Carell, the youngest of four brothers, was born at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts, and was raised in nearby Acton by his parents, Harriet T. (née Koch), a psychiatric nurse, and Edwin A. Carell, an electrical engineer.
His maternal uncle, Stanley Koch, worked with Allen B. DuMont to create cathode ray tubes. Carell’s paternal grandfather was Italian; his father was born with the surname “Caroselli”, later shortening it to “Carell”.
Carell was raised Roman Catholic and was educated at The Fenn School and Middlesex School. Carell also played ice hockey as a teenager for his high school as well as his university. He played the fife, performing with other members of his family, and later joined a reenacting group portraying the 10th (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot. Carell attributed his interest in history to this, in which he earned his degree from Denison University in Granville, Ohio in 1984. While at Denison, Carell was a member of Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company, a student-run improvisational comedy troupe.
Carell states that he once worked as a mail carrier in Littleton, Massachusetts. He later recounted that he quit after a few months because his boss told him he was not very good as a mail carrier; he needed to be more efficient. Early in his performing career, Carell acted on the stage in a touring children’s theater company and later in the comedy musical, Knat Scatt Private Eye. He also acted in a television commercial for Brown’s Chicken in 1989. After that, Carell performed with Chicago troupe The Second City in 1991, where Stephen Colbert was his understudy for a time. That same year, he obtained his first film work in a minor role as Tesio in Curly Sue.
During the spring of 1996, he was a cast member of The Dana Carvey Show, a primetime sketch comedy program on ABC. Along with fellow cast member Stephen Colbert, Carell provided the voice of Gary, half of The Ambiguously Gay Duo, the Robert Smigel–produced animated short which continued on Saturday Night Live later that year. While the program lasted only seven episodes, The Dana Carvey Show has since been credited with forging Carell’s career. During this time, he also played a supporting character for several series including Come to Papa and the short-lived 1997 Tim Curry situation comedy Over the Top. He has made numerous guest appearances, including on an episode of Just Shoot Me! titled “Funny Girl.” Carell’s other early screen credits includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s short-lived situation comedy Watching Ellie (2002–2003) and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. He has also made fun of himself for auditioning for Saturday Night Live but losing the job to Will Ferrell. Carell was a correspondent for The Daily Show from 1999 until 2005, with a number of regular segments including “Even Stevphen” with Stephen Colbert and “Produce Pete.”
Carell is married to Saturday Night Live alumna Nancy Carell, whom he met when she was a student in an improvisation class he was teaching at Second City. They have two children, Elisabeth Anne “Annie” (born May 25, 2001) and John “Johnny” (born June 2004). In addition to working with him as a fellow correspondent on The Daily Show, Nancy also acted with him on The Office as his realtor and short-lived girlfriend Carol Stills, and also cameoed as a sex therapist in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.