While The Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart has made a running joke of his flailing acting career, his erstwhile comic foil/ace correspondent Steve Carell has quietly built an impressive résumé in television and film. Along with Stephen Colbert, Carell graduated from Chicago's Second City troupe, then became a cast member and writer on the short-lived sketch-comedy series The Dana Carvey Show. After it was cancelled, Carell joined Colbert on The Daily Show, becoming a standout among the show's faux-newsmen.
As The Daily Show was becoming a revered comic institution, Carell was moonlighting in commercials, other TV shows, and movies, such as the mega-blockbuster Bruce Almighty, which gave him a tiny but attention-grabbing role. He followed it with an even more memorable turn as a mildly retarded newsman in Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, and with the lead role in the American adaptation of the revered British sitcom The Office. Most recently, Carell co-wrote and stars in the new film The 40-Year-Old Virgin, a surprisingly sensitive comedy about a middle-aged misfit stumbling toward maturity. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Carell about The Daily Show, making more movies than he has time to see, and channeling Paul Lynde.
The A.V. Club: So, you're a big movie star now.
Steve Carell: Oh, yeah, right. I don't know about that, but man, this is all very surreal. Seriously, it's all very strange and surreal.
AVC: A good place to start would be at the beginning: Were you a funny guy growing up?
SC: No. Not at all. I tend not to be someone who's on all the time, or is always trying to make other people laugh. Because my wife [Nancy Walls] was on Saturday Night Live, and she's very smart and funny, people sometimes ask whether our home life is a continuous laugh riot, and it couldn't be further from that. We enjoy each other, we make each other laugh, but it's not George Burns and Gracie Allen banter constantly. It's changing diapers and chasing kids and… you know. We're very normal.
AVC: You're just an average everyday Joe?
SC: Just an average, everyday person with servants.
AVC: They take care of your children so you can feel free to—
SC: I have all the photo ops with my children so people perceive us to be very hands-on. You have to pick your moments.
AVC: A lot of comedians have a compulsive need to be funny. It's almost like a form of mental illness.
SC: I suppose. I think the other side of that is that some people just derive great joy from making other people laugh. And I do, but I don't feel like I need to do it 24 hours a day. And I just don't think I'm that funny a person to talk to. And as you can well tell with this interview, I'm just not. I don't think I'm necessarily that glib or hysterical in person.
AVC: And yet you've managed to have this successful career in comedy.
SC: It's all a clever ruse.
AVC: What's it like doing a field piece for The Daily Show?
SC: [In the beginning,] the producer just called me and said, "Stephen Colbert highly recommends you, would you be interested in doing a field piece sometime?" So I went out and I did a piece about an Elvis impersonator who also ran a venom research facility. In other words, it was a guy who dressed up like Elvis and had snakes in his trailer, and that was the story. In the middle of Nebraska. So that was kind of my introduction to the world of The Daily Show.
AVC: Sounds like a pretty surreal way to make a living.
SC: It is. There's very little you could do to prepare to be a correspondent on The Daily Show, because it's not being a journalist, it's not being an actor. It involves elements of both of those things, but they're not required necessarily as job experience. It's helpful if you know how to improvise, but again, not a requirement. So there are all these different facets of the job that you can't… There is no basis for having experience to be a mock news correspondent. I guess what they were looking for is people who understood the tone of the show and who could sort of stay in character and look the part.
AVC: You're on The Daily Show as Steve Carell, but aren't you sort of playing a character?
SC: In a sense, yeah. I think it was—you were sort of assuming a role and a posture of somebody other than yourself. And that was also a way to protect yourself, because it was very scary to be in front of these people, essentially improvising with someone who doesn't know they're doing a scene with you. It's always better in my mind to assume a character in that regard.
AVC: To sort of separate yourself emotionally.
SC: In a way.
AVC: It could be perceived as making fun of people who aren't in on the joke.
