- Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor on the show’s return and inevitable movie
- Katie Aselton on going from mumblecore to thriller—and directing her own nude scenes
- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
B.J Novak is one of those pathological overachievers who make everyone else feel less accomplished by comparison. The son of noted author William Novak—the co-editor of The Big Book Of Jewish Humor and a ghostwriter for everyone from Magic Johnson to Lee Iacocca to Nancy Reagan—Novak attended Harvard, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, then snagged a staff writing job on the ill-fated sitcom Raising Dad just a few days after graduating. The show only lasted a season; after its cancellation, Novak honed his stand-up act and appeared as a prankster on Punk’d.
Novak’s big break came when he landed a job as a writer, producer, and cast member on the American remake of The Office. In addition to writing some of the show’s best-loved episodes, like “Diversity Day,” “Sexual Harassment,” and “Chair Model,” Novak plays Ryan, a temp who traveled an eventful dramatic arc from wage slave to corporate hotshot to disgraced ex-addict. Novak is currently shooting season six of The Office and can be seen as part of a motley group of Jewish Nazi-killers in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Novak about learning how to scalp, punking Hilary Duff, and why playing Ryan as an asshole was no fun.
The A.V. Club: Actors in war movies often go through boot-camp-like training as preparation. Was that the case with Inglourious Basterds?
B.J. Novak: I would have enjoyed more [training]. There is an expectation among people I know that I did some intense machine-gun training and everything. I did scalping training, which was fun and appropriately gory and Tarantino-y. But I didn’t do much: I took one machine-gun lesson with a bunch of Germans. It was surreal having them training us. It was essentially “Here’s how you would have killed us.” It was an interesting history lesson in and of itself, that this is what World War II led to. It led to a small industry in Europe where Germans teach American filmmakers how to operate their own weaponry. One of the great things about Tarantino is the backstory that’s in his head. I don’t know how much of that ends up on the screen in the finished product, but one of the things about the Basterds is that they would take weapons from groups of German soldiers they had ambushed. The weapons we’re holding are German machine guns, not American machine guns. We had to learn how to operate those specifically.
AVC: What does scalping training entail? Who taught you?
BJN: That was our weapons instructor. We were just told we had weapons training. We weren’t told exactly what it was going to be. The night before, we were all out at a bar, all the Basterds were out with Quentin, which was a pretty common occurrence during filming. And he told us that the training was going to be scalping training, specifically. And he said the top three scalpers are going to get close-ups in the movie, scalping. And then he looked at me and he said, “Novak, I have a feeling you’re not going to be in the top three.” Which was exactly what I had been thinking. But I didn’t know how he knew that. That was just not a natural thing for me. But I stayed up all night reading Wikipedia entries on scalping, and trying to find stuff on YouTube, and looking up how people do magic tricks… just how to sell it. And I was the best scalper. There’s all this backstory you’ll never see in the movie, but in my head, that was how I understood the character. I thought, “I’m a guy who probably is an overachieving student in school who had no violence in his life, but had to overachieve when he joined a scalping end of the army.” So he tried to be the best.
AVC: What other backstory do you have for your character?
BJN: I think you’ll see very little in the movie. I think to most people, it will look like Ryan The Temp is in the Army. But to me, there was so much. There was little to do in that three-month period in Germany other than just—I don’t speak German or anything—other than going out for drinks if you heard there were going to be drinks. Or, you know, focus on the movie. And it was a really rich script, so I would just think endlessly on what clues I could gather about my character specifically. What did I infer? His name was Smithson Utivich, which I thought was an odd name. Again, I think all of this is kind of funny, because you don’t necessarily see it. It’s just how I got over my own intimidation of being in this Tarantino war movie. But the character’s name was Smithson Utivich, which I thought was an odd name for a Jewish soldier. So I thought “Well, all right, I bet he came from a very assimilated family that didn’t want to focus on being Jewish, and so they tried to give him what they thought was a WASPy name, Smithson, which is a name I never heard. And maybe this was his way to reclaim being Jewish. He was a journalist who had been mistreated in England when Brad Pitt drafted all these soldiers for this renegade unit.” It was my chance to be a writer privately, because I’m used to putting all my energy there during the year on The Office. And here I was with really nothing to do but wake up, shower, and say my lines.
