Ed Helms doesn’t always play the brightest characters, but in real life, the Atlanta-area actor isn’t afraid of tackling heavy questions. Helms, known for The Hangover, The Office and The Daily Show, co-stars with Owen Wilson in the paternity comedy Father Figures, opening in theaters Friday. He also has a new Comedy Central special, The Fake News With Ted Nelms, examining such topics as gun control and hyper-partisanship.
Helms spoke to Playboy about why the media shouldn’t name mass shooters, stand-up’s influence on his new film and the timeliness of his upcoming Ted Kennedy-focused flick, Chappaquiddick.
Seth Meyers told me there’s a problem with humorlessness across the political spectrum. What are your thoughts?
Yeah, I think just about everybody is taking themselves a little too seriously right about now.
The Fake News With Ted Nelms addresses America’s gun-control problem. Gun control has worked in Australia. There hasn’t been a gun massacre there in 21 years.
That’s very cool. … That segment is a way to visualize those gun-control arguments. A lot of the time, the news pits people against each other more than it pursues reconciliation. That’s really what the segment is about.
The bombing segment is also in that vein. It satirizes hyper-partisanship?
Exactly. There’s a part of that inside of all of us when these horrible events happen. We want it to fit our narrative and our worldview. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. But depending what news source, you’re going to get a lot of reinforcement towards your worldview. And I think that’s a bit irresponsible. Don’t go to [just] one place. What role are we playing in how these things are covered? How are we choosing what we watch? Why do we want a shooter, or terrible atrocity, to fit a narrative? It’s definitely a very partisan time. The news should look for opportunities to educate us or provide reconciliation.
Is your erstwhile Daily Show colleague Stephen Colbert’s W. Bush-era quote, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias,” even more resonant today, given the Republicans’ increasing extremism?
[Laughs] That is definitely a very funny quote. I’ll let Stephen speak for himself.
Does your bombing segment make the case why media shouldn’t name mass shooters/terrorists, and endlessly analyze these individuals’ lives? Does it just give them what they craved: attention?
Sure, that’s the really ironic thing. The news just loves to have a good villain. Even professional sports have higher standards! Say, during a baseball game—it used to be that if someone took off all their clothes and ran out onto a field during a game, TV would show that. They would show the person running around, and the security guards chasing after them and catching them. Eventually, they realized that by showing that on TV, they were encouraging people to do that. So now whenever that happens, they cut to commercial. Meanwhile, when someone shoots a lot of people, the news goes head over heels, goes to great lengths to big-up everything they can about this person and learn everything we can about this person.
There’s a certain amount of healthy curiosity there, a certain amount of healing that comes from understanding a tragedy, but there’s a middle ground. There’s a point at which there’s diminishing returns. It may even be that there are other perpetrators looking to their explanations—that’s a bizarre thing. Using the names of killers on TV might be questionable judgment, yet TV [networks] still do it. It seems like a thing to satirize and be thinking about.
Speaking of death, I’m looking forward to seeing Chappaquiddick, where you play Ted Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan.
I’m really, really proud to be a part of Chappaquiddick. It explores a lot of really meaningful and prescient themes culturally right now: power and privilege and how those things get exploited. If you have an incredible influence, how do you use it? Do you use it just to save you own ass? Or do you use it for the greater good? This movie really explores a lot of that. It asks intellectually honest questions about what people would do in certain circumstances. It’s very easy to wag your finger and say you did the wrong thing there.
Sometimes you’re right, and it feels good to be right. Other times, it’s more nebulous, and it’s incredibly scary to imagine yourself in a situation that threatens everything you stand for. How should we behave in those situations? We should obviously do the right thing. It seems like most people are not capable of that, or not quite as good behind closed doors as they want to be. I’m fascinated by that. I’m so fascinated by the psychology of human behavior. Why do people do bad things? Also, why we’re so eager to pillory people publicly. News is certainly a big part of that.
Chappaquiddick couldn’t be more zeitgeist-y with the American conversation about powerful men getting away with things they shouldn’t, yeah?
We’re right in the middle of that conversation. It’s really important to me that we’re asking ourselves these questions of, what do we stand for? How much we hold our leaders accountable for.
The Fake News is a much more silly and joyful exploration of how cable news is getting out of hand. If you go into it expecting a brassy political takedown, you might be disappointed. If you go into it for some really fun cultural commentary and social satire and super ridiculous jokes, I think you’ll have a lot of fun with it. We didn’t want it to seem mean-spirited. We want people to enjoy it across the political spectrum, whatever the absurdities of the politicians you like and the news channel you watch.
Could you comment on TV comedy you’ve enjoyed this year?
Curb Your Enthusiasm’s always a home run for me. I really like the [Tina Fey] show Great News on NBC—it’s really fun and funny. The Good Place. Atlanta is an amazing show, a massive home run. There’s so much inspiration out there. I’m really thrilled—it’s an exciting time for television right now.
How do your many stand-up comedy years inform roles like Peter in Father Figures?
Stand-up is incredible training for writing, timing and delivery. What are the main themes? Is the storytelling clear? You’re interacting live with audiences; you’re constantly reminded of how well you are doing. The audiences disciplines you, forces you to go back and word harder. The immediacy of stand-up makes you very aware. Whenever I’m doing a movie like Father Figures, I’m drawing on my stand-up background in a way, thinking about how the audience will be responding in a movie theater.
What do tigers dream of?
[Laughs] I think probably all their tiger food.
The Fake News with Ted Nelms is available free on demand now. Father Figures releases today.