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Jason Segel tells us the Edward Norton performance that inspired his career

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images, Graphic: Natalie Peeples
Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images, Graphic: Natalie Peeples
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 20 years since Jason Segel first enraptured audiences on the cult TV show Freaks And Geeks, followed by nine seasons on the rom-com series How I Met Your Mother. But Segel is not just a creative force in front of the camera, writing as well as starring in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Muppets, The Five-Year Engagement, and Sex Tape. Over the past few years, he’s continued to expand his writing career as a co-author with Kirsten Miller, first with the Nightmares! middle-school series, and then the virtual reality-themed YA novel Otherworld. Now on tour for the sequel, OtherEarth, Segel took a break to run through a round of 11 Questions with us. He’s expected to be back on the small screen again soon, with his anthology series Dispatches From Elsewhere set to premiere on AMC next year.

1. What makes you optimistic about the future?

Jason Segel: I guess my hope is that the next generation will look back on ours and think that we were so stupid for Instagramming pictures of our lunches.

The A.V. Club: We have all these technological capabilities, and what are we actually spending them on?

JS: I’m hoping that we swing back on the pendulum and spend more time paying attention to what’s actually around us than concerning ourselves with essentially just avatars, y’know?

AVC: Which is an interesting theme in your Otherworld and OtherEarth books about virtual reality versus reality.

JS: When I shut it all off and focus on everything locally, in every sense of the word—like who’s at my table with me and what’s going on in my community—instantly things feel better and more manageable. I feel a lot more hope than I do when I’m trying to please a million faces that I can’t even see.

2. Which single work of yours do you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved?

JS: I don’t know what I deserve, or what a movie deserves. But I do wish more people had seen a movie called The End Of The Tour, directed by my friend James Ponsoldt, which is about a period in the life of David Foster Wallace, who I think is just one of the great literary geniuses. So if you feel like streaming something, that’s a good one to watch.

AVC: You really seem to embody David Foster Wallace in that movie.

JS: I was really honored and terrified to be given that opportunity, so I really gave it everything I’ve got.

3. What was the first album you bought with your own money?

JS: I’m not 100 percent sure, but up there has got to be Astral Weeks by Van Morrison.

AVC: How old were you?

JS: I would say 14 or something like that?

AVC: That’s a pretty cool choice.

JS: Well, I’m pretty cool. [Laughs.]

AVC: Are you still a Van Morrison fan?

JS: Huge. Huge. As a matter of fact, Astral Weeks has remained my favorite album of all time. All of these things are imprinted based on what you’re going through at the time. So when I heard that album, I was like, “Oh, this is me,” and I’ve identified with it on that level ever since. Whenever I feel like I’ve lost my true north, I put on Astral Weeks. I feel like, “Oh right, that’s who I am.”

AVC: You’re such an accomplished musician yourself.

JS: I’m all right. Those early albums really inspired me. Van Morrison, all those singer-songwriters.

4. Do you believe in ghosts?

JS: Yes, I do. What I believe in, though, is that our brain is doing its very best to try to make sense of energy it’s encountering.

AVC: Do you have a personal experience that makes you think this?

JS: No, I just recognize that most of the time our brain is trying to make something make sense.

AVC: So if I saw something and I thought it was a spirit, and the rational part of my brain is like, “No, you’re just seeing things”?

JS: No, I think it’s our brain that makes it seem like a human in old-timey clothes. You know how you see faces all throughout nature? Our brain is trying to make energy into something we recognize. That would be my best guess.

5. If you were only allowed one condiment the rest of your life, which condiment would you choose?

JS: Hot sauce.

AVC: What do you put it on?

JS: Everything.

AVC: Scrambled eggs, french fries…

JS: All of it. You name it, I put it on it.

AVC: Do you have a specific brand that you like?

JS: I’m a member of a hot-sauce-of-the-month club called Fuego Box, so I get a different hot sauce every month.

