Michael Cera is too good to be true. He gets this reaction a lot. He gets it onscreen, as when producer Judd Apatow watched his audition tape for the new comedy Superbad and thought, This guy is off-the-charts funny. And he gets it offscreen, where Cera is so courteous, so apparently down-to-earth (on Letterman, when Dave asked him if he’s part of “new Hollywood,” Cera said, “Well, I don’t think anyone here’s ever heard of me”), and so astonishingly untainted by what should be, by all rights, his looming megafame (of his current publicity tour, he says, “The traveling is really exciting for me. And they pay for it all. Food and everything”) that you start to worry that his whole persona is some sort of Dadaist media prank.
I first had this experience when I met him three years ago on the set of Arrested Development, the too-beautiful-for-this-world Fox sitcom that was later canceled, in 2006. Back then, Cera was only 16 (he’s 19 now), a child actor from Brampton, Ontario; he had not yet spent three seasons on an Emmy-winning TV comedy, nor been subsequently signed by CBS to do his own Web sitcom, Clark and Michael, nor been clutched to the bosom of hipster Hollywood and cast as the lead in a Judd Apatow–produced movie that, thanks to the sweeping success of Apatow’s Knocked Up, now sails into theaters on August 17 on a gust of giddy goodwill. He had not yet, in other words, had every opportunity to swell into an egomaniacal teen star run amok. And he hasn’t, it seems, embraced that opportunity. He still lives in Brampton with his parents. When he says, “It’s nice—there’s not too much pressure for me to do things. I don’t have to support anyone,” then adds, “but I am planning to have a wife and kids in the next year,” he is not having a Culkin-esque child-bride crack-up; he’s making a dry joke. He is very adept at dry jokes.
While Apatow was directing Knocked Up, he invited Cera to the set and asked if he wanted to be part of something they were filming for the DVD. Basically, he had Cera sit in on a scene with Katherine Heigl, and then stage a huge mock blowup. Cera, despite—or, perhaps, because of—his naturally reserved, self-effacing manner, is very good at huge mock blowups. So when Apatow asked for more energy, he sniped back, “Quit shouting shit out to me when I’m in the middle of a sentence!” Trouble was, Apatow and Cera hadn’t told Cera’s mother, who’d accompanied him to set. As she watched her son very uncharacteristically tell the producer of his new film to go to hell, she grabbed the person next to her and said in a panic, “Oh my God! He’s throwing it all away!”
The current vogue in comedy is for the doofus man-child—the guy who mines laughs in the yawning chasm between his feeble abilities and his inflated self-regard. It’s hard, in fact, to think of a male comedy star who doesn’t fall into this category, from Vince Vaughn (hipster man-child) to Will Ferrell (rampaging man-child) to Owen Wilson (surfer-dude man-child) to Adam Sandler (impish man-child). In Superbad, Cera plays an actual child-child, a teenager going to one last party before his high-school graduation. In a sense, Cera’s comedic approach is the opposite of what’s popular: He’s the guy with ample abilities but no self-confidence. His straight-arrow, approval-hungry George Michael Bluth on Arrested Development was a hilarious portrait of adolescent awkwardness. In one episode, when he gets caught by his dad trying to buy pot for his uncle, he valiantly tries to take the rap, saying, “It’s for me. I was going to smoke the marijuana like a cigarette.”
“Almost all comedy comes from anger,” says Apatow. “His comes from a different place.” Even Cera’s not sure where his sensibility evolved from. His comedic idol is Bill Murray, but as he says, “Everything Bill Murray does, he’s like the really cool guy, very confident.” In a sense, Cera is less like Murray than like Woody Allen, if you vacuumed out all the Jewishness and raised him in Canada.
Which makes Cera the perfect counterpoint to Jonah Hill, his Superbad co-star, who’s all sweaty bravado and sputtering libido. (“If this was 1910, they’d work together for the next 60 years,” says Apatow. “They’d be Laurel and Hardy.”) Cera can sell a line like “Imagine if girls weren’t weirded out by our boners, but actually wanted to look at them. I want to live in that world,” and get not only laughs but, at least from young women in the audience, swooning awwws. “It’s funny to show people who both want intimacy and are terrified of it,” says Apatow. “The guy who’s going to put his heart out there, either to be embraced or be crushed.” Cera once did an entire stand-up routine during which he read an earnest poem about his ex-girlfriend, while on the verge of tears. There were no jokes, save for the meta-joke of squirming in the presence of someone so vulnerable. “But that’s the only way I can feel comfortable addressing an audience,” he says. “Having that security blanket of being in character. I’ve never done straight stand-up, where you just are yourself. That’s too terrifying to me.”
Cera also plays in a band with his friend Clark Duke, another former child-actor he met in L.A. Cera’s a huge fan of Weezer, the grunge-pop band, whose resident genius, Rivers Cuomo, endured a mental meltdown and wound up living in an apartment with the windows covered and the walls painted black. I ask Cera whether he ever wonders, in his own life, if personal demons are prerequisites for great art. He considers this, then says, “I’m not really trying to make ‘great art.’” He understands the romantic pull of the lying–in–bed–like–Brian Wilson types. But Cera’s more like an antidote to the paradigm of the tortured, John Belushi–on–a–bender comedian out of control. He’s a sweet, well-adjusted kid from the suburbs who happens to be exceptionally talented at finding the comedy in being a sweet, well-adjusted kid from the suburbs. As such, he’s easy to root for, and easy to fall for. When they screened Superbad in San Diego, Apatow remembers that, afterward, every other question from the audience was a cute girl asking, “Michael Cera, will you marry me?”
When I mention this to Cera, he gets a little squirmy himself. “It was really uncomfortable,” he says. “And it only happened, honestly, like, twice.”