PLAYBOY: You’re starring in an NBC show called The Office, based on a British sitcom by the same name. A lot of critics thought it was foolish to recreate such an iconic and beloved cult comedy. Now that you’re returning for a second season, do you feel personally vindicated?
STEVE CARELL: Frankly, I’m just happy to be employed. I don’t think that it’s possible to improve on the BBC show, and that’s not what we were trying to do. Fans of the original were understandably dubious about the American version at first, so expectations were incredibly low. In a way, we had that going for us. Most people were shocked that it didn’t suck. Luckily, the network trusted us and left us pretty much alone. Not once did they try to turn it into a conventional sitcom. There was never talk of a laugh-track, or fast paced banter, or set-up/ punchline deliveries. Much of what makes The Office different are the uncomfortable pauses and awkward moments between the characters. The only thing that NBC wanted to change was to make us all attractive Manhattan thirty-somethings who fall in and out of love and meet at a coffee house called the Central Perk, where we drink from salad bowl-sized mugs. We will try to fit that in next season.
PLAYBOY: On The Office, you play an inept and egomaniacal boss named Michael Scot. Do you identify with him, or is he just a clueless ass?
STEVE CARELL: Well, I’m a clueless ass, so that was an easy transition for me. This is a man in absolute denial about how people perceive him. He may be an excellent salesman, but he’s also completely incompetent. And he doesn’t understand that or acknowledge it. To the contrary, he believes that he’s an incredibly good boss, and efficient, and a great motivator, and well-liked and respected. He thinks of himself as a natural born leader with exceptional people skills, and a talent for bon mots. But, of course, he’s none of those things. His lack of self-awareness is staggering. It’s the person who thinks he’s clever that’s generally the biggest asshole.
PLAYBOY: How did you nail the existential dread of working in an office so perfectly? Did you have any horrific day-jobs from your past to draw on for inspiration?
STEVE CARELL: I worked the third shift at a convenience store for a few months. At four in the morning, most people are looking for cigarettes, porn, or one of those shriveled, angry-looking hotdogs from the rotating grill. One night, though, a woman came in during the wee hours. She looked a bit distraught as she paid at the counter. She paused for a moment, looked up at me and asked: “Do you think I’m pretty?” As it turned out, she had just walked in on her boyfriend with another woman. We proceeded to have a lengthy conversation about a person’s self worth, fidelity, trust and relationships. And then I treated her to a slushy blue frozen drink.
PLAYBOY: You got your start in performing at age six, in a grade-school Thanksgiving play called “The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Turkey!” What can you tell us about this groundbreaking production?
STEVE CARELL: I played a Native American in a canoe. It was the first time I’d tried acting of any sort, so it was a big deal for me. I can still remember my teacher, Mr. Blackman, commenting on the fact that I paddled on both sides of the fake canoe. He pointed it out to the rest of the class and said, “Notice how he did that so the canoe didn’t go in a circle.” It was one of the only times that I was singled out for doing something well. That sounds kinda sad, doesn’t it? But it stuck with me. I knew at that very instant that I wanted to be a professional canoeist.
PLAYBOY: You briefly contemplated a career as an attorney. What did your law studies teach you about comedy?
STEVE CARELL: Not a damn thing. Being a lawyer just sounded good to me. Kind of like how being a doctor sounds good, or being an astrophysicist or microbiologist. It sounded like a good career to have. But it took a complete turn when I was filling out my law-school application. I couldn’t answer the essay question, which was, “Why do you want to be an attorney?” I had absolutely no idea. “Uh, to make a lot of money and sue people? To be hated based solely on my job title?” I couldn’t come up with one good reason. That ended my law career rather quickly.
PLAYBOY: You’ve appeared in a string of failed sitcoms over the years, from Over the Top to Watching Ellie. Does the cancellation of a bad show hurt as much as the good ones?
STEVE CARELL: Losing the good ones hurt much more. There’ve been a few shows that I was thankful the country never got to see. I’d prefer to do good work, obviously, but sometimes you have to take what’s offered to you. You just hope you get a few good ones along the way. What I think is funny and what millions of Americans think is funny aren’t necessarily the same thing. Television is tough. Quality doesn’t necessarily insure success. Many great shows have been canceled because nobody watched them. Take Over the Top, for instance. It premiered during game five of the World Series, which was probably a mistake.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of TV failures, you were a cast member on the 1996 sketch show The Dana Carvey Show, which ABC yanked off the air after only a few weeks because it was deemed too offensive. Did you know at the time that you were creating comedy that was literally too dangerous for prime-time TV?
STEVE CARELL: We didn’t think that it was dangerous at all. We just thought that it was funny. The very first sketch, if you’ll recall, was Dana doing President Clinton. He pulled his shirt open, and he had eight or ten nipples that lactated. They brought out several golden retriever puppies that suckled on his teets, and he declared himself the nurturing president. The network was charting the viewership, and at that exact moment, our ratings plummeted. Clinton was still fairly revered at the time, and people did not want to see him mocked like that. ABC decided that the show was not a perfect companion for Home Improvement, even though Richard Karns was always lactating on that show.
