Jason Segel: Creating Comedy With The Tone Of Life

Apr 22, 2012
Originally published on April 22, 2012 10:25 am

More and more, audiences are getting to know Jason Segel. After featured roles in Judd Apatow projects like Freaks and Geeks and Knocked Up, Segel has gone on to star in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets -- both of which he wrote — and he also plays a lead on the hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

But even as Segel is an increasingly leading man, his characters don't exactly fit the leading-man mold. They're more beta than alpha males — tall but unassuming, likeable and understanding.

It's not a stretch then that in the new comedy The Five-Year Engagement, which he co-wrote with Sarah Marshall director Nicholas Stoller, Segel plays the kind of guy who would postpone, postpone, and then keep postponing his wedding to accommodate his fiancee's career changes. Opening with a proposal, it's a premise for a romantic comedy that begins where others might end. But then since going nude in the opening break-up scene of Sarah Marshall, Segel has been known to experiment with the rom-com formula.

"I find romantic comedies very predictable," Segel tells Weekend Edition's Rachel Martin, "and that's what most people don't like.

"The movies that I love and model after — like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, and, in particular for me, Broadcast News -- [have] the tone of life, which isn't a set-up/punch line every two minutes. I think you get bored of that movie."

Segel highlights Broadcast News as a movie where there wasn't a villain, yet it worked.

"You didn't know if you wanted [Holly Hunter] to end up with Albert Brooks or with William Hurt or either," Segel says, "whereas romantic comedies today have been overly simplified — 'She's a scientist! He hates science! What will happen?'"

With Five-Year Engagement, Segel says he and Stoller aimed to make a movie about what life is like for a couple earnestly trying to figure out how to make it work while managing the logistics of jobs, moving and (eventually) wedding plans. In striking a semi-realistic tone, Segel says, they found ways to balance heaviness and sentimentality with humor.

"Just by nature of us being funny and the movie being largely improv, whenever we felt it going too far in that direction we would do something outlandish," Segel says. "There's a scene that is my favorite in the movie that we call the 'all-night fight' that is painfully real in terms of the way people fight — it's not perfectly worded. It's sloppy. It's the fight where [Emily Blunt] tells me we're going to be staying in Michigan."

"We could feel that it was getting heavy, and so I told her I needed some time alone, and then so she goes to leave, and I say 'No, I want to be alone with you here. Can you just lay here and be quiet like a normal person?'"


Interview Highlights

On the inspiration for that 'Sarah Marshall' breakup scene

"I was dating this woman for a few years, and she went away to go work, and she was gone for about six months, and when she came back she called me from the airport and said, 'Hey, I've just landed, I need to come see you.' So she drives over, and I'm like, 'This will be cute': I'm waiting on the couch completely naked in, like, a sexy pose, like the Burt Reynolds pose on the carpet, and she walks in because she has a key to my house, and I say, 'Hey, I've got a surprise for you.' And then she said, 'We need to talk.'"

"It's never, 'We need to talk: I love you so much' – I knew what was happening. And then this breakup commences while I'm completely nude."

"Picking out an outfit for the second half of a breakup is the hardest outfit you'll ever pick out in your life. And I came out in khaki pants and a blue button-up shirt like a schoolboy on fancy dress day, and I said, 'I'm wearing your favorite outfit.' And then she looked at me, she's like, 'You've never worn that outfit before.'"

On his life with puppets

"[The Muppets] were my first comic influences as a child and to a kid, they're Monty Python or Saturday Night Live. Pardon the expression, they're the gateway drug to comedy for a child.

"More than funny, I think there's a sense of magic to it. At some point, you lose the sense of magic you're born with when you realize the world is a tough place. But puppets, you forget it's puppetry in Tim Burton movies — Nightmare Before Christmas and even Beetlejuice and things like that. It just reminded me of believing that anything could happen.

"I have a room full of puppets, but recently the puppets have been finally put in cupboards, because I realized it was off-putting to women. I think there was an intentional but subconscious signal I was sending out like, 'Hey, I'm still a kid! Don't expect me to be a full adult!' So now I decided to keep that for my private time."

On the lack of puppets in Five-Year Engagement

"There was a puppet in this, but we ended up cutting out the puppetry. Someone else made the decision because I would have fought for it, I would have fought so hard. I don't want to give too much away, but at one point I'm dating a woman who's too young for me, and she convinces me to take hallucinogenic mushrooms on Thanksgiving, and all of the food came to life, but it was too broad — it was a different movie."

On his lovable and quirky characters

"I would love to play a villain someday, in that I think that what I've done with my whole career is walk this tightrope between charming and creepy, and I always fall on the charming side — I'd like to fall on the creepy side and be like one of those very charming Gary Oldman villains."

"But I think the common denominator of all the characters is that I think it's very important to be nice in life. When I left the house, my mom said to me, 'Please don't ever forget the person you are out there is a reflection of the job I did as a mother.' So I always think the thing of paramount importance is to be kind to people."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been a good couple of years for Jason Segel. His revamp of the Muppet franchise last year was a box office hit. His sit-com, "How I Met Your Mother," is going into its eighth season. And he's got a new romantic comedy, "The Five-Year Engagement." Segel made it to big screen prominence with the help of comedy baron Judd Apatow in 2008 with the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." The very first scene of that movie, which Segel wrote, came right out of his own life.

JASON SEGEL: I was dating this woman for a few years and she went away to go work. And she was gone for about six months. And when she came back, she called me from the airport and said, hey, I've just landed. I need to come see you. So, she drives over and I'm like this'll be cute. I'm waiting on the couch completely naked in like a sexy pose, like the Burt Reynolds pose on the carpet. And she walks in, 'cause she has a key to my house, and I say, hey, I got a surprise for you, and then she said we need to talk. And it's never we need to talk, I love you so much. You know, I knew it was happening. And so then this breakup commences while I'm completely nude.

