The Jerk

Photo: Jill Greenberg

Warning: The following article about Ed Helms will, by necessity, contain the words “jerk,” “dickish,” “douchey,” and, several times and from the mouth of Helms himself, “jackass.” These words won’t be used to describe Ed Helms. They’ll be used to describe what it is that he does very well.

On September 25, Helms will kick off his third season on NBC’s The Office, on which he plays Andy Bernard, the sub-commandant workplace idiot in the show’s unholy trinity of irritants, along with Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson). Bernard joined the show in 2006, primarily as a living reminder to affable Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) that, while you may be able to escape certain office jackasses, you can never escape office jackassery in general. For example, when Jim brought a tuna sandwich to work on his first day at the new office, Bernard dubbed him “Big Tuna,” then called him that relentlessly and with an air of bullying jocularity. This might not, in itself, seem like a hanging offense. But if you’ve ever toiled under the persistent buzz of fluorescent lights, in the soulless maze of a cubicle farm, you understand that these slights have a cumulative effect. They add up. And they crush your soul.

Oddly, Andy Bernard is not the actor’s most dickish character. That would be “Ed Helms,” the correspondent he played on The Daily Show, where he worked for almost five years before joining The Office. A large part of his job on that show was to interview often-unwitting civilians while acting like a total jerk. This was quite often very funny, but it’s something about which Helms still feels some remorse. “Those field pieces are very taxing,” he says. “And they’re tough emotionally because you’re having interactions with people that are very literally uncomfortable. For me, a good southern boy, sometimes I had to put my instincts toward graciousness, and all the manners my mom pounded into me—you have to lock that away. … I feel like my work on The Daily Show was a study in how to be a jerk.” Helms describes Andy as “a yacht-clubby guy who’s a little douchey but still earnest. He’s sweeter than who I was on The Daily Show, and a little less aware of himself. That’s what I like about him.”

Ed Helms wasn’t always a jackass. For a while, he was an aspiring filmmaker in New York. He worked for a postproduction house, loved the job, and even now talks of it wistfully. “I was and still am very infatuated with filmmaking,” he says, before describing his editing duties in all earnestness as “sexy and fun.” While training as an editor, he laid down a few rough-cut voice-over “scratch tracks.” From there, he landed some real voice-over gigs. From there, he got an agent. Finally, he realized he could quit his job and pursue stand-up comedy full-time, because, as he says, “I was finding this thing that I love, which is acting like a jackass professionally.”

Still, the abrasive, grating, get-under-your-skin-but-in-a-hilarious-way Ed Helms wasn’t really born into this world until 2002, when The Daily Show hired him, sort of. The show puts new recruits through a notorious audition boot camp; basically, it tries you out with a few segments, and if those go well, you get a few more. If the segments don’t go well, you just kind of disappear. Helms never quite shook that fear of disappearing. “When you get there,” he says, “you’re expected to walk in and nail it. No one ever sits you down and explains the voice of the show. They don’t welcome you with open arms. There’s a bit of a You’ve got to earn it vibe. And that doesn’t go away for a long, long time.”

Onscreen, at least, he mastered the Colbertian eyebrow-cock and the bluff, brazen doltishness that allows an interviewer to barrel forward at full speed toward stupidity. In fact, he may now be a little too skilled at jackassery, at least for some Office fans. Bernard was originally intended to be a short-lived character with an eight-episode arc, a tormenting devil during Jim’s brief exile to the purgatory of the Connecticut office. But the show’s creators decided to keep Bernard on in Scranton—and when they did, commenters’ opinions were mixed. One blog disapprovingly described the character as “damn near intolerable.”

This might be explained by the fact that Andy Bernard is a little too familiar for comfort. As funny as Dwight Schrute is, it’s unlikely anyone can painfully relate to working next to an Amish-descended guy who lives on a 60-acre beet farm. But everyone has worked with an Andy Bernard. What saves the character are fanciful yet humanizing attributes like his love of a cappella singing. Bernard was in his college’s a cappella choir, Here Comes Treble. Helms, too, sang a cappella, while he was at Oberlin, in a group called the Obertones. You might assume, as I did, that this was one of Helms’s contributions to the character, but you’d be wrong. This was simply a cosmic coincidence—confirming, perhaps, that in Bernard, Helms had found a perfect, if somewhat itchy, comedic skin. “I love a cappella music, but I also loathe a cappella music,” he says. “It’s the most paradoxical art form there is.” In this respect, a cappella is the Andy Bernard of musical forms.

Helms with Angela Kinsey in "The Office."Photo: Justin Lubin/Courtesy of NBC

When news hit this year that NBC had asked The Office’s creators for a spinoff, lots of speculation centered on Bernard, who seemed a natural to serve the role of Michael Scott in a different series—which is to say, the straw that agitates the drink. That show has yet to materialize, and with Steve Carell signed on for the next three seasons, Andy looks to remain a sidekick for now. Helms says of the spinoff talk, “It would be a blast to take Andy to another world, but there isn’t anything pending. Which is fine with me, because I’m having the time of my life.” He’s starring in the upcoming films The Goods: The Don Ready Story and Manure, the latter of which features Helms as a “womanizing manure peddler,” perhaps the greatest three-word character description in film history.

But mostly he’s just happy to be playing a benign jerk. He describes a recent day on The Office set, during which everyone watched an old sketch featuring Tim Conway—a classic slapstick bit in which Conway plays a dentist who keeps stabbing himself with Novocaine. It’s the kind of earnest, misguided, deadpan comedy that Helms loves: “It’s pretty transcendent and such pure comedy. There’s no victim.”

The Jerk