and then they realized that Miss Piggy and Amy Adams didn't really get to sing. There wasn't enough of them so in the last few weeks we quickly wrote that song and recorded it. 

Right. Oh sorry. That slipped my mind.

Well, it is a very brief -- it's a little song. I think because it wasn't written in the original script, it's not a solid musical number. It's kind of added in there. But yeah, Miss Piggy is such a highlight of the film, such a strong character. If there were more Muppet films, definitely she needs some bigger numbers. 

Two famous comedy duos: Statler & Waldorf / Flight of the Conchords

Did you have a favorite Muppet growing up?
I get asked this a bit! Coming into the film I think Statler and Waldorf were my favorites, two old guys doing wisecracks in the balcony. I just loved the fact that Jim Henson had created these characters that could ridicule his own show within it. If he had a sketch that didn't work he had this sort of out clause. [Laughs] Do you know what I mean? It's a pretty great idea. 

If you get Oscar-nominated for any of the songs, would you perform on that show? High Pressure!

You mean like Randy Newman style? I was thinking our chances are a lot higher because Randy Newman hasn't submitted anything this year. Would I perform? I don't know. They'd really want a Muppet to perform.

But you've performed with Kermit already!

That's true. Or we could -- me and Jason and Walter could do a version of "Man or Muppet" 

Yes. Did you request a muppet of yourself? 

I did quietly wish. I was hoping but it never happend. They made one of James Baldwin though. I think you need to direct a film to get a mupept made.

Bret McKenzie in The Lord of the Rings. He plays an elf again in The Hobbit (albeit a different one)From Muppets to Middle Earth. Are you finishing up The Hobbit? 

I finished that. It's a small part.

Why do I get the feeling that Peter Jackson loves the muppets? Maybe it's just Meet the Feebles.  

Bret: I have never talked to him about it! But I agree. I bet he does. He's got a muppety vibe!

Jim Henson had muppets of himself and you could picture Peter Jackson as a Muppet pretty easily.

Bret: Yeah, yeah. And there's that whole Labyrinth and Dark Crystal -- seems like there's a bit of a crossover between Jim Henson and Peter Jackson. 

Totally. I love "Man or Muppet" It was so fun to see Jim Parsons in there as Walter. Did you request a muppet of yourself? 

I did quietly wish! I was hoping but it never happened. They made one of James Bobin though. I think you need to direct a film to get a muppet made.

Do you want Bret McKenzie to perform with the Muppets at the Oscars?
Do you trust Oscar to do the right thing and nominate him? That music branch is a tricky one. 

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Reader Comments (6)

Great interview, Nat! I haven't seen The Muppets yet, but I love Flight of the Conchords (though maybe not as much as your friend!) Rob just bought me their BBC radio show for the holidays and what I've heard so far is also great.

I especially liked Bret's ("Present") response to your saying you were new to the Conchords. I also agree with you that they should have used Sutton Foster more -- funny that they had no clue about who she was. I actually read that they went to see her in "The Drowsy Chaperone" at the time and were blown away.

January 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan P

you mean like after her role on their show was over? or before? i'm not sure i buy his answer but musical comedy is her forte and she didn't get to sing on that show. weird!

I haven't heard the BBC radio show.

January 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R


January 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Life's a Happy Song and Man or Muppet were totally the two most memorable songs from that movie. They're the only two songs I left thinking about. Hope he gets a nom or two.

January 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Keller

Nat, she was in "The Drowsy Chaperone" when they were filming the show. Here's a link to an old interview where she mentions it:

If they ever do a Conchords movie I hope they bring her back!

January 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan P

Heads up - your question in regards to whether Bret requested a Muppet of himself repeats twice in the interview.

January 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris

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