Bret McKenzie, one half of the New Zealand comedy rock duo Flight of the Conchords, is the author of “Man or Muppet,” one of the two songs up for Best Original Song at the 84th Annual Academy Awards. McKenzie has previously been honored at both the Emmys and Grammys for his work on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, but this is his first major nomination for songwriting on his own. Rolling Stone caught up with McKenzie to chat about how he got involved with The Muppets reboot, his chances of eventually scoring an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony), and the possibility of adding a song-and-dance number to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which he’ll be starring in later this year.
This is your first Oscar nomination. Did you think this would be a possibility when you were working on this project?
Absolutely not. I definitely wasn’t sitting at the piano thinking I was writing an Oscar song.
How did you get involved with this Muppets movie?
Well, James Bobin, who directed the film, worked with me on Conchords, the TV show. He was the director and co-creator. And when he got the job with Disney, he asked me if I’d write an opening song for them. Gradually, I wrote that one, and then wrote a few more, and then became music supervisor.
Was it intimidating to write for The Muppets? There are some very famous and well-loved Muppets songs.
Yeah, absolutely. It was a very intimidating task, and some big shoes to fill. A friend of mine said to me, “You’re not going to write another ‘Rainbow Connection’,” and I said, “Yeah, you’re right.” But at some point you have to just put your head down and see what you come up with. I’m a huge fan of the Muppets, and I love Paul Williams’ music and his work in musical films like Bugsy Malone. So I listened to his stuff, you know, the early Muppets stuff, and really kind of immersed myself in that sound, and then just started writing with it around me.
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When you started work on the songs, was the concept for the lyrics already in place?
When I arrived, the script was done and there were song ideas. I was just given a title, and then I’d go and write a song for that moment in the film. There was a piece in there saying “song about man or Muppet.” There was always that thread in the story of Walter the Muppet questioning his identity. And so that song was that key moment in the film where both Gary and Walter are dealing with the identity crisis that we’ve all had at some point in our lives.
There are only two songs nominated for Original Song at the Oscars this year, and the other movie nominated is Rio, which featured your Conchords partner, Jemaine Clement. He actually wrote a song for that movie, but it wasn’t nominated. Are you disappointed at all that it didn’t end up being a contest of your song versus his song?
It would’ve made the Oscar ceremony very interesting. [Laughs]
It would have made for a very good headline. It would’ve been “Fight of the Conchords.”
Yeah, you’re right.
Do you get competitive with each other about this stuff?
Yeah. Jemaine’s a big fan of Sergio [Mendes], ’cause he worked with him. Yeah, but yeah, it’s very friendly.
The Academy decided to cut performances of the Original Song nominees for this year. Is that disappointing for you?
It is disappointing. It would’ve been great to get a man and a Muppet up there.
Do you think you could’ve been that man?
It probably would’ve been Jason [Segel], but I could’ve been an extra man up their somewhere, maybe playing piano.
Have you had a lot of offers to do more music for movies and plays since this Muppets thing took off?
Well, not really, because there aren’t many musicals being made. I’m sure there will be some more musical songwriting gigs. I’m thinking of moving to Broadway. I want to see if I can get a Tony nomination.
Oh, you can go for that EGOT thing.
That’s from the show 30 Rock. Tracy Morgan’s character is trying to get an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. You are a person who could conceivably do that.
Yeah, I’ve got a Grammy. I’ve had an Emmy nomination. And an Oscar nomination. So I need a Tony nomination.
Yeah. I think to get an EGOT, you actually need to win all of them.
That’s more of a long-term plan. [Laughs]
Do you have any plans to return to Flight of the Conchords?
Jemaine and I are going to go on tour this year in the Antipodes. And we’re developing a few scripts. I’m also in a film that’s coming out this year. It’s called Austenland, which I acted in, which is a period rom-com.
What is the period?
Uh, Jane Austen period, with Keri Russell. I’m a stable hand. I look a bit like a pirate. But there’s no singing. I play a little bit of saxophone, but that’s all.
Do you want to do more roles that don’t involve music at all?
Yeah, I’ve done a couple this year. It was a fun change, but I have got to admit, I can’t wait to do another big musical, after having done The Muppets. I’m really excited to do another big musical film. It’s a blast when you get to do these giant musical numbers. And I’d love to do some more Busby Berkeley-inspired material.
You’re also going to be in the new Hobbit movies, right?
I’m in The Hobbit, but again, very little musical numbers in that.
Do you think you can just, like, talk them into it, now that you have this Oscar clout?
I’m going to have to call Peter Jackson when I get home. I’m thinking just a fun musical number at the end of the movie, you know, after the credits. Give the cast a song and dance number. What I want to do is try to convince Hollywood that the musical is the new genre so everyone will want to be doing it.