STEVE CARELL PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF MINTON
Scott Brown
December 23, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

Steve Carell made our 2005 Entertainers of the Year list

”I took on this character,” begins Steve Carell, ”this implausible boob of a character…” Which one is he talking about? Sweet, straitlaced 40-year-old virgin Andy Stitzer? Michael Scott, the toxically inane middle manager of NBC’s The Office? The correspondent persona he honed on The Daily Show, his career launch pad? It’s the latter, actually, but he might have been referring to any of them: Implausible boobs are Carell’s specialty. He takes them on; he makes them plausible. ”You’re telling me I have a gift for the pathetic?” he chuckles, when talk turns to his talent for humanizing the Great American Doofus. ”I have no idea where my pathetic nature comes from. If I thought about it too long, it would depress me.”

Brighten up, buddy. After toiling to mild acclaim in the bit mines (with smaller, memorable characters in Bruce Almighty, Anchorman, and Bewitched, among others), the 42-year-old Second City alum broke into leading-man territory by playing a developmentally delayed accidental celibate. In Carell’s hands, what might have been the cheapest of gags became the deftest of characterizations. ”If there’s a humanity to it, that will create funnier situations,” he says. ”People will always respond better to what’s organic.” As an improv artist, Carell prizes character over shtick. Maybe that’s why his roles always seem so immediate, so unbearably real, even when they verge on the surreally ridiculous.

Carell is a confident but humble performer, and in person, he’s naturally self-deprecating. (”I’m not the type that’s going to make big wads of money,” he says. Um…too late, dude.) Only recently did his name vanish from the credits of The Daily Show. ”I was unsure enough that I never severed ties,” he says. Of course, with The Office gaining strength (and heading for a competitive time slot on Thursday nights), Carell has a new TV toehold; meanwhile, the critically fondled Virgin‘s $109 million haul has scored him a smorgasbord of film leads. But don’t try telling Carell he isn’t pathetic. ”There’s nothing less funny,” he says, ”than someone who’s aware of himself.”

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