Running to the Noise, Episode 1

Using Your Platform For Good with Ed Helms

Cover art of Running to the Noise showing Ed Helms Before he starred in hits like the Hangover trilogy and The Office, Ed Helms was an Obie—a kid from Georgia with talent for jazz guitar who found his way to Oberlin College. Since graduating in 1996, Ed has used his success and platform to open doors of opportunity for others and support causes he believes in.

Ed, now a member of Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, joins Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar to talk about his time at the college, his work diversifying the writers’ room for his show Rutherford Falls, his new podcast SNAFU, and how to use your platform to change the world (or even just a little slice of it).

Listen Now

[00:00:00] Carmen: I’m Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don’t shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.

[00:00:44] Ed: And Lawrence Rutherford gazed upon the majestic valley and thus declared, “This is where we belong.” And so, in 1638, he brokered a uniquely fair and honest deal with our neighbors, the Minneshonka. Thus, establishing our town.

Now, the terms of the deal were laid out in this document. One of those terms was to honor the exact location the deal was made, which is why, a century later, both parties came together and erected a statue of Old Lawrence, affectionately known today as Big Larry. Question?

[00:01:18] Audience: Did they make a statue of any Minneshonka?

[00:01:22] Ed: Great question. And bronze was very expensive at the time, so they only really only had a budget for the one.

[00:01:30] Carmen: That was Ed Helms as Nathan Rutherford in Rutherford Falls, a comedy Helms co-created about what happens to friends in a small northeastern town when folks try to move a statue of its founder known as Big Larry. In his two seasons on Peacock, it boasted one of the largest indigenous writers’ rooms in television.

You might also know Ed as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he fearlessly wore Speedo on the beaches of New Jersey in service to that story that is a must see, or as Andy Bernard, a paper pusher on The Office who yearns for his college days in the acapella group, Here Comes Treble.

I can’t imagine that that wasn’t influenced a bit by Oberlin since we have at least five acapella groups on our campus, and I think one called the Obertones. Anyway, it had to be Oberlin. And of course, you probably know Ed as Stu Price, the uptight dentist who loses a tooth along with his memory in the hugely successful The Hangover Trilogy.

So, why would one of the most famous people on the planet talk to the president of Oberlin? I think I’ve given you a little bit of a clue that Ed Helms was a graduate of Oberlin in 1996. And I just have to say that, besides his family, I think the most important thing about Ed Helms is that he went to Oberlin.

And I would just offer up that everything great that’s happened in Ed’s life, Oberlin takes full responsibility for all of that. Anything that went wrong, that’s on Ed.

So, I want to welcome you, Ed, to Running to the Noise. Welcome to my podcast.

[00:03:04] Ed: Thanks so much. I’m very, very glad to be here. And, just like, I agree with you. Oberlin gets full credit for everything that’s gone right in my life, but it should also be noted that I graduated before you arrived so I’m not sure you get to take the credit there.

[00:03:22] Carmen: This is so Ed to say this, that I will not get too big for my britches while Ed is in the room. I, I accept that I’ve played no role, but I’m happy that Oberlin was a part of, of your early years. So, you know, this is my take on things, Ed, but I, I would love to hear yours.

This Running to the Noise, the reason why this is the name of the podcast is because I’ve started to feel as things have just gotten seemingly more challenging for the world, that we all have an obligation to try to make positive change, that there’s just no more room for free riders anymore.

Like, we all have to try to deal with these intractable problems. I don’t know. What’s your sense of that? What’s your sense of what role you think we, we have to play or should play?

[00:04:11] Ed: I agree with you with the caveat that we also need to have grace for the different ways and levels that people are capable of contributing to making the world a better place.

I, I just know that, that a lot of people in the world are barely able to take care of themselves and their families, let alone, sort of, take on the, the larger cultural or even existential problems that the world is facing right now. Yeah, so, with the just clarification that, like, if you’ve got the bandwidth, jump in and help out. And it can just be in the smallest ways, too.

