Comedy for Helms has always been a way of coping. Diag-nosed with weak eyesight in second grade, he wore glasses that resembled a scuba mask—a hardship that might have prompted his career choice.
“As a kid, comedy was a defense mechanism,” he says. “In a school environment, if you’ve had glasses since second grade, you’d better be a clown. Humor’s an easy way for a nerd to be cool.”
Raised in Atlanta as the youngest of three children, Helms attended a private school, played Little League, fished, and became a punching bag for bullies. For a short while, he became a bully himself.
Young Ed was served politics with food at the dinner table, where his own leanings were reinforced by his “staunch Demo-crat” parents. By the age of 18, looking to escape his Southern roots, he chose Oberlin, where, ironically, his hometown came to define him.
“Ed was one of the only people I knew at Oberlin from the South, and since I went to high school in Kentucky, we had something in common,” says Christopher Zalla ’97, who lived across the hall from Helms his freshman year and later shared an apartment with him in New York. “Ed has always been such an easy, outgoing, interesting guy—and very funny.”
At Oberlin, Helms studied theater and film. Jacob Tilove ’96, his sophomore-year roommate in Tank Co-op, acted in Helms’ film shorts—the first had him cast as a car-jacking victim being chased through cornfields and punched in the face by an escaped convict.
Helms also enjoyed music; he sang with the Obertones and played the guitar and banjo. “He always woke me up in the mornings with his banjo,” Zalla says. “He was very, very good. He was religious about finding the right instrument.”
Helms put his talents to the test by forming “a struggling blue-grass band” called Weedkiller. He, along with Oberlin bandmates Ian Riggs ’97 and Tilove, have kept up with their music and today perform as the Lonesome Trio. (Helms’ current weekend love interest is a 25-year-old, $2,400 Stelling Golden Cross banjo, the equivalent of a Steinway in the banjo world.)
Moving to New York after graduation, Helms turned to stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy, often taking gigs that paid next to nothing. He did commercial voiceovers for Burger King, Doritos, and Sharp Television before auditioning for The Daily Show in 2002. He was picked from a pool of 300 applicants.
“We knew Ed was one of the best as soon as we saw him,” says Executive Producer Bailey. “He’s inherently funny and has a kind of gravitas, a kind of believable image as a newsman. He had us laughing while doing an audition segment we had already seen hundreds of times.”
The job, says Helms, is a dream come true. “I guess I’ve always been a political junkie. And as comedian, I love the show—the level of writing is very impressive. I love being a part of it.”
Has television fame invaded Helms’ personal space? “Not too much, because I don’t have the same presence and energy off-camera as I have on the show. I feel pretty anonymous—just enough so that it’s nice.”
His friends, while not surprised by Helms’ comedic success, are amused by his on-camera persona. “Ed looks pretty straight laced and whitebread on TV,” says Tilove. “He’s much more mellow in real life. He doesn’t really wear his hair greased to the side.”
“Humor,” Helms says, somewhat pensively, “is an ongoing effort to sustain adolescence, to stave off adulthood and adult responsibilities.”