LOS ANGELES – "Nothing to me feels as good as laughing incredibly hard," says Steve Carell (search) of NBC's new mockumentary series "The Office." (search) "If a movie or a TV show or a book makes you laugh until you cry, you just feel better."
A lot of folks did just that with the original BBC version of "The Office," created by and starring Ricky Gervais (search) as lacking-all-social-graces David Brent, manager of a paper supply company.
Now it's up to Carell to get audiences doubling-up with similar glee watching NBC's adaptation of the Golden Globe-winning import, which premieres 9:30 p.m. EST Thursday.
Best known as the news correspondent on "The Daily Show," the anchorman in "Bruce Almighty," and the weather guy in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," Carell plays Michael Scott in "The Office," a cringe-inducing boss, adept at little except the inappropriate.
"Steve's brave. It really has a lot to do with courage," says co-executive producer Greg Daniels. "It's big shoes to fill."
Daniels says they picked Carell for the lead role because, "He's very likable. He's got a goofy side to him and so it doesn't come out that he (Scott) is trying to be hurtful. It comes out like he's unintentionally being hurtful, which is the joke."
Carell had not seen the original series and before auditioning, he watched only a bit of the pilot episode "to get a taste of the tone." From everything he'd heard, Gervais created "an iconic character," so "I thought the best way for me to approach it would be with a clean slate."
He briefly met Gervais and original co-creator Stephen Merchant, who have co-producer credit on the American version. They didn't set any guidelines; they merely provided encouragement. "It was kind of like they were just giving us a toy to play with, to do whatever we wanted with," Carell says.
He says Scott is "well meaning, but generally all those good intentions go awry. He has a social blind spot. He doesn't know when to stop himself from saying something. He doesn't understand when he is being offensive. He doesn't understand how people truly perceive him."
Both Carell and Daniels believe the concept of the half-hour show, which is shot single-camera without an audience, has universal appeal, so they haven't tried to reproduce the original series, just catch its essence.
"I think the spirit of the British show is that the reality of office life is that it can be like a prison. You don't get to choose who you are sitting next to, so you have to deal with characters that are irritating, and that's within everybody's experience," says Daniels.
"I think it's a little more real than people might be expecting," notes Carell. "NBC has allowed us to leave in those uncomfortable pauses that I think are so important ... it has to be awkward, kind of nails-on-a-chalkboard at times."
Carell, 41, grew up in Concord, Mass. His first comic forays were to try to make "my older brothers' girlfriends laugh by doing something odd ... like dressing up as an alien for no apparent reason and coming down to dinner."
His first paying job was at Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, where he honed his improv skills and met his wife, actress Nancy Walls.
In the upcoming movie "Bewitched," he's practical joker Uncle Arthur, a character etched in the original TV series by Paul Lynde. In the planned film version of another classic TV series, "Get Smart," he'll also step into the shoes of a well-known character — inept spy Maxwell Smart, first played by Don Adams.
Carell never deliberately sought to play TV journalist roles or characters nailed by other actors.
"It's not a master plan to do every remake and every recreation of icons," he says. "It's just what I've been hired to do."