[00:04:53] Carmen: Oh, I think that’s so right. I mean, one of the things, you know, sometimes we, we look at people like you and you have this incredible platform, you’re doing these wonderful things, and we just need to take, you know, our slice of the sidewalk, right? You know, it doesn’t have to be a large slice. And frankly, I don’t know about you, but sometimes, just being kind in the grocery store is a-

[00:05:15] Ed: Yes.

[00:05:16] Carmen: ... is a...

[00:05:16] Ed: That’s huge-

[00:05:18] Carmen: Huge.

[00:05:18] Ed: ... by the way.

[00:05:19] Carmen: Right. Can you just be kind when I’m grabbing my soy milk because I’m a vegetarian? When I’m grabbing my soy milk, can you be a little kind to me?

[00:05:27] Ed: I might make fun of you for that but, but gently.

[00:05:30] Carmen: Well, one of the things that the audience should know about Oberlin, if you don’t know it, is that Oberlin has a college of arts and sciences and a world-class conservatory. And so, I oftentimes describe Oberlin as where innovation and creativity come to breed.

There’s something about this place that brings all of these very diverse folks, you know, in their backgrounds and in their interests, but certainly, in math, in engineering, in biology, in English, and all those things, but of also in the arts, in music, and, you know, in theater.

And so, you know, a lot of times, you’ll have students here at Oberlin that have that, kind of, cross-pollinization. And it, it creates people, I think... Yeah. Ed Helms came with a lot, obviously, but it also nurtures people like Ed to go on and do these incredible things.

[00:06:21] Ed: What you just said, I just want to put an exclamation point on. That is so spot-on, that it’s not just the diversity of the population, it’s the diversity of interest at Oberlin. I mean, kids are into everything, and they do it at such a high level.

And what I found so inspiring, and again, this was just not something that I experienced growing up, because in the community that I grew up in, it was like, you’re going to just chase some sort of, like, affluent job, whether it’s a lawyer or... And artistic considerations were these, kind of, like, adorable diversions. They weren’t anything...

[00:07:01] Carmen: Right. It’s something you did on the side.

[00:07:03] Ed: Yeah. It wasn’t anything that you take seriously. And when I got to Oberlin, I was surrounded by people who had all kinds of aspirations. There were people who wanted to be lawyers and doctors, but they also felt a part of a community of people who wanted to be jazz musicians and classical musicians and painters and theater or comedy. What a weird, specific thing it just was. But I still felt like people understood me in a new way.

[00:07:30] Carmen: Yeah. You know, I hear Oberlin graduates and our students talk a lot about, like, they just found their people. And what it is, is it’s just a collection of people who have a lot of diverse interests and they put them together in these ways that when you hear the students say, you go, “Does that go together?”

And yet, when they describe what they’re doing, you go, “Gosh, why didn’t I think of that? That absolutely goes together.” You know, the student the other day, “I’m majoring in neuroscience and dance,” and you’re like, “What?” And then they go, “Yes, but how dance and movement helps you, you know, know how your brain...” And you go, “Oh, well, okay. Sounds right to me.”

[00:08:07] Ed: Yeah.

[00:08:08] Carmen: So, that’s Oberlin in a nutshell. But let’s talk a little bit about the projects that you’ve been working on, Ed, and, and I guess from the standpoint of platforms, right? And I want to talk about Rutherford Falls because it’s such an interesting show. I know you, sort of, co-produced it essentially. You, you co-wrote it. And one of the things that people have been talking about is your commitment to diversity and inclusion in the writing room.

Because I think it was, like, five of the 10 writers were Native American there. So, anything you can do to help us understand why you were using, you know, your platform in that way?

[00:08:44] Ed: To be honest, like I didn’t start that show with all of the intentions that ultimately manifested. It really was a process through the creation of the show and through the collaboration that some of these eventualities, kind of, became evident as absolutely necessary and critical to the process and the, and the show.

So, I wish I could sit here and tell you, like, “I went into it, wanting to execute it exactly how we did,” but the truth is, if I’m being honest, like, I was learning the whole time. And, you know, I’m not ahead of the curve. I’m just trying to figure stuff out like anybody else.

[00:09:27] Carmen: But isn’t that how this happens sometimes for all of us? Like, it comes to be, but you have to have a certain sensibility that you recognize it when it comes, and you pursue it.