PLAYBOY: You joined The Daily Show as a correspondent in 1999. Two years later, the show won a Peabody Award for “broadcast excellence.” Was that a compliment or an indication that not everybody was getting the joke?
STEVE CARELL: Any sort of acclaim was surprising. When I was a regular on the show, it felt like we were doing it in a bubble. I never got the sense that anyone was watching, outside of the studio audience. So when we started winning awards and getting nominated for Emmys, it was astounding. I guess it was only a matter of time before people started to notice The Daily Show. The writing is as insightful as anything on TV. The only fear is that once a show becomes a critical darling, a certain backlash is inevitable. How can something remain cool when everybody likes it? I personally have never had that problem.
PLAYBOY: What do you think about speculation that most young people are getting their news entirely from The Daily Show?
STEVE CARELL: We shouldn’t be worrying so much about what young people do or don’t watch, or where they get there information. If some people prefer to watch Jon Stewart over Dan Rather, who cares? Granted, Dan Rather is folksy and homespun and you’d have to be an idiot to not go for that. But truly, The Daily Show is a comedy show, not a news show. If people learn sometime along the way, that’s great, but it is designed to make people laugh, not to inform and enlighten. You can’t really understand the jokes without knowing what’s happening in the world. You need that frame of reference. Unless people are just pretending to laugh. “Ha! He said ‘Congress.’ I don’t know what that means, but it sounds like it was funny. The smart-looking guy next to me is laughing, so I guess I will too. Hey, when’s Crank Yankers coming on?”
PLAYBOY: You were one of the first Daily Show correspondents to interview an actual politician. How did you convince John McCain to talk to you?
STEVE CARELL: We promised him New York and Rhode Island. Actually, we just asked and he said yes. McCain was a good sport about it. He knew we were a comedy show, and I think that he kind of let his guard down. He was expecting softball questions and silliness and frivolity. At the end of the interview, I asked him a tougher question about his dealings with the Senate Finance Committee. For a moment, he just froze. He didn’t know how to respond. He was like a deer caught in headlights. The rest of it was funny, but I knew we had something good when we got McCain to blanch on camera. In my heart, I know that I am single-handedly responsible for costing John McCain the presidency.
PLAYBOY: What was your most difficult interview on The Daily Show?
STEVE CARELL: It was probably the guy in Colorado who thought Donny Osmond was an alien. It was hard for me mostly because he was so sincere and earnest. I felt dirty for making fun of him. He was clearly not of his right mind. There’s that fine line between people who are quirky and deserve to have the piss taken out of them, and people who are full-on crazy. It was one of those moments when I thought, “I shouldn’t be here. This guy doesn’t know what he’s saying. This is awful.” It was a defining moment for me on The Daily Show. After that, I didn’t want to do anything mean-spirited anymore. I wanted to put the onus on me to be the idiot, as opposed to making other people look like an idiot. I think it’s always the better choice. I’d rather ask a lot of ridiculous questions and let the comedy come from their reactions, which is very genuine and real.
PLAYBOY: You retired from The Daily Show just as it was gaining credibility. Do you have any regrets about leaving the show?
STEVE CARELL: Actually, The Daily Show gained credibility because I left. Sure, it was difficult to move on. I still come back occasionally. It’s a great place to work. The only bright side of leaving was that I just hated everyone involved with the show. Stephen Colbert, in particular. He seems to be very intelligent on TV, but trust me, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Everything is written for him. He has no idea what he’s talking about. He can hardly spell his own name. I just got tired of carrying him. He is not a smart guy. Jon Stewart’s the same way. They’re pretty much just puppets for Comedy Central.
PLAYBOY: You’ve played a lot of newscasters. First in The Daily Show, then in 2003’s Bruce Almighty, and then again in last summer’s Anchorman. Do you feel like you might be getting typecast by Hollywood as the Reporter Guy?
STEVE CARELL: I hope so, because I only want to play reporters for the rest of my career. I’ve been an anchor, a roving reporter, and a weatherman. I’m hoping that I’m able to land a movie where I get to play a sportscaster. That would really show off my range as a performer. Just think of all the variations that come with being a reporter. You can be behind a desk, out in the field, standing in front of a map. It’s every actor’s dream. Sir Laurence Olivier once said, “I wish that I could only play television news reporters,” and I feel the same way. He might not have actually said that, but if he had, it would have suited my story beautifully.
PLAYBOY: You’ve also played some spectacular morons, like Sleepover’s slow-witted security guard and, of course, Michael Scot on The Office. What’s your technique for creating a stupid character? Does it require more acting or less?
STEVE CARELL: My technique is as follows: I sit on a wooden chair in my underpants and stare at a bare light bulb for between three and five hours. I then turn on the QVC shopping channel and purchase any items made of a poly cotton blend. I complete the transformation by eating out of aluminum pans. It all sounds very complicated, but believe me, it works. Some say that it takes a high level of intelligence to play such dumb characters. I’ve found just the opposite to be true. I am truly an idiot in most matters. I just go to my highest level of functioning and work from there. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch for me to play an idiot, frankly. It’s maybe a notch or two underneath where I function normally.
