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''The Daily Show'''s Steve Carell hits prime time

”The Daily Show”’s Steve Carell hits prime time. Jon Stewart’s doofus sidekick stumbles into stardom with ”Watching Ellie”

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Steve Carell
Steve Carell: Kevin Foley

Steve Carell is no dummy. He sees the similarities between his mock TV-reporter persona on Comedy Central’s ”The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and his role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ often-injured ex-boyfriend, Edgar, on NBC’s ”Watching Ellie.” ”Clearly, they’re both idiots,” he says. ”It’s something I find fairly easy to play. I don’t know what that says about me.” Of course, there are subtle distinctions: ”Edgar’s more of a jerk, and the ‘Daily Show’ correspondent is more of a clueless blowhard.”

Yet Carell keeps both characters from being completely unsympathetic. ”There’s a built-in inappropriateness to what Steve does, but he’s able to pull it off because he’s so unbelievably lovable,” says ”Daily Show” exec producer Madeleine Smithberg. Even the terminally irksome Edgar has a good side, although we haven’t seen it yet. ”There has to be a shred of decency about the guy, because otherwise, why would this woman have dated him?” says Carell. ”How could anyone get ahead being such an incredible jerk — aside from people who work in Hollywood?”

Carell’s learning how to succeed in L.A., having temporarily transplanted his wife (and ”Daily Show” colleague), Nancy Walls, and their 9-month-old daughter, Annie, from New Jersey while he’s shooting Ellie. It’s been a long journey for the 39-year-old Massachusetts native. He put off law school to pursue acting and spent six years with Chicago’s Second City improv troupe. Roles in John Hughes’ ”Curly Sue” (”I have to take that off my bio”), the flop sitcom ”Over the Top” (”I don’t think I’d want to see a tape of it”), and the short-lived ”Dana Carvey Show” led him to ”The Daily Show,” where he once gagged on a mouthful of Crisco for a dieting spoof. ”I was like, ‘What a fool!”’ recalls Smithberg. ”But it’s terrific to have a fool like that on your team.”

Such comedic commitment won him the part on ”Watching Ellie” as well as a gig as a know-it-all employee in an omnipresent series of ads for FedEx: ”I did five, but based on how many times they’ve been showing them, it seems more like 15.”

His increased TV visibility means Carell now has to deal with strangers recognizing him — sort of. ”I get a lot of this: ‘Hey, hey… yeah!” he reports. ”A guy behind the counter at the supermarket just said, ‘I know who you are!’ And my response was, ‘Do you have a salad bar?”’

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