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What's the smartest way to play dumb? Steve Carell carries that question around like a portable chessboard. One evening in December, he sat at a huge dining table on Stage 18 of the Paramount Studios lot, ruminating. His challenge for the next scene, part of a chaotic banquet sequence that ends the comedy "Dinner for Schmucks," was to give the director at least five different takes--each one spontaneous, funny, and original--without ever stepping out of character. Carell was playing Barry, a sweet, beamish misfit who builds dioramas using taxidermized mice. Barry's new pal, Tim (Paul Rudd), a silver-tongued financial analyst, has invited Barry to his boss's house for a company dinner where everyone brings a schmuck for the execs to mock. Among the other oddballs present are a ventriloquist with a promiscuous dummy and a vulture trainer with a baleful-looking bird. The schmucks all believe it's a "dinner for winners."
The scene had been written as a brief shrieking fit by a schmuck named Madam Nora, a pet psychic, who suddenly channels the death agonies of the boiled-lobster entree. But the director, Jay Roach, in search of more material, had swung his cameras around to shoot the schmucks' reactions to Madam Nora, as well as any bits they wanted to improvise.
Carell has a face built for comedy, its Sears-catalogue handsomeness hilarified by a butter pat of hair, an L-wrench nose, and deep-socketed, woe-is-me green eyes. On "Action," his deadpan came alive; Barry was clearly enjoying the best party of his life. Carell earns his laughs not with wit--he dislikes jokey jokes, or dialogue that suggests his character is trying to be funny--but by investing all his faith and energy in deeply boneheaded convictions. In the first take, he began by having Barry seek to be of use to Tim by informing him of the blazingly obvious: "She's talking to the lobster." With the cameras still rolling, Carell reset and made Barry's helpfulness even less helpful: "She was talking to a manatee." On the next take, he gazed lovingly at the crustacean on his plate, then misidentified it: "Shrimp!" The ventriloquist (Jeff Dunham) then had his dummy, Diane, leer at Rudd and inquire, "Are you looking down my dress?" As Rudd vigorously shook his head, Carell piled on, leaning in with great concern to ask, "Tim--were you? God, don't do that, man." On "Cut!," Rudd grinned at Carell and stretched like a well-fed cat.
Carell told me, "I look at improvising as a prolonged game of chess. There's an opening gambit with your pawn in a complex game I have with one character, and lots of side games with other characters, and another game with myself--and in each game you make all these tiny, tiny moves that get you to the endgame. Not that your character would remember them all--who keeps track of everything he's said to everyone?--but you as an actor have to remember everything."
Stage 18 also accommodated the filming of "Sunset Boulevard," in 1950, and "The Graduate," in 1967, and in those days actors mostly recited the lines that the writers gave them. Modern comedies often diverge from the script; nearly a third of "Dinner for Schmucks" was composed by the actors in front of the cameras, with new ideas, or "alts," being suggested between takes by the director, the writers, the actors, visitors to the set, and even Carell's stand-in. While taking a shower that morning, Roach had had an idea for how to catalyze even more alts: the vulture shouldn't just be near the table--it should be seated next to Carell. "We had no time to rehearse, because of Steve's super-busy schedule," Roach told me. (Carell had joined the film the day shooting began, straight from his regular gig, on the NBC sitcom "The Office.") "So I'm really dependent on Steve and Paul's improvisational skills, and the vulture helps. It's a random-idea generator."
Throughout the day, the random ideas consisted mostly of off-camera panic. The bird occasionally took flight, its six-and-a-half-foot wings dropping everyone to the floor; when a crew member brought Carell a Diet Coke and touched the can to his back, Carell, mistaking it for the scavenger's beak, folded into a death crouch. Now, as Roach shifted the cameras, Carell murmured to Rudd, "I wish I had not just rubbed my ears with beef heart." Then he began the take by meeting the vulture's beady look with a broad smile--Hi!--making it complicit in what was to come. Jeff Dunham, on Rudd's other side, waggled Diane's decolletage and purred, "Wherever there's Tetons, there's a valley." Carell, his face pink with discovery, turned toward Rudd and whispered, "Tim, he's talking about her breasts and her vagina! " On "Cut!," the room exploded.
Roach, who also directed the "Austin Powers" and "Meet the Parents" films, told me, "Most actors give you two or three usable takes out of ten, but with Steve eight out of ten are great, each in a different way, each playing off decisions he made in an earlier scene or is going to make later. He has the extremely rare ability to run the entire movie in his head. And it's probably a better movie than the one I'm going to make."
