The actor-comedian-writer discusses the 3rd annual L.A. Bluegrass Situation, his role on The Office and whether there will be another season for the hit NBC sitcom.
Actor Ed HelmsOriginally aired on May 2, 2012
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ed Helms to this program. After getting his start on “The Daily Show” he’s gone on to tremendous success in television and film, including both “Hangover” films. Those two movies have sold more than a billion dollars in tickets worldwide, so it probably does not come as a shock that another sequel is in the works.
As I mentioned at the top, he’s also the host of a music festival here in L.A. called Bluegrass Situation, running Thursday through Sunday if you’re in town this week.
Before we get to all that, though, this month he’s also wrapping up the eighth season of the NBC series “The Office,” and so here now, a scene from “The Office.”
Tavis: (Laughs) There was great conversation about whether or not this show would survive this season, after Mr. Carell left the building. But you did it – eighth season.
Ed Helms: We did it. We made a show. (Laughter) It’s funny, all you’ve got to do is put cameras there and say things, and you’ve got a show. Yeah, Steve’s departure was obviously a loss, but an opportunity for everybody. Everyone was excited to move on and see what we could do.
Tavis: When you said opportunity for everybody, what do you mean by that? When one of the stars leaves the building, it requires, obviously, a great deal of adjustment. So the loss we get, but how does that create an opportunity?
Well, there’s a void of energy, but also a very literal void in the sense that Steve’s character drove most of the episodes prior to his departure. So when he left, there was a sense of well, obviously, his job as manager of Dunder Mifflin became open, which my character stepped into.
Then there was another just a narrative question of how do you – what do you build the show around? I think we’ve tried a few different things this season and had a lot of fun.
Tavis: You came onto the show season two?
Helms: Three, actually.
Tavis: Three, season three.
Helms: Yeah, I joined as a guest star for – I had an eight-episode arc. Then the storyline that I was brought in to be a part of, which was Jim Halpert going to Stamford, Connecticut for a stretch became a little more involved. Then I came back to Dunder Mifflin and then conversations started, well, maybe I could be a series regular, and then that’s what happened.
Tavis: How cool is that, though? To start out –
Helms: The coolest.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Helms: It is the coolest, because I had just – I was on “The Daily Show” for, gosh, almost five years, and when I left to do this arc on “The Office” it was only two months of work and “The Daily Show” was like, “I don’t know if we can wait for you. We’re going to have to fill your spot when you leave.”
So it was very much a leap of faith, and I thought, well, I just have to get out there and change the way that I’m perceived, because right now I’m just this news guy, and I want to show people that I can act and be ridiculous too.
So “The Office” gave me that opportunity and then it gave me even a bigger opportunity to join.
Tavis: You said a few things I want to go back and pick up in a second, in no particular order. Let me start with this, because I want to hold “The Daily Show” conversation for a second. I want to have a whole conversation about satire in just a moment, which I know you’re the right person to talk to you about. I just made my first appearance on “Colbert” the other night.
Helms: Oh, excellent.
Tavis: I’ve been asked to do both shows and I’ve turned them down perennially, because I didn’t want to –
Helms: Well, it depends on the context.
Helms: Yeah, you probably did a smart thing.
Tavis: So we’re talking about it, so I finally agreed to do it. I don’t know if I survived it or not, but anyway, it rated well and I had a lot of fun with it. So we’ll come back to satire in a second.
But to your point that you were on “The Daily Show” for about five years, you get this opportunity at “The Office,” the guys at “The Daily Show” say, “We’re not sure, Ed, we can hold your slot indefinitely.
How does one make the decision to go to something that you know is temporal? It’s eight episodes. You’ve got this thing in your hand, and you took a leap of faith, as you said. But how do you come around to making that kind of decision?
Helms: I’m very stupid. We should start there. (Laughter) I’m not a smart man, and I don’t make smart choices. No, the truth is that I really, after four and a half years on “The Daily Show,” I felt like I needed to do something different at that point.
There was nothing that “The Daily Show” was going to offer me, with the very small exception of maybe more screen time, that I hadn’t already done on the show. So after four and a half years I was really starting to think, like, what’s next? What do I want to do?
