'Office' thesp continues success with 'Hangover'

It’s been a great year for the Nard-dog.

On the heels of a standout season on NBC’s “The Office,” thesp Ed Helms is romping on the bigscreen with a starring role in one of the big hits of the summer, Warner Bros.’ “The Hangover.” He’ll be onscreen again in August opposite Jeremy Piven in another farce, “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.” And in between his PR duties for “Hangover,” Helms is spending his “Office” hiatus co-writing a comedy about Civil War re-enactors for Steve Carell’s Warner Bros.-based Carousel Prods. banner.

In short, this former “Daily Show” correspondent is busting out all over. Helms’ friends and colleagues say it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Really.

“He’s an amazingly decent, hard working, thoughtful, good person,” says “Office” exec producer Greg Daniels.

Daniels wasn’t looking for another dynamic male character on “The Office” when Helms joined the cast in 2006 as the earnestly nerdy, hot-tempered Andy Bernard (aka the “Nard-dog”). He was originally cast for a long arc — as a foil for John Krasinski’s Jim Halpert after Halpert moved to a different branch of Dunder Mifflin — but Helms performed his way into series regular status, Daniels says.

“Adding another strong male character was a little challenging, but Ed was just so strong. He’s very fun to write for,” says Daniels.

As Helms sees it, Andy lies somewhere on the “cool-to-nerd spectrum” of characters that have become his trademark.

“Andy has so little self-awareness,” Helms says. “He’s not cynical at all. He just puts it all out there. One of the fun things about playing him is that his heart is usually in the right place.”

There’s a lot of Helms in the Nard-dog. “Office” scribes tailored the character to Helms’ inclination for being unfailingly polite and prone to exuberant exaggeration. He’s also naturally musically inclined (he sings and plays banjo) and has a Georgia country-club gentility (he’s a native of Atlanta) that is unusual among comics coming out of New York standup and improv circles.

“He doesn’t have the crazy comic thing at all,” says a friend. “He’s completely normal and nice.”

Helms’ formative years in Atlanta couldn’t have been further removed from showbiz. But he aspired to become a comic, becoming enamored of “Saturday Night Live” in his pre-teen years.

“I was obsessed with the show. I’d sit there and watch Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo and it just looked like they were having so much fun,” Helms says.

After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, Helms moved to Gotham in 1996 with one career goal in mind: joining “Saturday Night Live.” He worked his way up the comedy club ladder, from open mic nights to featured spots to working with his own sketch group. He would do as many as four shows at any club that would have him. He finally began to make a name for himself around the time he hooked up the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade.

An open audition landed Helms a correspondent slot on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in 2001. His five years on the faux news beat, where he toiled with future “Office” mate Carell, was his graduate course in comedy. And he was a diligent student.

“Comedy is more a craft than a talent,” Helms says. “People who work really hard at it can improve over time. But there’s so much failure on the road to good comedy.”

Who says nice guys finish last?

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