Steve Carell on improv

I’ve been circling back lately to watch the second and third seasons of the U.S. version of The Office. I’m kicking myself for being such a U.K.-version snob all this time. Last May, my friend Steve G., who I know from my real-life office, described the following scene to me while at a bar where my improv classmates and I had gathered to celebrate my birthday. At the time, I remember not laughing so much at his description because the scene didn’t sound all that funny, and I was a little defensive that the joke was centered around someone who was mucking around in an improv class. Today, I know better. Here’s a passage from his IMDB profile and a bit from a Premiere Magazine interview earlier this year:

– From 1990-1996 he taught improvisational comedy class and also performed with The Second City troupe in Chicago where Stephen Colbert was his understudy* for a time. During the 1990s he was writing for The Dana Carvey Show, then he had a stint as one of correspondents on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

– As mysterious as good improv may seem, Carell, who sharpened his skills at Chicago’s Second City, doesn’t shy away from trying to explain his method. “The main thrust of it is just listening,” he says. “There were devices like, ‘Yes and,’ meaning, if someone says something, you agree and add to it. They may seem like playground games, but it breaks patterns when you’re forced to just respond and not feel embarrassed. If there’s a sense of reality to it, of something that’s organic to the scene.” He stops and rolls his eyes. “Oh my God.”

*ONION A.V. CLUB: You were Steve Carell’s understudy?
Understudy at Second City doesn’t mean what it means elsewhere. When he was out of town, they put me in. But, yeah, that’s fine, I’m honored to be his understudy. My first gig on Mainstage, which is the main theater there, was going in for him. He was a great guy whose material was fun to do, and I was happy to pretend that I had written it.
AVC: Did you guys hit it off immediately?
Steve’s a very pleasant guy, but he’s very private. I can’t say that we ever hung out. He’s an incredible guy to perform with. I have amazing respect. He always gives absolutely everything he has. I’ve never seen him phone anything in. And he’ll try anything. They needed somebody at The Daily Show, and I said, “You guys should hire this guy named Steve Carell, there’s nothing he can’t make funny.” It startles me how funny he can make things.

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