[00:09:36] Ed: Yes, that’s true. And I also think humility is, like, just such a huge part of... needs to be a part of any process. And so, the show started... My buddy, Mike Schur, who was an Office writer, and went on to create Parks and Recreation, and The Good Place, and all these other things. He’s, like, a show running superhero. He was really instrumental in forming Andy Bernard on The Office.

[00:10:03] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:10:03] Ed: And we had just stayed in touch and been good buddies and have always said, like, “Yeah, when, when lightning strikes, we’ll work again. Like, we’ll figure it out.” And we just both, kind of, found ourselves on the phone a bunch during some of this... as we were watching America, become this divided and really, kind of, hot stew of, of frustration and, I think, just feeling a sense of bewilderment.

Like, our tool, our process is storytelling. So, is there some way we can get into this mess and add something positive through storytelling? And we just came up with this character who’s a fundamentally decent guy but, kind of, has some blind spots, and maybe some allegiances that he hasn’t questioned, and some historical perspectives that he’s just never been confronted about. That was really the origin.

And then, we roped in our friend, Sierra Teller Ornelas, who is a Native American comedy writer and showrunner. And we, we had worked on a couple of things before.

Usually, you sell an idea to a studio and then you’re, like, on the hook to deliver it by a certain time, but we were just, we were like, “Let’s just chew on this for as long as we need to.” And, and we, we did for many months. We met regularly and just, kind of, hung out and bandied it around.

And Sierra, I think, really was a driving force in solidifying some of the, the narrative as it took shape and the relationships that you see in the show, and giving Mike and me a little more perspective and understanding about how these stories can be told and how we can do it effectively and responsibly and, and hilariously, hopefully.

[00:11:51] Carmen: As you were going through that, kind of, you know, think out loud process, when did you start to feel yourself shift and know that this was more than just a cute idea but might have some other ways to talk about storytelling that reflected what was going on in society?

[00:12:07] Ed: So, history is storytelling, right? And when we talk about history, like, the great history professors or great history authors, like, they’re fundamentally great storytellers. And we like to think that those stories are perfectly true, but they’re always filtered through a human being. And we’re flawed. And even, even when we’re doing our best, we’re messing up somehow.

And, and I think just in writing the, the narrative of our show, which is so rooted also in two histories, like, Nathan Rutherford’s family history, which is, kind of, like, the Anglo European Pilgrim story, and then of course, Reagan Wells, my co-star, the great Jana Schmieding, her story being a Northeastern Native American story.

And those histories, obviously, they collide in reality. But where we find the characters in the show, they’re, kind of, not questioning each other and coexisting in a pretty easy way. And then an issue happens in the pilot, in the first episode that, kind of, forces them to choose a side as it were, even against their will.

[00:13:21] Carmen: And they’re friends.

[00:13:22] Ed: Oh, yeah. And they stay good friends. It’s not, it’s not a story of, like, acrimony, but...

[00:13:27] Carmen: But friends learning from each other, right?

[00:13:30] Ed: Exactly. And so, we have to tell these histories in this show. And so, who’s doing this research? Who’s writing these stories? Who’s, who’s writing the experiences of these characters? And historically, in film and television, it’s just been white guys, kind of, just trying to get in the heads of different people’s experiences and, “Yeah, I can write a Native American character. Well, no big deal. I’ve read a book or two, I get it.”

[00:13:58] Carmen: I know a couple of people.

[00:14:00] Ed: And I think even, even a really well-meaning writer in that context can go into that with confidence.       and then just...

[00:14:07] Carmen: It doesn’t have to be animosity, right?

[00:14:08] Ed: No. Yeah. But, but it’s just blind spots. That’s just about, like, trying to open those trap doors that we don’t even know are there and, like, “Oh, my God. Yeah. There’s so much more that I don’t understand or that it’s not part of my life experience in any way.”

Like, I think that I started to, kind of, understand that in a much more profound way. I’ve understood that intellectually ever since Oberlin really, I mean, Oberlin really helped me try to think and appreciate broader perspectives. And so, I, I felt like I had a solid understanding of that.