AVC: You mentioned people seeing you in the film as Ryan Goes To War. Was that a concern? Did you want to differentiate the character from the character you play on The Office?
BJN: No. I’m a believer in trusting the director. So if he cast me for a specific reason, I wasn’t out to prove anything. I was just excited to watch Quentin Tarantino direct all day.
AVC: What did you learn from watching him direct?
BJN: Different people have different styles, but there is an opportunity as a director to be a writer in every moment, with every visual cue and every piece of production design. Everything is a decision, and everything can be obsessed over. It looked like a nightmare or a fantasy of a writer who can write in so many different dimensions. This is someone who has so many ideas and options and directions to go for every little thing, and everything has to communicate some backstory in his head that he can’t speak fast enough to tell you.
AVC: Was it a difficult decision, leaving The Office for three months to film Inglourious Basterds?
BJN: It felt like destiny. Not that it was. It felt like it. Tarantino was really why I felt a calling to be a writer in the first place. I guess it harkens back to what I just said about directing being writing, but I remember watching Pulp Fiction in the theater the weekend it came out, and when “Son Of A Preacher Man” came on in Uma Thurman’s apartment, it just struck me like a revelation that someone had made that decision. Someone had chosen that song. And that was an active, creative thing to do. It was thrilling. And that’s what I wanted to do.
So then when I heard that he wanted to meet me, it was already so mind-blowing to me that I would be face-to-face with him that I didn’t even think of it as a conflict. I told everyone I worked with. Things come up all the time in Hollywood, where you’re working on stuff and they don’t pan out. But for some reason I just spoke of this to everyone the way you’d speak to a close friend, like, about something special that had happened to me, that might happen. And everyone went along with that. No one asked about the schedule. They just said, “Wow, that’s amazing. Wouldn’t that be exciting?” and got as caught up in it as I was. And when it came time to schedule it, we realized how seemingly impossible it was. But I guess it worked out, because I just happen to play a character [on The Office] who is so inconsistent by nature that it made sense that he would run off for a time and then come back.
AVC: Did you come up with the rationale for Ryan being away?
BJN: That was a group thing. It was one of probably a hundred ideas that had already come up for Ryan, that he would impulsively run off to Thailand after making a big overture to Kelly. So the way the writing process works, we generate so many ideas, and the things that feel like new ideas are often just re-pitches of re-pitches of re-pitches. So I don’t know where that idea began, exactly. But wherever it originated, it went right to the forefront. We needed to solve that problem.
AVC: Your character has gone through a personal and professional evolution over the course of the show. How much of that as a writer and producer do you control, and how much of that is up to the group?
BJN: I’m a little less of a contributor when it comes to Ryan. I think it matters so much to me to be a writer first that I just sort of picture the Office set the way I would see it as a writer, and not really from my own perspective, or focusing on myself. Mindy Kaling really likes writing for Ryan, and writes him really well. [Writer-producers] Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky write for Ryan really well. I’ll improvise on the set a lot. But I wouldn’t say I’m a leader in coming up with the stuff he does.
AVC: What character do you like writing for the most?
BJN: Michael, although I really love so many other characters, for different reasons. But there is such an elegance to the comedy of Michael. It’s really, to me, what was so delightful to me about comedy as a kid. It’s the wise fool, or someone who sees logic in such a specific way that makes so much sense, and yet is so different from the way you would have pictured it. I think he’s just such a delightful, classic comedy character.
AVC: The Michael of “Diversity Day” seems much meaner than he would become over time. Were you worried about making him too unlikeable?
BJN: Um, yeah. I think it was a bit conscious and a bit unconscious. I think the unconscious factor is that you often gravitate toward what makes you smile. And as simple as it sounds, what makes you smile is sometimes just people being nice. But there was also a conscious decision to brighten the show, and to find a way into this character that was dominating the show. During “Diversity Day,” I realized that stuff was funnier and hitting harder when it was the kind of mistake that you’re afraid of making yourself. So over time, especially as we moved into the second season, we had a few months off to think, “All right, what do we want to be different about the show?” I think we wanted to brighten the characters so people could identify with his mistakes a little bit, and his loneliness, and where he’s coming from, rather than just identify with the collective person in The Office.