At the age of forty-seven, Carell has quietly become Hollywood's most reliable comedy star. The studio comedies he has starred in--"The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Evan Almighty," "Get Smart," and "Date Night"--have grossed at least a hundred and fifty million dollars apiece worldwide, and his fee has risen accordingly. It's now an estimated fifteen million dollars, one-fifth of the budget for "Dinner for Schmucks," which opens on July 30th. (Carell is also the lead voice in the forthcoming animated film "Despicable Me.")
Comic actors come in three flavors: the wild man who creates chaos (Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen); the straight man who tries to repress it (Ben Stiller, Paul Rudd); and the devil-may-care man who savors it (Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn). Carell works in all three modes; his stints in such comedy boot camps as Chicago's Second City theatre and "The Daily Show" allowed him to develop a wide variety of reactions--the yell, the wince, the lie assayed with both halting and booming voice--and his late arrival allowed him to practice them all without being typecast. In 2003, Carell stole "Bruce Almighty" from Jim Carrey in the scene where Carrey, having been given God's powers, used them to make his hated rival, a news anchor played by Carell, freak out on the air. Carell's character, who had been precise and smarmy, appeared to have been invaded by an alien presence: Carell toggled seamlessly from wild man (unleashing a torrent of squeaky gibberish) to straight man (trying to pretend he hadn't just said, "My tiny little nipples went to France") to devil-may-care man (concluding his spasms with an oh-what-the-hell shrug that shielded Carrey from any imputation of cruelty).
"Steve is lovable, which is why he can cross over," the director Harold Ramis said. "Not everyone in Middle America is going to go see Jonah Hill or Seth Rogen, but Steve is conventionally good-looking enough for the big films like 'Get Smart'--and yet his intelligence and satirical edge are enough for him to be in 'Little Miss Sunshine.' "
As a boy, Carell loved Peter Sellers films and Steve Martin records, and he learned from them to preserve dignity in his characters even as he flings them about like marionettes. But he can also get small. Martin says that Carell "has to do very little to make you laugh. You're waiting to laugh, because his look expresses a certain demeanor--not uptight, exactly, but prone to taking umbrage." Carell excels at depicting the clash between repression and feeling, between the responsible adult and the needy child, using only a cleared throat or a bitten lip. His characters are clearly annoyed at being annoyed, at having so transparently lost their cool. "People are guarded, and veil what is happening," he told me. "Saying what's on their minds is always a struggle."
Off-camera, Carell holds doors, waits in line, always has a friendly word, and never calls attention to himself. (The crew often announces "We need Steve!" when Carell is right there.) Shawn Levy, who directed Carell in "Date Night," a recent screwball comedy with Tina Fey, says, "I have never before seen an actor sit on the set all day just thinking hard about the scene, not in an obnoxious, Method-y way, just really polite and present. It would freak me out at first." Carell even frets about whether his improvs are breaching his fiduciary duty to the studio: "There's a fine line between giving options and just throwing shit against the wall. I actually hear the film running through the camera, and these movies are so expensive"--a day's shoot can run about two hundred thousand dollars--"that I feel guilty if I'm just treading water."
For someone so vigilantly ordinary, Carell isn't easy to get to know. In "Dinner for Schmucks," Jemaine Clement, who plays a grandiloquent and remarkably hairy artist, improvised a scene with Carell in which their characters uninhibitedly touched each other's face over and over as they said goodbye. Yet Clement told me, "I talked to Barry"--Carell's character--"much more than I did to Steve. We had lunch together on set one day and it was two quite awkward people having a conversation. I learned that he likes to stay home on the weekends and wear cargo pants and have pizza with his wife." Clement added, after a moment, "I hope I'm not giving too much away."
At times, Carell can seem like a brilliant piece of software, a 2.0 fix for the problem of unfunny comedy. Tina Fey says, "Steve is like a Pixar creation, a character you know was designed and intended to be endearing and funny--like a cobbler mouse." She hastened to add, "But with a gigantic penis." She laughed: the scene in "Date Night" where she and Carell engage in heavy petting is about as steamy as a game of Parcheesi. According to Fey, "Just below frame we're actually shaking hands."
Judd Apatow, the director of "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," which he wrote with and for Carell, says, "When I work with someone, I always try to figure out 'What's your wound? Who hurt you?' It's easier to write for them if I can figure out the neurosis. With Richard Pryor, who grew up in a whorehouse, you could track it, but I've never been able to figure that out with Steve." Jon Stewart, who befriended Carell when Carell was a correspondent on "The Daily Show," suggests, not entirely facetiously, "Maybe Steve's lack of wound is his wound."
