NPR

Bret McKenzie: A Manly Muppet And A Muppet Of A Man

Bret McKenzie (left) wrote five of the songs in The Muppets, including the Oscar-nominated "Man or Muppet" and the opening number, "Life's a Happy Song." (Disney)

Songwriter Bret McKenzie makes up one half of the New Zealand comedy rock duo Flight of the Conchords. He also wrote five of the songs in the new Muppet movie, including "Man or Muppet," one of two songs nominated for Best Original Song at this year's Academy Awards.

On Monday's Fresh Air, we preview a small portion of an upcoming interview with McKenzie. (A longer interview, which will go into more detail about his time with Flight of the Conchords and his childhood in New Zealand, will air on Feb. 20.)

McKenzie tells host Terry Gross that the script for The Muppets was already written when director James Bobin and screenwriters Jason Segel and Nick Stoller approached him about writing the film's musical numbers.

"For 'Man or Muppet,' they wanted a song about being a man or a Muppet," he says. "And James had this visual idea that the man would see a reflection of himself as a Muppet, and the Muppet would see a reflection of himself as a man. So within the song, it needed to incorporate some sort of echo-y idea, so you go between the two characters within the melody."

Before McKenzie wrote the ballad, Segel and Stoller helped filled him in on the cardinal rules of the Muppet world. For example, Muppets think of themselves as humans in their worlds — not puppets. That ruled out using the word 'puppet' in any kind of rhyme scheme.

One of the mistakes I made was thinking chickens and penguins could sing, just like all the other animals in the Muppets. But it turns out those animals are not allowed to sing words. They can just cluck and quack.

"Early on, I was going to get 'puppet' in there, but you can't do that," he says. "Muppets are real. So then I was riffing as to how I could get that melody and those lyrics to flip back and forth, so that's why I ended up rhyming Muppet with Muppet and man with man."

McKenzie says he was going for heart-wrenchingly sincere — the kind of song you might hear Eric Carmen or Harry Nilsson belt out. (Nilsson sang the epic power ballad "Without You." Carmen sang "All By Myself.")

"I really wanted to do a power-ballad tune, and really wanted to get it as dramatic as I possibly could get it to be," he says. "Both ['Without You' and 'All By Myself'] have a very similar feel, and I wanted to get this 'Man or Muppet' song to be one of those. ...That is what I found really funny."

The song ends up being a crucial moment in the film — both for the human, played by Jason Segel, and his Muppet friend Walter.

"I think everyone has had that crisis at some point, trying to figure out whether they are a man or a Muppet," McKenzie says. "I like the idea of people having that crisis driving around, trying to figure it out."


Interview Highlights

On Teaching Jason Segel How To Sing The Songs

"I would sing a line and he'd watch me through the studio window. And I'd sing it quite dramatically. And he would copy, and that's how we got the performance going."

On Learning What Muppets Can And Can't Do

"One of the mistakes I made was thinking chickens and penguins could sing, just like all the other animals in the Muppets. But it turns out those animals are not allowed to sing words. They can just cluck and quack. ... I had another Muppet reminiscing, 'I remember when I was just a little piece of felt.' And that got shut down pretty soon, as well. Because the Muppets are real and they never were bits of material in their world. And then the other one — I was really tempted to have the line 'mother-frogger' in there, and that got shut down for being too grown-up."

On The Muppeteers

"They take it very seriously, and sometimes in the studio, they kind of 'Method' Muppets, where in between takes, they stay in character. So I'm in the studio, we do a take and then we're like, 'Can you do it again? Just a little more energy?' and then they talk back to you as Fozzie the Bear. So it's like I'm having a conversation with the Muppet in there. Pretty strange, very surreal job."

On Cutting The Live Performances Of The Oscars' Two Nominated Songs

"I was disappointed when I found that out. I'm not complaining to have to go to the Oscars. I'm pretty excited about it all. But it would have been fun to get a man and a Muppet up there and really hit this one home. ... From my experience, it's always good to put a couple of songs in a show. Even if they weren't going to broadcast it, they could have them and then cut them. [Terry Gross interjects: 'It's a live show.'] Oh, it's a live show. That's the problem. Maybe they're worried that we're just going to keep singing."

On How He Would Have Staged His Oscar Performance

"I would have played piano and then [gotten] Jason Segel and Walter the Muppet up on stage. And then bring in a chorus of background singers with all the Muppets across the back of the stage. Maybe get Clooney and Pitt out there, as well, singing along."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
'Man or Muppet'
Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

There's only two songs nominated for a best original song Oscar this year. One of them is "Man or Muppet" from the movie "The Muppets." We're going to hear the story behind the song from its come composer and lyricist Bret McKenzie.

