They're taping an upcoming fall episode of "The Office," the NBC sitcom about the life of your average white-collar cubicle rat, trapped in some Dilbertian nightmare, harassed by the clueless boss, the character played by Steve Carell. Executive producer Greg Daniels watches the monitor as Carell bounds into the scene, clutching a fleshy, life-size, inflatable female doll. The setup is that the employees are in the middle of a seminar about sexual harassment.
"Steve has just grown so much as an actor," Daniels says. He is not being ironic.
A few nights earlier, at a press screening of his new movie, "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," in which the former fake newsman from "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" makes his debut as leading man, there is a scene in which the Carell character, Andy Stitzer, is trying to break his decades-long losing streak, and is in bed tearing through a carton of candy-colored prophylactics, trying to figure out how to put one on. The audience is bent over, working to get oxygen into its lungs between the spasms of laughter. The movie, co-written by Carell, opened nationwide on Friday, and the industryites at Universal Studios are crossing their manicured fingers, hoping they have a summer hit in the R-rated romp and that Carell is going to pop big and become a comedy brand, like a Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller.
So there are expectations this weekend, people.
This seems to make Carell anxious. Sitting in his trailer behind the soundstage where they're taping "The Office," eating his lunch of broccoli florets and seared meats, he is as polite as a mortician, though he seems slightly stunned with the rapid acceleration of his career, as if he just traded in the family Dodge minivan (he's got two young kids) and is now behind the wheel of a Ferrari F430 Spider.
"I guess, naturally, I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop," he says. "Never believing in the success that comes my way. Maybe it's just a way to protect myself."
From what? "Oh, I don't know. Crushing bitter disappointment?"
You know, they say every joke contains a kernel of truth.
Later, Carell confesses he has a backup plan if this all doesn't work out. He'll teach history and coach a few sports at a prep school back east, like the one he attended, the upper-crusty Middlesex in Massachusetts (average SAT score: 1,320).
About this, he is not kidding. "I think it unwise not to have a backup plan." Then he blinks. "It would be very fulfilling." The high school thing. "And something I hope I'll never have to do."
Jon Stewart answers the telephone.
"What section is this going to be in?" What section would he like?
"Education. It's important for people to stay in school."
Actually, it may go in Style.
"Nice," Stewart hisses. "Carell's got the style."
He is doing good, no? First, "Bruce Almighty," then "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," then "Bewitched," (well, maybe scratch "Bewitched," which faltered). Now leading man. Plus, the starring role in the upcoming unmade film where he'll play agent Maxwell Smart in "Get Smart," and a project called "High T," just announced Wednesday in Variety, about a guy who starts taking testosterone shots.
Stewart snorts. "From humble beginnings. It's a story Washington loves. It's like the man from Hope, but instead of Hope, it's Comedy Central, it's basic cable. But very similar. Rags to riches."
So, seriously, what makes him tick?
"Steve Carell? I've never spoken with him."
(We play along, but you know, you can't win this game against a professional.) Okay, so is it sex or drugs or greed?
"I'm assuming it's greed," says Stewart. "But again, he's an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in what appears to be prosciutto."
Then he amends. "Um, did I say greed? No, he makes the children laugh. That is what I meant to say. Did I say greed? I meant to say the children." Stewart has not seen the movie, so we explain it's "raunchy, but with a heart," or that's how Carell and his director and co-writer Judd Apatow describe it. It's sort of sweet, in its way, a love story (Carell is attempting to achieve his personal nirvana with Catherine Keener, whose character is a hot grandmother) but with jokes about how the best girls to pick up at bars are the ones with a little bit of vomit in their hair.
"Really?" says Stewart. "We here did not know the three-dimensional Steve Carell. We only knew him as two-dimensional. So maybe that is disquieting."
The leading men of comedy today come in several different varieties. The postmodern swinger (think Vince Vaughn), the nebbish nuevo-Woody Allens (Ben Stiller), the physical pratfaller (Jim Carrey), the village idiot (Adam Sandler), the edgy urban (Chris Rock). Carell's niche might be seen as the dad-dweeb, a Patio Man, to borrow David Brooks's descriptor, a suburban canvas, a scoop of vanilla low-fat yogurt with sprinkles of pure deadpan.
Carell thinks for a moment about this. "Yes, that would be nice," he says. "But I don't think I've arrived at the level where people classify me as anything." A pause. Another blink. "But I honestly don't think people know who I am, and that's fine."
Here's what you need to consider: Carell did not come up through the ranks doing stand-up. No, he thought he would become a lawyer. "I sat down to fill out the application and I couldn't figure out how to answer the essay question, why do you want to be an attorney, and it was that simple."
We suggest he could have simply filled in the essay with $$$ signs.
