23 Nov

A mug shot of my high school classmate.

Ed Helms, cast member of NBC’s “The Office” and star of the highly successful “Hangover” movies, returned to our old high school stomping grounds in Atlanta last night to share plenty of laughter and even a few lessons in “Beyond the Gates: The Westminster Schools’ Distinguished Speaker Series.” There wasn’t much that wasn’t notable and/or quotable in the pleasant program as my high school classmate discussed his unique career with former drama teacher, Eric Brannen, in front of packed house of at least 1,400 fans, friends, family and facilitators.

Ed educates:

• Success should not be the end goal, said the former “The Daily Show” correspondent who once studied geology at Oberlin College in Ohio. Instead, Ed said that people should focus on producing content about which they’re passionate, no matter what the art form — comedy, acting, painting, sculpting, writing, whatever. It was “stage time” that Ed pursued after he graduated. Produce as much as you can and you’ll find your audience and fine-tune your voice. Of course, there is a whole lot of living and learning in between.

• The executive producer of “Cedar Rapids” emphasized the importance of a support network. While enjoying the individualism and instant gratification of stand-up comedy — starting out, he picked New York over Chicago and L.A. for that very reason — Ed said the team dynamic and sharing of advice and ideas, not to mention the networking and sometimes emotional support, are invaluable.

• To thine own self be true, to quote one of my favorite Bard lines from our Westminster days. Ed talked about the challenges of dealing with the Hollywood machine and resulting mania, i.e., when his public persona changed so rapidly with the success of “The Hangover.” Very few of us will have to deal with that level of attention, distraction and adjustment, but we all must ask ourselves what’s truly important in life. Ed asked himself a lot of questions during that time — better to search the soul than let temptation lead you to seek other things. His fine family no doubt grounded him, but drawing from other core experiences may have helped as well. When Brannen asked his former pupil how he balanced schooling, acting and competing on the swim team when at Westminster, Ed quipped, “I was driven by panic.”

And, of course, Ed entertains:

• His opener referencing all the new development on campus, which, no doubt, receives even more college comparisons these days: “It’s great to be back here at Westminster University… [Pointing] I think I saw a new law school down there.”

• About how many current students complimented his “Hangover” movies: “I couldn’t believe it. Westminster parents are doing a terrible job!”

• Fielding a question about advice for female comedians: “Well, let me just dance into this minefield…”

• Responding to an inquiry about his future career plans: “A big part of me just wants to play banjo somewhere in North Carolina for the rest of my life.”


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