In this process on Rutherford Falls, in getting deeper and, and really in a really casual and fun and, oftentimes, very funny setting, which was our writer’s room, hearing and just being with the experiences of a lot of these writers from very different backgrounds and a lot of Native American writers and Native American writers from very different backgrounds within the Native American community.

And so, hearing them reflect to each other, reflect off of us, me, other writers from other backgrounds, it just deepened my appreciation and commitment to having different voices involved.

[00:15:30] Carmen: You know, I have to say, Ed, you know, so I’m sitting here as president of a college that we are always working to try to create an environment that looks like the world because we think if students are going to understand the world, they have to, you know, see the world as it exists, and I guess one of the things I would say about it, I’m so glad that you talked about humility first as a way that you entered this space and then a, kind of, appreciation for these different backgrounds.

And I guess one of the things I just wanted to add to the conversation is I think sometimes, people think that that’s important because it helps the people who are “bringing the diversity,” right? And I would just offer up that, you know, all the evidence suggests that we’re all the better for a more diverse background. It’s good for business. It’s good for society.

And you just talked about your own experience of growth that wasn’t about, you know, the people who you helped bring into the room. And so, they got a better experience, but everyone got a better experience and we, the audience, got a better experience-

[00:16:35] Ed: Absolutely.

[00:16:36] Carmen: ... because it was a, it was a more authentic story.

[00:16:39] Ed: But I should add, too, that I’m, kind of, embarrassed to tell that story because I, I thought I was further along that curve than I was. And so, it’s humbling. And I don’t tell this story as some, sort of, like, triumphant growth moment for Ed Helms. Like, I, I see the light. I actually am frustrated that this experience was as illuminating as it was. I feel like I should have been further along that curve of a long time ago.

[00:17:09] Carmen: But, you know, one of the things I say sometimes to people about this, because I appreciate that, is that sometimes, the first path to understanding is recognizing that you don’t understand. Like, if you can’t recognize that first, then it’s hard to get down the path any further. But the other thing is that one of the challenges I think we’re experiencing now is just we’re in these silos where we never talk to anybody who’s unlike us.

We never engage with anybody who has a different perspective. We’ve actually started to believe that that’s a negative almost, right? You know. And so, you know, how are we going to get through this if we’re not willing do that a little bit? So, I don’t, I don’t know, but I definitely want to talk about, before our time gets finished, you know, your work on RepresentUs.

But I have to say, if you haven’t seen this satirical public service announcement that Ed did around realizing that gerrymanders are not adorable lizards. But I guess the question I wanted to ask about that, Ed, because I think sometimes, when you’re in the types of roles that you’re in, there’s, kind of, a concern about sticking your neck out there around maybe political issues or things that may be controversial, and, you know, risk alienating fans.

And, and I’ll just offer up from my own perspective, some people have been critical of college presidents around why college presidents haven’t been more vocal about all sorts of issues. And if you go back to, kind of, an era past 20 or 30 years ago, you’d see college presidents out there a little bit more.

But I think the, kind of, viciousness of what happens when you stand up and, and what may happen to your institution or, in your instance, what may happen to your brand. So, what makes you say, “Yeah, I’m going to stick my neck out there a little bit and might alienate a few fans, but, but I think this is important enough.” Like, what is driving you?

[00:19:00] Ed: Well, it’s funny, I, I don’t actually think that RepresentUs is sticking my neck out very much because it’s so fundamentally straightforward. It’s just like, “Let’s have a more fair democracy.” I don’t care who wins as long as they win fairly. And right now, the system is just institutionally corrupt. So...

[00:19:21] Carmen: Yeah. Well, maybe that says something about our system that that’s controversial.

[00:19:24] Ed: Yeah. Right. Yeah, for sure.

[00:19:26] Carmen: Winning fairly is a little controversial. I don’t know if you’ve been watching the news, Ed, but...

[00:19:32] Ed: No, it’s so easy to, kind of, point fingers at the right or the left. And I think what RepresentUs does, and the reason I was drawn to them as an organization, what they do so beautifully is they just don’t take the bait. They, they don’t argue the politics. It’s just, “Well, what’s fair? What’s more fair?” Well, dark money is unfair.