AVC: Have you always wanted to be a comedy writer?
BJN: I always wanted to be a writer. I took for granted that I was funny, because I was in a funny family. I didn’t think being funny was a great skill. I thought I would rather be cool, I would rather be great at baseball or something. I thought being funny was just like your eye color or how tall you were. When I looked more strategically at how I would become a writer, I thought comedy would be my way in, and then I’d gravitate toward whatever I really wanted to write, in the end. The more I did it, the more special it felt, and the more bored I felt writing things that didn’t have comedy. And also, I think people underrate comedy’s relation to the rest of writing. Star Trek was a movie this summer where the secret ingredient was wit. And you don’t necessarily have to be writing a comedy to benefit from good comedy writing. The Office is less a comedy than so many other “comedies” that have been on the air. It’s really about the balance between what is real and what is comic. Now I’m going on a tangent, but I started out thinking comedy would be my path to writing, and then as I got into that, I realized, “Well, either this is my calling or it’s all comedy,” or something like that.
AVC: The Office has set the bar so high that it’s disappointing if an episode is just funny. It has to have some additional element.
BJN: The Sopranos was one of the great funny shows recently. It is more similar in tone to The Office than a lot of comedies, in that it’s really about the interplay between these intense characters, and the funny true things they would do. On our good days, that’s what we are.
AVC: Your father literally wrote the book on Jewish comedy. Growing up, did you have a sense of the distinction between Jewish comedy and non-Jewish comedy?
BJN: I maybe thought I did. [Laughs.] But I don’t think so. I would read his book, The Big Book Of Jewish Humor, and I gravitated toward certain things that I think I could academically explain why I think they’re more Jewish humor than other things. But what I really took out of the book is, it had a lot of my favorite jokes in it.
AVC: One of the jokes from your stand-up act—“I was a double major: psychology and reverse psychology”—particularly sounds like a Woody Allen line.
BJN: I’m not an expert in other forms of comedy, so I don’t really know, but I do think something classic Jewish humor has as a thread is logic at the center. And what I was saying before about what I love about Michael in particular—and I don’t think the character’s being written with this in mind, it might just be something pre-existing about the character that I gravitate toward—is that there is such an elegance to the logic of a character like that, who sees the world that makes perfect sense from one angle, and is utterly absurd from another.
AVC: He’s childlike in a very endearing way.
BJN: I think emotionally, that’s a huge key to Michael, that he’s so raw and sensitive and expressive.
AVC: He’s emotionally translucent.
BJN: That might be his most childish quality, actually, how expressive he is about his emotions, which is cute and vulnerable in children. You know exactly what they’re feeling, and you see the full intensity of it, because they haven’t really learned to be shy about that, or to hide it. Michael often doesn’t think to hide it at all. And when he does, he’s terrible at hiding it. So you always see what he’s feeling, and it’s so funny, but it is very childlike, too.
AVC: You went to Harvard specifically with the intention of writing for the Harvard Lampoon. Was that because of its history? Or because it’s such a gateway to writing for television?
BJN: It was something I had heard of, and it seemed kind of cool. I wasn’t especially cool, and I wanted to be. And it was one of the things that made me gravitate toward Tarantino, because here was someone who clearly had a great sense of humor, but didn’t just use it to be funny, or a clown. He kind of used it in the service of making something cool. It seemed the one or two things I’d read about Harvard Lampoon, or in it, is that they had a castle and they did parodies of stuff. I don’t know, maybe parodies aren’t cool either. But to me, it seemed like a cool way to go.
AVC: You got your first television-writing job three days after you graduated from college. What took you so long?
BJN: [Laughs.] Well, I kind of got a quick start and then a big setback. I was writing for the show Raising Dad, and I felt conflicted about it, because I was so grateful to have a job so quickly, which was something so many people wanted. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t what I wanted to make. I thought, “Oh wow, am I a sellout by the age of 22? Am I just going to pat myself on the back for being successful when I’m not doing something that I think is good and worthwhile?” I was trying to do good work, as was everyone on the show. But one of the complicated lessons you learn here is that there are many good people doing bad stuff everywhere. That’s why people ask so many questions all the time about the people you work with. Because people come out here with good intentions and great talent, but projects can just be good or bad. So I was there, and I didn’t know… I just saw myself on this path of being really successful doing really bad stuff. It freaked me out, and to calm myself down, I would pat myself on the back for being really successful, which I think just made me sadder and made me feel emptier. Then the show got cancelled, and I had no opportunities for a couple years, and that was hard for a different reason. I sort of had my struggles a few years later when I couldn’t get a writing job anywhere, or any sort of job.