MARTIN: Didn't you take a minute to say, you know what, sweetie, let me just go grab some shorts.

SEGEL: OK. I did. And I walked back. And let me just tell you this - picking out an outfit for the second half of a breakup is the hardest outfit you'll ever pick out in your life. And I came out in khaki pants and a blue button-up shirt like a schoolboy on fancy dress day. And I said I'm wearing your favorite outfit. And then she looked at me, she's like, you've never worn that outfit before.

MARTIN: Despite the romantic travails in his own life, or maybe because of them, Segel knows what people want in a romantic comedy. And his latest film, "The Five-Year Engagement," delivers. It goes like this: boy meets girl and they fall in love.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT")

MARTIN: Then conflict ensues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT")

MARTIN: Sprinkle in some hijinks and shenanigans, and just when you thought things were working out and the couple would live happily ever after...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT")

MARTIN: The thing about the film, and a lot of Segel's work, is that while it looks and sounds like a traditional romantic comedy on its face, Segel is feverishly trying to subvert the romantic comedy structure. That's something he's learned from studying and loving comedies with a slightly darker edge.

SEGEL: The movies that I love and model after, like "Annie Hall," "When Harry Met Sally," and in particular for me, "Broadcast News," are the tone of life, which isn't a setup punch-line every two minutes. You know, I think you get bored of that movie. Like, if you think about "Broadcast News," there was no villain. You didn't know if you wanted her to end up with Albert Brooks or with William Hurt or either. You know, whereas romantic comedies today have been overly simplified. You know, he's a scientist; she hates science, what will happen? You know, we tried to do a movie about what life is like, a couple just earnestly trying to figure out how to do it.

MARTIN: What's the joke, what's the thing in the Jason Segel canon of comedy that is always funny, that you go to?

SEGEL: You know, funny enough, there have been puppets in everything I've written, because I have a huge love of puppets. There's a big puppet musical at the end of "Sarah Marshall." I wrote "The Muppets." And there was a puppet in this. I don't want to give too much away, but at one point I'm dating a woman who's too young for me and she convinces me to take hallucinogenic mushrooms on Thanksgiving and all of the food came to life. But we ended up cutting out the puppetry.

MARTIN: So, I do want to plum that a little bit, the puppet thing It's serious for you. You pushed to do the Muppet movie that was a big hit last year, and I read that you had to reassure people that you didn't want to approach that film in an ironic way; you were just serious about puppets.

SEGEL: Yeah. Well, I was certainly dead serious about the Muppets. They were my first comic influences to a child. And, you know, to a kid they're Monty Python or a "Saturday Night Life." Pardon the expression - but they're the gateway drug to comedy for a child.

MARTIN: What's funny about puppets?

SEGEL: More than funny, I just think there's a sense of magic to it. You know, at some point, you lose the sense of magic that you're born with when you, like, realize that the world is just kind of a tough place, you know?

MARTIN: Do you have puppets?

SEGEL: I have a room full of puppets. But recently the puppets have been finally put in cupboards. Because I realized that it was off-putting to women.

MARTIN: Really?

SEGEL: Yeah. I think...

MARTIN: How so?

SEGEL: ...I think there was an intentional but subconscious signal I was sending out, like, hey, I'm still a kid. Don't, you know, don't you expect me to be a full adult.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MUPPETS")

MARTIN: I read that "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was drawn on a lot, obviously, that first scene and others from your real life. But can you take us back a little bit? What was that time in your life like?

SEGEL: Oh, that was the worst, but it really made me who I am today. I did a show called "Freaks and Geeks" when I was very young. And I had the naivete and arrogance of youth. You know, I really assumed that when the show got cancelled, like, oh, it doesn't matter, you just keep rolling, you know. I'm about to be the biggest star of the world. And then I was met with five years of unemployment. It just - with nothing. And I hadn't gone to college, so I had no fallback plan. And I literally thought, oh my God, I've blown it. I am going to have to, like, move back in with my parents and go back to college and figure out some new plan. And then Judd Apatow said to me, listen, you're kind of a weird guy.

MARTIN: What did he mean he said you were weird? Weird in a good way, or weird like you're not going to make it, kid?

SEGEL: Oh, I don't know that those two are mutually exclusive. You know what I mean? Probably a little bit of both. I was, you know, I've been 6'4" since I was 12. So...

MARTIN: That's tall.

SEGEL: Yeah, it's tall. So, at 21, I was too tall to play a kid anymore, and I was still too young to play an adult. And so I was caught in this sort of purgatory. And he said, look, the only way you're going to make it is if you start writing your own material.

MARTIN: The characters that you play, they're not the same person but there is this kind of loveable, quirky, kind of have your stuff together but you kind of don't.

SEGEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: But in the end very endearing guys, all of these people.

SEGEL: Well, thanks. I would love to play a villain someday in that I think that what I've done with my whole career is walk this tightrope between charming and creepy, and I always fall on the charming side. I'd like to fall on the creepy side and be like one of those scary old men, like really charming villains. But I think the common denominator of all the characters is that I think it's very important to be nice in life. When I left the house, my mom said to me please don't ever forget the person you are out there is a reflection of the job I did as a mother.

MARTIN: Whoa.

SEGEL: Yeah. Take that. And so I have always felt like the thing of paramount importance is to be kind to people.

MARTIN: Jason Segel. He stars in and co-wrote the new film "The Five-Year Engagement," which opens Friday, April 27. Jason joined us from our New York bureau. Hey, Jason, thanks so much.

SEGEL: Thanks. That was a blast. I had a really good time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.