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Steve Carell Says Comedy Has Become 'Uber-Cynical,' 'Borderline Mean'

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Born in Concord, Mass., the fourth son of a heat-transfer engineer and a psychiatric nurse, Carell was influenced by both. "My dad is a very gentle guy," he says, "and my mom is more of a firecracker. She was a great motivator. A lot of my drive came from her striving for excellence." He continues: "They were really devoted to their kids, almost to a fault. They gave me a template for my kids [John, 8, and Annie, 11] because I do the same things for my children -- maybe too much."

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After attending the Fenn and Middlesex prep schools, where he excelled at sports like hockey and appeared in school plays, Carell majored in history at Ohio's Denison University, planning to become a lawyer. But when he applied to Stanford Law and was asked why he wanted to go, he was stumped.

"My dad, a very pragmatic guy, said, 'Let's make a list of all the things you love to do,' " remembers Carell. Hockey and acting emerged atop the list. Without quite having the skill for the former, he opted for the latter, heading for Chicago: "My goal was not to work at Second City but just to work. Chicago also seemed to be less intimidating than New York or Los Angeles."

But there, he found his way to Second City, becoming one of its more notable performers. Fey, who watched him during her student days, says Carell was a "rock star."

Office showrunner Greg Daniels feels those improv years were crucial, recalling how the actor got him to read improv master Del Close's Truth in Comedy. "The book is about being truthful and not going for easy laughs and also being very open to whatever happens, in life as well as performance -- which is Steve," he says.

It was at Second City that Carell met his future wife, Nancy Walls, whom he taught in an improv class. They've been married 17 years.

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"I think about how much we laugh together and how much we make each other laugh -- but she's not an easy laugh," he says. "She's not someone who will laugh at everything everybody says." Rather, "she challenges me intellectually; she challenges me comedically. I look to her as a barometer for just about everything I do."

It is ironic that Nancy, his former student, got her first big break before Carell, when she joined Saturday Night Live in 1995. He followed her to New York but maintains her success put no strain on their marriage because "I try not to live in that world of self-pity."

The deep bond Carell shares with Walls is a defining trait of his life. Both come from small Massachusetts towns (they maintain a summer home in that state) and both are shaped by Catholicism, to which Carell says he adheres "casually" but maintains nonetheless.

Carell's turn came when Stewart hired him following Colbert's recommendation. On Daily Show, Carell took the role of a mock reporter interviewing figures like a Florida mayor who had banned the devil. Aspects of the job troubled him, though. "It's one thing poking fun at people who deserve it, but there was that flip side of shooting fish in a barrel. It's just cruel," he says.

After five years shuttling between New York and Los Angeles, in 2004 he left the show and moved to the West Coast, plunging in without a job. This time, Walls "sort of put her career on hold, I guess," says Carell. "Nancy wanted to have kids and be a stay-at-home mom and felt fortunate that she had the opportunity to do so."

Before leaving Stewart, Carell had appeared in minor roles and on abortive series (such as the short-lived The Dana Carvey Show), followed by supporting parts in 2003's Bruce Almighty and 2004's Anchorman that drew attention. Then two life-changing roles skyrocketed him to fame -- as the socially challenged boss on Office and the eponymous 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Carell, who co-wrote the script, pitched the latter to Judd Apatow, with whom he had worked on Anchorman, drawing on a character he'd developed at Second City, who tells his buddies he has never had sex. Apatow "responded immediately," says Carell. "I'll never forget. He said, 'Oh, we could sell that tomorrow.' Within a couple of days, he mentioned it to someone at Universal, and they bought it right there."

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Virgin earned $177 million worldwide. During its postproduction, word of its potential success convinced NBC to renew the then-struggling Office, which soon became a major hit. At 42, Carell finally was a star.

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The negative aspects of stardom have never bothered him, he says. Being a star has allowed him to do the type of work he otherwise might never have accomplished -- like two of Carell's most admired films, Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Dan in Real Life (2007), as well as the recent disappointment of Seeking a Friend.

It has allowed him to maintain film and television pacts at Warner Bros. and Fox, respectively, through his company Carousel, which recently produced Crazy, Stupid, Love and the upcoming The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (a comedy about two Las Vegas magicians that stars Jim Carrey), as well as Showtime's Inside Comedy.

But Carell's most intriguing new project is Foxcatcher, a drama for Moneyball director Bennett Miller in which he will star opposite Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum as real-life mentally ill millionaire John du Pont. "He had a passion for Olympic wrestling," but his erratic behavior led to the 1996 murder of gold-medal winner Dave Schultz, explains Carell.

If the role seems a stretch, the actor is unfazed. "I don't think of myself as a comedian," he says. "I'm not a joke-teller. I didn't do stand-up. I never even thought I was that funny."