Modern entertainment increasingly strives for an orchestrated spontaneity. Even as scripted comedy tries to seem unscripted, reality shows such as "Wife Swap," "The Hills," and "The Real Housewives" have evidently become "soft scripted," with their arcs and conflicts built in. A reality show like "Jersey Shore" attracts a different audience than a guys-high-fiving dramedy like "Men of a Certain Age" or a mockumentary sitcom like "Modern Family" or "The Office"--yet they all plan for unplanned moments, engineering scenarios that feel like life minus all the boring parts. Hollywood's heavily improv'd hangout comedies achieve the same effect--guys in faded T-shirts shooting the shit--at much higher cost. The promise of these films is that they're going to be just like vegging with your buddies, only with whiter teeth and bubblier bong water and maybe a mayhem-causing dog or ferret or vulture.
And they'll be funnier, too, of course. Most comedy directors now believe that even an expertly written script can't reliably elicit belly laughs. Nicholas Stoller, the director of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek," both of which were substantially improvised, said, "The movies we're trying to make, which have a hard laugh every minute, could not be made without improv." Traditional comedies have a sleekness that calls to mind the typewriter. Consider the moment in the 1980 film "Airplane!" when two passengers chat before takeoff: "Nervous?" "Yes." "First time?" "No, I've been nervous lots of times." The point of improv, Apatow told me, is to make scenes feel fresh and unstudied--"to get the imagined typer out of the way." When an improv really works, it has a skewed specificity that bears the stamp of an actor's subconscious. In "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," it's the scene where a vexed Mike Myers, as Dr. Evil, stifles his son, Scott, with a whole run of shushes: "Let me tell you a little story about a man named Sh!" Scott opens his mouth--"Sh! even before you start." Tiny pause. "That was a preemptive Sh!" Scott opens his mouth again--"Just know I have a whole bag of Sh! with your name on it."
When John Lund ad-libbed the sweet nothing "Gently, baby, it's Mother's Day," in the 1948 film "A Foreign Affair," Billy Wilder, the movie's autocratic director, was so astonished that he could still recall the moment half a century later: "It was not even Mother's Day!" But, as the studio system fell apart, in the nineteen-sixties, improvisation became a comedic method. At Second City, actors were taught to incorporate everything the other actors said into open-ended sketches. Where a bad improviser argues, thwarting a scene ("Is that your father at the door?" "You know my father's been dead for years!"), a good improviser builds, using the precept of "Yes, and . . ." ("Yes, and he knows I'm pregnant"). Every scene could be viewed as a game: if one actor begins dropping passive-aggressive remarks to undermine his scene partner, and his partner takes each barb as a compliment, they've found a game.
Soon, Second City-trained actors such as John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Candy were rejecting one-liners in favor of the deeper humor to be found in character. Any suggestion was taken to its illogical conclusion. When Ramis was directing "Caddyshack," he inspired Murray to improvise his famous "Cinderella story" monologue by saying, "When you're playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like an announcer?" Murray, practicing his golf swing with a grass whip, began to murmur, "What an incredible Cinderella story--this unknown comes out of nowhere to lead the pack at Augusta . . ."
In an effort to make the process fail-safe, Hollywood studios have cross-pollinated improv with such sitcom staples as the table read (where the script is read aloud by the actors to an audience of writers and executives) and the roundtable (in which a group of writers "punches up" a script). With "Dinner for Schmucks," the script was crowd-sourced: after Paramount and DreamWorks hired several screenwriters to try to adapt the 1998 French farce "Le Diner de Cons," without success, David Guion and Michael Handelman, both trained in improv, devised a structure that seemed to work. Tim, who is eager to get married and get ahead, finds himself lumbered with Barry after he runs him over with his Porsche. The two team up to look for Tim's estranged girlfriend, to impress his clients, and, finally, to try to "win" the competition for outstanding schmuck at Tim's boss's dinner--with Barry unwittingly sabotaging all their efforts. Guion and Handelman's draft was fussed with three times by sets of other writers, then tweaked three more times at comedy roundtables, where groups of writers gathered for about six hours to suggest new bits and jokes. Last summer, the script was given a two-week polish by Roach's writing partner, Larry Stuckey, and revised one last time by Guion and Handelman, before finally being turned over to a cast skilled in improv (with Guion and Handelman on set to suggest yet more alts).
Nowadays in the comedy industry, a Bucket Brigade of actors, writers, and directors pitches in to punch up one another's films; the nearly all-male group includes Roach, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Nicholas Stoller, Jason Segel, John Hamburg, Garry Shandling, Sacha Baron Cohen, Robert Smigel, Adam McKay, and Will Ferrell. Many of the group's members trained at Second City, or with such newer improv groups as the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade. They read one another's drafts, attend one another's table reads and rough cuts, and give notes. Lots and lots of notes.