AVC: During this wilderness period, you were on Punk’d. How did that end up happening?
BJN: I did stand-up every night from the Raising Dad days until things started happening again. So that was about a year and a half. And toward the end of that, I went through that period a lot of people go through, of being a hot comic in L.A., where you have a killer showcase set. Which is all people want to see anyway out in L.A. You never get more than 10 minutes on one of the stages out here. And I had a great 10 minutes after all that time. And everything just started clicking. That was the moment people go through: They’re a comic in a certain moment in L.A., and then everyone comes out to see you, and that’s a whole different thing. And one of the people was Danny Villa from MTV, who brought me in to meet with the people from Punk’d. And I auditioned and got that. Which to me, at the time, felt like the biggest thing I could ever possibly do.
AVC: What about it appealed to you, or made it seem so big?
BJN: Oh, it was already a big show. I was going to be on MTV! I had been writing for Raising Dad, and now I was going to be on MTV. I mean, it sounded so exciting, I couldn’t believe it.
AVC: Do any individual punkings stand out?
BJN: The one that went the best was probably the one I did on Hilary Duff, where I was her driving instructor. I got a phone call that said I had to learn everything about Hilary Duff and the California driving code by tomorrow. [Laughs.] I was getting calls like this, and I was young, and I don’t know, it was just really exciting. I didn’t know if that was going to be my claim to fame, or what. I don’t really know what to say. It was just super-cool, and I’ve always loved pranks. And the fact that someone would be setting up a prank and you could just do the fun part without any other preparation anxiety was incredibly exciting, too.
AVC: Are you proud or ashamed to have introduced “That’s what she said” into the pop-culture vernacular?
BJN: I think it’s great. I think it’s fun. A lot of the things we all make fun of now, we used to think were really funny. So I remember being like 17 on a bus when I heard, “That’s what she said,” and I thought it was just gold. Sometimes I do stand-up at the Improv, and during the summer, they bring in these kids on teen tours, and they can’t believe someone is saying “pussy” into a microphone. Comics hate performing for it. But I was one of those kids. I was a teenager that went into the club, and I couldn’t believe it. I told all my friends about the comic and the hacky routine he did. I don’t want to judge it. I’ve been there, and I thought it was hilarious. As I realized over time how juvenile and easy that kind of structure is, I didn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s really fun, too. So I think it’s pure good that you can make fun of Michael Scott for doing it, but it’s also fun to do, or say, for people.
AVC: In my office, there are definitely moments where you can see people fighting not to say, “That’s what she said,” or giving in.
BJN: We have that problem resisting. There are a few tricks we’ve caught onto about ourselves at The Office. And once we catch ourselves doing them, we try not to do it. We’ll only break that glass in case of emergency. But anytime you have a scene without a joke, you could theoretically write yourself a “That’s what she said.” But we try to be better than that. We haven’t done that in a long time.
AVC: Did you feel different when Ryan had blonde highlights?
BJN: I dyed it back when we were done with that on the show. But I really liked that it actually freed me up to be funnier in my own mind. To look in the mirror and see somebody different. I improvised a lot more when Ryan was blonde, because I think I was able to separate it more from myself.
AVC: Is it more fun to play Ryan as a jerk?
BJN: No. It was really hard for me in some ways, because it can be hard to be funny when you don’t feel sympathy for what they’re going through—when you’re not cringing along with the person. It’s the same thing I was saying about why I think Michael being more likeable is funnier. Because the audience naturally thinks, “I can imagine making that mistake, saying that to Stanley.” You know? “I get it.” It’s funnier when you do that. When I had to think hard and muster up why Ryan would be coming from a certain direction—again, I didn’t write all of it myself, so I would sometimes have to think or ask other people for ways I could get into it. It’s easy to say lines, but sometimes it’s hard to enjoy it and therefore to make it funny. But once he came back with the hair dye, he was so damaged, and he had fallen so hard. I identified with that so much: the embarrassment of thinking things are gonna work out, but are not working out, and being in denial. All those things, I felt more of a way into, and I felt I could find more comedy in them. It was a relief to play. It’s much more fun for me to play him as a failure. Definitely trying to avoid realizing he’s a failure, then pretending he’s a success. Although I guess those are related.
