The Muppets’ Music Maestro

Melissa Leon
The Muppets’ Music Maestro

Bret McKenzie is the probably the only guy alive who identifies as part elf, part Conchord, and part Muppet. The actor and musician, known as one half of New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords, is also fan-fiction favorite Figwit in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies and the maestro behind every original song for The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. McKenzie’s songs are wry, self-aware, and often self-deprecating (Muppets Most Wanted’s opening number begins with the lines “We're doing a sequel / That's what we do in Hollywood / And everybody knows / The sequel's never quite as good”), but the man clearly knows what he’s doing: He won an Oscar for Best Song for writing “Man or Muppet,” the ballad sung by Jason Segel and his Muppet brother Walter in the 2011 film.

The Daily Beast caught up with McKenzie at the New York International Children’s Film Festival—where, along with Walter, he hosted a sing-a-long for a theater full of kids armed with glow sticks, whistles, plastic maracas, and fake mustaches—to talk about making Muppet music, his non-reunion with fellow Conchord and Muppets Most Wanted co-star Jemaine Clement, and his (lack of) Elvish skills.

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What was working on this newest Muppets movie like for you?

It was a lot more fun this time. Since the last one was successful, it was really easy to get celebrity cameos. So the new film is absolutely jam-packed with unnecessary cameos—but it’s really cool! We got Lady Gaga in it, Tony Bennett, James McAvoy, Celine Dion. There are so many, you have to watch it a couple times to catch all the cameos ‘cause some of them are just background parts.

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And Jemaine too, right? Did he offer to help write any songs?

No, he was acting. He’s got a bigger part. He’s a prisoner. We didn’t actually work together on this one. I do my work in Los Angeles and they filmed the movie in London so I’m not on set—which is kinda cool, but kinda not cool. I record the guys and the girls without the puppets, because they don’t bring them into the studio.

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Do you guys still see much of each other?

When we’re in the same country, yeah. It’s not that often, ‘cause we’re on different films. But we toured America last year with Dave Chappelle, as Flight of the Conchords.

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Is that happening again soon?

Yeah, that’s more what we’re doing now, is playing live more than anything else.

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What went into writing songs for the Muppets this time around?

Now that I’ve done it a second time, I can do pretty respectable Miss Piggy and Kermit impressions, so I write the songs in their voices now. I’ll be at the piano now going, (Miss Piggy squeal), “How can something so riiiiiiight, feel so wrong?” No, to be honest, I write it in my own voice and then I turn it into a Muppet voice, or the stars who are in the movie. So like, Tina Fey or Ricky Gervais or Ty Burell—and Celine Dion! She’s in this as well.

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Do you have a favorite song you wrote for Muppets Most Wanted?

I’m pretty partial to a song called “I’ll Get You Want You Want [Cockatoo and Malibu]” That’s the one I enjoy singing. Miss Piggy and Celine Dion have a fun duet, too, which is kind of cool. They’re a couple of divas. I’m hoping that as a result of that, Celine and Piggy will do a residency in Vegas.

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What about a favorite Muppet?

I really love the Swedish Chef. I go through phases but, at the moment, Swedish Chef. It’s fun to watch the audience whenever the Swedish Chef comes on, it’s just immediate laughter. And also, I can do (Swedish chef voice), “Schlip da bish dabish!” You know? Like that.

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You’re really good at that. You won an Oscar for the last Muppets movie—

I know, amazing. I was very surprised.

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—and I remember you telling a joke onstage that didn’t seem to go over that well.

Yeah it was a fairly dry response. (Laughs.) It’s a terrifying thing, going on the Oscars stage.

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But you gave a shoutout to your family at least. Is the Muppets one of those movies your kids watch a million times over?

Oh yeah, they love it, they’ve seen it a lot. And I play the songs a lot around the house. They’re little, so they think I work with Kermit the Frog. In our house, Kermit and Piggy are very real.

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And you’re also in the Hobbit movies. Can you still speak any Elvish?

The Elvish was even weirder than Swedish Chef. “Mithrandir”—that means “Gandalf”—Mithrandir… Ugh, I can’t remember! I’ve only got like one line but they’re insane to remember ‘cause it’s just gibberish. Mithrandir… I can’t remember, what was it… God, I’ve got to get on that.

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