By Erica M. Lee and David Edward Clark
Ed Helms ’96 has been on The Daily Show, The Hangover, and he returns on The Office on September 17th as Andy Bernard.
F+L: Tell us your best fabricated Oberlin story.
Ed: Okay, hang on. Is “Fearless” a slogan here?
F+L: Yeah, the slogan is: We are Oberlin. Fearless. I should have brought a t-shirt. I almost felt like wearing it or giving it to you.
Ed: Oh, okay. I wish I had known that. I would have made so much fun of that…
My best fabricated Oberlin story? Meaning, just lie to you right now?
F+L. Yes. Have fun with it.
Ed: Well, I founded the college in 1833, and a funny little anecdote from that experience: there was a really stubborn rancher here, and we had to scare him away, so we–my fellow founders and I–for about two months, dressed up like ghosts and haunted the rancher. Eventually he got really scared and moved away so we could build a college here. It was very Scooby-Doo. We put masks on, rattled chains and things.
F+L: If we were to only see one thing you’ve worked on, what would it be and why?
Ed: What would I choose to show you?
F+L: Yes. Only one.
Ed: Well, I think The Hangover represents a lot of the work I’ve done to get to that place. I’m really proud of it. It has a lot of what I want to be and get better at as an actor and even as a musician–there’s a funny little song in it. It covers a lot of ground, and there’s some actual poignant stuff in that movie. I don’t want to get too precious with it, but it’s a very funny movie that I’m very proud of. I feel like I acted more in that than I probably have in other things. That said, there was a production here at Oberlin of The Cradle Will Rock that was really fun and cool, and I remember feeling really proud to be a part of that. If I were to see it now, I would probably be horrified. But at that time, that was a big deal for me, and I think a big part of my process here.
F+L: What was that play about and what was your role in it?
Ed: The Cradle Will Rock is this really cool–it’s a musical. It was written for the WPA theaters during the Great Depression–or maybe it was just first performed there. I can’t quite remember, although it’s all about union issues. It’s a very progressive, fight-the-power or fight-the-man message. Everyone, all the characters, are these generic archetypes, like Larry Foreman is the foreman of the factory, and Editor Daily is the corrupt newspaper editor, and the evil villain is Mister Mister, who’s just the man, and I played Mister Mister. Paul Moser directed that. He was awesome.
F+L: Who influenced you the most at Oberlin? What did s/he influence you to do, and were you happy about this influence?
Ed: I think probably the biggest influence on me here was Jake, because we spent the most time together, and I was absolutely thrilled about that influence because he’s a great musician and also a really smart guy. He worked hard and also managed to have a lot of fun. I think Jake, in many respects, exemplifies a lot of what is great about Obies. I think I worked a little too hard, so he was a good influence in that respect at chilling out a little bit. I mean, I always loved bluegrass music, and I played it a lot, but Jake was the first one to be like, “Yeah, let’s start a band!” And that was just a formative. It’s had such a lasting impact on my whole life.
F+L: We are Oberlin. How are you fearless?
Ed: Oh no. I’m kinda terrified of most things. How am I fearless? If you put me in an ultimate fighting octagon with some bunnies, I’m pretty sure I could kick their asses. But otherwise, in many respects, I’m kind of timid.
F+L: What was the bane of your college existence?
Ed: I love your questions. They’re so broad. The bane of my college existence. You know Andrew Bernard’s middle name is Baines?
F+L: No, we didn’t.
Ed: Andrew Baines Bernard. Yeah, not a lot of people know that. I’m not sure that’s ever been said in an episode.
F+L: I think if it had been said, we would know.
Ed: It’s somewhere.
The bane of my college existence. When I was here, there was this crushing wave of political correctness. To me, it’s kind of ironic, this “Fearless” thing, because political correctness is so deeply rooted in fear, and fear of offending someone. I think that’s such a counterproductive fear, and I thought it stifled a lot of discourse and it stifled a lot of creative thinking and actually polarized people in ways that were artificial and not helpful to thoughtful analysis of things. You have to not be afraid to offend people, I think, to get anything done. I think that was a frustrating thing for me here. I didn’t even really realize it at the time, because I really signed up for it and was on board for a while. And then it was later in my years here that I realized that it really was frustrating. Political correctness has a place, you know, it comes from a good place. But it’s like any ideology: it has to be mitigated with common sense, and I feel like it just was off to the races here without a lot of checks.
F+L: What was your most awkward Oberlin experience? We are Oberlin: Awkward is kindof the flipside to We are Oberlin: Fearless.
Ed: Oh, that’s funny. My most awkward…gosh. Through a rather dramatic fluke in the housing process, my junior year, I wound up with a freshman roommate in Johnson house. And I’m not Jewish, and I was not studying anything Jewishly related. I felt so bad for my roommate, because I was a junior, and I had my friends, and I didn’t want to hang out with this guy–a perfectly nice guy–but I was just off and gone all the time. I don’t even think I slept there most of the time. I just stayed at friends’ houses. That was my first semester my junior year. And that was quite awkward, although it was fun. There were a lot of great people in that house. I had some fun there for sure, but I would say that was pretty awkward. Then I wound up going away my second semester that year, and I think that Johnson house was part of why—it was far away from all my friends, and I was just sort of embarrassed to have a freshman roommate as a junior. That’s so weird, right? Who puts a junior and a freshman together? That’s crazy. I mean, that’s horrible for both people.
Andrea Rizzo: You were his big brother!
Ed: No. You need to have a fellow freshman to learn the ropes with and be afraid and excited together–
Ed: –to be fearless with. But yeah, junior—I just didn’t care. Dan, if you’re out there, I apologize. I was not a good roommate.
Eds. note: We interviewed Ed Helms at 11:30 in the morning. He stayed at Tank until 3:00 a.m., jamming with students and drinking beer, before he went back to the hotel and stayed up for another hour and a half. As he spoke to us, he cradled his coffee and became visibly and audibly more lucid as the interview went on. He very awesomely signed my Office calendar, and told David and I that we were single-handedly going to bring down television.