B.J. Novak on life, love, and sex robots
Photo by Jennifer Rocholl

B.J. Novak on life, love, and sex robots

Though he’s relatively young, B.J. Novak has had a rapid-fire Hollywood career. The Massachusetts native worked on the Harvard Lampoon before moving out to Los Angeles in the early ’00s. He went through the stand-up scene, started writing on shows like the Bob Saget vehicle Raising Dad, and even appeared as Ashton Kutcher’s lead accomplice on the second season of Punk’d. Novak’s big break came when he was cast as Ryan Howard on the U.S. adaptation of The Office. Rising quickly through the ranks of the show, Novak went on to write classic episodes like “Diversity Day” and “The Fire” before eventually becoming an executive producer on the show. He’s also appeared in movies like Inglourious Basterds and Saving Mr. Banks, and was just cast as the villainous Alistair Smythe in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Novak’s latest project is One More Thing, a collection of his short stories. Out now, the book is packed with slightly optimistic, slightly cynical looks at life, love, and sex robots. The A.V. Club talked to him about all that stuff, as well as whether he believes the ordinary can become extraordinary.

The A.V. Club: How did One More Thing come about?

B.J. Novak: I had been on The Office for eight years as a writer, and all my ideas had to be filtered into this very specific structure of the world of Dunder Mifflin and this hyper realistic show. I enjoyed that—it was a great structure for its own thing, its own purposes. But every idea I had, had to be filtered through, “Oh, maybe Jim and Dwight, maybe Dwight and Michael can do this together. Maybe Pam might say that to Jim.” Any thought I had, I had to see how it would fit into this world of the show. I was also coming up with all these ideas, whether they were just comedic thoughts or sort of personal observations that I wanted to explore, that had no reason to fit into this world.

I wrote them all down and as the show came to an end, I went through all these boxes of notebooks and files on my phone and compiled them. I had this fantasy that they would add up to a screenplay or something.

AVC: That it would all magically interweave.

BJN: Yeah. “Oh, perfect. I’ll use this idea about the astronaut and then this one-liner will be his quip and then he’ll have his heart broken in this way and it will all fit together.” But, of course, it was more like I had 891 opening shots and no movie.

I didn’t really know what to do as The Office ended. I didn’t even know what my voice was anymore, or at least I didn’t know where The Office’s voice ended and mine started. They had a lot in common, which was why I was on the show at all, why I enjoyed it. But I didn’t know the difference between my voice and Greg’s [Daniels] voice and Paul’s [Lieberstein] voice and Mindy’s [Kaling] voice—well, Mindy’s voice is pretty distinct. But in general, I was part of this great collective voice.

I was there from 24 to 32. I didn’t grow much creatively outside of that. When it was over, I had all these ideas and didn’t know what in the world to do. After a couple months of not knowing what project to start, I started—just as a personal exercise—writing all these ideas in story form. At first I thought, “It’s going to sound so small, but your readers will understand. At first I thought, “Oh, I’ll start a Tumblr.” Then that wasn’t enough and I thought, “No, maybe I could make a book out of it.”

I thought of a Tumblr first, because I really wanted to embrace the jaggedness of the ideas. I wanted the freedom to write a piece that was four lines. If the core of an idea is four lines longs, I didn’t want to have to fake it and pretend that this was a two-page New Yorker “Shouts And Murmurs,” or a 15-page submission to Zoetrope. If it was a four-line piece, it was a four-line piece and if it was a 10-page piece, it was a 10-page piece.

I called it Uncollected Stories as I started writing it, and then I started performing it at [Upright Citizens Brigade] once a month, obsessively honing each story based on how it felt as I read out loud to an audience. It became a mash-up of not just all the ideas that I had over the years, but also of all my approaches to writing. It was live performing, it was testing, it was comedic pacing as I worked out that kind of piece. It was a way to make sense of all these different thoughts that I hadn’t been able to try out.

AVC: “Wikipedia Brown“ is in the book, and you’ve been reading and performing that since at least 2008. How did that develop into a written piece versus something that you might put in a stand-up special or develop into a video?

BJN: At first I thought, “How am I ever going to fill a book? I better think of everything I’ve ever written and see if I could just throw it in there.” Over time I actually had twice as much stuff as would fit in the book and had to cut it way down. I thought maybe my old Harvard Lampoon pieces would fit in there, and while I like them, my voice had evolved past that. They didn’t fit well with the rest of the book anymore. But “Wikipedia Brown” had some comedic voice in common with the other things I was doing, and it was mine, and people liked it, so I figured, why not. It’s kind of that simple.

AVC: How do you know if something’s a four-line piece or a 10-page piece?

BJN: That’s a great question. Often, it just feels done. I think it was something I knew from stand-up comedy too. Sometimes people would say, “Then what?” And I’d say, “That’s it. That’s all I got on that.” If that’s all I had, even if it was just an emotion, that’s all I had.