The most famed practitioner of this hybrid method is Judd Apatow, who grew up in television, writing for "The Larry Sanders Show." Apatow said, "At a table read for 'Pineapple Express' "--which he produced and helped write--"Ian Roberts, from Upright Citizens, said, 'I think the entire movie is this drug dealer and his client trying to figure out if they're really friends or if it's just a business relationship.' And we suddenly realized that that was the arc we needed to track." Will Ferrell observes, "It's almost a think-tank approach, and it gives you about thirty per cent more options. There are still a fair number of people who don't work this way--which we kind of don't understand."
Bucket Brigade movies are usually ensemble affairs in which every character is funny, as opposed to an Eddie Murphy movie, in which Eddie Murphy is sometimes funny. As in a sitcom, the banter tends to be filmed with three cameras at once, which eliminates the technical problem of "matching" the action if an actor does a great improv that you've filmed only in closeup--that is, of having to reshoot the improv from the other actors' perspectives to maintain the continuity of the scene. (Shooting with three cameras can compromise the lighting; comedies, like documentaries and porn, aren't expected to have great production values.)
Most directors of unimprovised comedies shoot around five hundred thousand feet of film and edit it down to the eight thousand feet that constitutes a ninety-minute film. Roach shot more than nine hundred thousand feet for "Dinner for Schmucks," Adam McKay shot more than a million for "Stepbrothers," and Apatow always shoots at least a million. Apatow often runs off an entire eleven-minute magazine of film--a thousand feet--on a take, hollering alts or letting the actors riff. Roach said, "It's a sloppy approach. One out of ten moments is great, and you watch the nine others go by and hope."
It's all a painstaking set of procedures aimed at maximum creativity, a huge planning effort to encourage accidents--the Taylorizing of laughter. But, even as members of the Bucket Brigade troll for every last chuckle, they remain mindful that it's not the comedy in comedies that keeps people interested; it's the structure. "Revenge of the Nerds" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" were nearly devoid of laughs, but they were big hits simply because of their clockwork plots. The screenwriter Dennis Klein observed, "In standup, improv is the ability to be funny at will, but in movies even Jim Carrey bending over and talking out of his ass will get cut if the improv doesn't connect to the ongoing story." Dr. Evil's "Sh!" run works so well because his refusal to listen to Scott is what will allow Austin Powers to escape--and because he and Scott hate each other.
The rise of improv expands screenwriting into the realm of acting. The best contemporary improvisers--including Ferrell, Myers, and Carell--can riff in keeping with the underlying story because they often wrote the underlying story. Comedies, once the province of writer-directors like Preston Sturges, Woody Allen, and John Hughes, now belong to the writer-actor.
Most sitcoms, shot in haste, don't schedule time for improv, but the setup of "The Office" encourages it. The show's conceit--taken from the original, British version--is that a film crew is for some reason making a documentary about the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company, an office run by Carell's character, Michael Scott. The office workers regularly explain their motivations to the camera in "talking head" interviews, filming both the scripted monologue and a selection of written alt lines known as "the candy bag." Often, the actors (a number of whom also write the show) improv outside the confines of the candy bag, rummaging for a bonbon of their own.
Jenna Fischer, who plays the saleswoman Pam, says that her favorite Carell moment was a talking head in a 2006 episode, "The Injury." Near the beginning of the show, Michael explained, with aggrieved and exaggerated patience, how he burned his foot on his Foreman grill:
I enjoy having breakfast in bed. I like waking up to the smell of bacon--sue me. And since I don't have a butler, I have to do it myself. So, most nights before I go to bed, I will lay six strips of bacon out on my George Foreman grill. Then I go to sleep. When I wake up, I plug in the grill. I go back to sleep again. Then I wake up to the smell of crackling bacon. (SHRUGS: IT'S A NO-BRAINER.) It is delicious, it's good for me--it's the perfect way to start the day. Today, I got up, I stepped onto the grill, and it clamped down on my foot. (UNWRAPS BUBBLE WRAP AROUND HIS FOOT TO SHOW GRIDDLE MARKS ON ITS SOLE.) That's it--I don't see what's so hard to believe about that.
Mindy Kaling, who wrote the episode, said, "It was completely on Steve's shoulders to sell this series of absurd buys. He eats bacon in bed? He eats it with his fingers? He wakes up twice to do it? The grill clamped down on his foot?" Carell's chippiness about the butler--about not being as successful as he likes to imagine--sealed the deal. The wound runs deeper than a seared foot.