SC: I almost didn't take the job because of that. Because I didn't feel like it was… It was neither kind nor funny to me to go after people who just didn't deserve it. It was sort of shooting fish in a barrel. I think it bordered on mean sometimes, and I… Once Jon took the reins, that changed. That eased up. And they weren't mean for the sake of being mean, they were more self-mocking, and when we did go after someone, it was generally someone who deserved it. A white supremacist, or a Nazi, or someone who was, you know, good fodder. Not just some quirky person who we wanted to make fun of. I never enjoyed that aspect of it, and I think that aspect of the show changed over time.
AVC: Why do you think people agreed to be on The Daily Show when they weren't going to be presented in a terribly positive or flattering light?
SC: I think either they were unaware of what The Daily Show was at the time, or they… People just like to be on camera. There's a huge desire to be in front of the camera, and once there, people will say and do almost anything. It's sort of a drug, and I think people get addicted to it.
AVC: As The Daily Show got bigger and became more of a national phenomenon, did it become harder to do field pieces with people who hadn't heard of the show?
SC: Certainly. To take people off guard and to keep up that appearance of a legitimate news program became more and more difficult. I was doing a Howard Dean rally this last election, and the crowd was chanting "Dean! Dean! Dean!" But when they saw our camera crew, they started chanting "Daily Show!" And I mean, this was 500 people. It was sort of hard to get in under the radar, whereas before, no one knew who we were, and we could ask anything of anyone and get a straight answer to very ridiculous questions. It's harder when people are playing along, because it's just not as funny. They're trying to be funny, and it sort of cancels out the whole joke.
AVC: What were your favorite and least favorite field pieces on the show?
SC: Least favorite was a guy who was a conspiracy theorist who believed that Walt Disney had built a subterranean city under Disneyland in which he programmed children who he had kidnapped from Disneyland into being his personal drones and to do his bidding. And the man sincerely believed this. He also thought that Donny Osmond and the Mandrell Sisters were alien robots. But he had a wife and kids, and he ran a business, he was a mechanic, a mobile auto mechanic. Couldn't have been a nicer guy, but truly, truly believed in all these alien conspiracy theories. And I felt really dirty, because I knew just letting him talk was going to make people laugh, but ultimately it was pretty sad. And of course, once the piece aired, he was extremely offended, and thought he'd been duped—and he had. So that was my least favorite. My favorite might have been an interview I did with John McCain in his campaign bus. He was extremely playful and fun, and just a very charming man. To gain access to him was an interesting experience.
AVC: Plus he's a friend of the show.
SC: I think he became a friend of the show after that piece. He liked it so much, he played it on a loop in his campaign bus.
AVC: That's interesting, because with some politicians, you feel it's kind of a way to court the younger audience. "Look how hip I am!"
SC: I think so. I think it's a way to seem palatable to a younger demographic. But that's also very manipulative. I think in a lot of ways, they just kind of see where their potential voting bloc is skewing, and look at it that way, as opposed to truly being fans of what the show is saying and representing. So I think there's a very cagey aspect to that as well, in terms of public figures jumping on the show's bandwagon and endearing themselves. I guess better to endear themselves and potentially be looking like a cool sort of self-deprecating politician as opposed to someone who's bearing the brunt of the joke.
AVC: Have there been times when you went out to do a field piece and just weren't able to get anything out of it?
SC: We were always able to get something. I don't ever remember going out in the field and coming back with nothing. We always managed to find a three-minute piece out of whatever we did. So no, there was never an abject failure.
AVC: How did the idea for The 40-Year-Old Virgin come about?
SC: I thought the notion was pretty funny, that a guy would be harboring this enormous secret, and once it's revealed, he sort of has to deal with more than just having sex, but also growing up and having a relationship and potentially falling in love. I thought there were comedic opportunities and the opportunity to have a heart with it and tell a story, as opposed to just having a series of setpieces and wacky characters.
AVC: Your character is surprisingly three-dimensional. He's sort of the butt of the joke, but you end up being sympathetic.