I wanted to express something a little more like a song. I’ve always envied songwriters, because they have the ability to write the perfect expression of an emotion or idea. Like, if you’re Paul Simon, you have a shot at writing the perfect piece about a feeling—the perfect one. As a novelist, you are never going to write the perfect expression of a type of love or a type of longing. The works are too complicated, same with a screenplay. You can’t write the definitive movie. Even the great masterpieces aren’t the perfect expression of the original idea, but songwriters can do that.

Envying that, I sort of thought, well, maybe some of these pieces are just meant to admire that a little more—to try to write the perfect expression of something very small. Like “The Girl Who Gave Great Advice.” I’ve always noticed that there’s a particular way people give advice that is incredibly valuable, and yet it’s extremely basic to just ask someone, “What does your heart tell you?” It’s almost always praised as the best possible advice, and I like that.

Obviously it’s a cynical observation on one level, but on another it’s kind of beautiful and true. It is always the best advice that I get. So I wrote a piece called “The Girl Who Gave Great Advice.” It was about how a person does that. What’s the best expression of that? What would that person’s inner life be like? I didn’t really want to make that into a novel or anything. I just wanted to say one thing and say it as fully as I could. I didn’t want to be pretentious and try to pretend it was weightier than it was. I think it probably comes more naturally to writers than they allow themselves as a form, how long something should be. It was extremely liberating for me to realize that, if it were a book, I could write things of different lengths and no one would stop me.

AVC: Why do you think songwriters are so good at capturing emotions?

BJN: I don’t know exactly. It’s one of those beautiful mysteries. Maybe it’s some combination of the finite length of the piece and the sort of blank canvas that a piece of music can really be. Although, I suppose a book can too. There’s just something about the length that we’ve come to, about songs that are made more structured by the limitations of the song. You could analyze it and never quite know. But there is just something magical about a song that can capture its original feeling perfectly.

My brother is a songwriter and I’ve always envied that. I also envy cartoonists. They can say the perfect thing in their form.

AVC: It could be the addition of a second medium. Cartoonists have words and art. Songwriters have words and music.

BJN: Right. There might be some combination to those two elements. It might be in a cartoon, it might be the visual and the words, and in music it might be the melody and the lyric, but they also have the alchemy that enables it to possibly achieve perfection.

AVC: One thing you did really well in the book is balance the cynical and the optimistic, like you were just talking about in “The Girl Who Gave Great Advice.” That story could be read either way, depending on whether you thought her 37 ½-degree head turn was real or not.

BJN: Well, there’s something very cynical about that story, but it’s beautiful too. She is a happy person and she gives great advice, so what’s the harm? It is actually a happy story if you look at how everyone ends up feeling because of this. We’re all foolish that this works on us, but it works. So it’s a happy take on a cynical observation, or vice versa.

Also, surprise is such an important element in comedic writing. I think there are some built in expectations in literature and in comedy that if something is quality, it’s expressing something dark. Sometimes, the more transgressive, surprising, new angle to take involves some lightness. Not as a rule, but in balance, sometimes the proportions can get stuck. I think finding the exact right balance of dark and light is important to my writing. Often lightness is the unexpected element.

AVC: Are there parallels between the mentality you have for writing a book and the mentality you had writing for The Office?

BJN: Very much. The Office at it’s best was a major influence on me and major inspiration for how I want to always try to write. This trickled down from both Greg Daniels and Steve Carell, both of whom set the tone of the show. There was this trust in authenticity that if we were doing our jobs right, the most truthful writing and performances would end up being the funniest. On the other side, if something felt funny it was probably because there was truth in it.

I’ll give you an example. There was a time early on when I brought a joke to Steve Carell. It was something I was really proud of. He looked at it and said, “I don’t know, this kind of feels like a joke.” And I thought, “Well, yeah. It’s a good joke. That’s exactly what it is, Steve. I’m the guy who writes funny things for you to say on the comedy show that we’re making.” It bothered me in the moment, but over time I realized he was completely correct. He didn’t want anything to feel like a joke. He wanted it to feel like truth and therefore play like a joke. That is a hard thing to trust. You want to be an overachiever and write a million of the best jokes you could, but there was really something to learn from him and also from Greg Daniels.

So in my writing, it was important for me to write jokes that resonated, to write comedic things that resonated like they have some truth behind them and cut the ones that didn’t. Also, I had explored what felt like it was true to me—that maybe hadn’t been said before—and trusted that comedy would come from that. So, that value in The Office that Carell and Greg set is one of the biggest influences on me as a writer.

AVC: Are all the stories in the book set in the same world?

BJN: They kind of take place in this blank space in general. I try to avoid saying exactly when things take place, although you could do the math on a few of them and know exactly what year they’re in, based on whether the Internet exists in someone’s childhood memories.

There’s a line that fascinates me between the ordinary and the extraordinary where they can often seem to be only a click away. That space is where the stories all take place. It’s a world in which Elvis might have had a life past the date of his death, and people might have sensed that. Yet, it would show up in the same edition of the National Enquirer that we all actually saw. Or where a John Grisham book called The Something was accidentally published and he had to call his actual editor and decide what to do. This one click between the ordinary and the extraordinary is what fascinates me.