That episode aired midway through "The Office" 's second season, which featured a newly endearing Michael Scott. In the first season, Michael was sexist, racist, and swollen with vainglory, and the show wound up in a-hundred-and-twenty-second place. NBC thought seriously about cancelling it. "The show was a character study of a boor, and that was a problem," Greg Daniels, who adapted the sitcom from the British version, said. Yet Carell always saw the character as entirely redeemable--as simply someone whose dearth of relevant information is compounded by a penchant for misspeaking. Daniels appeased NBC and reworked the character so that the audience could see Michael's decency and good intentions--could see, that is, his inner Steve. The show ended its second season in seventy-fourth place; this spring, it became the top-rated scripted series among eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds.
In January, I spent a few days on the show's set, in Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley. The story line that week was that the C.E.O. of Sabre, a company that has just bought Dunder Mifflin, decrees that either Michael or Jim (John Krasinski), his recently appointed co-manager, must accept a demotion. Jim, realizing that at Sabre there is no cap on sales commissions, volunteers to return to sales, secretly expecting to make more money.
In one scene, Michael has just discovered Jim's treachery. He charges into the conference room where Jim and Sabre's C.E.O. are meeting, musses Jim's hair with mock affection, then crazy-talks the C.E.O. into making Jim the manager. At the end of the second take, as Michael left, exultant, he leaned into Jim and murmured, "Have fun signing those commission checks for me, eh, what?" The improvised "eh, what?" was a Cockney yap straight out of "Mary Poppins"--the sort of comedy nubbin that a writer would never come up with, because it isn't funny on the page. On set, it killed. Krasinski fought to keep his face composed, then slowly toppled onto the table, a redwood felled by a tiny axe blow.
Daniels said, "The other actors would tell Steve, 'Don't do that, because I'm going to lose it,' and I'd say, 'No, do do that! Because Steve is dialling up his comedy power to make you break, so put cotton balls in your mouth and hold it together!' " Carell rarely allows himself to break. "If someone is doing something great, it's selfish to ruin the take," he told me. In a scene in which the Sabre C.E.O.'s two Great Danes run into the office and start vigorously licking the actor Ed Helms's crotch (which had been smeared with smoked chicken livers), Carell looked on blandly until the director said "Cut!" and then sank to his knees, paralyzed: "Oh, dear God--you hear the clicking of the teeth!"
More than once, when another "Office" actor was praising Carell to me, Carell himself popped up in the doorway. It was as if we were all working off an old script for "WKRP in Cincinnati." When B. J. Novak, a writer who also plays the character Ryan, was talking about the "love and vulnerability and hope" in Carell's portrayal of Michael, Carell materialized and adopted a pious look. And when Krasinski was saying that "he's too self-deprecating," Carell, passing in the hall, cried, "That must be me!"
Life is a prolonged improv, in a sense, and Carell often pulls those around him into formalized theatricals. Recently, when his nine-year-old daughter, Annie, asked him, "Daddy, how much do you love me?," Carell replied, "I love you so much, you're the most important thing to me." Then he sombrely shook his head, negating the compliment. She gasped and laughed, then said with mock outrage, "Daddy! That's terrible! How can you say such a thing?" Carell, instantly sunny, said, "Oh, honey, you know, of course, that you're the most wonderful child." After a beat, he shook his head again, starting the next round of the game.
Carell would much rather play around than hold forth. Whenever he reluctantly goes on a talk show to sell his latest film, he treats it as an improv scene: "I play a character who's more fascinating and gregarious than I am. I can do that for four to six minutes." If the core precept of improv is "Yes, and . . . ," Carell, as an interviewee, prefers "Instead, and . . ." In longer conversations, he often redirects the topic away from himself, then energetically digresses.
"I'm just not a very fun person to talk to!" Carell protested, several times. To hear him tell it, he has very little to offer, being neither fun, nor funny, nor pleasing to look upon: "I'm not unattractive, but I'm not a matinee idol. I think I have a very non-threatening look--I'm fine, I'm right in the middle." I pointed out that he's a movie star. "If I started to think of myself as the high end of the bell curve, that would affect how I do what I do. It helps me to think of myself in that gray area." He gave a laugh, a wry look, and a sigh--three takes to choose from.