[00:19:53] Carmen: Right.

[00:19:53] Ed: That is fundamentally corrupt. And it’s totally legal. And so, there are these ways that corruption has been codified into...

[00:20:03] Carmen: Almost making it seem fair, right?

[00:20:05] Ed: Yeah, right. So, people don’t, don’t question it. Or, you know, when our side wins, you know, I say, “our,” meaning anybody, when, when your side wins because of a flaw in the system, for example, the electoral college, then you’re, you’re not going to want to change that flaw because, because your side won. Well, I disagree. I think whether or not your side won, you should be committed to a system that is fundamentally...

[00:20:35] Carmen: As fair as possible.

[00:20:37] Ed: It’s so complicated now because even this argument that I’m making, for some people, sounds like coded language for progressive causes. And I, I just think that’s so sad because it, it just isn’t. And fairness is not a progressive value. It should be a universal value.

[00:20:58] Carmen: Yes, it is so frustrating. I mean, some of these political battles... and, and I’m a little bit older than you, but these things that I come to believe are just... yeah, okay, everybody, kind of, agrees with that, right? You know.

[00:21:15] Ed: Right. You would hope.

[00:21:16] Carmen: It’s like we’ve got to try to find a way to recapture the center, the middle, on both sides so that we can agree upon the things that we used to just believe are the norms. You know, let’s don’t make it harder for people to vote. Let’s try to draw fair maps. Let’s try to make sure the elections are fair as much as we can. Like, all those things that seemed intuitively obvious to the most casual observer have become controversial.

[00:21:47] Ed: Yeah.

[00:21:48] Carmen: It’s a little nerve wracking for me, I have to say.

[00:21:51] Ed: Me, too. And that’s why RepresentUs just gives me an outlet to feel like I’m doing something, like I’m, I’m actually confronting some of these things that, to me, are just the fundamental problem.

Because really, it doesn’t matter what your stance is on abortion or climate change or healthcare, say, the issue that you care most about is stuck in Congress because of these institutionally corrupt practices and dark money being probably one of the most profound.

[00:22:23] Carmen: I think one of the challenges for, kind of, citizens, you know, as you said, for those of us who may have the bandwidth to get involved, is, you know, we’ve got to be willing to deal with the fundamental institutional challenges. If not, then we may be stuck for forever.

[00:22:39] Ed: Yeah, or we may just decline, which is a terrifying possibility.

[00:22:45] Carmen: Yeah, no. No, no, no.

[00:22:47] Ed: But we got to fix stuff.

[00:22:48] Carmen: We got to fix stuff. But speaking of terrifying, I, I’m so happy you’re on this podcast because you, you have your own podcast, that is super awesome, called SNAFU. I guess I just wanted to ask you in my last couple of questions, like, why are you obsessed with impending Armageddon?

[00:23:04] Ed: It’s fun. Come on. It’s lighthearted. What, what’s, what’s not to love?

[00:23:08] Carmen: What’s not to love? It’s almost over. Let’s be happy about it.

[00:23:13] Ed: So, for a little context, SNAFU is my podcast, which is a history podcast about... season one is all about an event in 1983. True story. A lot of historians believe it’s the closest we ever came to nuclear annihilation.

[00:23:28] Carmen: That I think we should all know more about, but I don’t think we really knew about it.

[00:23:31] Ed: Yeah.

[00:23:32] Carmen: We’re, like, listening to this, going, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that when I was in eighth grade, or whatever it was, it was almost the end for everyone.” You know, I wondered a little bit, like, what do you hope we glean from it? I mean, you’re a history nerd. You’re trying to teach us something. I know. What do you hope that we’re gleaning from this particular story? What are we supposed to learn?

[00:23:56] Ed: Well, no spoilers. I’m going to let people listen to the podcast because we draw some pretty powerful conclusions towards the end of season one of SNAFU. But I think just from a little bit of a higher altitude point of view, there was something a little bit cynical in this idea of wanting to do a history podcast but focusing on the massive screw ups.