He's half of the satirical music duo Flight of the Conchords, which started an HBO series of the same name. McKenzie wrote several of the songs for "The Muppets." Let's hear the Oscar-nominated one. The movie stars Jason Segel as a guy whose half-brother is a Muppet named Walter. Walter has always lived in the human world and has gone on a pilgrimage to the old Muppet studio in LA. He's accompanied by Segel and his girlfriend. After Segel's girlfriend leaves him, accusing him of caring more about the Muppets than her, he sings about his identity crisis and Walter sings about his own crisis in the song "Man or Muppet."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN OR MUPPET")

JASON SEGEL: (Singing) I reflect on my reflection and I ask myself the question what's the right direction and where to go. I don't know. Am I a man or am I a Muppet. Am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet, then I'm a very manly Muppet. Very manly Muppet. Am I Muppet? Muppet. Or am I man? Am I a man? If I'm a man that makes me a Muppet of a man. A Muppet of a man.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the nomination. Such a great choice for...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...for them to have made. I love that song.

BRET MCKENZIE: Thanks very much.

GROSS: You are welcome. So when the screenwriters told you that they needed this song, what did they say they needed?

MCKENZIE: The script was already written. And Jason Segel and Nick Stoller who wrote the script and James Bobin had sort of...

GROSS: He was the director. Yeah.

MCKENZIE: James Bobin, the director. They had song briefs. And "Man or Muppet" it was just a - it'd say "Man or Muppet" and they wanted a song about being a man or a Muppet. And then James had this visual idea that the man would see a reflection of himself as a Muppet and the Muppet, Walter, would see a reflection of himself as a man.

So within the song it needed to incorporate some sort of echo-y sort of idea so that you could go between the two characters within the melody.

GROSS: And I, you know, I love a line if I'm a Muppet then I'm a very manly Muppet. If I'm a man that makes me a Muppet kind of man.

MCKENZIE: A Muppet of a man, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. How did that come to you?

MCKENZIE: Well, first we can't the Muppets puppets, right? So that took out that rhyming option. Early on I was going to call them – I was going to get puppet in there but you can't do that. So...

GROSS: That breaks the Muppet code.

MCKENZIE: Yeah, it breaks the code. Yeah, Muppets are real. And so then I was just riffing as to how I could create that – get that melody and those lyrics to flip back and forth and, yeah, that's why I end up rhyming Muppet with Muppet and man with man.

GROSS: Do you see the song as a Muppet power ballad?

MCKENZIE: Absolutely. Yeah. I just - I really wanted to do a power ballad tune and just wanted it to be as dramatic as I possibly could get it to be.

GROSS: So what - was there certain songs or certain performers you were thinking of when you wrote this? You know, like power ballad performers?

MCKENZIE: Yeah. I was really influenced by Harry Nilsson's "Without You" and Eric Carmen's "All By Myself."

GROSS: Sing a few lines so people know the song you're talking about.

MCKENZIE: You know the one, (singing) I can't live if living is without you. I can't give. I can't take anymore. (Speaking) And it just - it's just so epic, man. I mean, Harry Nilsson's got the best voice ever and he sang that at, you know, the height of his career just when his voice was still there before he started partying like a maniac with John Lennon.

And then Eric Carmen's song "All By Myself," which I love that song. A friend of mine used to sing it when she was single, you know, with a group of couples going, (singing) all by myself. Don't want to be all by myself anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCKENZIE: Both those songs have a very similar feel, I think, and so what I wanted to do was get this man or Muppet song to be like one of those, like a really heart-wrenching, genuinely sincere, you know, power ballad about being a man or a Muppet.

GROSS: And then there's a part where Jason Segel's like bending over in agony and shaking his fists.

MCKENZIE: Ah, it's a great visual. He's on the street, like a downtown Los Angeles street and the rain's flooding down him. He's buckled over, just in agony of the melody. It's a sort of turning point in the movie so he realizes he's a man and the Muppet guy, Walter, realizes he's a Muppet. So it's a crucial moment in the movie as well.

GROSS: Of them finding their real identity.

MCKENZIE: Yeah. Yeah. And, I mean, what I like about it is it kind of – I think everyone's had that crisis at some point trying to figure out whether they're a man or a Muppet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCKENZIE: It's a real theme song for everyone.

