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'Office' Star B.J. Novak Wants To Surprise You With His New Project

B.J. Novak attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills.
B.J. Novak attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills.

It's been nearly 20 years since B.J. Novak first took the stage as a stand-up comic. He still remembers the date: Oct. 10, 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

It was a tough time to be telling jokes and Novak was inexperienced. His set bombed.

It took him three months to get back on stage after that show. But when he did, he booked five shows in a single week, vowing to himself that he wouldn't let a single show be a referendum on whether or not he should continue.

"The first night I did well, the second night I didn't. The third night I did, OK," Novak says. "And I realized, Oh, OK, you just have to do this a lot. ... It feels like all of my formative lessons are from that brutally exposed and honest trial and error in front of an audience."

Novak went on to work both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. He was a writer-director and executive producer of the NBC series The Office — and he played the role of temp worker Ryan on the show. He also wrote a best selling collection of short stories, called One More Thing.

Novak's latest project is The Premise, an FX on Hulu anthology series which he writes and directs. Each episode deals with a current issue, like social media obsession and celebrity worship, and each ends with a surprise twist. Novak says the series plays to his strengths as a writer.

"I do have these wild premises that make me smile," he says. "I really think there is something to giving people ... a really memorable idea, play it out to its limit and move on."


Interview highlights

On exploring internet trolls and online criticism in The Premise

I do have this — a lot of us do — this compulsion to find out what people are saying. I look up reviews of what I do and then I tell myself I won't again. But it's largely because I'm looking for the truth. And I think the reason we do that is because the truth is often absent from our lives these days, and it's this bifurcated reality. ...

Everyone has that thing that they're completely self-conscious about, completely terrified that people will notice about them. And sure enough, that is what everybody shouts at you as though you don't know it as though I don't have all of these fears about myself, my appearance, my writing, all of this imposter syndrome. So when people yell, "You're an imposter!" you say, "I know! I know!" ... So often we are our own worst critics and we are the people that have thought about ourselves the most. Unless you get a thick skin over time, which I have a medium skin. Of course it hurts!

On getting the part of Ryan in The Office

I was doing standup at the Hollywood Improv, and Greg Daniels, who created the show, saw me perform and I was doing one liners, essentially, and pausing between the jokes. He told me afterwards that it was my first joke that got him, which was, "I learned nothing in college. It was really kind of my own fault. I had a double major: psychology and reverse psychology." He said it was that joke. But then when he met me, he said, "You know, it was really the pauses between your jokes, because I have this idea for this temp character who kind of thinks he's better than everyone. And in those pauses you had a little arrogance that I thought was very funny." So that's actually what got me the part. And then he had heard that I very much wanted to be a writer. So he offered to read my spec script, which all writers carried around then. And I got hired for both jobs at the same time. And then Mindy Kaling was hired for both as well, too.

On what he learned from Steve Carell about writing jokes

I learned a lot about emotion and truth being more important than the desire to prove how clever you were.

Steve [Carell] knocked down a lot of jokes, in the best way. I'll always remember, like [as] a real eager 25-year-old comedy writer, I brought down a bunch of jokes to set when a scene wasn't working. That was often the young writer's job, "go write alts." I ran a bunch down to set. And I was really proud of them, and he said, "I don't know. These all seem like jokes." And I thought, Well, yeah, that's my job! These are jokes. And he meant that it all had to come from character and truth and feeling, that was really his school of comedy. ... I learned a lot about emotion and truth being more important than the desire to prove how clever you were. I think it's why my early stand-up at that youth hostel didn't work, and the lesson I've really slowly learned over time.

On Comedy Central pulling The Office episode "Diversity Day" from a recent marathon — the episode is about sensitivity training and racism

I did write "Diversity Day" and I do think it's a wonderful episode, but you need to do these things at the highest level. I mean, it's a risk. If you fail with something like that, it's bad. But I think that, we should all be going for that.

In my opinion, audiences are not afraid of this kind of thing. They like if someone takes a risk in comedy, they understand it, they get it. And an episode like "Diversity Day" or these episodes are fine with people. It is the gatekeepers that are often very nervous on behalf of an audience. And that, I think, is the disconnect. And you see it in stand-up a lot. The most popular stand-ups are the ones that are talking directly to people. They have no one censoring them and their audiences get it, and their audiences love it and hunger for it. I'm sure there are some people offended by things. .... I'd be hurt and worried if the things I was doing were offending people, I really would. And I do feel bad if and when that does happen. But I think that people like that kind of thing and it is the gatekeepers that are very nervous.

On how his on-again, off-again relationship with co-star Mindy Kaling informed their characters in The Office

Novak says his <em>Office</em> co-star Mindy Kaling (whom he also dated) is still one of the closest people in his life.
Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Roadside Attrac
Novak says his <em>Office</em> co-star Mindy Kaling (whom he also dated) is still one of the closest people in his life.

I think it fueled the show in the sense that all of us were putting everything we had into the show every day. So if Mindy and I had a fight or an argument, other writers were taking notes, or we would just improvise it on set. So none of us had lives. And I think that's why so many of us, including me and Mindy, became so close. You go home at 2 a.m. or suddenly it's the weekend and you don't know anybody else. So you just keep hanging out with everybody. She's one of the closest or the closest person of my life to this day.

The whole reason our characters started dating on the show is because they couldn't get over this dynamic we had in the writers' room that neither of us realized was funny at all. And other people would laugh and shake their heads. And we'd say, "What?" And they'd say, "You two!" And then before we knew it, they had written us in as this horrible partnership.

On shooting the last episode of The Office

I cried. It was hard. I think we were all so ready to be done with it because it had been so grueling for so long. I'm getting choked up now. The last shot that I filmed ... it was Mindy and I running off into the sunset together. It had an awfully dark undercurrent, which was that I was abandoning my baby, that I had left at the wedding to to run off with her. I remember, it was a sunset, it was Mindy. It really blended the reality and the workplace that Dunder Mifflin was where I worked for nine years and I had a lot of complaints about it and a lot of frustrations and a lot of disappointments, along with all of the ecstatic moments. But when it finally was over, it was sad.

On working on MTV's Punk'd early in his career

It was the most fun I've ever had in my life. My mom couldn't watch. I think it didn't even occur to me that pranks make other people uncomfortable. They're so exciting to me. ... Hilary Duff was, at the time, a 16-year-old TV star, and we pretended that I was her driving instructor. And so she went to get what she thought was her license test. And I was an instructor who had her drive through just to really break all the rules and eventually got in a fight with another driver. It was just the worst possible mishap of a driving lesson. ... And I just had to sort of be convincing while also coming up with what would further the scene along. So it was this incredible high-wire improv, because you're making it up on the spot and your scene partner doesn't know that it's fake. And so if they ever realize it is, you blew the whole day. So it was incredible improv training in that sense. It was so high-stress, but so much fun.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.