Ed Helms has climbed the showbiz rungs by playing a series of earnest but hilarious characters. You might know him from his stint as a wry correspondent on The Daily Show, or maybe as the obliviously obnoxious Andy Bernard on The Office. He was also, of course, one of the stars (along with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis) of the wildly popular Hangover trilogy. And this November, the forty-one-year-old has a leading role in the holiday movie Love the Coopers, which also features John Goodman, Olivia Wilde, Diane Keaton, and Marisa Tomei.
What you might not know is that Helms, who grew up in Atlanta, is also a talented musician and a devoted bluegrass fan. In 2010, he cocreated the annual Bluegrass Situation festival in Los Angeles, which will bring the likes of Dawes, Punch Brothers, and the Lone Bellow to Tinseltown in October. And this past June, his bluegrass band, the Lonesome Trio, released their well-received self-titled debut album. We caught up with the actor and comedian to talk bluegrass, brown liquor, and banjo jokes.
Tell us about your childhood in Atlanta. Were you drawn to performing early on?
I grew up in a nice little neighborhood in Midtown. And, yeah, I did some plays and things in high school. But, really, I was drawn to comedy, just from watching Saturday Night Live and shows like that. Music, too, has always been a big part of my life. I started taking piano lessons at age ten and picked up a guitar at age thirteen, and I also play the banjo.
You went to Oberlin College, well known for its arts programs. And yet you initially majored in geology. That seems like a strange area of study for a budding comedian.
That is a very obscure but correct detail about my life. I was pretty outdoorsy as a kid and had some Indiana Jones sort of fantasies about anthropology, paleontology, and geology. I was into it. It was fun for a while—we went on cool field trips—but I never liked the hard science part of it. And, you know, aside from occasionally impressing a girl by dropping words like obsidian and igneous in reference to some bathroom tile, it really hasn’t done me much good. So sometime during my sophomore year, I figured I’d better do something else, which led to improv and acting.
Which in turn led to a move to New York City after college, right?
Yes. I wanted to do comedy but was also into filmmaking. I worked for a bit at a postproduction house as an editor and on some commercials, which was a cool job. I was doing stand-up at night and taking Upright Citizens Brigade classes, and I eventually bit the bullet, gave up the steady job, and went full-time into that. It was exciting but also brutal to be in the trenches of the New York art and comedy scene.
Your character on The Office, Andy Bernard, was a big fan of a cappella and the banjo. Coincidence?
The writers on the show actually gave Andy that fondness for a cappella. So that was a coincidence. I’d been in an a cappella group for a few semesters in college, but I didn’t stick it out. I was more interested in comedy and I wasn’t sure I fully identified with the a cappella scene. But my experience gave me an appreciation for it and also a healthy distance from it so that I could lovingly mock it.
And the banjo playing?
Well, from then on, it became this sort of feedback loop with the writers where I might improvise something on the set and they’d endow Andy with that trait. We built this fun, ridiculous character. The banjo came up because I knew how to play it. Andy got a lot of annoying traits, and there’s no more annoying instrument than the banjo.
Speaking of which, there’s a great tradition of banjo jokes among the bluegrass set. Do you have a favorite?
I think Mark Twain said it best: “A gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo and doesn’t.”
What got you into bluegrass?
I went to summer camp in the North Carolina mountains and I would hear the music. My dad had some cassettes he picked up in a gas station, some Appalachian string music stuff. I just loved it. My first bluegrass record was [by] the Bluegrass Album Band, which had this all-star lineup of Tony Rice, J. D. Crowe, and Jerry Douglas. That album got me hooked.
How did you get the idea for a bluegrass festival, especially one in L.A.?
I lived in New York City for ten years and there was a vibrant bluegrass community there. But when I moved to L.A., there didn’t seem to be much of a cohesive scene. I started doing some comedy shows at Largo, which is a fabulous music and comedy venue, and the owner, Mark Flanagan, is also a bluegrass fan. The two of us decided it was high time L.A. had its own bluegrass festival, and Largo was a perfect fit. That first year we got Punch Brothers, Dave Rawlings, Steve Martin, and the Infamous Stringdusters, among others. It was really scrappy and fun. The response was small but rabid, and we had such a great time we decided to keep doing it. Each year, the fan base and enthusiasm grow, and this year we’re moving into L.A.’s famous outdoor Greek Theatre, which will be epic.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles for a while. Are there things that you miss about the South?
The thing that’s stuck with me the most from growing up in the South is a generally positive disposition. I think people in the South are gracious and friendly, and that’s something I always try to be in my life. It’s been a liability in some ways, that Southern rube stereotype that I think I fit for a long time. But more and more it’s an asset, especially in navigating some deeply cynical worlds in New York and L.A. and still being able to stay hopeful and positive. I do really miss how lush and beautiful the South is, which is pretty much the opposite of L.A. And I miss my mom’s home-cooked meals.
Do you have more fun with acting or music?
They’re really different. Comedy is my first love. But music has always been there for me. I’m much more self-conscious about performing music and always have been. But it’s been such an important part of my life.
Does the Lonesome Trio have any pre-performance rituals?
About an hour before the show, we circle up and just start playing. We like to take that time to focus and mind-meld, so that when it’s finally time to take the stage, we’ve already got a good groove and a strong vibe. There are usually a few swigs of whiskey mixed in there, as well.