AVC: A lot of Ryan’s motivation during his swift ascent up the corporate ladder was a desire to be seen as cool, and to live this Maxim lifestyle that all his friends would envy. It seems like you’ve been talking about growing up wanting to be cool, which potentially could have been an entryway to that arc.
BJN: I wish I’d thought of that then. I think what has helped me play Ryan in those phases was something I’d noticed in myself. I find there is a paradox in which insecurity is mistaken for security. Insecurity is mistaken for confidence, or overconfidence. When I am at my most insecure in a social situation, that’s when I make mistakes. That’s when I don’t say hi to people; that’s when I act like a jerk. Because I think, “Why would they want to talk to me? They’re so important, and now I’ve said something stupid, and I’m just going to shut the hell up.” It’s when I’m not confident that I think I come off as cold or uncaring. And it is when you feel secure and comfortable that you are able to open up and be a good person and show people more of yourself and be kinder. So when I realized that, it was easier for me to play Ryan when I thought, “What is he so scared of that he is coming off this way?”
AVC: When people act cocky, they’re often overcompensating for underlying insecurities.
BJN: It’s very hard to remember that when you’re talking to someone, though. “Oh, poor guy, he must be insecure.” That thought doesn’t cross my mind very much. But I’ve noticed it in myself.
AVC: Did you do research into ex-addicts in preparation for playing Ryan post-rehab?
BJN: I drank a Red Bull, and that was pretty terrifying, in terms of that arc. On the flipside, I spoke to a couple of people who I happen to know had worked in rehab facilities, about their strategies with people, and what they’ve observed. And it really is humbling. I think there is a prejudice—and I’ve been guilty of it, too—to see people who are struggling with addiction, not as weak, but to not really realize how much they’re accomplishing by just getting through a day. And I think people kind of make fun of how much people pat themselves on the back just for getting through the day. But that can be hard. And people can get in their own heads about that. I don’t know, I guess that helped me like Ryan more, too, when I realized it’s not just, “You party too hard and now you have to pay the price, buddy.” There is something truly scary and difficult for those people, and it is great and tough and interesting just to get through a day.
AVC: It also humanized Ryan. He’s kind of a tragic figure in that he’s peaked in his 20s.
BJN: Actually, I just put the line in the script this week, about how my biggest fear is that I peaked at 25. He still can’t let go.
AVC: So do you think of yourself as a writer who performs?
BJN: Yes. I definitely have always come at it from that perspective. Especially, I guess, with my dad being a writer. And on the Office set, too, there’s so much pride in the writing process. There are a lot of ways to answer the question, but I think the answer is just yes, I think of myself as a writer.
AVC: And do you think a lot of this comes out of stand-up? That it’s the core of everything you do?
BJN: I think it’s something I think of a lot, and go back to a lot when I think about where I’m coming from. But it’s not actually where I came from. I wanted to be a writer first, and I struck out in the world to be a writer first, and then found stand-up as a more creative outlet, as a 3D way to be creative.
AVC: What attracted you to stand-up?
BJN: I think I glamorized in my mind what being a writer was going to be like. And working on Raising Dad, I really was a little horrified. I was really like, “This is it, sitting in a room pitching stuff?” It wasn’t exciting the way I wanted it to be. There’s many ways to find that excitement. But the way I could do it on the side when I was working these late nights was to leave and just stand up and say five minutes of stuff that was entirely mine and I got all the credit for.
AVC: What’s the best and worst part of doing stand-up?
BJN: The best part is a new bit that works. If you have an idea and you think it’s funny, and it is… I don’t think there is any single thing creatively that is more pure happiness than that. What doesn’t work, the worst feeling—and I’ve found a way to avoid it—is not liking something and doing it because you think they’ll like it. And they don’t like it, and it’s just awful. That’s soul-crushing. When you’re like, “I didn’t like this either, you asshole.”
AVC: When you pander unsuccessfully?
