It has been almost 20 years since BJ Novak first took the stage as a stand-up comic. He still remembers the date: October 10, 2001, less than a month after the September 11 attacks.
It was a difficult time to tell jokes and Novak was inexperienced. His whole bombed out.
It took him three months to get back on stage after this show. But when he did, he booked five shows in a single week, promising himself that he wouldn’t let a single show be a referendum on whether or not to continue.
âThe first night I did well, the second night I didn’t. The third night I did it, okay,â says Novak. “And I realized, Oh, okay, you just have to do that a lot. … I feel like all of my training lessons come from this brutally exposed and honest trial and error in front of an audience.”
Novak continued to work both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. He was writer-director and executive producer of the NBC series Office – and he played the role of interim Ryan in the series. He also wrote a short story bestseller, titled One more thing.
Novak’s latest project is The premise, a series of FX anthologies on Hulu that he writes and directs. Each episode deals with a topical issue, like social media obsession and celebrity worship, and each ends with a surprise twist. Novak says the show is playing to his strengths as a writer.
âI have these wild locals that make me smile,â he says. “I really think there is something to give peopleâ¦ a really memorable idea, take it to the limit and move on.”
About internet troll crawling and online criticism in The premise
I have this – a lot of us do – this compulsion to find out what people are saying. I look for opinions on what I’m doing and I tell myself that I will not do it again. But it’s largely because I’m looking for the truth. And I think the reason we do this is because the truth is often missing from our lives these days, and it’s that forked reality. …
Everyone has this thing that they are completely embarrassed about, completely terrified that people will notice it. And sure, that’s what everyone yells at you like you don’t know like I don’t have all these fears about myself, my looks, my writing, all this impostor syndrome. So when people shout, “You are an impostor!” you say, âI know! I know ! … So often we are our worst critics and we are the people who have thought about ourselves the most. Unless you get thick skin over time, which I have medium skin. Of course it hurts!
By getting the role of Ryan in Office
I was doing stand-up at Hollywood Improv, and Greg Daniels, who created the show, saw me play and I did an understudy, basically, and I took a break between jokes. He later told me that it was my first joke that attracted him, namely: “I didn’t learn anything in college. It was really my fault. I had a double major. : psychology and reverse psychology. ” He said it was that joke. But when he met me he said, “You know, it was really the breaks between your jokes, because I have this idea for this temporary character who thinks he’s better than everyone else. . And in those breaks you had a bit of arrogance which I found very funny. ” That’s actually what got me the part. And then he had heard that I really wanted to be a writer. So he offered to read my spec script, which all the writers then carried. And I was hired for both jobs at the same time. And then Mindy Kaling was also hired for both.
On what he learned from Steve Carell about writing jokes
Steve [Carell] knocked down a lot of jokes, in the best way. I will always remember, like [as] a true 25 year old comedy writer, I made a bunch of jokes to set up when a scene didn’t work. It was often the job of the young writer, “go write alts”. I ran a bunch to settle. And I was really proud of them, and he said, “I don’t know. This all sounds 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, truth and feelings, this was really his school of comedy. … I learned a lot about how emotion and truth are more important than the desire to prove how smart you are. I think this is the reason why my first stand-up at this hostel didn’t work out, and the lesson I learned very slowly over time.
On Comedy Central pulling The Office’s “Diversity Day” episode from a recent marathon – the episode is about sensitivity training and racism
I wrote “Diversity Day” and I think it’s a wonderful episode, but you have to do these things at the highest level. I mean, it’s a risk. If you fail with something like this, it’s bad. But I think, we should all go.
In my opinion, the public is not afraid of this sort of thing. They like someone to take a risk in acting, they understand it, they understand it. And an episode like “Diversity Day” or those episodes are suitable for people. It’s the goalies who are often very nervous on behalf of an audience. And that is, I think, the disconnection. And you see it a lot on stand-up. The most popular stand-ups are those aimed directly at people. They have no one to censor them and their audience understands, and their audience loves them and thirsts for them. I’m sure there are people offended by things. …. I would be hurt and worried if the things I did offended people, I really would. And I feel bad if and when that happens. But I think people like that stuff and it’s the goalies who are very nervous.
On how her intermittent relationship with co-star Mindy Kaling informed their characters in Office
I think that fueled the show in the sense that we were all putting everything we had into the show every day. So if Mindy and I had an argument or an argument, other writers would take notes, or we would just improvise it on set. So neither of us had a life. And I think that’s why so many of us, including me and Mindy, have become so close. You get home at 2 a.m. or suddenly it’s the weekend and you don’t know anyone else. So you just keep hanging out with everyone. She is one of the closest or closest people in my life to date.
The reason our characters started dating on the show is because they couldn’t get over this dynamic that we had in the writers room and neither of us realized it was funny at all. And other people were laughing and shaking their heads. And we would say, “What?” And they said, “You two!” And then before we knew it, they wrote to us like this horrible partnership.
On the set of the last episode of Office
I cried. It was hard. I think we were all so ready to end it because it had been so exhausting for so long. I’m choking now. The last shot I filmed … it was Mindy and I run away together towards the sunset. There was a terribly dark undercurrent, which was that I was abandoning my baby, that I had gone to the wedding to run away with her. I remember it was a sunset, it was Mindy. It really mixed up with reality and the Dunder Mifflin workplace where I worked for nine years and had a lot of complaints about it and a lot of frustrations and a lot of disappointments and all the ecstatic moments. But when it was finally over, it was sad.
Work on MTV Punk’d at the beginning of his career
It was the most fun I have ever had in my life. My mother couldn’t watch. I don’t think it even occurred to me that pranks make other people uncomfortable. They are so exciting to me. … Hilary Duff was, at the time, a 16 year old TV star, and we pretended I was her driving instructor. And so she went to get what she thought was her licensing exam. And I was an instructor who had him drive just to really break all the rules and finally got into a fight with another driver. It was just the worst possible mishap of a driving lesson. â¦ And I just had to be somehow convincing while figuring out what would move the scene forward. So it was this amazing improvisation on wire, because you make it up on the spot and your stage partner doesn’t know it’s wrong. And if they ever realize you do, you’ve been puffing all day. So it was an incredible improvisation training in that sense. It was so stressful, 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.