And the only reason that’s a little bit cynical is because of, like, of course, people are going to be interested in that. It’s like a car wreck you drive by and, and you look at it. You want to see and learn the grizzly details. And that’s what’s intrinsically enticing about a SNAFU on a huge scale, like a giant international mess up of some kind. So, that was, sort of, the, the fun reason why we wanted to tell these particular kinds of stories.

But then also, what’s made it, and what I think emerged for us in the writing of season one, in a way that I don’t think I entirely expected was how much... you know, we always, we always like to say, “We can learn from history, right? There’s lessons in history.” Probably the best quote is, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”

You know, in these individual episodes, or individual events, it is really, really powerful to contemplate different outcomes, different processes, or who made the right decisions here? Who made the wrong decisions? Who saved the day? How did they do it? And who do we want to emulate?

And I love that. That is also, like, such a fun part of SNAFU, is just breaking down the lessons and the takeaways. And some of these things have, like, really powerful social implications-

[00:25:44] Carmen: Yes.

[00:25:45] Ed: ... cultural implications. They’re not just, sort of, like, “Dave, hey, don’t launch a nuclear missile.”

[00:25:49] Carmen: That’s right. We probably could have gotten that one without the-

[00:25:52] Ed: Yeah.

[00:25:52] Carmen: ... without the whole series. Well, I, I will say that one of the things I think sometimes about all of these SNAFU and, and other times that we look at history, sometimes it’s just revelatory to think about how did they get there from here? And what about that can I take in my own decision making, in my own way of thinking about challenges?

And when I’m looking at world events, what should I pay attention to? Because sometimes, when you’re looking at a story and it’s all done, while they’re in the midst of it, you know why they didn’t understand certain things.

[00:26:30] Ed: Mm-hmm.

[00:26:30] Carmen: But as we know, kind of, history sometimes can repeat itself or certainly, there are things that are happening. And now, you can know what to look for so you can be better prepared. And sometimes, it’s just interesting to look at history so you can go, “Hmm, that feels real familiar. Maybe, maybe we should pay a little bit more attention to this, guys.”

[00:26:50] Ed: Absolutely. And also, there’s so much history that is powerful and meaningful that has been lost, or pushed aside, or just, kind of, maybe muddied because of whoever was the dominant storyteller at the time.

And, you know, they say history’s written by the winners. That’s reductive but true. And so, it’s interesting to look, well, maybe the, the losers have some really powerful, meaningful stories. Maybe the winners were really bad-

[00:27:19] Carmen: Right.

[00:27:20] Ed: ... and they had bad intentions. So, I think exploring history that you’re not familiar with, that you don’t know, episodes that you’ve never heard about, and it’s almost like fractal geometry, like, it doesn’t matter how small of an event it was, like, it can still be revelatory for you.

[00:27:40] Carmen: I will say, you know, one of the reasons why we’re talking to Ed is because we’re talking about how do we use our platform to make a difference in whatever way we can. And we’ve heard a lot about how Ed is doing it from his standpoint. And one of the things, you know, Ed has this platform where he can have a show, right? A lot of us don’t have a chance to have a show.

But Ed also is really supportive of Oberlin and has done things like... we have this thing called Obiewood where our students and alumni, who are all out in Hollywood, doing all these incredible things. People may not know how much of an imprint that Oberlin is, is making on Hollywood in all these interesting ways. And so, he’s out there helping people get connected.

And sometimes, I think, we think when we want to, kind of, be involved that it has to be some kind of massive thing, but, you know, in that instance, you’re, like, starting where you were, your college doing some work there to help us because we want to help students go out and change the world for good.

So, anything you would say, Ed, to the student, the person on the street who’s like, “Yeah, I, kind of, want to get involved. I, kind of, want to do something, but I’m feeling like where do I begin with these issues that seem so, kind of, overwhelming?” I mean, I know our students talk to me about that sometimes, like, “The issues sometimes seem intractable, overwhelming. How can I do anything?”

[00:29:00] Ed: Yeah. Well, first of all, check in with yourself. Check in and check your bandwidth. Make sure you’re not, kind of, trying to take on too much. And really, I think one of the ways that we can all help the world is to help ourselves be more grounded and, you know, less anxious and freaked out people. Like, that’s one of the things we can actually do that helps the world is to help ourselves be healthy.

