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'Superbad' - but in a good way
Internet actor Cera thrives on awkwardness

Published Thursday, August 16, 2007

Michael Cera, who just turned 19 years old but whose peach-fuzz cheeks and deceptively innocent eyes make him seem at least five years younger, loves emotional discomfort.

His, yours and especially that of an unsuspecting audience.

Nothing amuses him more than wincingly awkward silences that freeze a room in the moments after someone blurts out something embarrassing in a trying-too-hard attempt to look cool.

He revels in it.

"Yeah, that's my favorite thing," he says somewhat sheepishly. "I always kind of end up in situations where I don't know too many people, and I'm not very social, and I feel, you know, extremely uncomfortable. But there's some secret pleasure I take in things like that, in things going horribly wrong."

That awkwardness was at the heart of the character for which people know him best: George Michael Bluth, the painfully confused adolescent with an inappropriate crush on his cousin in the fanatically admired sitcom "Arrested Development." It also underpins his role as a high-school senior desperately trying to score with chicks in "Superbad," the R-rated comedy produced by Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin"), opening Friday.

But Cera's most visible presence these days is online. Since May 23, he has been starring in "Clark and Michael," an original Web series - one of CBS's first - for which he and his friend and collaborator Clark Duke write, produce and act. The 10 online-only episodes at feature two clueless guys trying to get their first television series produced.

Cera is popping up in other much-viewed Web videos. In one, a fake screen test for Seth Rogen's "Knocked Up" character, he has a screaming match with Apatow - a parody of a widely dispersed, profanity-laden actual spat between Lily Tomlin and director David O. Russell on the set of "I ? Huckabees."

In another, a fake self-promotional video called "Impossible Is the Opposite of Possible," an insufferably arrogant Cera, who wrote the script, explains the secrets of his own success because "if people find me more attractive to look at, they also find me more fun to be around and more exciting to talk to."

Cera says he carries in his bag an interview with David Cross, one of his many comedy mentors and a fellow actor in "Arrested Development."

Headlined "Comedy Isn't Pretty," the interview features Cross "talking about how not enough people are wiling to look foolish these days," Cera says. "That really had a big message to me. You can't have any shame."

For someone so young and theoretically still subject to post-adolescent peer pressure, Cera - a middle child who, when not working in Los Angeles, lives with his parents and two sisters in a Toronto suburb, Brampton - seems remarkably comfortable with the idea of making himself look like a jerk for the sake of a joke. He was 12, he says, when he decided that looking cool was less satisfying than amusing himself.

"I sort of gave up my ambition to be handsome," he says, describing how in seventh grade, as a fan of facade-skewering comedies like "Mr. Show" and "The Tom Green Show," he began wearing a pink bicycle helmet to school and assuming fake, sometimes obnoxious personas to interview classmates.

His mother, Linda Cera, says, "As a kid he was not easily amused, and he wasn't ever the one hamming it up for attention. He never connected with the kind of over-the-top humor that usually made other kids laugh - making faces and stupid dances and things. But then if I'd knock my arm into the furniture and pretend I was hurt, that made him laugh."

Before he was in preschool, Cera says, he knew he'd be an actor. He was obsessed with becoming Bill Murray, the star of "Ghostbusters," and he watched that 1984 film over and over when he was 4. Cera still carries a "Ghostbusters" wallet, trivia he has not shared with the film's writer, Harold Ramis, who wrote and will direct Cera's next feature film, "Year One" with Jack Black.

"I'm not going to show it to him," Cera says. "I'm afraid it'll change the whole dynamic."

Cera started acting professionally, in local commercials, when he was 9. He was 14 when he filmed the pilot for "Arrested Development." Mitchell Hurwitz, the show's creator, described Cera as "so confident, respectful and _well-adjusted, it's frightening," adding, "He's like a little Ron Howard."

Cera and Duke started working on "Clark and Michael" two years ago, when both were living in a short-term corporate-apartment complex in Marina del Rey, Calif., while Cera was filming "Arrested Development" and Duke was finishing his film degree at nearby Loyola Marymount University. A shared enthusiasm for "Mr. Show"; the original, British version of "The Office"; and the deadpan style of the improv troupe Stella persuaded them to work together on a project.

"The show is pretty much what we were doing at the time," Duke says, "a lot of hanging out, playing guitar and messing around."

Duke says. "We just kind of wrote it with no real aspirations for it. We were just trying to make each other laugh. And sometimes it does feel like it's just a big in-joke between us."

A 10-minute pilot version was shot for Duke's college thesis and eventually found its way to Matt Kaplan, the online content supervisor at CBS Interactive. "Clark and Michael," with its low-tech aesthetic, mockumentary feel and potential to attract Cera's college-aged fan base, immediately appealed to him. Still, the network intentionally kept the "microseries" off its Innertube Web site because it thought placing the show at another location would better appeal to the show's younger demographic.

"We were looking for something that wasn't a full television show but also not a video someone would just put up on YouTube," Kaplan says. "And it allowed Michael the kind of creative flexibility he wouldn't have if there were a network television show."

So without commercial sponsors and focus groups, "Clark and Michael" unfolded in weekly bursts of 7 to 10 minutes long, filled with the awkward silences that Cera likes so much and plenty of absurdist, low-key mockery of life on the show-business fringe, including one scene in which Cera, after having a script rejected, cries in a bathtub and refers to a well-known screenwriting guide.

"We wrote symbols and themes and motifs," he moans. "We read the whole Syd Field book."

"We didn't originally think of this as being for the Internet," Cera says. "We were thinking more like it being something on Adult Swim," on Cartoon Network. "But it turned out exactly how we wanted it to be."

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