As one half of Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie may brag that he's part of the self-proclaimed "almost-award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand." As the Music Supervisor of 2011's franchise reboot The Muppets, however, the comedian can claim to being an actual Oscar winner, having nabbed the Best Original Song for his ditty "Man or Muppet." Wisely, McKenzie was asked back to oversee the music and contribute tunes for the sequel Muppets Most Wanted, which hits theaters on March 21st. Rolling Stone asked McKenzie to discuss his Muppet fandom and his experience in writing music for the felt-skinned icons in his own words. He replied with a gusto that would have put Animal to shame.
"I guess I was about five years old when I first saw the Muppets; this would have been the TV show, not the movies. They used to show them on Sunday nights in New Zealand. Keep in mind, New Zealand only had two TV channels, so virtually everybody watched The Muppet Show. Like a lot of people of my generation, the Muppets were something that was just omnipresent in the background of my childhood. It wasn't like I grew up dreaming of being a Muppeteer, though I certainly knew folks who did. I ended up becoming a Muppetroubadour instead, I guess."
"My favorite when I was a kid was Animal; what youngster doesn't like an anarchic drummer? As an adult, however, I really like the old guys, Statler and Waldorf. I'm drawn to them partially because I'm a comedian, and they just sit around and crack one-liners — and partially because I'm just old. They're one of the great comedic duos, actually: The first one sets the other up and the second one just slams it home. I'm hoping they'll let Conchords open for them one day on the road."
"The director of The Muppets, James Bobin, had co-created the Flight of the Conchords HBO show with Jermaine and I. So when he got the job, he'd asked me if I'd wrote the opening song for it. It started with just that first number, 'Life's a Happy Song.' That wasn't as intimidating…you know, I'll just do one song and that's it. That lead to me doing one more song, which ended up being "Man or Muppet." And then, well…that lead to me becoming the Music Supervisor for the whole movie. I think if I'd gone into it with the idea that I'd be writing all of the songs, I'd have been absolutely terrified."
"When I sat down to write 'Man or Muppet,' I was listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson…I love those power ballads he did. The production on those are just fabulous. Eric Carmen's song 'All By Myself' was a big influence as well…there's a lot of top-notch soft rock that went into the making of that song. And Paul Williams for the lineage and the brilliance, obviously; 'Rainbow Connection' is a perfect Seventies pop song. But mostly it was me doing a Harry Nilsson rip-off. Sorry, I meant to say 'tribute.'"
"Someone once told me they also heard a little bit of Randy Newman in that song, which is funny because I'm a big Randy Newman fan; I think 'Short People' is just genius. His sound has always bled into a lot of what I do. Maybe I'm like a less bitter, far less political Randy Newman and I don't even know it. And now that I think about it, the song that he did for Toy Story — 'You've Got a Friend in Me' — that could have been a Muppets song. I can actually picture Kermit sitting on some stairs and singing it. For as much as Newman comes off as cynical and quite grumpy in his songs, he was capable of writing such sweet, tender songs. Maybe he'd just get into a good mood every so often and boom, out comes 'You've Got a Friend in Me.' That's what I'd aspire to be: today's Randy-Newman-in-a-good-mood songwriter."
"The big difference between writing the music for the first Muppets film and for this new one was that this time, Disney trusted me. Originally, they weren't so sure about this guy from New Zealand who was saying, 'Oh yeah, let's do all these Harry Nilsson songs for this kids movie!' They response was more like "By Harry Nilsson, you mean Hannah Montana, right?' I really think they wanted something more contemporary-pop-ish. We finally managed to strong-arm them into letting us use a more retro 1970s style."
"For this film, we wrote songs that were a little more self-aware, a little more tongue-in-cheek. Someone described them as 'ironic showtunes,' which I think fits. Celine Dion does a duet with Miss Piggie, which was admittedly a highlight for me. Two of the great power-ballad divas, finally united on one song! There's also this great homage to Lionel Richie's music in another track, only it's sung by a Russian frog. You'd be surprised by how much the Lionel Richie-ness of a Lionel Richie-esque song drops out when sung by an Eastern European amphibian. I just realized roght now that there are actually many of my songs that ended up being sung by people using bad Russian accents here. So yes, if you really like bad Russian accents, you will love this soundtrack."
"In terms of the Muppets continual appeal, I think Jim Henson and Frank Oz really created these great comic characters. Kermit, Miss Piggie, Fozzie, Gonzo…they're just been given these naturally funny personalities. I just did a Muppets sing-along in New York, and everybody had a great time; it was like The Rocky Horror Show, only with more kids and with way less transvestites. They haven't lost their appeal because they still make people laugh."
"Most of all, though, I think people still love the Muppets are way more human than most of the characters you see in kids' entertainment today as well. They're emotional, they're not perfect, they occasionally act petty and screw up. They haven't been cleaned up, and that makes them relatable. They aren't perfect — and that's why they've endured."