[00:29:26] Carmen: Yeah. I say it to my kids all the time. Like, what’s the best way to help the world? Well, first, help yourself a little bit-

[00:29:31] Ed: Yeah.

[00:29:32] Carmen: ... so you have the ability to help.

[00:29:34] Ed: Exactly. And then, I would say start really small. Just like you said at the beginning, like, just be nice to someone in, in line at the grocery store, even if they’re buying soy milk. I mean, come on.

[00:29:46] Carmen: Even if they are buying soy milk or they have, like, 3,000 items in the express lane-

[00:29:50] Ed: Yeah.

[00:29:50] Carmen: ... like, “Could you, could you get in the right line, people?”

[00:29:52] Ed: Well, no, that’s, over the line, Carmen. Are you kidding me?

[00:29:55] Carmen: You shouldn’t help them.

[00:29:56] Ed: You can’t do that.

[00:29:58] Carmen: You should be rude to them, like, “Get yourself out of this line.”

[00:30:00] Ed: There is a strict cutoff, 14 items or less. That’s it. No, but, I, I think kindness is, is sometimes hard, depending on our state of mind, to be that way, but it’s always worth the effort.

[00:30:13] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:30:14] Ed: And then, you know, if you, if you really do want to get involved in issues that feel massive, that’s what RepresentUs did for me, is it, it allowed me to insert myself into an organization that I thought was taking on the right problems. And so, look around, look for the people who are doing the things that matter to you on whatever issue it is or set of issues, and look at where they’re channeling their energy.

You know, it’s great if you have a mentor. Mentors can help you out and really give you a lot of guidance. But, but, like, for me, I didn’t really have a mentor in my early adulthood, but what I did have was a lot of North Stars, whether it was an actor, or a comedian, or a businessperson, or just a friend, or somebody who I admired for some reason.

I just would analyze their path and be like, “Are there cues? Are there turns that they took on their path that might help me, too, or that I can emulate?” And certainly, in my show business career, that’s been instrumental, like, kind of, studying a few of my heroes.

And look for lots of heroes. Just look for lots of people who are doing cool things around you, things that you admire, and then just study them a little bit. You don’t have to know them. If you do, great, then you can ask them directly.

[00:31:31] Carmen: Yeah.

[00:31:31] Ed: But a lot of times, the people we really admire are, are at a distance and they’re not accessible, but you can still, kind of, dig a little bit and...

[00:31:42] Carmen: You can still learn from them.

[00:31:43] Ed: Yeah, absolutely.


[00:31:45] Carmen: I’m just wondering whether you had anyone that you wanted to name, like mentors, you know, people that were in your lives that you look to or people that were from afar that helped you calibrate how you might think about your, your work.


[00:31:57] Ed: Yeah, absolutely. I think, as a, as a young person in, growing up in Georgia but being obsessed with comedy and Saturday Night Live, in particular, a lot of those actors were kind of my early North Stars. So, Eddie Murphy probably had the most profound impact on me, because I started watching him when I was probably like 9 years old when he was on Saturday Night Live. And I just found him intoxicating. Like, the freedom that he had when he was performing, the just unbelieve confidence and then of course I was watching his stand-up specials when I was way too young . . .


[00:32:39] Carmen: Yeah, yeah.


[00:32:41] Ed: But just loving every minute.


[00:32:42] Carmen: Weren’t we all watching his specials when we were way too young?


[00:32:45] Ed: Yeah, of course. And I, and I didn’t understand half of it, but I just knew that it was supposed to be funny—there was just something about his energy that I loved. So, I, I watched him from a performance standpoint. Then I started, as I got older, I started looking at different Saturday Night Live cast members and analyzing how they got there and what their paths were, so like, as I got older there was Kevin Nelon and Phil Hartman and guys like that. And then when I got into college it was the David Spades and Chris Rock and Chris Farley. Especially, as a young comedian, there were certain comedians I really looked up to. And so, I would just be in their orbit, and, like, at the right time, ask a question here or there. Then, they’re my mentor, and they don’t even know it.

[00:33:32] Carmen: Absolutely.