I wanted to do narrative television and movies and I just felt like I had to make a strong choice to change how I was perceived, because no one knew that I could act. No one knew that I was anything other than a snarky news jerk, like fake news guy.
So the decision wasn’t that complicated. I was looking. I was really looking for something, and “The Office” stepped in. I had a meeting with Greg Daniels and I was such a fan of “The Office” and Steve Carell, who I knew from “The Daily Show.”
Not well, we didn’t overlap very long, but we were acquaintances and I just was so impressed with what he was doing and how the show looked and the vibe of it, and I felt like I could fit in. So it was a scary choice, but it was also in a way a no-brainer.
Tavis: I guess ostensibly this could be said of any character that one plays over a period of time, but it occurs to me now at least that both of these characters, the role you played on “The Daily Show” and on “The Office” could lead to typecasting.
So I’m trying to juxtapose your wanting not to be typecast on “The Daily Show,” but stepping into something that could ultimately lead to typecasting as well.
Helms: Well, I think any actor who’s desperately trying to avoid typecasting is actually avoiding reality. We are all typecast in whatever type that we are, and I think that if you can sort of find your pigeonhole and celebrate it, then you’re actually doing something sort of savvy, from a business standpoint.
I do feel like I have a lot to offer as an actor that people haven’t seen yet. I have a broader skill set. I’m excited to share that and explore that.
Tavis: Is there a serious side in there somewhere?
Tavis: Is there a dramatic side somewhere in there?
Helms: Yeah, there’s a serious side. I just did a movie called “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” with Jason Segel, who’s a great comedian, but we actually had some really serious stuff in there, and I wouldn’t call it a drama, but I think down the road I’m open-minded to that sort of thing.
But just to answer your question, I’m not afraid of typecasting. I don’t want to do the same guy in everything, but it really was about – that distinct between “The Daily Show” and “The Office” was not like is he a similar guy. It’s is he something other than a fake newscaster, can he do something other than this satire.
So to me, it was that versus acting, because nobody even knew I could act at that point.
Tavis: So I assume that I know the answer to this, but let me not make the assumption – no regrets about the choice to leave?
Helms: No. It has been just – well, it obviously opened up tremendous opportunities for me. It was “The Office” that caught Todd Phillips’ attention, the director of “The Hangover,” so that’s how I got on “The Hangover,” and I also love “The Office.” I love that cast and our crew and our staff. It’s just a really wonderful thing to be a part of, and I’m insanely proud.
I was telling somebody this weekend, Andy Bernard, my character on “The Office,” is one of my proudest achievements as an entertainer. I think no matter what I do down the road I will always look back and cherish this time as Andy Bernard. I love it.
Tavis: That is why?
Helms: Because – I don’t know. I hope this doesn’t sound narcissistic, but Andy Bernard makes me laugh. I like to think about how Andy Bernard would handle a situation, and we’re on set and when we’re shooting a scene, it’s just fun.
It’s fun for me to kind of like get into that ridiculous character.
Tavis: I’m laughing, because if it makes you narcissistic, then we’re all narcissistic, because Andy Bernard makes all of us laugh. So you’re not the only one in that regard.
So we talked a moment ago about the fact that Carell leaves the building, the series goes on, with changes, of course, for the eighth season. So what’s going to happen? Is there going to be a ninth season of “The Office?” Have they told you guys yet?
Helms: They have not told us officially, but I think that we’re sort of on that path. Whether or not a TV series is picked up for another season is in some ways a technicality, but it’s an important one, and we actually haven’t crossed that official line. But I have every reason to believe that we’ll be back.
Tavis: “The Office” is funny, and obviously people watch it for the laughs, but I sense that we watch “The Office” for more than just the laughs. Am I right about that? If I am, what else are we relating to in this sitcom?
Helms: “The Office” is very important, Tavis. (Laughter) We are changing culture, we are changing stereotypes and perceptions out there, and we’re having an impact. I think that that’s why I get a weekly call from Barack Obama, just to –
Tavis: Just to check in. (Laughter)
Helms: – just to check in and make sure that we’re taking our responsibility seriously, as a 30-minute comedy show on NBC. (Laughter) I appreciate the question, because I think that it tapped – my own feeling about “The Office” is that we tap in to something awkward and a little bit unpleasant in people’s daily lives and routines and the ruts that we get in and the frustrations that we have in our jobs.