AVC: Was there ever one you received that you just couldn’t handle because it was too hot?

JS: Yeah, some hot sauces steer into the area of novelty, where they’re not pleasurable to eat. But Fuego Box does a good job of keeping them all where the focus is on flavor, not heat.

AVC: You’re not going to get the ghost-pepper sauce and have to go to the ER or something.

JS: Yeah, that’s just not enjoyable at my age. [Laughs.]

6. In what type of social situation are you most uncomfortable?

JS: Does a talk show count as a social situation?

AVC: I think so, though a really high bar, trying to be chatty and charming in front of millions of people. 

JS: Yeah, I would say a talk show. It’s all about your own personal attitude. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that it’s not my job to make sure that everybody is in love with me, and that took a lot of pressure off of talk shows. It’s the same lesson for everything—you’ve just got to be yourself and be cool with it.

7. What was your dream job when you were a kid?

JS: I think I’m doing it, my dream job. I think, when I saw Edward Norton in Primal Fear, I thought, “That’s what I wanna do.” I think I was probably 15 or 16 years old. I was also raised on the Muppets and Peter Sellers, Harold And Maude, Hal Ashby movies. And I had all that in me, and was pretty inspired by those things. And then when I saw Edward Norton, who was just a few years older than I was at the time, give a performance like that. I thought it would be an amazing thing to aspire to.

AVC: I loved all those stories about how moved you were when you finally got to work with The Muppets.

JS: I would say that one of the things that really changed my life was watching children interact with Kermit. Even though there’s a puppeteer standing right next to Kermit, the child makes eye contact with the puppet and interacts with the puppet, and the puppeteer disappears. And it really reminded me of a part of myself that I never want to lose, and I always want to reclaim, and it’s that I get to decide what the world is like for me. And if I want to believe in magic, I’m allowed to, and it was a great reminder to be around kids.

8. What do you watch when you’re in a hotel?

JS: I basically watch Law & Order: SVU to go to sleep every night.

AVC: That could be kind of disturbing.

JS: It depends how much attention you’re paying. But I really like all of the actors on it, and the story—it’s kind of by design—it’s sort of a repeating model. So you kind of know what’s going to happen, so you can fall asleep at leisure. I really like it.

AVC: It’s one of those things you can always find, too.

JS: Totally.

AVC: At any point in time, someone is probably watching SVU.

JS: There is always murder on television.

9. Do you think art should be separated from the artist?

JS: Yes. I don’t if this is in the way that you mean. But I do think that one of the things that social media has done is that it’s created an ongoing conversation with the artist about a piece of art. And I think there is something valuable that that’s lost, of the artists just presenting their art and then not doing further explanation about it, and leaving that to the viewer of the art to interpret. I think that is an important part of art, is that art by definition, you’re working in metaphor, and the more you explain it, the more you sort of lose some of the magic.

10. What is the most difficult professional decision you’ve ever had to make?

JS: I guess this counts as a professional decision, because of how things ended up. But at 17 years old I was seen in a high school play and I was offered the opportunity to start acting professionally. But it meant that I wouldn’t immediately go to college and follow a conventional life plan. So I’d say that was probably the most difficult decision that I’ve made. I did a couple of movies my senior year of high school, like Dead Man On Campus and another one called Can’t Hardly Wait, and Freaks And Geeks came right when I graduated.

11. If you had to stay one age forever, what age would it be and why?

JS: I don’t want to stay one age forever! I feel like the natural order of eventually expiring is probably merciful. [Laughs.]

Bonus 12th question from Nathan Fillion: What modern convenience could you absolutely not live without? 

JS: You know what, honestly? I get really, really frustrated when my air conditioner is broken. I would have to say my air conditioner. I live in a town that gets to be about 105 degrees for about three months in the summer, and the air conditioner is what keeps everyone in a fairly decent mood.

AVC: What would you want to ask the next person we interview?

JS: “What is more diverse, or what offers more options: sandwiches or burritos?”