PLAYBOY: Andy Bernard loves to brag about being a Cornell University alumnus. Last March his likeness and boisterous claim—“I went to Cornell…ever heard of it?”—were used to promote Cornell’s law school on its website. If you were a potential Cornell student, would Andy’s endorsement help or hurt?
HELMS: I think it’s great, because it shows that Cornell has a sense of humor about itself. It’s perfectly harmless. At the same time, there’s something a little ridiculous about an institution of higher learning celebrating a fictional character who is known for not living up to the standards of that university. For any thinking person, Andy’s endorsement should be absolutely meaningless.
PLAYBOY: A few years ago you attended an Office convention in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where your fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company office is located. What are the hard-core fans really like?
HELMS: They’re pretty extreme, man. At that convention we were like the Beatles for a weekend. We had a police escort just to get around town, and everywhere we went there was a round of applause. At one point I was in a car with [Office co-star] Angela Kinsey in downtown Scranton, and we passed a model-train store. I asked the driver to stop so we could go in. And before we knew it, fans were starting to pour in. A cop eventually showed up and said, “Everyone out.” And they shut down this store so Angela and I could walk around and look at model trains. That was just crazy to me. I thought that shit only happened to Justin Bieber.
PLAYBOY: On The Daily Showyou played a correspondent named Ed Helms, who was kind of a douche bag. Did people always know the difference between the real Ed Helms and the satirical Ed Helms?
HELMS: I honestly don’t know. It’s such a weird medium, because you’re kind of defining yourself publicly as this person. But of course it’s a comedy and you hope the audience understands you’re being silly and ridiculous. I’m sure some people thought I was the incredibly smug prick I played on the show. Sometimes we rode the line, and there were some things I regret in hindsight.
PLAYBOY: Can we assume the thing you regret is the Nutcam, the hidden scrotum camera you wore during a segment?
HELMS: Not at all. I’m very proud of the Nutcam. In fact, I’ll spoil the mystery. A good magician never shares his secrets, but nobody ever accused me of being a good magician. I wasn’t actually wearing that Speedo with the camera in it. We put two golf balls in the front of the swimsuit and hung it on the hood of the camera so the balls dangled in front of the lens, just at the top of the frame. And then we walked around with it at waist level. Sorry if I ruined it for you.
PLAYBOY: What is Jon Stewart like as a boss?
HELMS: I think the best way to describe Jon is how I once described him in a segment on the show. He’s a mixture of Hitler and Willy Wonka. [laughs] I don’t even know what that means. In any environment in which everyone is putting out a lot of creativity, there will be tension at times, because not all of it works and you won’t always agree on what works. You have to throw a hundred darts at the board and maybe 10 of them will stick. Is that a good metaphor? I’m having second thoughts.
PLAYBOY: You’re working on a screenplay for a film about Civil War reenactors, in which you hope to star. Have you ever taken part in a reenactment?
HELMS: I’ve attended a few but just as a spectator. The people involved are so passionate about the Civil War. Whenever somebody is truly passionate about something, no matter how silly or absurd it seems to everybody else, that’s admirable. Unless it’s a fascist dictator or something. In that case, passion is not as cool.
PLAYBOY: You often invite your parents to visit you on the sets of your movies and TV shows. Have they ever seen something they shouldn’t?
HELMS: Oh sure. As I mentioned, pride and dignity are the enemies of comedy. And that’s not always something you want to share with your parents. Both my mom and dad have been phenomenally supportive over the years. Even when I think they’re embarrassed by something I’ve done, which is probably frequently, they’re respectful and gracious. They got upset with me only once. I did a segment on The Daily Show where I go to a brothel in Pahrump, Nevada . At one point I’m literally chasing a gaggle of prostitutes around a swimming pool while wearing a cowboy hat, a necktie and a Speedo. When my mom saw it she was like, “Maybe you went too far.” And she’s probably right, God bless her. I should listen to my mom more often.
PLAYBOY: You were in an a cappella group in college called the Oberlin Obertones. Were you contemplating a career in music?
HELMS: I never thought about singing professionally, but being in that group was very gratifying creatively. There’s a funny thing about a cappella: It’s so much fun to sing, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting to listen to. You do these shows and have a great time and think you’re killing it, but most of the people in the audience are probably there only because they know someone in the group. The entertainment value of a cappella is questionable.
PLAYBOY: You’ve played the banjo a few times on The Office, but you haven’t serenaded anybody in a while. You haven’t given up the banjo, have you?
HELMS: Not at all. I love the banjo and I love bluegrass music. When it’s used comedically, the banjo sounds so goofy and wacky. But I don’t think it always works. At least I haven’t seen many people pull it off. Steve Martin’s the exception, obviously.
PLAYBOY: Steve Carell, who plays Michael Scott, the goofball boss on The Office, is leaving this year. Does Andy Bernard have what it takes to get a promotion and become the new manager at Dunder Mifflin?
HELMS: I don’t know. Andy’s an intrinsically sweet guy, but he’s also kind of desperate for approval and very short-tempered. Too much responsibility and he might get more stressed out and susceptible to, as he likes to say, losing his freakin’ mind. So no, I don’t think management would be a good fit for him.