They’re just things that we all relate to, and it’s just really nice to watch other people squirm and laugh at them in a fictional context. Now, if you’re doing that in real life, to real people who are really squirming, (laughter) then you’re kind of a sicko. But if it’s a comedy TV show, then I think that’s what people respond to.
Tavis: So let’s talk about the satire that we referenced a moment ago. So I offered a confessional a moment ago. I was honored that in the past “The Daily Show” had invited me to come on, “Colbert” had invited me to come on a number of times.
I always respectfully sort of passed on it, and I enjoy their work and I think they’re funny and I think they do something important for the culture, which is to make us see the dysfunction in our body politic so I get what they do and I respect what they do. I just didn’t think it worked for me. I was scared to do it. Now, you tell me – why was I so scared all this time?
Helms: Because you’re an intelligent man and you know that they – it used to be we – are very manipulative and have fun with our targets. It’s not a fair playing field. That’s probably what you understand –
Tavis: That’s exactly what it is.
Helms: – better than most people. Now, were you invited to chat with Jon Stewart or to be in a field piece?
Tavis: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think it was a chat with Jon. I’m not sure about that.
Helms: Because in that context, you’re safe. Jon is a bright guy and a respectful guy and obviously a brilliant comedian, and he’s a very genuinely intellectually curious person, so he’s respectful to his interview subjects. I love to watch him interview. I think he’s one of the greatest out there.
But the field pieces, which is what I did, those I cannot in good conscience encourage anyone (laughter) to ever agree to do, and I apologize to my buddies who still work at “The Daily Show.”
It is an inherently manipulative process, and people agree to be in those segments, thinking that they get it, that they understand the way we operate, and they’re not going to be a victim to it. It is impossible for you to sit down for a field piece interview and win. (Laughter) Because we leave with all the footage and we control the presentation. We control how the audience sees it.
That’s so much of the fun, but it’s also part of the manipulation. Candidly, for me, there were parts of that aspect to it that never sat well with me, like I was raised in a Southern family that’s hospitable and gracious and my mom taught me to always make people feel comfortable. Here I am in this job –
Tavis: Skewering people.
Helms: – where I have to create tension and awkwardness for real, with real people, and –
Tavis: Given how you were raised, how did you get so good at that? Because you were pretty good at this.
Helms: I think I just had to sort of swallow that – well, Stephen Colbert gave me the best advice. When I first started on the show, literally like day one, I was about to leave on my first field piece and I was so nervous, I was excited. I was confident that I could do the show. I was a big fan of the show and I’d watched it religiously, and I felt like I can do this.
I asked Stephen, “Do you have any advice for me? I’m about to go on my first field shoot,” and he said, “Ed, hang your soul up in the closet. You can come back for it later.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Come back and get it later.
Helms: Come back and get it later. But you will have no need for it as long as you’re working here. That actually was pretty interesting advice, and I think maybe I did hang it up there for –
Tavis: I want to ask a question about satire in a second, and to your point about “Colbert,” so the show that I chose to do was “The Colbert Report,” and I did it because I’ve been on a book tour with my friend Dr. Cornel West for a book about poverty.
It’s called “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” and I knew, or at least I thought – and Dr. West had been on “Colbert” a number of times, so he was assuring me that I would survive this and it would be okay. So I knew Dr. West would be there to hold my hand, number one.
Tavis: Having been skewered by Colbert before.
Helms: Was he there with you?
Tavis: Oh, yeah, we sat side-by-side.
Helms: Oh, okay, good, good.
Tavis: And Colbert never does two guests in this one-on-one thing.
Tavis: But he had both of us on together, so we’re sitting there and it turns out Colbert’s a very nice person, as you know, on a personal level, the nicest guy. I was very pleased to meet him. But I thought it would make sense for us to do it, because here’s a very serious subject about poverty, and playing the character that he plays, I knew the tension would be good and allow us to get our points out.
So I methodically went through whether or not it made sense for me. I did it, and I’m actually glad I did. I had a good time. But I say all that to say that I knew Colbert was popular and I knew that people watched his show, but I’ve been on everything in the last few weeks on this book tour about poverty and the response to that Colbert appearance has just been un-freaking-believable.
