In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
This week, in anticipation of the Oscars, we’re going through some of our favorite Best Song winners.
Halfway through the opening musical number, my wife leaned over to ask a question. “Did Flight Of The Conchords have anything to do with this movie?” I opened my mouth to answer, but didn’t have to—Amy Adams sang, “It’s never me and him / It’s always me and him… and him,” and there was no longer any question that at least one Conchord had a hand in The Muppets’ production.
But it wasn’t that splashy opener that would net Bret McKenzie the Oscar for Best Original Song the following February. That would be the film’s emotional centerpiece, “Man Or Muppet,” a duet between the film’s male lead, Gary (Jason Segel), and his felt-and-foam counterpart, Walter (performed by puppeteer Peter Linz). Considering its importance to The Muppets and its impact on McKenzie’s trophy case, it’s odd how little time “Man Or Muppet” actually takes up: The soundtrack version of the song clocks in at 2 minutes and 59 seconds, covering just two verses, a pair of choruses, and one soaring bridge. Yet, as McKenzie and musical partner Jemaine Clement so frequently demonstrated on their late-2000s HBO series, the songwriter is a master of musical efficiency, using “Man Or Muppet” to push Gary and Walter toward crucial epiphanies that shape The Muppets’ final act. And there’s still room for jokes—mostly of the visual variety, another indication of how well the Muppet sensibility meshes with McKenzie’s goofball pop-encyclopedia vibe. (And that of Muppets director James Bobin, too, who—surprise, surprise—co-created Flight Of The Conchords with McKenzie and Clement.)
But “Man Or Muppet” is more than those jokes. It’s the ear-catching restatement of the film’s message about putting childish things aside—while still making time for the things that make us happy at any age. That must be a theme that resonated with McKenzie, who backed away from a third season of Flight Of The Conchords, temporarily eschewing what was his main creative outlet for 12 years to work on projects like The Muppets. It certainly resonated with me in that theater, being a twentysomething married man who’s made appreciating the Muppets on a much deeper level into a major part of his professional career. At some point, we all have to decide whether we’re adult humans or floppy puppet people—and though the responsibilities of growing up are a burden, it beats the constant threat of being eaten and/or exploding. Besides, if you play your cards right, you can make a living out of overthinking those floppy puppet people and/or putting words in their mouths.