Adam McKay, who wrote and directed "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," in which Carell played an exceedingly dim weatherman, suggested that Carell was being coy. "Steve knows exactly where he stands," McKay said. "He knows he'd be the best-looking guy in his town in Indiana." McKay pointed out that Carell's self-awareness is part of the reason he's such an adroit technician. "He understands that if it's a little harder to hear what you're saying the audience leans in, and you can double the laugh. He understands how to go fast and go slow. A line like 'I read somewhere that their periods attract bears' "--which Carell said in "Anchorman"--"you need to go slow at the front so the audience gets it. Then you can rise and go faster--'The bears can smell the menstruation'--which is funnier. He understands how to push his old-fashioned skills so they seem edgy. He'll make a scream ten per cent wrong, or a little frayed, giving you a sense of danger. A safe sense of danger."
When I mentioned McKay's observations to Carell, he said, "I really am not conscious of any of that stuff. I don't think, I will speak in a hushed tone on this one, which seems like it's not technique but trickery." He seemed to feel that the only person who should be trying to figure out Steve Carell's process was Steve Carell. Warming to his indignation, he continued, "It's a little scary to hear that, because then I might think, Oh, I should do that thing that people like that I was unaware that I did until now! " He paused, fair-mindedly, and reconsidered. "But I don't want to make it sound like I'm above technique."
Carell's skill reaches its apogee in his fake laugh--the clincher move for that feeling of spontaneous verisimilitude. Paul Rudd had told me that fake laughter "is very, very difficult, and Steve is really, really good at it." On the set of "Dinner for Schmucks," he glanced at me whenever Carell stamped out another infectious guffaw: See?
"The layman might not see a difference, but I can always tell," Carell's wife, Nancy, says. "Steve's real laugh is one of the funniest things you'll ever see--his voice gets a little high, and there will be some tears. When it happens, I have my reward for the day."
When Carell was growing up, in Acton, Massachusetts, he and his three much older brothers bonded after school by watching the Three Stooges. His brothers identified, as everyone does, with either Moe or his younger brother, Curly. Carell identified with Larry, the non-brother, the forlorn sidekick who simply absorbed humiliation. (Moe slaps him, yanks out his hair, sticks a finger up his nose.) Carell said, "My eyes always went to Larry, on the edge of things, so subtle and in the background. What does he make of what's going on between Moe and Curly?"
Carell's mother, Harriet, a psychiatric nurse, recalled, "My husband and I were pretty obsessive and uptight about how we brought up the first three boys, and when Steven came along we were worn out. So we just relaxed and enjoyed him, and he entertained us." He received all the sturdy, self-denying New England values, but also a measure of leeway.
He described himself as a child by quoting his friend Stephen Colbert, who got to know him later: "Stephen said I was a manila envelope against a tan wall." He continued, "I fit in right down the middle. Pretty good athlete, goalie in ice hockey; pretty good student; baritone horn in the band; class representative in student government." But his father, Ed, an engineer, said that Carell "liked being the goalie in hockey because everyone knew who the goalie was." His cameo as an Indian in the first-grade Thanksgiving play had kindled a love of the limelight--and a respect for theatrical craft. "I paddled on both sides of the canoe," Carell recalled, "and our teacher made special mention of it: that I was the only one making sure we didn't go in circles."
Carell went to Denison University, in Ohio, where he majored in history and theatre and played a rapist prison guard in the Marsha Norman play "Getting Out." When he graduated, in 1984, he planned to go to law school. "I don't think I had ever allowed myself to really enjoy acting, because I didn't perceive it as a legitimate career," he said. "My parents had sacrificed to put me through private schools"--his brothers had gone to public school--"and I felt a responsibility to make good on their investment." But he was stumped by the application question "Why do you want to be an attorney?" When he told his parents that, they said, "Name something you've always enjoyed." "Acting," he replied.
He moved to Chicago, and, in 1987, joined a Second City touring company. Within a few years, he was in the main troupe, making five hundred dollars for eight shows a week, and learning to subordinate getting his own laughs to the good of the scene. Harold Ramis, a Second City alumnus who has directed Carell in four episodes of "The Office," said, "Steve's is a Second City attitude--self-deprecating but reasonably self-confident. Thinking of yourself as second is easier in some ways: 'I don't know what I'm doing.' It takes the pressure off."
Onstage, Carell often went broad, playing the buffoon. Colbert, who was also at Second City, devised a classic scene called "Maya," in which he went home to South Carolina and turned into an elderly black woman; Carell played his unsuspecting friend. "Steve's form of ignorance was usually emotional and panicky; mine was self-important," Colbert said. "But, when we did 'Maya' for the first time, I remember him saying to me right beforehand, 'I'm going to do this as small as I can.' " Carell barely reacted to the bizarre goings on, letting a blink bespeak his bewilderment. He was tapping his inner Larry.