BJN: I did that a few times in the beginning, because I was just trying to do it. It was still a crazy fantasy that I would get onstage in the first place. So anytime I thought of anything that might work, I was very excited to do it. And I don’t know how my dad knew this, but he gave me the most excellent, wonderful advice, which was, “How about you only say what you think is funny, and only keep what they think is funny?” And after that, I never did anything that I wasn’t willing to say in front of my friends as something I thought was genuinely funny. Just as a rule. To say some stupid joke and have the crowd judge you for it, that was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in stand-up.
AVC: It seems like a certain level of compromise is endemic in any creative endeavor.
BJN: Yeah. And a great thing that stand-up taught me was to be much less precious and egotistical about writing itself. You can write anything and it’s not just taking the credit, it’s taking the blame. Which is such an important learning experience when you do stand-up comedy. Because if you really think that something is going to be funny and you do it yourself, and night after night you are not hearing any laughter, you were wrong: It was not funny. It was not good. There was something wrong with it. Accepting that responsibility is something I might have gone a whole writing career avoiding. Because there’s always someone to blame if you’re writing scripts. Someone could have edited it wrong. The performance could have been wrong. It could have been aired at the wrong time. Or you could even tell yourself that you know people loved that line, because you can’t hear them. You weren’t in the theater with them or whatever. But taking the blame was a very important writing experience, and made me a much better writer. Knowing that some things just don’t work even if you think they will.
AVC: Comedy is so subjective that it’s always weird to listen to audio commentaries and have someone say, “This is really funny.” “This gets a big laugh.” Part of you wants to say, “I will determine for myself whether something is funny.”
BJN: It’s a good lesson as a performer—you can internalize when something feels right. You do learn not just when people are laughing, but when people are smiling. Or when people are laughing, but they don’t really like it. They’re just surprised or something. You learn all the different reactions, and you can be an audience member after a while. Even when you’re just performing on an isolated sound stage on The Office. You can feel when these things feel, to you, funny, because you’re so used to hearing a response. So it’s very helpful in that way, too.
AVC: Steve Carell has described the Office episodes you wrote as slightly offensive. Why do you think your episodes tend to be more provocative?
BJN: I like doing those. I think they’re fun and memorable, and they’re best if they get to something fresh. I think they’re offensive because they haven’t been covered in that way before, or to that level. I can’t really take credit for that being my style. I was especially assigned the “Diversity Day” episode, and when that went well, I was assigned the “Sexual Harassment” episode because it felt similar. It wasn’t like I was assigned to write about Jim and Pam’s first date and it came out as “Sexual Harassment.” These are planned very collaboratively.
AVC: “Diversity Day” was the second episode to air. Were you intimidated to be setting the tone for an American remake of one of the great comedies while still in your mid-20s?
BJN: I didn’t know it was going to air so early. There were five of us [writers] at that point, I believe: Greg Daniels, Paul Lieberstein, Mike Schur, Mindy Kaling, and me. And we each took an episode. We came up with five episodes to fill out the six-episode order, and we each wrote one and brought it in. There was a lot of pressure on all of us to make the show work, and not embarrass ourselves. Because we were the follow-up to this perfect, bold piece of work. But I think that was the challenge for all of us.
AVC: Were you worried about the public response to remaking such a beloved show?
BJN: Not as much as I maybe should have or could have. I’ll say “could have,” because I heard a lot of the skepticism, and I anxiously read all the comments online, which freaked me out.
AVC: That might not have been the best move.
BJN: It was awful, because there is truth in anything anyone says, really, if you look for it. It was very awful. It made me very anxious when the show hadn’t aired, and I somehow thought I could Google whether it was going to be a hit, before we had made it. But I had some reasons to believe it would be successful. I knew things other people didn’t know. I had met with Greg Daniels, spoke to him for about an hour and a half about his theory of comedy, and I thought it was brilliant and simple and entirely what I believed in, too. I didn’t think someone like that would lead the show down the wrong path. And I believed in the characters from the British show, and their simplicity. I was at the gym one night during that first season, and The Simpsons was on the television screen, but it wasn’t closed captioned. My eye went to it anyway, and I thought, “That’s funny, this show that is so quick and smart and so verbal, and yet my eye will just go to it without even knowing the jokes.” Because everyone knows who Bart is, everyone knows who Homer is, and everyone knows who Lisa and Marge and Maggie are. So your eye can go to that. And I thought, “Well, our show is like that. Everyone can just have it on the background when they’re cooking dinner or something.” As smart as we’re trying to make it, you also have that phenomenon of, “Oh, that’s the boss, that’s the guy, that’s the girl, that’s the weirdo,” you know, on a very basic level. It feels clear and familiar, and I thought that that would make us a hit, too.
