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Bret McKenzie on Songwriting for The Muppets, Jason Segel’s Power Ballad, and Teaching Chris Cooper to Rap

Bret McKenzie.

Before this weekend, Bret McKenzie was known as one-half of HBO’s indie-folk-rock-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords and as the long-haired elf extra Figwit in the Lord of the Rings. Now, as music supervisor for the officially successful Muppets movie, he’s the guy who got “Life’s a Happy Song” and “Man or Muppet” stuck in your head. Vulture spoke with him from his home in New Zealand about the very specific rules of songwriting for Muppets, Jason Segel’s power-ballad abilities, and teaching Chris Cooper to rap.

You grew up in New Zealand. I am imagining a knockoff version of The Muppets there called The Zuppets or something.
Like a cheap version that was just sock puppets [laughs]. No, we got the original ones. In New Zealand, there were only two channels: It was either watching The Muppets or the news. So, as a kid, I watched The Muppets. They had the market cornered.

What was the writing process like for a movie like this?
I watched all the old shows and the old movies, more as a reminder. I wrote the songs on the piano … it was just a matter of the way I normally write songs; I didn’t have to change them to make them “Muppety.” Every so often I had to edit things out if it got too R-rated. And one of the first lines in the opening song, one of the Muppets was reminiscing about how he was “just a little piece of felt.” That got shut down because the Muppets are real in the Muppets world. You never mention that they are puppets. They’ll break the fourth wall during the film and make you aware that it’s a film, but they’ll never break the convention that they are puppets. In a way, it reminds you of Santa Claus for children. Everyone knows, but no one mentions it.

What other rules did you learn?
Most of the animals can talk, but chickens can’t talk. Chickens can only cluck. Sometimes I’d write lyrics and the chickens would sing; then I’d find out in the studio that they could only cluck. And for penguins, it’s a subject of much controversy as to whether the penguins can talk or not. The Muppeteers told me they can’t, but there are Muppet historians that have responded saying they can. Serious Muppet fans say the penguins can talk. I’d be writing these songs and sometimes I’d trip over these Muppet rules and have to adjust the song. And sometimes I’d be in the studio and one of the Muppets would refuse to sing a line because they didn’t think it was appropriate for the character.

Would you get into theoretical arguments about Muppets?
That was one of the more surreal moments, when you’re arguing over whether a Muppet would sing a line like that. Then I’d rewrite the line to suit the character’s integrity. It was an incredibly fun job in the studio, spending days recording these grown men making penguin sounds. And saying, “Let’s do penguin three, please.” You’d do six penguins and they all have slightly different voices. I wrote a song for Piggy and you have to get the range right. If Miss Piggy goes too high, she sounds all squeaky. Too squeaky. And if she goes too low, she sounds like the man who’s doing her part.

Soundwise, the Chris Cooper rap song, “Let’s Talk About Me,” resembles a Conchords tune the most. Did you impart any rap knowledge to Chris?
That song was written by a New York songwriter called Ali Dee. I came in to write the rap for Chris Cooper. I was given the unusual task of teaching Academy Award winning actor Chris Cooper how to rap. The first session I did with him was on Skype, and it was a clandestine audition so that I could see if he had any flow. He came through with his East Coast style. I’d rap a line and he’d rap a line back [laughs].

So he can freestyle, is what you’re saying.
Well, he would imitate me, but he’s definitely got flow. He’s got mad flow. And he told me he was in a lounge band when he was younger. So he’s got the musical gene. Originally he was a crooner, but I adapted that to make it more hip-hop. He’s a very serious performer and took rapping very seriously. I think he was even reading books on how to rap.

Jason Segel’s ballad, “Man or Muppet,” is probably the most pivotal song in the movie. It’s emotional!
That song transcends the film and deals with an issue that we all have: Are we a man or a muppet? [Laughs.] It’s the perfect 5-year-old crisis. It was my favorite song in the film because Jason does an incredible performance and he really channels his inner Meatloaf to slam that power ballad. Jason Segel is definitely a triple threat. He can act, he can sing, and he can almost dance. He’s a two and a half threat … two and three quarters threat.

Have you talked to Jemaine, the other half of the Conchords, about the two of you getting back together? Reunions are very chic these days.
We’re planning to do solo tours at exactly the same time. On the same venues. And we’re going to play the same set list. We’ll play the same songs, simultaneously. We’re loosely planning to tour in the next six months, yeah.

Now that you’ve expertly supervised The Muppets, the Conchords could become a feature film.
Yeah, yeah, we’re talking about that. We definitely want to make a Conchords film. Working on this big studio feature makes me excited about a large-scale Conchords movie with big musical numbers.

I saw the Conchords perform a few years ago and women were throwing undergarments onstage.

Bras and underwear.
I don’t know if that will happen at the movie!

Bret McKenzie on Songwriting for The Muppets, Jason Segel’s Power Ballad, and Teaching Chris Cooper to Rap