Tech Support Interview: Bret McKenzie on his 'Muppety' additions to 'The Muppets'
Bret McKenzie is not a fan of musicals. He doesn’t cruise down the motorways of his hometown in Wellington belting the plaintiff cry of "Les Miserables" - “2-4-6-0-1111111” (Jean Valjean that is). Or at least that’s what he would have us believe and claimed when I spoke to him from his home in New Zealand this week. I remain convinced that he has a “Best of Barbara” tucked away in the nether regions of his vehicle.
In any event, McKenzie’s (alleged) lack of interest in musical theater is somewhat ironic given that he has made his name as one half of the folk comedy duo "Flight of the Conchords" (his other half being Jemaine Clement), and that he is in all likelihood about to receive one, if not two, Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song. (And it's a shame that, according to Academy rules, the film can't receive three.)
Mckenzie wrote two of the three songs from “The Muppets” that are currently eligible for nominations, “Life’s a Happy Song” and “Man or Muppet,” and (as a part of his role as the film's musical supervisor) produced the third: "Pictures in My Head.” Most predict that the effusive and unabashedly joyful “Life’s a Happy Song” is a lock for a nomination and that there will be a split between the two other more bittersweet offerings.
“It’s surreal and at the same time exciting because I am completely new to this whole Oscar thing,” McKenzie says of the current buzz. “I mean I’ve seen the Oscars on TV and so I know what goes on. I know Jack Nicholson wears his sunglasses.”
When “Flight of the Conchords” and “The Muppets” director James Bobin originally approached McKenzie, it was to write an “upbeat,” “cheerful” song for the film’s opening, and thus, “Life’s a Happy Song” was born. From there they moved to a few other tunes in the film that had pre-established beats and/or titles, and finally, McKenzie took on the role of music supervisor full stop, where a large portion of his task was to maintain the “Muppety” sound throughout.
“There’s looseness to it,” he says of said “Muppetyness.” “There are particular instruments like the banjo, tech piano and the baritone sax that sound Muppety, but ultimately it’s about the feel. Jim Henson said, ‘If the music sounds too good then it’s not right.’ I think that’s what makes a thing sound 'Muppety.' They’re slightly off and they’re not overly produced. That’s what’s so refreshing in the contemporary world where everything is so polished. It’s so great to hear characters sing like that. That’s part of why people connect to them. It’s also in the way that they look, which is slightly off, funny and wrong.”
Many would say that it is the very quirky vulnerability of the Muppets that inspires our love. As individuals, they are not very good at what they do: Fozzie is not a great comedian, Gonzo’s adventurous attempts often fail, but as a unit, they are magnificent.
Kris has always favored “Pictures in my Head” of the two more dramatic ballads, but I am 100% on board with “Man or Muppet” as the song to not only be nominated for, but ultimately win the Oscar. “‘Pictures in My Head’ is more nostalgic,” McKenzie says. “It really tugs at the Muppet heartstrings.” Some would feel that it also reflects the broader themes in the film. My take on “Man or Muppet,” however, is that it not only accurately reflects Jason Segel’s state of arrested development and Walter’s confused sense of self, but also the internal dialog of an entire generation of man and women children. When I laughingly relayed my theory to McKenzie he quipped back, “Yeah, I feel like ‘Man or Muppet’ transcends the film and becomes an anthem for people’s personal identify crisis. It’s fate versus self determination.”
"Man or Muppet" already had a title when McKenzie came on-board so he had a given theme to address. "But I do approach comedy songs with a lot of sincerity," he says, "because they end up being funnier the more sincere they are. So there’s definitely a lot of heart put into that song. I don’t know if I was wondering if I was a man or a Muppet at the time, but I really channeled the character.”
Mckenzie calls the song both his favorite and the "most Conchordian" of all of the numbers. “It references a specific time period,” he says. “It’s a 70s/80s power ballad, and on ‘Conchords,’ we did that a lot. Especially with the visuals, that song feels like a music video. As well as the fact that there’s two characters. You could replace Walter and Gary with Jemain and I. I think ‘Man or Muppet’ is the most successful musically, but I can’t deny the joy that ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ brings people. It’s catchy.”
The unrestrained optimism inherent in “Life’s a Happy Song” invites the viewer into the acknowledgment that musicals no longer really have a place in our world, but that paradoxically, we wish that they did. It is so self-consciously reminiscent of the simple, traipsing, whimsical musicals of the 1950s and so not of our time that it allows us to accept the parts of the film that are sincere. Because we know that it knows what it’s doing. It’s as if it’s saying, "Look how outrageous this is! We don’t buy into any of this stuff anymore because it’s so silly and unreal. Now that we’re on the same page about that – let’s buy into it anyway!"
McKenzie agrees, offering that the song "was so genuine that it was ridiculous. Watching the footage of Jason skipping about in that blue suit was a highlight for me. There’s a tone that happens when you take something very seriously. At the same time as parodying musicals, we also put a lot of love into it so it doesn’t come across as a sketch. It works on two levels.”
“The Muppets” is precisely the type of musical that a contemporary audience is willing to embrace. “It’s almost like an ironic love,” he qualifies. “It starts out as a joke and becomes something you end up doing.” Which is exactly what musicals have become for McKenzie.
As to where he takes those talents from here, there are projects to which he coyly alludes, but he says he simply isn’t sure which doors will open for him. “It must have been fun working in musicals in the 1950s when studios were making them all the time,” he says. “Imagine Jason Segel going from dance to singing rehearsals all day long.”
There is room for musical comedy at this point in the industry, however, as evidenced by “South Park,” “The Muppets” and McKenzie’s own career. The actor/writer/comedian completed his role as Lindir the elf in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” earlier this year. Perhaps we'll be able to see excerpts of their impromptu, off-set musical interpretations of the Shire translated into “A Very Hobbity Musical” on YouTube any day now.
“I’m trying to get a hold of Ian McKellen,” McKenzie assures. “But he’s not answering my calls.”
McKenzie began as an elf extra on “The Lord of the Rings” when a Tolkien fan noticed him, dubbed him FIGWIT (Frodo Is Great...Who Is That?) and devoted a website to him. Jackson made sure he had an actual line in “The Return of the King” as a result, and has now created a legitimate, named character for him.
That said, if anyone understands the capricious and surprising nature of a creative career it is McKenzie. So who's to say what is next in his non-musically inclined, musical career. “Kermit might want a new vehicle,” he theorizes. “Kermit and I are talking about doing something more serious."
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