In Cedar Rapids, your first role as a lead actor, you were half-naked for a good portion of the movie, appearing for long stretches in nothing but your tightie-whites. What’s the Ed Helm’s pre-nude scene fitness regime?
I think it’s pretty clear that there wasn’t much of a fitness regime at all. We shot it during November and December in Michigan, which is not a climate that’s very conducive to outdoor fitness activities. It’s conducive to holing up with hot chocolate and donuts in your hotel room. But I don’t have a lot of hangups about that stuff. I feel like pride and dignity usually get in the way when you’re trying to do comedy.
In your last few films, you’ve been paired up with actresses like Heather Graham, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Alia Shoat, and in this month’s The Hangover 2, Jamie Chung. That’s a lot of on-screen sex with a lot of hot ladies. When did you become such a stud?
Wait, let’s rewind for a second. There was no sex on screen — or off, for that matter — with Heather Graham. There was implied sex, and we did have a nice kiss, which I’m still dizzy from. But we didn’t actually have sex during the movie. Actually, I think Sigourney Weaver (in Cedar Rapids) was my first official sex scene ever. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’ll go down in history as one of the great sex scene in the history of cinema.
When Sigourney was taking your movie sex virginity, was she gentle with you?
Oh, she was the greatest. She’s so cool and such a seasoned pro. I was the anxious one. In any situation like that, there is the fear that… How can I put this delicately?…. body parts might act on their own accord. But she just completely put me at ease. In the movie, my character is looking for a mother figure, and that’s kind of how I felt about Sigourney. I really felt nurtured and taken care of by her.
Hangover 2 was shot almost entirely in Bangkok, a city with a reputation for red light districts and anything-goes debauchery. Was that your experience?
Not really. We did exploit its dark underbelly with great enthusiasm in the movie. We shot in some interesting neighborhoods, what you might call “sketchy,” that most tourists probably wouldn’t visit. Maybe I’m just naive, but I never felt personally threatened. It’s a very different experience when you’re living and working there. You take a vacation to a place like Thailand and you’re ready for the excitement of something new and foreign. But when you’re working fourteen hour days, all you want is something familiar to ground you. And there’s just nothing there. Even the American things, like Starbuck’s or a hamburger joint, just felt different in Bangkok.
After being in two alcohol-fueled Hangover movies, are fans constantly trying to buy you booze and get you drunk?
If I’m in a bar, frat boys will usually try to buy me shots. But I’m not much of a boozer anymore. I certainly had my share of ragers during my 20s. But I think it had more to do with geography than age. I lived in New York City for most of my 20s, and then I moved to Los Angeles when I was 32 or 33. LA is all about automobiles, and New York is about public transportation or taxis. So the alcohol consumption isn’t as automatic as it was when I was in New York.
Do you remember your last painful hangover?
For me, it’s less about the physical effects as much as the remorse. I think I’m a fairly obnoxious drunk. So I’ll wake up the next morning just wracked with guilt, replaying every conversation that I had the night before and every terrible thing that came out of my mouth. I read that that’s part of the chemical process of alcohol going through your body. It engenders feelings like guilt and depression.
Your character gets a face tattoo in Hangover 2. Have you ever been tempted to get some real body ink?
I don’t have any real tattoos and I’m not really interested in getting any. But it’s so much fun having a tattoo when it’s not permanent. Especially when it’s on your face. Walking around the streets of Bangkok with a face tattoo, I always felt like the biggest bad-ass. I felt like no one would mess with me and if they did, I could crush them. I highly recommend it. It gave me an inflated sense of confidence. I became more aggressive, and I put out a “don’t you dare fuck with me” energy. Of course, if somebody did start fucking with me, I would probably start weeping and run away.
Andy Bernard, the character you play on NBC’s The Office, has a similar self-confidence, even though it’s not always deserved. Do you envy his shamelessness, or cringe at it?
I love it. This might come as a surprise, given the nature of my job, but I am very guarded and contemplative. I’m not a naturally boisterous person. Andy Bernard is a bit of a wish fulfillment for me, because I absolutely envy how passionate he is. If Andy’s in love with somebody, everybody knows it. He just puts it out there, and he owns it and he fights for it. It’s his saving grace, in the midst of all his other social handicaps.
Andy likes coming up with nicknames for his co-workers, like “Big Tuna” and “Big Turkey.” We heard that your nickname in high school was Chuck E. Cheese. Care to explain?
