Like a ‘Virgin,’ Known for the Very First Time

Universal pictures

“I started off on Jon Stewart / Basic cable is way in my past / Now that I’m box office brilliant / Money falls from my ass!”

The above line was sung by comedian Steve Carell (who followed it by gently squatting onstage to loud coin sound effects) as part of his opening monologue for the season premiere of Saturday Night Live he hosted last month.

The song—which honored the box office of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”—was a hit with the studio audience for two main reasons. One is its accuracy: having money fall from his ass is maybe the only way Steve Carell could increase his stock among Hollywood executives, who have already signed him to eight movies in the next two years. The other is how the song allows Carell to play off his own demeanor, to hysterical ends. The real Steve Carell is quiet, self-effacing, and reluctant to accept praise, traits he demonstrates during a college conference call with The Crimson.

Formerly known for playing sidekick to Jon Stewart as a correspondent on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” to Will Ferrell as Brick Tamland in “Anchorman,” and as minor characters in “Bewitched” and “Bruce Almightly,” Carell has since earned recognition as an individual thanks to the success of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and his role as title hero Andy Stitzer.

His performance earned acclaim from critics and middle-schoolers alike, and the film grossed $150 million worldwide on a minimal budget. The reviews and receipts from Carell’s first big role coincided with critical plaudits for his portrayal of boss Michael Scott on NBC’s “The Office,” an adaptation of the BBC comedy of the same name.

Carell doesn’t spend much time promoting himself during the interview. He reserves his admiration for other comedians, including his former co-stars from television and his latest movies. For example, when asked how he feels about the recent success of his “Daily Show” co-anchors, he responds, without a hint of sarcasm, “Oh man, just to be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys...it sounds very much a cliché, but it’s really an honor.”

His conference call personality reflects a naiveté to his newly acquired fame: he can hardly finish a thought without apologizing for rambling, and responds to every expression of praise with an enthusiastic “Oh, thanks!” Though he claims to identify with the obliviousness of Brick Tamland, his mannerisms are more Stitzer-esque, as if Carell is no more experienced with a national audience than the lovable virgin is with the female anatomy.

“[Daily Show correspondent] Steven Colbert once described me in an interview as ‘beige against a tan wall,” Carell says. “I think that’s pretty much it.”



CHEESEBURGERS

His unassuming personality is likely responsible for his slow ascent through comedy. After graduating from Denison College in Ohio and aborting plans to earn a law degree, Carell signed on with the legendary Second City comedy group in Chicago—a breeding ground for such stars as John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Chris Farley.

Carell considers his work with Second City a career high point, but after moving to L.A. Carell had trouble finding work, to the point where he was thrilled to be cast in a regional commercial for McDonald’s triple cheeseburgers. “I thought while I was doing that, ‘This is it. I am a complete and utter success,’’’ says Carell. “I was very proud of my work in that triple cheeseburger commercial.”

In the following years, Carell managed to attach himself to four failed television shows as a writer or actor. He has no romantic notions of this period in his life: “I don’t miss the old days. The money wasn’t as good in the old days,” he says.

But in 1999, Colbert, who had worked with Carell at Second City, dropped his name to the producers of “The Daily Show.” His work as a correspondent on the show, and some fortunate typecasting, got him cast as a news reporter in both “Bruce Almighty” and “Anchorman,” The latter was produced by Judd Apatow, who co-wrote “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” his directorial debut, with Carell.

From that hit, Carell has gone on to become one of the most inexhaustible actors in Hollywood. He plays the lead role in all eight of his upcoming projects—all for Universal Studios— for which he has to juggle with his lead role in “The Office” and writing a new script.

But Carell isn’t concerned about the negative repercussions that could come with his career choices. “Aside from appearing in pornography, I’ve pretty much done anything that’s been handed to me,” he says. “I guess there’s a point at which you become more cautious about your choices, but I’m really not worried. I’m just trying to do stuff that I find interesting or funny or with people I respect or find funny or both. That’s really my only goal.”

Asked if he is concerned about overexposure, Carell jokes about his ultimate plan being to “disappear in a fiery wreck of a career.” He goes on to reveal that the public’s perception of him takes a backseat to his own happiness in making career decisions.

“I just want to have fun with what I’m doing,” Carell says. “I think I’ll know when people have had enough...believe me, I get sick of me as much as anybody else. So I’m aware of it but I’m not fearful of it.”

SEEING OTHER PEOPLE

Carell’s laid-back career aspirations have allowed him to take on roles that run the risk of comparison to past incarnations by other critically admired actors. For example, he is signed on to star as Maxwell Smart in next year’s “Get Smart,” a remake of the cult hit ’60s television show, his role on “The Office” was played on British television to universal acclaim by Ricky Gervais, and his Uncle Arthur character in “Bewitched” was legendarily portrayed by Paul Lynde.

Carell, however, is careful not to borrow too liberally from his predecessors; for “The Office,” he watched only parts of one episode of the British series before filming the first episode for NBC. “He was so wonderful, I didn’t want to end up doing an impression of Ricky Gervais,” says Carell. “His is definitive, there was no way I could improve upon what he did.”

His soon-to-be-started script—for which Universal bought the pitch without ever seeing a word in print—is about a group of middle-aged friends on the European backpacking trip they never took after college, Carell wants to convince his fellow members of the Frat Pack to co-star. He lists Vince Vaughn, Luke and Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell among his targets for some of the roles, mentioning that “it would be great to work with those guys again.”

Despite his high-level Hollywood contacts and ever-mounting cash flow, Carell claims to maintain some level of bewilderment about his sudden success. “This whole thing is weird. It’s funny, a couple of weeks ago, my sister-in-law asked my wife, ‘Has Steve changed?’ I thought that was the funniest thing to ask. Into what?”

One obvious answer is “box-office brilliant,” as mentioned in his SNL song. Others would say a comedic pop icon. In any case, the appeal of watching Steve Carell is the fact that he doesn’t know or even wonder how success might have changed his life, preferring to allocate his mental resources to enjoying the ride.