"Which would sound better than 'that's what my parents want me to be.' " Law school, he imagined, "sounded better than aspiring actor. Or unemployed actor. Or waiter."
He was all three, back in the days when he lived in Chicago after graduation from Denison University in Ohio (major? history), working in the world of children's theater, performing bits from the Narnia chronicles before fidgety grade-schoolers.
About which, he says, "you reach a saturation point in children's theater."
Before you become Krusty the Klown?
"Yes. This defining moment when you have to stop or embrace it completely, and I chose the former."
And he got his first big break, full-time employment with the famed improv troupe Second City, whose alumni (Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Tina Fey) have filled the ranks of "Saturday Night Live" for two generations, and where he met the man who would change his life, his evil twin, Stephen Colbert.
Colbert answers his telephone in New York, where he is preparing for his "Daily Show" spinoff, "The Colbert Report," which will premiere in October on Comedy Central. Carell, he seems so nice, so normal. Could it be so?
"Yes, he is. Completely. There's nothing behind the mask. Nothing at all, actually. Take the mask off and there's just this . . ." Colbert makes a whooshing sound. "This echo."
Colbert worked alongside Carell at Second City, was in fact his understudy at the beginning. "My favorite scene of his that I understudied for, it was in a vet's office, a veterinarian, and Steve's character is talking about how he makes beef goobies, you know to hide the pill inside to feed his pet. Just that idea. Beef goobies. God, I loved that character."
(We're not getting anywhere, are we?) "No, I'll tell you he's hilarious. But it took me forever to get the people here to hire him." Here being Comedy Central's "Daily Show." Colbert, who was employed there first as a fake newsman, kept saying "trust me. He makes anything funny. He looks straight. He's this oddly normal person, for comedy. It wasn't until they saw the clip."
The clip. It's from the brief seven-episode run of "The Dana Carvey Show" in 1996 -- a sketch Colbert and Carell did called "Waiters Nauseated by Food."
"There are no jokes in the scene," Colbert says. "I come on and read the specials. Like warm baby corn chowder and spinach salad with warm bacon dressing. Everything was warm, with chunks. A slightly warm fish in a chunky cheese sauce." During the scene, both the waiters are fighting back dry heaves as Colbert reads the specials. Carell never says a word. (You can find the bit by Googling "waiters nauseated food.") It is apparently a classic.
"I'm telling the Comedy Central people this guy is the back waiter in the skit. He's the one who comes in at the end and throws up, and they're like, finally, hire him. We want that guy," Colbert says. "He's a great understander of bits and how to heighten them."
Good stuff. So what else, what else should we know about Steve Carell?
One imagines Colbert scratching his chin. Then: "He's a very hairy man," he says. "Very hairy."
Back in his trailer, Carell recalls that he pitched the idea for "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" to Judd Apatow, when the two worked together on Will Ferrell's "Anchorman." The genesis was a bit Carell did for Second City, where a guy is playing poker with his pals and they're all dishing about their sexual exploits, and the virgin character is piping up banalities like, "yeah, hot," but then starts describing how a woman's breasts feel like a bag of marbles and how when you rub around in their netherworld it's like baby powder, and of course, they bust him.
"And we started thinking what would this guy's life be like? A middle-aged virgin," says Apatow. They didn't want the virgin to be some kind of Pee-wee Herman. "We wanted people to relate to his feelings. Like, we've all been there, and it's okay." Like, he's a normal, nice guy who just had some bad half-starts at sex, missed his bus, and then decided not to travel at all.
Apatow thinks Carell is headed toward the bigger, better, like "Tom Hanks parts," he says. We suspect he means the "Splash" Hanks rather than the storming-beaches-at-Normandy Hanks.
He describes Carell as "a gentle man" and "not very demanding," who once said to him that he wanted to be nice to a casting director "so she'll hire me if this bombs."
And best of all: "He'll do anything," Apatow says.
In the movie, there is the scene where Carell as Andy has his mat of chest hair waxed. It is his real hair, and there is a lot of it, and it is really being waxed. They had to do the scene in one take because there's only so much hair.
Carell recalls the scene as "fun."
He uses that word a lot. We wonder, now that he is the leading man, has he begun to indulge himself? "Like letting the inner jerk out?" he asks.
At least make his personal assistant cry?
"I don't even have a personal assistant. I'll have to make my wife cry, I guess."
Or his kids.
Right. "This whole thing is like a dream," he says. "It sounds like such a cliche, but I think I've been dreaming. The whole last five years. I'm astounded it's going as well as it has. When I started out, I thought if I could make a living and support a family as an actor, I'd be way ahead of the game. And so the fact that I'm doing that and more and having fun . . ."
That word again.
So go ahead, be a jerk.
"I think it best to be humble," he says.