AVC: What did Greg Daniels say about his philosophy of comedy?
BJN: He drew a Venn diagram, and he said, “This is groundbreaking comedy that I really respect.” And he said, “This is what makes people laugh.” And he said, “I am only interested in the shaded part in the middle where they overlap.” And I thought, “Sign me up!” I thought it was humble and honest, but still with the value of quality. I know it’s a simple thing to say, and anyone can say it, but you could also tell that he meant it, and had proven it as he was saying it.
AVC: Was the idea always to have as many writers have roles on the show as possible? Was that the aesthetic from the outset?
BJN: You’d have to ask Greg. I think yes. I think he always wanted it to feel like a lot of other shows that have real comedy credibility. I know he’s mentioned Saturday Night Live and Monty Python and the British Office, and other things where it feels like a small gang of people making their own vision. So I think he thought it would feel more honest and true to the spirit of comedy, and less like a glossy Hollywood production, a bad version of Ricky Gervais’ vision.
AVC: You first collaborated with John Krasinski when you went to the same high school. What did you write together?
BJN: It was the senior show. That was both the title and the concept. It was an annual tradition that happened some years and not others, based on how well people had their stuff together. And the idea was just, everyone goofs on the teachers in a big scripted show that the whole class is in. And when I said comedy was always my way of trying to be cool, I knew I would never be like, cool cool, but like, cooler, like have a place or something. I remember people saying, “This year, we’re going to have a senior show, because B.J. Novak is gonna write it.” And I remember feeling like I had been drafted for something important. I actually think of that still sometimes, when I think of what I want to do. I don’t now if I ever felt as proud as hearing that rumor going around school that there was going to be a show because I was going to write it. I hadn’t told anyone that, but I had been thinking secretly that maybe I could write it. And people were excited, and I was so, so proud.
And that’s still—when I think of people looking forward to television and knowing that The Office is going to be on, I feel so, so proud. Really what I want to do more than anything, in terms of having a dream, is having that feeling again, as many times as I can. When I know that people know there’s going to be a good movie in the theater because I wrote it. That feels self-aggrandizing. Just, I want to feel like I’m contributing, and that people have something to look forward to. That’s my goal. That’s my hope. Oh, did you want to talk more about the senior show? Sorry, got all up in my own head.
AVC: So what else is there about the senior show?
BJN: I’m sorry. I got off on a tangent about my hopes and dreams.
AVC: That’s totally understandable.
BJN: About what a great writer I want to be. And I think you wanted to ask about John Krasinski, which is totally fair.
AVC: A lot of great comedy writers and comedians get into comedy because they have dark, troubled upbringings and they have a pathological need for validation and attention. It seems like that was not the case for you.
BJN: No. It was just something I was good at that I thought was exciting.
AVC: So you are part of the small but vital group of functional funny people.
BJN: I’ve heard Jerry Seinfeld say that about himself, too. Every now and then you hear a comedian say, “Hey, not everyone is part of this famous narrative.”
AVC: You were a script doctor on Get Smart?
BJN: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I would love to say that, because it was a huge hit, and I would love to take some credit. But what actually happened is, I was one of many writers who were brought in to potentially write the script, back when they were trying to get it off the ground. We weren’t sure if The Office would be picked up for a second season and Steve Carell brought me in as a potential writer, and I met with the producers. We had a great meeting, and I had this idea for it, and it would have been really fun. But then The Office got picked up again, and we immediately went into production, and I had to have them give it to another writer.
AVC: So the Internet has lied to me?
BJN: Well, I don’t know that people on an Internet site know all the millions of words that Hollywood has for “partial credit.” So it may have just been conflated into “He was one person who wrote on it.” What happened is, I was one of many people who almost wrote the whole thing. I was not someone who wrote a little bit of it.