He began teaching improv at the Second City Training Center, and his future wife, Nancy Walls, another down-to-earth Massachusetts native, was one of his students. Carell described their courtship as underplayed, not to say tongue-tied: "I'd say, 'Hey, do you ever go out and . . . do things? After work?,' and she'd say, 'Oh, yeah, I love to do things. Yeah, if a guy like you asked me out, after work? I would say yes if that happened.' " Two years later, in 1995, they were married and living in New York, where Nancy had joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live."
But bellowing was still Carell's calling card. He recalled that he secured a role on ABC's "The Dana Carvey Show," a cult favorite that came and went in 1996, by auditioning as "a German who screams extremely loud and wonderful things. My favorite was 'It vas a pleasure babysitting Kevin!' " When the show was cancelled, he and Walls moved to Los Angeles, and Carell auditioned for a lot of sitcoms: "Generally, I was going in for the wacky neighbor--'Ding dong!' 'Oh, no, it's him again'--but I wasn't getting those parts." When he did land such a role, as the hotel chef in an evanescent 1997 ABC comedy called "Over the Top," he was required to clutch his hair and shriek remarks like "I am your biggest fan!" in a vaguely Greek accent. It taught him what not to do. "They were encouraging me to be even more presentational: 'Still bigger!' " Carell said mournfully. "I was extremely hard on myself in those days, and I had the feeling, by the time the show aired, that it was almost a grotesque character."
In 1999, Colbert, who had landed on "The Daily Show" as a correspondent, recommended Carell as another on-air reporter. "It was a small, below-the-radar cable show at that point," Carell said, "and taking the job was not a move endorsed by my agents." Are they all still your agents? "Yes!" He thought for a moment. "Um . . . no."
Carell's real hesitation was that the job chiefly consisted of scouring the country for schmucks to mock. "I felt many of these people were sincere and sweet and doing something they truly loved to do, giving the world diversity and color and joy. So I decided, I'll put the onus on me, and make the character I'm playing into a total buffoon." When Carell visited a convention of Klingon speakers, he sang along to "Oklahoma!" in Klingon; when he reported on a Florida mayor who had banned the Devil from her town, he ran alongside the camera babbling in Devil-speak--then pulled up with a grunt of dismay at the sign marking the town limits. Carell learned that it helped the editors knit his reports together if he'd taped a variety of reaction shots in the field. And when he and Colbert matched up as mindless pundits in a recurring segment called "Even Stevphen," their routines turned into a jazzlike quilt of sound:
COLBERT: Does the French election signal the reemergence of Fascism in Europe?
After appearing in "Bruce Almighty," Carell left "The Daily Show," in 2004, to join the Bucket Brigade. The following year, he shot "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." Carell was believable as the sexually inexperienced Andy Stitzer because he seems like an older--if not more grownup--version of the guy you'd want to take your daughter to the prom. At one point, a co-worker, Mooj, an older Pakistani-American man played by Gerry Bednob, gives Andy a pep talk about what life is all about; namely, love and connection. They're in smiling agreement for a while:
MOOJ: It's not about cock, and ass, and tits, and butthole pleasures.
ANDY: It's not about butthole pleasures at all.
MOOJ: It's not about the Rusty Trombone, and the Dirty Sanchez--
ANDY: Please stop--
MOOJ: --and the Cincinnati Bowtie--
MOOJ: --and the pussy-juice cocktail, and the shit-stained balls--
ANDY: Mooj, just please stop.
Carell works particularly hard to keep the raunch within bounds, but sex is played strictly for laughs in most modern comedies. The actors aren't the misanthropes of yesteryear (Denis Leary, Larry David, Garry Shandling, Bernie Mac) but amiable schlubs wisecracking their way into a bong-hazed future. Jonah Hill, who has acted with Carell in two films, said, "Steve is known as the nicest man, but none of my friends who I make films with are dark, seedy, self-hating guys. You can be very observant without being messed up."
Carell and Catherine Keener, who played Andy's new girlfriend, Trish, improvised the end of the scene where she wants to have sex and he doesn't--he's terrified to tell her he's a virgin. Feeling rejected, she taunts him for still riding to work on a bike:
ANDY: Einstein rode a bike.
TRISH: He had a wife--who he fucked, by the way.
Apatow said, "It was terrifying, and it got a gigantic laugh. The scene had been very verbal before, and, seeing what Steve and Catherine did, I thought, Whoa! You can really show how people fight, have it raw--and it'll still be funny." That kind of candor was something new. The twenty-six-million-dollar film with no stars grossed a hundred and seventy-seven million dollars worldwide. John Krasinski recalls that, on the "Office" set in the days after the movie opened, "you could see in Steve's eyes that his feelings went from awestruck to way past disbelief into total shock."
