As swaggering, dim-witted salesman Andy Bernard on NBC's hit sitcom "The Office," Ed Helms achieves the impossible: He's created a comedic character so annoying that even Michael Scott, Steve Carell's needy, attention-craving boss, can't stand him. An Atlanta native, the former correspondent of "The Daily Show" returns to his hometown on Saturday, March 24, as a guest celebrity of "Atlanta Stories," the ninth annual fundraiser for Horizon Theatre, held at the Georgia Tech Hotel Ballroom.
Why are you doing "Atlanta Stories" for Horizon Theatre?
That's a funny story. My best friend from childhood is Nick Chew, and his mother is Mary Ann Chew, who's very active in Horizon Theatre. She's a best friend of my mom's and asked my mom if I could participate, so that got back to me, and blah, blah, blah. I'm going to be doing a one-man-show type of play that's basically me acting out an experience from junior high. Right now, it's called "Under the Knife," and it's sort of a humorous recollection of when I was 14 years old and had heart surgery.
On "The Office," how do you play a character so annoying?
Oh, I just tap into my Atlanta upbringing. Really, it's kind of fun to take all of the things that annoy you about other people and lump them into one guy. People with rage issues and control issues are fun to make fun of.
Did the writers tailor the Andy character to you?
There's certainly some cross-pollination going on there. The character of Andy was created by the writing staff, but not until after I'd met with them and talked about my strengths as a performer. For instance, our executive producer Greg Daniels was tickled that I play the banjo, so that became part of Andy's character, too.
The mockumentary format of "The Office" would seem to encourage improvisation, yet it also seems very tightly written. How much of a balance is there?
There's both. It is very tightly written and yet, depending on the director, there can be a lot of improv, or just a little. They love you to learn a rote version of exactly what's written, and based on the schedule and what's funny, you can screw around with it a little. It's very, very fun for the actors, and a lot makes it into the show.
What about the stuff that doesn't make it?
A lot of times with our very best stuff, we can't keep it together long enough to make it work – someone will burst out laughing. Sometimes we'll do scenes in the conference room, and we'll have the whole cast crammed in there. The scenes may last five minutes, and that's long in TV time, so they take six or seven hours to shoot. After about four or five hours, everyone ends up laughing, because we're punchy and the whole cast is so damn funny, and that can slow things down a lot. I'm a terrible offender at that.
Some of the funniest moments happen when the characters sing, or try to sing. Are the songs decided in advance?
Mostly, but a few of them are improvised. There's an episode when Andy's singing at his desk, off in his own world and annoying Jim, and there was some song written in the script, but we thought, "There's got to be a more annoying song than this one." We talked for a while and ended up with the Cranberries' "Zombie," because it has that voice cracking on "In your he-ead." Also, there was an earlier episode when Andy and Jim stay up late getting drunk in the Stamford office, and Andy was half-passed out on the floor singing songs from his a cappella group from college. We had one Indigo Girls song in the script, but Jim wanted to harmonize, so we did "Closer to Fine" instead.
Do you have any stories of things going wrong, or funny things happening on the set?
The Christmas episode was a fun shoot because we did it at a real Benihana with a real Benihana hibachi grill, and two things memorable happened then. First, Jim throws a shrimp at Dwight, who was about 8 feet away, and it bounced off Dwight's glasses and went right into the cup of water he was about to drink from. It was a one-in-a-million shot that pretty much shut down the set for five or 10 minutes of applause. But we didn't use it because Harold Ramis, the director that week, thought it would look fake, even though it wasn't.
Also, the writers had written in a moment where the Benihana chef makes an onion volcano, and our chef that day, for some reason, was completely incapable of making one – and wouldn't step aside to let someone else take over. It's like it was a pride thing for him. And we could all tell what he was doing wrong – he was putting in too much water, or water was leaking out the sides – but nobody wanted to say anything to offend him. We must've sat there for 45 minutes. It ended up looking decent, but holy shit, it took forever.
What's the difference between Andy and your on-screen persona as a correspondent on "The Daily Show"?
There's significant differences. Andy is way more fleshed-out. "The Daily Show" guy is always in the same place – there's no backstory for that guy. You just know that he's pretty snarky and pretty stupid. You know a lot about Andy: He lived all his life in Stamford, and even his clothes say a little about who he is. They're both people who think they're high-status, but don't have the confidence to pull it off. They think they're alpha males, but don't have the underlying gravitas. They're fundamentally insecure, which is always fun to play.
How much was doing "The Daily Show" like being a real journalist, and how much was it just doing comedy?
In the preparation and writing, there's lots of topical awareness, and a lot of the legwork is similar to conventional reporting. At the end of the day it's really about trying to do comedy, but if you look at it mechanically, it's almost exactly like being a reporter. You're scanning the news, sitting down for interviews, traveling around reporting. Around presidential politics and convention time, that's when we're probably the most like real reporters.
Who do you play in this summer's comedy Evan Almighty, and did Steve Carell, who stars in the film and "The Office," have anything to do with you getting the role?
I don't know if Steve Carell had anything to do with it. I can say I did meet with the director at Telluride, Colo., beforehand, but otherwise, I don't know. My role is a huge stretch – I play a TV news reporter who's documenting and reflecting on the story that unfolds in the film. He's fairly similar to the "Daily Show" guy, but probably a little smarter. He's like a lot of news reporters, a little bit full of himself.
I'm sure you're sworn to secrecy about what's going to happen on the rest of the season of "The Office," but can you drop any hints?
I don't think so. I can tell you with certainty that Andy will be back from anger management soon. Otherwise, since I'm the new guy around here, I don't want to be the one to spill the wrong beans.
I found three. Gonna give y'all one more day to see or run off with…
"Campbellton Road is open; the B.I.G. has spoken and it's like that."
"From Simpson Road to Dixie Hills..."
Read the reviews for this mall. Dating back 6 years ago, it was unsafe to…