I raise all that to ask what is it about our culture, about our society, that makes that kind of political satire work so well today?
Helms: We are so just rife with hypocrisy, it is all around us. It’s everywhere. It’s not just even in the political forum, it is in the media coverage, the news coverage, of politics is just so abundantly hypocritical at times.
I think that just from my experience on “The Daily Show,” that is what we always looked for. It was never an ideological angle, like how do we skewer the right wing or whatever. It was always who is being hypocritical here.
That is the very foundation of “The Colbert Report” is a character who is so ridiculously hypocritical (laughter) and self-involved that I think that it’s a release valve for fans who are just sort of fed up and angry with all of this hypocrisy around us, and then they get to see a guy like Jon Stewart just nail it, like really surgically dissect why what Barack Obama said in that situation was ludicrously hypocritical, or what Bill O’Reilly said, or whomever.
It’s also fun. There’s a little bit of an innocence to it because at the end of the day it’s just for laughs, and so it has some meaty content and some fun to it.
Tavis: There’s great documentation, of course, that bears this point out, as you know, having been there for four or five seasons, that so many young people actually get their news from Jon Stewart.
Tavis: Is that a healthy thing?
Helms: That would be as healthy as doing your grocery shopping at a candy store. (Laughter) I’ve heard that, and I always used to sort of not really believe it.
Tavis: Come on, you believe that. They love this guy. Everybody watches him.
Helms: I know people love the show, but you don’t get the show unless you have some wider context. So I feel like people consume things and then they watch that and they’re like, “Oh, this is great, this is my favorite news source.” But are people actually getting their first bit of information? I don’t know.
Tavis: I hear your point. To get what Stewart does you have to have some sense of what the news is that he’s actually skewering.
Helms: Yeah, that’s my sort of hope for society. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s your hope, at least.
Helms: That people are actually getting all of their news.
Tavis: That’s funny. Okay, before my time is up, tell me about this – how did you become a bluegrass lover?
Helms: Well, I grew up in Atlanta and I spent summers at a camp in North Carolina, and I think that – bluegrass music has its sort of origins in – my mom’s from Nashville, Tennessee, as well, so bluegrass music kind of has its origins in the Tennessee and North Carolina kind of Appalachian history.
So it felt to me at a young age like an authentic thing, like something that I connected to, and I just, I don’t know, I often say that if you like banjo music it’s a curse, and that you just can’t’ get away from it, but I do. I love the music and I love to play the music, and there’s something very soulful. There’s a great sort of spiritual history to it.
I like the community. I think that a lot of the musicians, the way the music has progressed and incorporated lots of other genres and styles and overlaps, it just is a vibrant and exciting thing.
So Mark Flanagan, the proprietor of Largo, which is a great venue here in L.A., he and I started this thing, the L.A. Bluegrass Situation, a couple of years ago. We’re now in our third year. It’s just been a lot of funs. It’s roots Americana music, it’s fans coming together.
We started a website called TheBluegrassSituation.com, and that’s really just a resource for any fans of anything roots, Americana, old-time. It’s been a hell of a lot of fun.
Tavis: This year you got Steve Martin headlining. He was in this very chair not long ago, brought his banjo with him, played for us on the program. He’s been here a few times. Had a good time.
Helms: He is the greatest.
Tavis: He is.
Helms: He’s actually been on – this is our third year, he’s been on every year.
Tavis: Oh, cool.
Helms: Yeah, so he’s a great supporter and participant, and now we’re sort of linked up with some charitable efforts as well. So it’s just – I’m very excited about it.
Tavis: Yeah, you should be.
Helms: I’m very, very proud of it.
Tavis: You should be. So is there going to be another “Hangover” project?
Tavis: In the works now?
Helms: Yeah. We’re cranking it up; we’ll probably hopefully shoot in the fall sometime.
Tavis: Cool. Ed, I’m glad to have you on. You are a busy guy.
Tavis: How you squeezed this in, I do not know.
Helms: Well, it’s a priority. I’m glad to be here, Tavis.
Tavis: No it’s not, your house is around the corner, I know. (Laughter) I know where you live. It ain’t a priority, you live around the corner. Anyway, (laughs) Ed, good to have you on the program.
Helms: It was a pleasure.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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