SC: We didn't want to make the guy a creep, or someone who's emotionally damaged, or some crazy über-nerd. He's just a normal guy who missed out on some opportunities, and we didn't want to retread the cliché of who a virgin might be. We actually did a lot of reading about case studies of middle-aged virginity, and the people we read about were not unlike the character. They were just normal people functioning in our society who for one reason or another gave up. And it's not because they didn't want to, or weren't capable of it, they had just given up on the whole notion.
AVC: In a weird way, it's a coming-of-age movie.
SC: I pitched it to [co-writer/director/producer] Judd [Apatow] as a coming-of-middle-age movie.
AVC: You stepped into an iconic character when you took the lead in the American version of The Office. Were you a big fan of the show?
SC: I'd only seen part of the pilot, and the reason I watched that much is because Ricky Gervais is so good and so definitive that to watch more would've made me want to do an impression of him. I thought that was not the best way to go about it.
AVC: The Office was quite the water-cooler favorite. Did you realize you would have an opportunity to take over that role?
SC: I had heard about it, but I'd just never gotten around to watching it. A lot of my friends had recommended it, but I had never done it. It was like the first three years of Seinfeld; people kept telling me, "This is a good show! You should see it!" and I didn't catch it 'til much later in its run. I guess I'm a bit behind the curve in terms of… Well, same with Ali G. I'd heard about it, but it took a long time for me to actually see it.
AVC: How involved is Gervais as the show's executive producer?
SC: Not so much. Last year, he would watch our dailies from shooting and he would e-mail notes, but I see he's involved with his other show [Extras] this year, so I don't think we're even getting notes from him this year. He's just been supportive, honestly, he's just tickled about how it turned out over here, and had nothing but good things to say about it.
AVC: You have a very strange role in Bewitched.
SC: I haven't even seen Bewitched yet.
AVC: How did that role come about?
SC: Nora Ephron asked if I wanted to play Uncle Arthur, and I thought, "Wow, Nora Ephron, she has quite a track record as a writer, a director." And I loved working with Will [Ferrell], so I thought, "That might be kind of silly and fun to do." And I'd never tried to do an impression of anybody, so I thought I'd give that a shot.
AVC: Did you spend a lot of time studying Paul Lynde to prepare for playing the role he'd played in the original TV series?
SC: I didn't, because it wasn't so much an impression. As she put it, she wanted me to channel the essence of the guy, as opposed to doing a full-blown impression of the guy.
AVC: So do you feel like you channeled the essence of Paul Lynde?
SC: I think I did, and I doubt I will ever have to channel his essence again, but I was glad I was able to do it for that brief period.
AVC: When Anchorman came out, the Dreamworks publicity department sent critics a set of four anchorman bobblehead dolls.
SC: I have a set on my shelf.
AVC: It's gotta be strange, owning a bobblehead incarnation of yourself.
SC: That was really funny. That was… um… yeah. It doesn't get much better than that, to have a bobblehead in your likeness.
AVC: Is it true you wanted to be a lawyer growing up?
SC: I can't say that I wanted to be. I thought I would become a lawyer, but my career path changed after college, and I just… I couldn't honestly answer why that would be a good profession for me, other than that it sounded good. It sounded respectable, it sounded like a real job you get. It sounded like something tangible, whereas acting sounded like something akin to "I want to be an astronaut." "I wanna be a cowboy, an actor, or an astronaut." It doesn't live in the real world. It's not something that you walk around with pride telling people you're going to do. It's a very smirk-inducing thing to say. So I thought to be a real person, I needed to have a real job. But ultimately, my parents asked me what I'd always enjoyed doing along the way, and it'd always kind of come back to acting and doing plays. It had never been something I'd considered a career, but it had always been fun, it had always been something I did as a hobby.
AVC: Musicals in high school, things like that?
SC: Yeah, I did all of that stuff, I did musicals. My high school was very small, it was a prep school in Massachusetts, so everyone sort of did everything, and there was a lot of crossover between people in the band and people in sports and people in plays. There weren't lines drawn, so it was very accepted… You could be a varsity athlete in three sports and also play Judd in Oklahoma!, and nobody raised an eyebrow. So it was a very nice, nurturing environment for that sort of thing.