[00:33:33] Ed: And they haven’t made some decision to, like, help Ed Helms rise through the ranks. But, like, I’ve just, sort of, decided this is someone I’m going to, kind of, learn from. And there were, there were a few people early on that, that gave me just enough time of day...

[00:33:48] Carmen: To get you to the next one.

[00:33:49] Ed: Yeah, or just, yeah, to keep cranking. And, and comedy ain’t easy.

[00:33:54] Carmen: Yeah. I call those people sometimes faith extenders, right?

[00:33:57] Ed: Oh, I love that.

[00:33:58] Carmen: I just need you to extend my faith just a little bit. Like, I don’t need you for a year.

[00:34:02] Ed: Yeah.

[00:34:03] Carmen: I just need you for these two weeks.

[00:34:06] Ed: And by the way, I don’t need all the answers from you. I just need a little bit of your wisdom.

[00:34:10] Carmen: I only have one more question, but I just want to thank you before I ask it. Because, you know, one of the things that I’m trying to do in my role is, you know, I got a chance to, to lead this really incredible institution that, you know, this is my bias, as I say all the time, I’m biased, but I know I’m right, you know, I believe that the world needs more Oberlin graduates and that this institution produces people like Ed Helms who, yes, are great artists, yes, are, are doing so well in, kind of, what you call their professional careers, but underneath that is a commitment to doing good in whatever way they can.

So, I, I just thank you, Ed, for being one of the examples that our students can look to, to know that what they want to achieve is possible. So, my last question is the easiest question of all the questions, Ed, which is, are you optimistic about humankind? Like, you know, are we going to make it? You know-

[00:35:13] Ed: Yeah.

[00:35:13] Carmen: ... these, these intractable challenging problems, what do you think? We’re going to be okay?

[00:35:18] Ed: Nope, we’re not. It’s not good.

[00:35:23] Carmen: It’s good as over?

[00:35:23] Ed: It’s not good.

[00:35:26] Carmen: I was going to say this is going to be a terrible end of this podcast if Ed goes, “Yeah, no, sorry, Carmen. We’re done.”

[00:35:32] Ed: Yeah. Me and this laptop are about to jump out this 10-story window. Here’s the thing. I would be lying if I said like, “Yeah, everything’s going to be great. Are you kidding me?” Let me start with something grim, which is, so, I’m very sad at what has become very clear, which is that humans are not capable of comprehending cataclysm at scale. You know, we’re basically watching the Earth turn into a ball of fire.

[00:36:08] Carmen: Right.

[00:36:08] Ed: And all we’re doing is just, kind of, writing new stories about it and, and talking to our friends, being like, “Oh, my gosh, can you believe this? This is crazy.” But this is the earth giving us alarm bells, and we’re still just, kind of, like, “Yeah, man. I guess that’s, kind of, crazy.”

So, I am very dismayed by this, sort of, like, what seems to be a, kind of, evolutionary glitch in the human race, which is we just can’t understand, comprehend, or, or, sort of, take on problems at that scale automatically. But I am also very encouraged that, that seems to be shifting.

And as much frustration and division as there is in America right now, I think what’s even more powerful is a desire for it to be better and a desire for it to, like, heal and get better. There, unfortunately, is a lot of just, kind of, nihilistic rage that we’re dealing with, and that’s very real. And honestly, I get it. Like, I get feeling that way.

[00:37:13] Carmen: And there’s a few things to be mad about, Ed. I’ll give you that.

[00:37:16] Ed: Yeah, but we just have to tap into the best version of ourselves. And, you know, I have kids, so I, I don’t have a choice. I, I got to just try to make this world as beautiful as I can because my kids are the most amazing creatures the world has ever known, and I want them to thrive and be happy.

[00:37:37] Carmen: You said it right there, Ed. That’s why we do what we do, and that’s why you do what you do. Thanks, Ed Helms. It’s been awesome.

[00:37:43] Ed: All right. Oh, it’s been so fun. Thank you.

[00:37:46] Carmen: Appreciate you.

Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM. With music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created through the support of the legendary jazz musician.

If you enjoyed the show, you should hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I’m Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I’ll be back soon with more innovative thinking from members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.

Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.