Also, the theme of “one more thing,” the title of the book, is related to it as well. I think this beautiful illusion that if we only had one more thing, everything would be what we dreamed of is prevalent in many of the characters in the book.

AVC: Do you believe that the ordinary is extraordinary?

BJN: Generally, yeah. Or in “The Impatient Billionaire And The Mirror For Earth.” I figured that this guy mishears a metaphor at a TED talk and tries to actually build a mirror for Earth. In most people’s stories you’d describe the failure, but it succeeds in this story relatively easily, although with some frustration. There are some typical union-related delays. It succeeds and that’s not quite the point either.

There’s one piece that I’ve experimented with and I didn’t end up having this idea in this book, but maybe I’ll put it somewhere else. If we discover life on other planets—which to me growing up as a child was the most extraordinary sort of universe changing thing I could think of. If we did, the specialness of that would be lost on the next generation and probably lost even 10 years in. If we discovered life on other planets—literally. Like Martians with tentacles, your fantasy of aliens, okay?—if we discovered that on the next Mars Rover probe, it would be the most incredible thing the world had ever seen, for about a year.

Then, kids would be copying off each others’ homework about whether the Marvuuvians were on this side of Mars or that side of Mars and whether Venus was populated or Jupiter was. They would just be cheating. They’d go to a museum and they’d see aliens—like actual alien bones—and they would kind of make fun of them and try to pursue their childhood crush. It would just blend into the ordinary world we’re in now, where all these extraordinary things happen constantly and they’re lost on us within a day. So, while that story isn’t in this book, that was exactly the kind of idea I was happily bothered by and wanted to make sense of. I wanted to write about this world that we live in, seen through that context.

AVC: That’s happened a bit with the Internet, and that idea’s reflected in your story “Sophia,” about a sex robot that falls in love with its owner.

BJN: I thought, “what if it’s the first artificially intelligent being to feel love,” which is a hypothetical that happens a lot. That would be the most incredible thing in the world, if you could create life that could actually feel love. What if this robot fell in love with you and you didn’t want a relationship? That was the comic premise that the story came out of, and then it ended up taking a much more emotional turn toward when you think you don’t want something and then you were wrong and you learn that too late. That’s exactly the point, right? A modern guy who has all these excuses for why he doesn’t want a commitment makes the extraordinary aspect utterly ordinary.

AVC: You said that you avoid mentioning time in stories. Why is that?

BJN: We tried to never say a year on The Office, because we knew it would be playing in reruns. We didn’t want to take anyone out of that reality. It’s not really a cheat. I just don’t want to interrupt anyone who might have pictured it a certain way or at a certain time or closer to their own life if they’re reading it in a few years or if they’re remembering it as their own childhood. I just don’t want to take anyone out of that if they’re in it.

AVC: Some things you can assume will stay around, like Craigslist.

BJN: Or Neil Patrick Harris.

AVC: He’s going to live forever.

BJN: I think he will.

AVC: Are any of these stories ideas that you’ve considered developing farther?

BJN: I don’t think so. Maybe. But I really wrote this to escape from that career ambition for a while and not think in those terms. I was just thinking about what stories I wanted to tell.

I don’t know that any of them are especially adaptable. I think when I make those things I’ll probably start from, “Oh, this would be a great screenplay, this would be a great movie, this would be a great TV show.” But all of these I honestly approach, “What if this was a story?”

AVC: Would you call One More Thing a passion project? If you had all the money in the world, would you choose to write stories?

BJN: I always want to entertain. It matters a lot to me. The desire to make somebody’s favorite something is the most important thing to me as an ambition. It’s not really about success, it’s about that. That to me is success. So I think whatever I do, I’d never be happy. This is the team I’m on. I wouldn’t be happy if what I was making wasn’t anybody’s favorite something. I’ve always been haunted by whether I can do that. This book was an attempt at that. It’s certainly the most personal thing I’ve ever done, which surprised me when I realized that. At first, I thought this was my way of avoiding writing on a personal level.

AVC: It’s certainly not an autobiography.

BJN: No, it’s not an autobiography, but the ideas have been in my head as the hopes and daydreams and what I find funny and what I find frightening. There’s a paradox when you write personally, there’s an attempt to hide yourself. When you write about other things you reveal yourself, because you don’t even realize you’re doing it. When I looked at the finished book, I was shocked at how much of myself I put in it. I feel like, in some ways, it’s more “me” than “me.” I wouldn’t say that, but it ended up being extremely personal and that was a happy surprise, because that’s never something I felt came naturally to me.

AVC: You were talking about how you want to make someone else’s perfect thing. Who makes your perfect things?

BJN: Charlie Kaufman. Spike Jonze…

AVC: Did you like Her?

BJN: Loved it.

Quentin Tarantino. George Saunders. Rod Serling.

Yeah, those are a few. I feel like I should put some diversity in there, but those are just the first answers that came to me.