Here is how the promising comedy career of Ed Helms almost didn't begin. As an ambitious undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio, he traveled on spring break to NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters in New York City to interview for an internship at Late Night With Conan O'Brien.
On his visit, Helms was offered an interview — and almost immediately, a job — as an intern in the publicity department of the local NBC television station, an opportunity he hungrily and impulsively accepted.
So when he got a call at his dorm two days later offering him the coveted Late Night post, he felt duty-bound to say he'd made another commitment.
"I was so paranoid about my reputation in show business as a 19-year-old college kid," a chagrined Helms said recently. "I didn't want to be burning bridges, or word would get around 30 Rock that this Ed Helms kid is bad news."
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If you know Helms only from his sitcom role as Andy Bernard, the amiable, out-of-his-depth manager on The Office, or as Stu, the henpecked buddy from the hit Hangover comedies, you know enough to recognize an intrinsic Ed-Helms-ness in that story.
In real life, there seems to be an underlying code of morality and decency that he strives to obey — sometimes to contradictory and comic effect — and he acknowledges he is drawn to similar roles in his work.
"I have a real connection to those characters that want to be better versions of themselves and just get in their own way, constantly," he said. "That desperation of how do you stand your ground with dignity versus standing your ground in a really petty way."
Even on a recent visit to New York to discuss his performances in the Universal animated feature Dr. Seuss' The Lorax as The Once-ler and Jeff Who Lives at Home, a comedy-drama opening Friday by sibling filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, Helms could not help but be his genial, buttoned-down self.
Over a late lunch Helms, 38, an Atlanta native transplanted to Los Angeles, spoke of filming Jeff in New Orleans, focusing on the Old World character of the French Quarter rather than the city's more decadent establishments.
What Helms has gained lately over his obliging, self-defeating characters is a greater ability to shape his professional destiny. But with that have come tough setbacks and strong criticism, and the realization that seeming stability is quite fragile.
"That's the little bunny that keeps you running around the dog track, and it actually is an illusion," he said. "You always think that next horizon is where you'll be comfortable and where everything will be set. It just never really is."
After his NBC internship and several years in New York comedy clubs, Helms was invited in 2006 to follow his fellow Daily Show correspondent Steve Carell to The Office, to play Andy, an eager-to-please underling with some latent anger-management issues.
At the time, Helms was booked onto The Office for about 10 episodes, but its producers quickly realized he had longer-term prospects.
"He had so much in common with this character we wanted to create," said Paul Lieberstein, an Office executive producer and its show runner. "He has this undeniable likability. When he's at his most awful, you can't help but love the guy."
His Office exploits drew the attention of Todd Phillips, the director and producer of the Hangover series. In those movies, Helms' seeming milquetoast character has variously pulled his own tooth, sung a lullaby to a tiger stolen from Mike Tyson's menagerie and gotten a tattoo that covers half his face. The films have sold more than $1 billion in tickets worldwide.
That kind of success has given Helms some latitude to explore more offbeat roles.
In Jeff Who Lives at Home, he plays the pragmatic and generally loathsome brother of the title character (Jason Segel), a pot-smoking daydreamer searching for his place in the world.
The Duplass brothers said Helms was chosen not because he resembled his character at the start of the film, but because he was already in a place they hoped the character would find himself by the end.
"He's not playing a thinly veiled version of himself," Mark Duplass said. "He's playing a consistently, 180- degrees-different person than himself."
Even so, Jay Duplass said, Helms has it in him to "play a jerky boy really easily."
When Helms peers ahead a year, he is not sure what he will be doing. But when he looked back to just a few years ago, he saw someone whose values were not much different, who took nothing for granted and thought nothing of using a longboard skateboard to transport himself — and his laundry — around New York.
"I remember coming home one day," Helms said, "with this giant laundry bag on my skateboard, and this guy stopped and he's staring at me, and he's like, 'Unbelievable — Ed Helms doing his own laundry!'"
He said, "I was just, like, who else is going to do my laundry?"