PLAYBOY: When Stephen Colbert recommended you for The Daily Show, were you hopeful this was a gig that would click?
CARELL: It was a complete surprise. I got a call out of the blue from an executive producer. That was just Colbert being a friend. I owe him for that. I was in Los Angeles doing some commercial work but nothing of great consequence. When they offered me a job as a Daily Show correspondent, my agent was on the fence because it required me to relocate to New York. At that time The Daily Show wasn't on anyone's radar. It was a very low-profile cable show.
PLAYBOY: Jon Stewart has joked he didn't trust your abilities in the beginning.
CARELL: I know. He's a real bastard for saying that. And yet I respect him for doing so.
PLAYBOY: How long did it take before you thought he was wrong?
CARELL: Oh, right away. As I recall, my first field piece was about a guy who ran a venom-research facility in Nebraska. That essentially meant he lived in a double-wide full of poisonous snakes. Also, for no apparent reason, he was an Elvis impersonator. This poor man had been bitten by snakes so many times, the nearest hospital refused to send an ambulance all the way to his home. Instead, they would just meet him halfway. He was a sweet guy, and I hope he's still with us.
PLAYBOY: As a correspondent, did you play a character or just a version of yourself?
CARELL: It was definitely a character. In the same way Stephen plays an archconservative, all the correspondents take on a slightly different persona.
PLAYBOY: So how would you describe the Steve Carell of The Daily Show?
CARELL: I always thought of him as someone who had been a network anchor but had since been demoted to working on a Comedy Central news show. He had a bad attitude about where he should be as opposed to where he was. It was an unspoken backstory, obviously.
PLAYBOY: At least during your first few years as a correspondent The Daily Show wasn't the satiric juggernaut it is today.
CARELL: That's true. The only people who recognized us were Starbucks baristas. For some reason our fan base was people who brew coffee professionally.
PLAYBOY: Was that frustrating, or did you prefer the relative obscurity?
CARELL: Oh, we never cared about being famous. It was great because we could get away with anything. Just after I was hired we covered a presidential debate in New Hampshire. No one knew who we were, what The Daily Show was, nothing. We were thrown into the press corps with actual credentials, and we had no idea what we were doing. We decided to ask the candidates questions from a stack of Trivial Pursuit cards we had brought with us. I remember Mo Rocca asked John McCain who Iceland's most famous female pop singer was, and without missing a beat McCain replied, "Björk." God, we had fun.
PLAYBOY: You retired from The Daily Show just as it was gaining credibility. Do you have any regrets about leaving?
CARELL: Actually, The Daily Show gained credibility because I left. The only bright side of leaving was I hated everyone involved with the show—Colbert, in particular. He seems to be very intelligent on TV, but trust me, it's all smoke and mirrors. Everything is written for him. His scripts need to be spelled out phonetically. I just got tired of carrying him. He has no idea what he's talking about. He can hardly spell his own name.
PLAYBOY: Will he enjoy your assessment of him?
CARELL: Maaaaaaybe. [laughs] Yes, Stephen and I are old friends. He is a lovely human being. I also enjoy his Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor.
PLAYBOY: You worked with him long before The Daily Show, right? At the Second City theater in Chicago?
CARELL: That's right. We met at the Second City. He was my understudy for the main-stage show. In one scene I played the baritone horn, and he actually learned how to play it in a week. For somebody who had never played a brass instrument before, that's pretty impressive.
PLAYBOY: You played a wide range of characters at Second City, including a surprisingly kindhearted serial killer. What inspired you to find the softer, gentler side of sociopaths?
CARELL: I don't know. I wrote that scene with Amy Sedaris, and we thought it would be fun to make audiences laugh and feel a little uncomfortable at the same time. She played a woman who runs into my character in the laundry room of our apartment complex, and when she finds out I'm a serial killer she teases me because I won't tell her how I murder people. She says...aw, I can't remember the line.
PLAYBOY: "I'm not going to steal your idea."
CARELL: [Laughs] Yeah, that was it. It was funny and sweet, but it was also a little disturbing. It's a scene with a lot of conflicting emotions. And I guess, in general, I'm just fascinated by that gray area. I like characters that can't be easily defined. You don't know whether you should like them or hate them. Because that's true in life. People aren't always what they seem. They're complicated. I don't think people are fundamentally good or bad. There are so many different shades of gray.
PLAYBOY: Didn't you come up with the idea for The 40-Year-Old Virgin at Second City?
CARELL: Not really. I mean, I did improvise something at Second City that was essentially the bare bones of what would become The 40-Year-Old Virgin. We tried it a few times during an improv set, but it never made it into a show. It was basically just a bunch of guys sitting around, regaling one another with these tales of sexual conquest, and one guy clearly can't keep up. Eventually it becomes obvious he's never had any kind of serious encounter with a woman. He says something like, "You know how when you touch a woman's breast, it feels like a big bag of sand?" The harder he tries to tell his own invented tale, the deeper he gets and the more he indicts himself.
PLAYBOY: That eventually became the poker scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
CARELL: That's right. When I ran into Judd Apatow on the Anchorman set—he produced the movie—he asked if I had any ideas and I told him, well, basically what I told you just now. He really liked the "big bag of sand" line. He said, "I could walk into a studio right now and sell the movie based on that line alone."
PLAYBOY: The 40-Year-Old Virgin could easily have been another forgettable, raunchy sex comedy. When you and Apatow were writing it, did you worry it might be too lowbrow?
CARELL: We didn't censor ourselves in any way. We weren't making it for a demographic. We just wanted to make something we thought was funny. We wanted to tell a human story about a guy who sort of slipped through the cracks.
PLAYBOY: Were there any battles with the studio for creative control?
CARELL: A few but nothing major. We did some test screenings, and we didn't always see eye to eye with the studio. There's only so much you can test, so much you can gauge by formulas. If you try to tailor a movie specifically to people's wants or desires, you're just taking a survey.
PLAYBOY: Did you and Apatow fight to save anything in the film?
CARELL: Well, there were some concerns about the chest-waxing scene.
PLAYBOY: The studio wanted to cut it?
CARELL: Not cut it but edit it down. They thought it dragged on for a little too long. But Judd and I figured the audience would ultimately enjoy the prolonged agonizing process.
PLAYBOY: Your agony during the chest waxing has become part of comedy lore. Did you fake any of your reaction?
CARELL: Not at all. It was all real pain. A lot of people still don't think it was real and assume it was just a special effect. People on the crew, especially women who had had some waxing done, came over to me and asked, "Do you want to take some ibuprofen? Or maybe trim your hair a little so it doesn't hurt as much?" I thought, No, it has to hurt. It has to be real. I did not heed their advice, and I was sorely mistaken.
PLAYBOY: Why is watching somebody in pain so inherently funny?
CARELL: What makes that scene funny has nothing to do with me. It's the three other guys. Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen and Romany Malco were so clearly uncomfortable with what they were seeing, and the comedy came out of their reactions. Romany got so disturbed that he had to leave the set. It was their sheer horror and disgust, tempered with the glee of watching another man in non-life-threatening pain. That will always be the perfect recipe for hilarity.