Oh god. Yes, that’s true. It came from an upperclassmen who claimed that I looked like Chuck E. Cheese, the mascot from that chintzy pizza restaurant chain. When I was growing up, it was the place for pre-adolescent birthday parties. They had this animatronic string band composed entirely of animals, and I apparently resembled the mouse bandleader, Chuck E. Cheese. Any good nickname recipient shouldn’t actually like his nickname, and that was certainly the case with me. I hated being called Chuck E. Cheese. And of course that just encouraged them. Thank you for bringing it up. I’m sure it’ll catch on once again and ruin my life.
Andy Bernard loves to brag about being a Cornell University alumni. Last May, his likeness and favorite catchphrase — “I went to Cornell… Ever heard of it?” — were used in ads for Cornell’s law school. Does that seem like a good idea? If you were a potential Cornell student, would Andy’s endorsement help or hurt?
I think it’s great, because it just shows that Cornell has a sense of humor about itself. It’s perfectly harmless. But at the same time, there’s something a little bit ridiculous about an institution of higher learning celebrating a fictional character that is known for not living up to the standards of that university, and for being a spoiled and entitled legacy student who barely matriculated. For any thinking person, Andy’s endorsement should be absolutely meaningless.
A few years ago you attended an Office Convention in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company is based. What are the hardcore fans really like?
ED HELMS: They’re pretty extreme, man. At that convention, we were like the Beatles for a weekend. We had a police escort just to get around town, and everywhere we went there was a round of applause. At one point, I was in a car with (Office co-star) Angela Kinsey and we were in downtown Scranton and we passed this model train store. Now, I’m kind of a toy nerd. Ask anyone in the cast of Cedar Rapids. I was obsessed with radio controlled helicopters for that entire production. Anyway, I ask the driver to stop and we go into this model train store and before we know it, fans are starting to pour in. A cop eventually shows up and says, “Everyone out.” And they shut down this store so Angela and I can walk around and look at model trains. That was just crazy to me. I thought that shit only happens to Justin Bieber.
On The Daily Show, you played a correspondent named Ed Helms who was kind of a douchebag. Did people always know the difference between the real Ed Helms and the satirical Ed Helms?
I honestly don’t know. It’s such a weird medium, because you’re kind of defining yourself publicly as this person. But of course it’s a comedy and you hope that the audience understands that you’re being silly and ridiculous. I’m sure that some people thought I was the incredibly smug prick I played on the show. I really tried to make that character more of a jackass than an asshole. I’m not a big fan of ridicule. I don’t think ridicule is a very good angle for comedy in general. Sometimes we rode the line, and there were some things that in hindsight I regret.
Can we assume the thing you regret is the Nutcam, the hidden scrotum camera that you wore during a segment?
Not at all. I’m very proud of the Nutcam. In fact, I’ll spoil the mystery. A good magician never shares his secrets but nobody ever accused me of being a good magician. I wasn’t actually wearing that speedo with the camera in it. We put two golf balls in the front of the speedo and then hung it on the hood of the camera, so the balls dangled in front of the lens, just at the top of the frame. And then we walked around with it at waist level. Sorry if I ruined it for you.
We all know that Jon Stewart is one of the funniest and most brilliant political comedians working today. But what’s he like as a boss?
I think the best way to describe Jon is how I once described him in a segment on the show. He’s a mixture of Hitler and Willy Wonka. (Laughs.) I don’t even know what that means. Actually, Jon is the life of that show. He leads by example, because his work ethic is so intense and he’s such a smart guy. Any environment in which everyone is putting out a lot of creativity, there’s going to be tension at times, because not all of it works and you don’t even always agree on what works. You have to throw a hundred darts at the board and then maybe ten of them will stick. Is that a good metaphor? I’m having second thoughts.
You’re working on a screenplay about Civil War re-enactors, in which you hope to star. Have you ever taken part in a re-enactment?
I’ve attended a few, but just as a spectator. I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War. I was born and raised in Atlanta, and I think for anyone who grows up in the South, the Civil War is just a little more present. You’re surrounded by all these battlefields where so much of the war happened. It’s such an epic part of our country’s history. And some of these re-enactments, they’re just amazing events. They’re like a Renaissance faire but with a lot more entertainment value. The people involved are so passionate about the Civil War, which I think is really exciting. Whenever somebody is truly passionate about something, no matter how silly or absurd it seems to everybody else, that’s admirable. Unless it’s like a fascist dictator or something. In that case, passion is not as cool.
You often invite your parents to visit you on the set of your movies and TV shows. Have they ever seen something they shouldn’t?