AVC: What made you start looking at comedy as a career?
SC: Comedy just sort of was a byproduct of what I was hired to do. Once I moved to Chicago and started trying to get acting jobs, I just tended to book more things that were comedically based than anything else. I never had the preconceived notion, "I will be a comedic actor." I just thought, "I'll go into acting and see what kind of work I can get."
AVC: It sounds like Second City was kind of what you were going for.
SC: That was the first big paying job that I got as an actor, and it was very consistent, and it was a really plum job in Chicago to have. I could actually earn a living doing it, so that was a big, big step. In the back of my mind, I'd always thought, "Boy, Second City would be such fun to be a part of," because I'd seen the touring company come through when I was in college, and the people in it seemed to be having the best time. So I thought, if nothing else, that would almost be an extension of college, where you go back to tour colleges and party with the students.
AVC: Was it like that?
SC: It was exactly like that. Once I got into the touring company, it was just touring around the country and doing these sketches that had been passed down through the generations of Second City, so we just picked the best of the catalog and went out and toured them around to colleges. It couldn't have been more fun.
AVC: So you could do skits that Alan Arkin wrote in 1964?
SC: Yes. I mean, a lot of them were more updated than that, because there were some that just didn't quite translate to a modern audience.
AVC: All the Barry Goldwater-based skits.
SC: Yeah. A University of Chicago reference–bringing football to the University of Chicago–was a very topical thing circa 1967. In the mid-'90s, not so much.
AVC: Was Second City very competitive?
SC: I didn't find it very competitive once we were working there. But it was hard to get in. A lot of people wanted to be a part of it and wanted to get into the company. I auditioned once, but I had taken classes there, and I was able to get in on my first audition. But I think I also caught it at a good time. There seemed to be a lot of turnover, so they needed to hire a lot of people when I auditioned, so I think I sort of timed it right.
AVC: A lot of people seem to see Second City as a stepping-stone to bigger things for comedians.
SC: It was interesting, because my attitude about moving to Chicago was sort of the opposite, in that I felt New York was too big and too intimidating, and I felt the same thing about Los Angeles. And I thought Chicago would just be a good place to work and get my feet wet and not have that idea of ultimate success. So I personally never really thought about who was in the audience, or who might be scoping for new talent. Chicago was sort of insulated that way. I never felt people were showcasing themselves. I felt like it was about just doing the work, just doing what we were doing, as opposed to, "Boy, I'd better shine tonight, because this will be my big chance." I already felt like I'd made it, just being at Second City. There didn't seem to be much more beyond that that I'd dreamt about achieving. When I was there, I thought, "If I could just do Second City and do a couple of television commercials…" Man, I was set. There was nothing in my mind that was better than that. I would've had it good.
AVC: How did you become involved with The Dana Carvey Show?
SC: I auditioned for it in Chicago, and then again in Los Angeles, and it kind of coincided… My wife got on SNL during the '96 season, so we had moved to New York from Chicago, and then I just auditioned and I started on The Dana Carvey Show around the time she was on Saturday Night Live.
AVC: What was it like, being involved with The Dana Carvey Show? There was some amazing talent involved there.
SC: I don't think they realized what they had when they had it. People like Charlie Kaufman and Robert Smigel and Louis C.K. and Stephen Colbert. There were some very, very strong comedy talents involved with that show. And that was just fun every day. We could not believe we were so lucky. You laughed very hard every day you were in there, because something was so ridiculous and we couldn't believe that ABC was gonna put it on the air. It seemed implausible. Ultimately, it was implausible.
AVC: It seemed like it was too out-there for its time.
SC: I suppose. Well, we polled the audience after the first sketch, which was Dana playing President Clinton and talking about himself as the nurturing president while he breastfed a group of golden retriever puppies. And people were so outraged. That was pre-Monica Lewinsky, that was before his public fall from grace, so people were so offended that we would be poking fun at the President that way. A year or two later, it would've been no problem, but at the time, it was perceived to be in extremely bad taste.
AVC: Well, wasn't that show the lead-in to Home Improvement?