After twenty years of toil, Carell was suddenly a star. He immediately began to build a Maginot Line of work and family between himself and his stardom. Nancy Carell, who takes care of the couple's two children and is now a sometime actress (she has appeared on "The Office" as one of Michael Scott's girlfriends), says, "What we thought might happen was he'd be second banana on a sitcom, and Steve would have been over the moon. So what did happen is crazy. But we still live just the way we grew up, shopping at J. Crew. There are crazy elements--oh, guess what, we're going to the Oscars--but there are no eight-hundred-dollar shoes." The couple live in the Toluca Lake area of Los Angeles, not far from Miley Cyrus, and encourage their children to ignore the ubiquitous billboards of Daddy.
Carell told me, "I've thought a lot about success, because it's very strange to me that I've been successful." Yet he labors to avoid any inference that he sought it, or relishes it, or would miss it, or has any relationship to it at all other than the looky-here feeling of a man who finds a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Carell says that he expects his movie offers to dry up within five years, at which point he'll just volunteer at his kids' school. He also plans to leave "The Office" when his contract expires, next year, at the end of his seventh season; most of the actors and writers believe that without him there wouldn't be a show, but he insists that they could make it work. Carell clings to the mind-set of the superfluous sidekick--oh, no, it's him again. The dangers of doing otherwise are evident: you can come to believe you're a comedy genius, and turn into the Mike Myers of "The Love Guru," or that you're a comedy healer, and turn into the Robin Williams of "Patch Adams."
Carell's brothers went on to become an architect, an engineer, and a landscaper. "They're all building tangible things," he said, sounding wistful. Then, quickly back on his game, he added, "But I--I am creating memories."
"Dinner for Schmucks" pivots on a scene, midway through its final act, when Tim and Barry step outside the boss's banquet hall and Tim confesses that he lied about the real purpose of the dinner. The game of the film shifts from Barry screwing up Tim's life to the two of them turning the tables on the cynical executives--who, by ineluctable Hollywood tradition, are the real schmucks, because they've lost the power to dream.
The Bucket Brigade had buffed the moment to a high polish: David Guion and Michael Handelman's original draft set Barry up to go back into the dinner and pretend to be an idiot to win the contest. His opponent is his fellow-schmuck Therman (Zach Galifianakis), who has stolen Barry's wife by deploying his purported powers of "mind control." The script doctor, Larry Stuckey, wrote a rousing speech for Tim to use to inspire Barry to become a kind of comic gladiator. Tim explains that in the short time they've known each other Barry has burrowed into his brain like a (metaphoric) earwig and laid eggs in it, which proves that Barry possesses something superior to Therman's mind control, namely, "thought control." (Guion and Handelman tweaked that to "brain control," which is funnier.)
Carell and Rudd shot the scene as written for a few takes. Then came the improv. When Rudd began a take by saying, "This dinner isn't what you think it is," Carell replied, "I know: it's lobster"--a callback from earlier, when he'd identified the main course as shrimp. At the monitors, Roach shook his head, grinning.
Rudd ends the scene by smiling fondly, pointing at Therman, and telling Barry, "Go get him." In one take, sensing that the bromance was getting a little mushy, Carell capped Rudd by saying, "I'm gonna go lay eggs in his brain!"
"Cut!" Roach called, gleefully. "I love that beat!" he said to Carell. (Afterward, Roach said, "When Steve buttoned the scene with an action-film line, I just wanted to kiss him.")
"It's a treacle-cutter," Carell replied, modestly.
"It gives me some ideas for music we can lay in there," Roach said. "The team-charging-out-of-the-locker-room-onto-the-ice music."
Rudd one-upped him: "It's 'Win one for the Gipper.' "
Carell said, "Knute Rockne used to say that before the big game: 'Let's go lay eggs in his brain.' " Checkmate.
Steve Carell and the meticulous art of spontaneity.
|Caption: Carell "understands how to push his old-fashioned skills so they seem edgy," one colleague says. Photograph by Martin Schoeller.|
|Publication title:||The New Yorker. New York: Jul 5, 2010. Vol. 86, Iss. 19; pg. 50|
|ProQuest document ID:||2074409361|
|Text Word Count||7139|
|Document URL:||http://0-proquest.umi.com.catalog.kcls.org/pqdweb?did=207440 9361&sid=1&Fmt=3&clientId=13518&RQT=309&VName=PQD|