Funny Man

Funny Man

 

A few years ago, James Anderson ‘85 was sitting in a meeting for Watching Ellie, a new TV show produced by Carsey- Werner-Mandabach that starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfield fame. As the senior vice president of publicity and public relations, Anderson would be in charge of promoting the comedy and its stars. One of the cast members’ names sounded familiar. He asked to see a photo. Sure enough, it was a fellow Burpee’s Seedy member from the early 1980s. “It had come full circle,” Anderson says now with a laugh. “I knew there would come a day when I’d have to do PR for one of my college friends.”

That Burpee was Steve Carell ‘84, who has since moved on from the short-lived Ellie to a blossoming career. In 2005, he has starred in the TV sitcom The Office, (which has been renewed for another season); portrayed Uncle Arthur in the summer movie Bewitched; hosted the season première of Saturday Night Live; and co-written and played the lead in the summer blockbuster The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Carell’s take on it all: “I’ve been pretty lucky the last few years.” He credits that luck in part to his Burpee’s experience and to a fortuitous phone call that led to a fulltime gig at Chicago’s Second City Improv Company with two other Burpees. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

A Massachusetts native, Carell came to Denison with intentions of becoming a lawyer. “I was looking for a small liberal arts college,” he says. “My other choice was Carleton College in Minnesota, but I didn’t want to be that cold.” A history and theatre major, he joined Burpee’s as a freshman, but didn’t take it seriously. “I was dating a girl at Ohio State and always driving there, so I was missing practice, taking Burpee for granted.” Other Burpees told him, essentially, to take part or take a hike.

Carell chose the former. “Burpee was my first taste of being in a repertory company,” he says. “It was so much fun, so exciting. It taught me discipline and a work ethic. We would rate every show. We were very tough on ourselves. What was important was not if we killed, but if we did it the right way. It wasn’t a bunch of kids going out and fooling around. I learned that the most important person in a scene is your partner.”

“I was given the chance to completely fail on stage,” he adds. “Risking failure, I had no qualms about looking like an idiot in front of people, which may have adversely affected my dating life at Denison.”

After graduation, he was going to apply to law school. But he couldn’t get past one question on the applications: Why do you want to be an attorney? “I had no response to that except that it sounded good.” He kept thinking about his Burpee’s Seedy experience. “Burpee’s was a deciding factor in committing to acting. I did a lot of theater in college, but I didn’t consider it as a profession.” He considered moving to L.A. or New York, but he returned to New England to make some money for a few months at a job that he wouldn’t get “emotionally attached to.” So he took a third-shift job at a convenience store.

Then he got a call from fellow Burpee Charlie Hartsock ‘83, who was headed to Chicago to pursue the acting life with another Burpee, Stephen Carver ‘83. Want to come along? Soon, they were living together in the Windy City and starting a children’s theater company. All three also eventually ended up at the legendary Second City.

Each of them eventually headed to L.A. Carver landed roles in Diagnosis Murder, Sisters, and Star Trek: The Next Generation and played the cop in the film Liar Liar. In 1992, he founded Showfax Inc., the first online script distribution service that provided scripts to actors, agents, and managers for 80 percent of all TV and film productions. Seeking a quieter family life, Carver, his wife and three kids moved to Boulder, Colorado, where he directs plays and teaches acting classes.

Hartsock performed at Second City for six years and directed a division that taught improv techniques to corporations to improve, for instance, sales pitches. He has since worked on the movies Deep Impact and She’s the One, played recurring roles in the sitcoms Arrested Development and According to Jim, and this season appears in Desperate Housewives. Last year he and Carell worked together in an episode of The Office. “When the director went to ‘introduce’ me to Steve before the scene, he thought we were doing a bit when we said that we’d known each other for almost 25 years, were the best men at each other’s wedding, and are the godfathers of each other’s kids,” recalls Hartsock, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, son, and daughter.

Carell worked for seven years at Second City, where he met his wife, Nancy Walls. From there it was on to New York, while Walls spent a year on the Saturday Night Live cast and Carell wrote and acted for The Dana Carvey Show. They then moved to L.A., where Carell worked on several TV programs and movies, including Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Bruce Almighty, and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. In 2005 came The Office, The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, and the announcement that he’ll play Maxwell Smart in a film remake of the hit TV series, Get Smart. Walls, Carell and their son and daugther continue to live in L.A.

Carell looks back to his Burpee’s days as providing the base on which to build his career. He says a fellow Burpee once described the group as kids playing in a sandbox. “Somebody else said we were like puppies just rolling all over each other.” His own reflection on the group is a bit more direct and personal: “I loved Burpee’s,” he says. “It was special, and one of the most important aspects of my time at Denison.”

Published November 2020