Steve Carell Says Comedy Has Become 'Uber-Cynical,' 'Borderline Mean'

The Hollywood Reporter
Steve Carell: 'I'm Not Driven by Stardom in Any Way'
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Steve Carell: 'I'm Not Driven by Stardom in Any Way'

This story first appeared in the August 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's become a cliche that every comic has a dark side, but scratch Steve Carell's surface and that darkness barely seems to exist. Indeed, he's so considerate and self-effacing, you start to wonder: Has the one-time improv king merely wrapped himself in a new Second City skin? Is he punking this reporter?

Ask him the worst thing he has been through, and he thinks carefully before responding: "I got knocked out with a puck, playing hockey. I got a puck right between the eyes when I was 12."

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Inquire what makes him angry, and he answers: "I don't like to get angry. It doesn't make me feel good. It is very human, but it's also a loss of control, and I like to have that kind of control."

The antithesis of what we've come to expect from a comedy master, he's an avowed Catholic, a passionate family man and deeply averse to the cynicism he sees in society as a whole and comedy in particular.

"It's not like I want to put sunshine and lollipops into the world," he says. "But I do believe there's been a turn toward an uber-cynical point of view, and it's borderline mean."

Asked about Daniel Tosh's recent rape joke (in response to a female heckler, the 37-year-old comedian asked a Laugh Factory audience, "Wouldn't it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now … like right now?") -- which would seem to represent everything Carell despises -- he deflects. "Taste in comedy, like fashion, changes all the time," he says.

Carell's own taste is almost frighteningly normal. He watches regular-guy TV shows such as New Girl, Top Chef and his personal favorite, Deadliest Catch (as well as NBC's The Office, even since his departure in 2011: "It's fun; I enjoy it"). He reads frequently but not compulsively (Gore Vidal's 1973 novel Burr is a favorite, as is An Improvised Life: A Memoir by one of his heroes, Alan Arkin). And he numbers among his closest friends unknowns from his Second City days.

He stays in touch with Jon Stewart, who gave Carell a break in 1999 as a regular on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, and with his former Second City understudy Stephen Colbert. But again, it's their humanity he singles out more than their comedy.

"When we were working in Second City, one of the staff members left and we had a tribute to him," recalls Carell. "I remember Stephen went onstage and sang a song, and it was so moving and beautiful and poignant. He's supremely intelligent, but he also has an enormous heart."

Which is precisely what Carell's colleagues say of him. "He worked a long time before he broke through, and that makes a huge difference," notes Date Night co-star Tina Fey, who plans to reteam with Carell in Mail-Order Groom, a comedy about a hopeless romantic and her relationship with a Russian "male bride." "What's weird is that he is so mature and civilized."

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If this seems un-starlike, it is -- after all, how many other stars would spend hundreds of thousands to save a small grocery store, as he did three years ago in Marshfield, Mass., not far from where he grew up in Acton? "I don't want to take up any more space than I'm given; I don't feel I'm entitled to any more than anyone else," insists Carell. "If I'd had a great level of success early on, who knows how I would have responded. I might have been a complete jerk."

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Perhaps this nice-guy persona has prevented Carell from reaching an even higher level of stardom. But it hasn't prevented him from being funny.

He proved that with his return to Daily Show in June, ostensibly to promote his film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Instead, he played the glasses-wearing author of a book on former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, The Last Pharaoh: Egypt's Transition From the Mubarak Era, and another titled Fifty Shades of Yams.

"I walked into his dressing room the day of the show and threw [the books] on the table," says Stewart. "You can't do that with a lot of people, but you can with Steve."

Making people laugh isn't all that interests him. More than almost any other current comedy star, he is determined to push the boundaries -- regardless of the fact that others have tried and failed to get serious.

That urge weighed heavily in his decision to leave Office in March 2011, even though the show had made him a household name and brought him a reported $300,000 an episode. (He makes as much as $12 million to $15 million per film.)

Days after Carell wrapped his final episode, the actor and his colleagues gathered for a private send-off at Soho House in West Hollywood. The event came with a scrapbook by his closest collaborators and a warning.

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In a video created by co-star John Krasinski and featuring comments by everyone from Fey to Colbert to Aaron Sorkin, "Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen did this hilarious thing," recalls Carell. "It starts with her giving me congratulations, and over her shoulder you see Ted watching TV, mesmerized by a rerun of Cheers. The upshot was: 'Don't let this happen to you.' "

Carell won't. About to turn 50 on Aug. 16, he is shifting gears, ramping up his production company, Carousel Productions, broadening his material from light comedy to drama -- and even playing a deranged killer.

That doesn't mean Carell is abandoning comedy: He stars as a therapist hired to save Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones' marriage in Sony's Aug. 10 release Hope Springs and expects to shoot a sequel to Anchorman in February or March. But a transition is definitely under way.

Stewart compares him to Peter Sellers: "He has that same ability to inhabit characters, sometimes with silliness, but underneath is a great deal of humanity, and that's what makes the silliness work." He adds, "Comedy can be relatively dark, but what was surprising with Steve was the kindness at the heart of darkness."

This was evident in a commencement speech Carell gave June 4 at Princeton University, when he lamented: "Sadly, as the world grows more and more technologically advanced … we have lost touch with our simpler selves."

Sitting with Carell at Soho House one morning in June, this humanity is unmistakable. He is far more preoccupied with issues of decency and morality than his own career.

"You project a version of yourself to the public to protect and insulate yourself a little bit," he reflects. "Actors come up with a version of themselves in order to protect the real person."

Carell's skill in doing that has been underestimated by many, most notably the TV Academy, which failed to give him an Emmy despite six lead actor nominations. The fact that he didn't campaign might have had something to do with that. "Campaign for an award?" he asks. "Wow. Either you win because people think you deserve it, or you don't. It was fun to be nominated."