PLAYBOY: This August, you got your first starring role in The 40 year Old Virgin. And next you’ll be playing Maxwell Smart in the Get Smart remake. How has your life changed since being promoted to leading man?
STEVE CARELL: My life hasn’t changed at all. I keep expecting people to carry me about on a jewel encrusted throne, or to draw me a bath with exotic oils and rose petals, but so far, no go. Although recently, I did purchase a new vacuum cleaner. It is super powerful and lightweight, so really, I am livin’ the good life.
PLAYBOY: How did you prepare for your role in The 40-Year Old Virgin? Did you abstain from sex before the shoot?
STEVE CARELL: I had seventeen years of preparation to play a virgin. I didn’t feel like I needed any more than that.
PLAYBOY: So how did you lose your virginity? Was it as personally embarrassing as your character in the movie?
STEVE CARELL: It’s funny, when I first started working on the movie, it dawned on me that I would eventually be asked that question. My wife’s advice was simple… “Don’t tell them.” Let it suffice to say that my first time was a tremendous, earth shattering experience. Two souls became one in a torrent of passion. I was an artistic lover, full of a powerful grace. She was shy yet willing, and grew increasingly bold to my touch. And I am a liar.
PLAYBOY: The original Maxwell Smart had a phone hidden in his shoe. For the Get Smart movie, will you get your very own shoe phone? Is such a clunky spy gadget really necessary in this age of cellphones?
STEVE CARELL: Probably not, but I’m going to insist on it anyway. There’s just something about talking into your shoe that appeals to me. I’ve been doing it for years. I did that even before I knew if I was gonna get the part. I just love the smell of my own feet. I like to get a nice whiff every now and then. Believe me, the gunk that collects in my shoes is like the nectar of the gods.
PLAYBOY: You’ve worked with Will Ferrell quite a bit during the last few years. First in Anchorman, then Melinda and Melinda, and most recently in Bewitched. What’s the story here? Does he owe you money or something?
STEVE CARELL: The reason I continue to work with Will is because I’m a very good kisser. He’s compared me to Nicole Kidman and Zoe Dechannel. Favorably, I might add. When I have to do a love scene now, I imagine Will’s face on my co-star’s head. I use emotional recall and go to that special place again. It helps to make the scene more passionate, more real. Honestly though, I’d be in every Will Ferrell movie for the rest of my life if I could. He’s an incredibly good guy. He deserves all of his success. I would do anything for him or with him. (Pause.) Don’t give me that look. I didn’t mean it that way.
PLAYBOY: You married Nancy Walls, your former colleague on The Daily Show. What’s the secret to a successful marriage between two comics?
STEVE CARELL: My wife probably makes me laugh harder than anyone else. We share the same sense of humor. When we read or watch something funny, we will laugh at all the same parts. She’s pretty easy on the eyes as well. I married up, that’s for sure. We have a pretty normal life together. We have two kids, we eat Sloppy Joes once a week, and take trips to the mall and the zoo. It’s a happy house, but certainly not a zany, crazy, laugh-a-minute kind of existence. If anything, it’s a diaper-changing, kid-chasing madhouse. When I’m not working, I’m up to my elbows in baby poop.
PLAYBOY: You provide announcing duties on two wildly popular video games, “Outlaw Golf” and “Outlaw Volleyball.” Are you considering a side career in video games?
STEVE CARELL: I’d love to. Who wouldn’t want to get paid for spending a couple of hours in a sound booth? I went in thinking, “Yeah! Free Money!” But it was so much harder than I thought it’d be. There are thousands of possible scenarios in a video game, and you have to do lines for all of them. It was pretty taxing. Then again, it’s not like I was chopping down trees or anything. That sounds pretty whiny, doesn’t it? “I had to say so many words. It was haaaard! Waaaah!”
PLAYBOY: Is it true that that you’re a longtime amateur hockey player?
STEVE CARELL: Yeah. A few years back, I joined a men’s league in Burbank. We’re the Sharks. We’re very, very bad, but we have a good time with it. What I lack in physical ability, I make up for in poor coordination. Surprisingly, for an amateur hockey league, people get hurt all the time. It’s probably a combination of the pure lack of ability and all those sharp skates and sticks. It’s basically a bunch of middle age guys in varying degrees of being out of shape trying to recapture their youth. It’s a recipe for disaster. I’ve chipped my front two teeth, and dislocated and broken and strained and pulled all sorts of things. And that’s just playing once a week. You can pack a lot of pain into a one hour hockey game.
PLAYBOY: To paraphrase the rhetorical question posed in the closing song of your Daily Show special, Steve Carell Salutes Steve Carell: “How do you do it? How do you do those things you do to us? What are the processes by which you accomplish these things of which we are speaking of just now?”
STEVE CARELL: Those lyrics still make me cry every time I hear them. That is a question for the ages, and I don’t think it can ever truly be answered. There is no response, because frankly there is no question. It’s very philosophical. It’s so highly philosophical, in fact, that some people could interpret it as inane or egotistical. It’s the celebration of myself and everything I represent. I call it Sten, which is basically the Zen of Steve. Or, perhaps, Caren. I haven’t decided yet.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the November 2005 issue of Playboy magazine.)