Oh sure. As I mentioned, pride and dignity are the enemy of comedy. And that’s not always something you want to share with your parents. Both my mom and dad have been phenomenally supportive over the years. Even when I think they’re embarrassed by something I’ve done, which is probably frequently, they’re so respectful and gracious. They only got upset with me once. I did a segment on The Daily Show where I went to a brothel in Pahrump, Nevada. At one point, I’m literally chasing a gaggle of prostitutes around a swimming pool while wearing a cowboy hat, a necktie and a speedo. When my mom saw it, she was like, “Maybe you went too far.” And she’s probably right, god bless her. I should listen to my mom more often.
You were in an a cappella group in college called Oberlin Obertones. Were you contemplating a career in music?
I never thought about singing professionally. But being in that group was very gratifying creatively. There’s a funny thing about a cappella; it’s so much fun to sing, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting to listen to. You do these a cappella shows and you’re having a great time and you think you’re killing it, but most of the people in the audience are probably only there because they know someone in the group. The entertainment value of a cappella is questionable.
You’ve played the banjo a few times on The Office — most memorably with a Pig-Latin version of “Rainbow Connection” — but you haven’t serenaded anybody in awhile. You haven’t given up the banjo, have you?
Not at all. I love the banjo, and I love bluegrass music. But I’m trying to keep that separate from the show. I don’t like to mix banjo and comedy too much. When it’s used comedically, the banjo sounds so goofy and wacky. And I don’t think it always works. At least I haven’t seen many people pull it off.
What about Steve Martin?
He’s the exception, obviously. Steve Martin is a hero of mine in many ways, and his banjo playing is definitely a big part of it. I remember seeing him play dueling banjos on the Muppet Show once, and he nailed it. He’s bopping along with these muppets and playing the banjo just brilliantly. I’ve never played with him, but I think he’s pretty extraordinary. He’s got a song on his latest banjo album called “The Crow” that’s just insanely awesome. I learned how to play it immediately and it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s just so beautiful and uplifting, which is not something that banjos do all the time.
You were a hacky sack enthusiast in college. Could you hold you own in a hacky sack circle?
I wouldn’t say I ever stood out as a hacky sack player, but I did play hours and hours and hours and hours of it. I spent a thoroughly embarrassing amount of my college career playing hacky sack. It’s a very dark and sordid part of my past. But at the time, it was a really marvelous way to mosey up and meet new people and hang out.
Is it a skill that ever comes up in adulthood?
It does, actually. When we were shooting Hangover 2, on one of the days we were in the canals of Bangkok, in a not-so-good part of town. Under a bridge we saw this court, with a bunch of guys casually playing Sepak Takraw, which is a big national sport in Thailand. It’s like volleyball with your feet, and they use a little ball that’s not much different than a hack sack. It’s a game that involves ludicrous skill. These guys do crazy bicycle kicks and spike it with their feet. It’s really acrobatic and stunning to watch. I didn’t go over and join, but I did think that with my hacky sack skills, I could have represented.
You occasionally do a live stage show in New York called Seth & Ed’s Puppet Talk Show, which is hosted by puppet versions of yourself and fellow comedian Seth Morris. Why puppets? Can your puppet doppelgänger say or do things that you can’t?
I love that question because it presumes there was some existential analysis that went into the decision to use a puppet. The truth is, my buddy Seth, who’s one of my best friends in the world, called me about four years ago, whenever we started doing it, and he said, “I have a Saturday night slot at UCB. You want to do a show?” And I said, “Hell yeah, what do we do?” And we thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we did it as puppets?” That’s all the calculus that went into it. But I guess there is something liberating about it. There’s a safety in having a felt puppet talk for you, instead of having to put your real self out there. They don’t have wacky character traits. They’re not grouchy, they don’t love cookies. It’s just literally Seth and Ed and the puppets are our exact personalities.
If we were to ask a difficult question like “What is Ed Helm’s greatest fear?,” who’d give us an honest answer, you or your puppet?
That’s a tough one. Well like I said, there’s no difference between me and the puppet. I am one with the puppet, so by asking the puppet that question, you’re probing into some really scary places for me. What is my greatest fear? (Long pause.) To be permanently separated from the people I care about the most. Actually, I don’t know if the puppet would be so forthcoming. He’d probably say, “My greatest fear is a spilled cup of coffee.” He’d make a joke of it. So yeah, I guess you came to the right guy. (Laughs.)
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 2011 issue of Playboy magazine.)