Not that his peers weren't impressed by Carell's work as Office's iconic Michael Scott.

"The first time I saw The Office, I thought: 'Who is this? He's absolutely wonderful,' " says Streep. "His character has a quality of distraction and narcissism that is completely out of his control, but there is a pathos that's very authentic so you believe in this person and feel for him."

Audiences saw that in the Office finale when Carell could barely hold back tears. The actor says he had been planning to leave after the seventh season since renewing his contract during the third: "I was always assuming I'd leave after that season was done. Everyone was well aware of that. I owed the show a lot and I loved doing it, but you have to take risks." Even so, he chokes up speaking about it.

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"I'm not driven by notoriety or stardom in any way," admits Carell. "I never had any aspiration to be a recognizable person."

Perhaps because of that, says Streep, he has "an uncommon openness and humanity. He is graceful and very generous as a person." And yet, she acknowledges, "something is always held in reserve. You don't think you are seeing the totality of what is banked there."

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Born in Concord, Mass., the fourth son of a heat-transfer engineer and a psychiatric nurse, Carell was influenced by both. "My dad is a very gentle guy," he says, "and my mom is more of a firecracker. She was a great motivator. A lot of my drive came from her striving for excellence." He continues: "They were really devoted to their kids, almost to a fault. They gave me a template for my kids [John, 8, and Annie, 11] because I do the same things for my children -- maybe too much."

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After attending the Fenn and Middlesex prep schools, where he excelled at sports like hockey and appeared in school plays, Carell majored in history at Ohio's Denison University, planning to become a lawyer. But when he applied to Stanford Law and was asked why he wanted to go, he was stumped.

"My dad, a very pragmatic guy, said, 'Let's make a list of all the things you love to do,' " remembers Carell. Hockey and acting emerged atop the list. Without quite having the skill for the former, he opted for the latter, heading for Chicago: "My goal was not to work at Second City but just to work. Chicago also seemed to be less intimidating than New York or Los Angeles."

But there, he found his way to Second City, becoming one of its more notable performers. Fey, who watched him during her student days, says Carell was a "rock star."

Office showrunner Greg Daniels feels those improv years were crucial, recalling how the actor got him to read improv master Del Close's Truth in Comedy. "The book is about being truthful and not going for easy laughs and also being very open to whatever happens, in life as well as performance -- which is Steve," he says.

It was at Second City that Carell met his future wife, Nancy Walls, whom he taught in an improv class. They've been married 17 years.

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"I think about how much we laugh together and how much we make each other laugh -- but she's not an easy laugh," he says. "She's not someone who will laugh at everything everybody says." Rather, "she challenges me intellectually; she challenges me comedically. I look to her as a barometer for just about everything I do."

It is ironic that Nancy, his former student, got her first big break before Carell, when she joined Saturday Night Live in 1995. He followed her to New York but maintains her success put no strain on their marriage because "I try not to live in that world of self-pity."

The deep bond Carell shares with Walls is a defining trait of his life. Both come from small Massachusetts towns (they maintain a summer home in that state) and both are shaped by Catholicism, to which Carell says he adheres "casually" but maintains nonetheless.

Carell's turn came when Stewart hired him following Colbert's recommendation. On Daily Show, Carell took the role of a mock reporter interviewing figures like a Florida mayor who had banned the devil. Aspects of the job troubled him, though. "It's one thing poking fun at people who deserve it, but there was that flip side of shooting fish in a barrel. It's just cruel," he says.

After five years shuttling between New York and Los Angeles, in 2004 he left the show and moved to the West Coast, plunging in without a job. This time, Walls "sort of put her career on hold, I guess," says Carell. "Nancy wanted to have kids and be a stay-at-home mom and felt fortunate that she had the opportunity to do so."

Before leaving Stewart, Carell had appeared in minor roles and on abortive series (such as the short-lived The Dana Carvey Show), followed by supporting parts in 2003's Bruce Almighty and 2004's Anchorman that drew attention. Then two life-changing roles skyrocketed him to fame -- as the socially challenged boss on Office and the eponymous 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Carell, who co-wrote the script, pitched the latter to Judd Apatow, with whom he had worked on Anchorman, drawing on a character he'd developed at Second City, who tells his buddies he has never had sex. Apatow "responded immediately," says Carell. "I'll never forget. He said, 'Oh, we could sell that tomorrow.' Within a couple of days, he mentioned it to someone at Universal, and they bought it right there."

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Virgin earned $177 million worldwide. During its postproduction, word of its potential success convinced NBC to renew the then-struggling Office, which soon became a major hit. At 42, Carell finally was a star.

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The negative aspects of stardom have never bothered him, he says. Being a star has allowed him to do the type of work he otherwise might never have accomplished -- like two of Carell's most admired films, Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Dan in Real Life (2007), as well as the recent disappointment of Seeking a Friend.

It has allowed him to maintain film and television pacts at Warner Bros. and Fox, respectively, through his company Carousel, which recently produced Crazy, Stupid, Love and the upcoming The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (a comedy about two Las Vegas magicians that stars Jim Carrey), as well as Showtime's Inside Comedy.

But Carell's most intriguing new project is Foxcatcher, a drama for Moneyball director Bennett Miller in which he will star opposite Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum as real-life mentally ill millionaire John du Pont. "He had a passion for Olympic wrestling," but his erratic behavior led to the 1996 murder of gold-medal winner Dave Schultz, explains Carell.

If the role seems a stretch, the actor is unfazed. "I don't think of myself as a comedian," he says. "I'm not a joke-teller. I didn't do stand-up. I never even thought I was that funny."

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