GROSS: That's kind of true.

MCKENZIE: Well, I like the idea of people having that crisis, driving around singing it to themselves, trying to figure it out.

GROSS: I sing that to myself all the time, actually. I love the song. So, early on Jason Segel has to sing "What's the right direction-n-n-n to go?" Tell me about making sure he said, like, lots of echo-y Ns in there.

MCKENZIE: That was one of those things I was just doing as I was sitting on the piano and then I just made him copy it. I would sing a line and he'd watch me through the studio window. And I'd sing it quite dramatically and then he'd just copy me. And so that's how we kind of got the performance going.

GROSS: I know that there's a Muppet code. Like, you can't call the Muppets puppets because they're – people are supposed to believe that they're real, that they're real living creatures. What are some of the other things that you were told you couldn't do in the songs that you were writing?

MCKENZIE: One of the mistakes I made was thinking that chickens and penguins could sing just like all the other animals in the Muppets. But it turns out that those animals are not allowed to actually sing words. They can just cluck and quack. And then I also had another line – I had one of the Muppets reminiscing, I remember when I was just a little piece of felt, and that got shut down pretty soon as well.

Because the Muppets are real and they never were bits of material in their world. And then the other one was I was really tempted to have the line mother-frogger...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah.

MCKENZIE: ...in there. Yeah, that got shut down for being a little bit too grown up.

GROSS: So did they explain why chickens and penguins can only cluck and quack, why they can't sing like the other Muppets?

MCKENZIE: No. It's just one of those things that they created years ago. I mean, it's great in the early shows with Gonzo loves the chickens and they just go bawk bawk when they talk back to Gonzo. So it's a good setup that they can't talk and they can only quack. I mean cluck.

But it was funny in the studio when I was like, OK, now the penguins sing this line and the Muppeteers, very serious guys, are like just like, um, I can't sing that line. Uh, the penguins, they don't say the words.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Is that how you learned it, that they can't sing?

MCKENZIE: Yeah, that's how I learned it, in the studio and they told me. I was like, oh, OK. They take it very seriously. Fair enough, you know? And they – sometimes in the studio they're kind of method Muppets where they – in between takes they stay in character. So I'm in the studios, we do a take, and then they're like can we do it again? Can you try it just a little more energy or something like that.

And then they talk back to you as Fozzie the Bear or whoever they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Seriously?

MCKENZIE: So it's like - yeah. So it's like I'm having a conversation with the Muppet and it was pretty strange, a very surreal job.

GROSS: Wow. So as we record this, it looks like the nominated songs, the two nominated songs, are not going to be performed at the Oscars. I feel cheated, but probably not nearly as cheated as you feel.

MCKENZIE: I was disappointed when I found that out. That was just the other night. And, I mean, I'm not complaining to have to go to the Oscars. I'm pretty excited about it all, but, yeah, it would've been fun to get a man and a Muppet up there.

GROSS: Do you know why they're not performing the songs?

MCKENZIE: I don't, actually. I'm not sure. I mean, it seems crazy. From my experience it's always good to put a couple of songs in a show. So I don't know. It just seems that, like, even if they weren't going to broadcast it they could just have them and then cut them.

GROSS: It's a live show.

MCKENZIE: Oh. It's live. Oh, that's probably their problem.

GROSS: Yeah, that would be a problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCKENZIE: Maybe they're worried that we're just going to keep singing.

GROSS: Yeah. If you were doing "Man or Muppet" at the Oscars, how would you have liked to stage it?

MCKENZIE: Well, I don't know. I think maybe I would've played some piano and then get Jason Segel and Walter the Muppet up on stage and then I think then bring in a chorus of background singers with all the Muppets across the back of the stage. Maybe get, you know, Clooney and Pitt out there as well singing along.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie, thank you so much for talking with us. I really wish you good luck at the Oscars. I love the song. So thank you.

MCKENZIE: Thanks very much. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAN OR MUPPET")

SEGEL: (Singing) I'm a man.

PETER LINZ: (Singing) I'm a Muppet. Oh.

SEGEL: (Singing) I'm a Muppet of a man.

LINZ: (Singing) I'm a very manly Muppet.

SEGEL: (Singing) I'm a Muppet of a man. That's what I am.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie wrote the song "Man or Muppet" which is nominated for an Oscar for best original song. In part two of our interview which we expect to play in the next few days, he'll talk about the other songs he wrote for the Muppets movie. You can see the "Man or Muppet" video on our website freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular