Steve Carell is no dummy. He sees the similarities between hismock TV-reporter persona on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show WithJon Stewart and his role as Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ often-injuredex-boyfriend, Edgar, on NBC’s Watching Ellie. ”Clearly, they’reboth idiots,” he says. ”It’s something I find fairly easy toplay. I don’t know what that says about me.” Of course, thereare subtle distinctions: ”Edgar’s more of a jerk, and the DailyShow correspondent is more of a clueless blowhard.”

Yet Carell keeps both characters from being completelyunsympathetic. ”There’s a built-in inappropriateness to whatSteve does, but he’s able to pull it off because he’s sounbelievably lovable,” says Daily Show exec producer MadeleineSmithberg. Even the terminally irksome Edgar has a good side,although we haven’t seen it yet. ”There has to be a shred ofdecency about the guy, because otherwise, why would this womanhave dated him?” says Carell. ”How could anyone get ahead beingsuch an incredible jerk — aside from people who work in Hollywood?”

Carell’s learning how to succeed in L.A., having temporarilytransplanted his wife (and Daily Show colleague), Nancy Walls,and their 9-month-old daughter, Annie, from New Jersey while he’sshooting Ellie. It’s been a long journey for the 39-year-oldMassachusetts native. He put off law school to pursue acting andspent six years with Chicago’s Second City improv troupe. Rolesin John Hughes’ Curly Sue (”I have to take that off my bio”), theflop sitcom Over the Top (”I don’t think I’d want to see a tapeof it”), and the short-lived Dana Carvey Show led him to TheDaily Show, where he once gagged on a mouthful of Crisco for adieting 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 aswell as a gig as a know-it-all employee in an omnipresent seriesof ads for FedEx: ”I did five, but based on how many timesthey’ve been showing them, it seems more like 15.”

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