SC: [Laughs.] It was. It was not a family-friendly half-hour. Well, they were expecting Dana Carvey to do something sort of light and frothy, and he wanted to do something much harder and more biting.
AVC: They wanted him to do Church Lady for half an hour.
SC: Exactly. I think they were expecting the Church Lady and Hans and Franz. And that's not what he wanted to do. He wanted to do, you know, he has–I don't even want to use the word edge–he wanted it to be a bit more raucous than those things.
AVC: And then what happened between the cancellation of The Dana Carvey Show and when you started at The Daily Show?
SC: I moved back to Los Angeles for three years and just auditioned and did a couple of failed TV shows.
AVC: Any that stand out in your mind?
SC: No. That's all kind of a blur. I was just trying to keep my head above water and get what I could get. And my wife and I had moved to the West Coast, and that was our first experience there, so there was some acclimating we needed to do, and just sort of understanding how Los Angeles works and how to go about getting an agent. It was a very different world. And along the way, Stephen Colbert got a job on The Daily Show, and when they started looking for new correspondents, he threw my name in, and that's how that came about.
AVC: Jon Stewart had already taken over as the host?
SC: Yes. He started about six months before I started, before I did my first piece there.
AVC: So you didn't have to deal with the shift from Craig Kilborn to Stewart?
SC: I never met Craig Kilborn.
AVC: Before Jon Stewart, I enjoyed watching The Daily Show, but I always felt a little guilty, you know?
SC: There's an element of… You know, you're doing a field piece, and you're clearly mocking someone who's just going about their life and not hurting anyone, they're just a little off-center. And there's a certain self-satisfied quality to it that's not right. It's as if we're the smart ones, and we're so much smarter and better than the people we're interviewing, and I didn't like that. I didn't think that was true. It was too easy. I saw a better way to go about having fun in the field pieces. The ones that I always enjoyed the most were the ones that made fun of the news magazines and newspeople, like making fun of the whole idea of a field piece as opposed to the subject. They were just sort of innocent bystanders instead of victims.
AVC: Kind of a goof on the medium itself.
SC: That to me was more interesting and intelligent, and certainly less offensive.
AVC: Did you get that response a lot, where you'd do a field piece and then the subject would be angry about how they were perceived?
SC: That would happen from time to time, and I think as the show grew and as Jon kind of asserted himself more, that changed. Because our idea wasn't so much to go out and find kooky people to make fun of. He wanted the field pieces to have more meaning, to have more of an arc as opposed to, "Well, we're just going to find an odd person who believes in aliens and make fun of them."
AVC: So more of a satirical angle.
SC: That's what he was hoping to do. Plus, the way I sort of protected myself from the pieces getting too hostile was, I assumed the character of a complete idiot. And I would try and ask the most idiotic questions with a straight face and elicit a response from the people I was interviewing. To me, that was how I kind of guarded against mocking them. It became more of a self-mocking thing, and it became easier that way. The pieces still turned out to be funny, but they… It wasn't at their expense. It was more at my own.
AVC: That oblivious persona probably didn't hurt when you were getting roles in Bruce Almighty and Anchorman.
SC: I know the casting director at Universal was a fan of The Daily Show, and that's how I got my audition for Bruce Almighty.
AVC: The Internet Movie Database says you went to the film thinking you'd be cut out entirely.
SC: Well, I didn't know whether I'd be in it or not. I certainly prepared my parents and family for the fact that I might not be in it. I didn't want to oversell it, because I've seen so many of my friends telling everybody they know, "I'm in this commercial," or "I'm on this TV show," and then they're either cut out completely, or cut down to virtually nothing. So I tried to very much downplay my involvement in it, because I only shot for a few days, and I figured, "This could be an easily cuttable part of the movie." So I had no idea when I went to the première whether I was in it at all, or just a little bit.
AVC: It seems like that helped your career a lot, having that flashy role in such a huge hit.
SC: I kinda lucked out. They let it play out as a fairly big scene in the movie, so I just kind of got lucky there.