Why So Serious, B.J. Novak?By John Wenzel | October 12th, 2012 | 1 Comment »
But as “Office” lovers know, Novak helps write, produce and even occasionally direct the show, as well as acting in films (most notably 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds”) and perfecting his stand-up act at clubs and colleges around the country.
We caught up with Novak over the phone Thursday while he was visiting the metro area for the Aurora Economic Development Council’s annual A-List business event. Novak joins such esteemed (and random) former keynote speakers as Bill Clinton and political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin.
So I’m guessing you’re doing a stand-up set at this event in Aurora, glad-handing business types and that kind of thing?
It’s basically a stand-up performance for a private audience. Sometimes I do corporate events and I do a lot of colleges. I think they thought I was the right blend of recognizable and affordable.
What do you think of the corporate gigs in particular? Do you get a lot with the “Office” connection?
Not very many. I mostly am invited to colleges and mostly I do just comedy venues, like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, which I did last night. I think that’s the most common. But basically anyone who wants me to do stand-up, I’m happy to do it.
Do you ever have to tailor your sets so as not to offend anyone?
It’s funny, I hosted the Webby Awards two years ago and a lot of the recipients were very anti-Wall Street for various reasons, as you can imagine. People who were standouts for what they’re saying on the Internet and a lot of artistic people. And the event was being hosted at Cipriani’s on Wall Street, and there were a lot of people that I’m sure were all very Wall Street-connected, so I just poked fun at that disparity and what was going on.
Have you ever thought about doing a national stand-up tour?
I haven’t done one but I would love to. I thought about it this spring and might do it next spring. I definitely want to to do it sooner rather than later, but it’s tough because of “The Office” shooting schedule and other things I’ve been doing. It’s hard to block off six months to do it. I tend to do just a date here and date there when it happens to work, but now that I’m less involved in “The Office” day-to-day and “The Office” is ending formally soon, I’d love to do it more. I actually played Comedy Works opening for Nick Swardson about eight years ago and that was fun.
So that was before “The Office” came out?
Yeah, it was the first time I was ever recognized! I can pinpoint the moment and the day. I had just been on “Punk’d” on MTV. I was the new prankster, and I thought that would be on my tombstone when I died, that there was nothing I could ever do that was bigger than that. I was sitting at a Starbucks on Larimer Square and I remember the first person that walked past the window stopped and did kind of a double take. Then the next person did and the next person did, and that was the day that I first felt famous. Probably like 25 people did it. I’ll never forget it it. It was a nice way to ease into being in the public eye.
You’re a big behind-the-scenes guy on “The Office,” too, so you straddle both worlds. If you had to pick one would you miss the other?
I really love doing whatever I feel needed for at the time. I really respond to sort of solving a problem, so I think I’m often very pulled to writing and directing. I’ve always wanted to be a director because it’s a more glamorous thing, at least in theory. But when I write stand-up, I’m not writing it for anyone else. I’m not the best performer but I’m the best performer at my own stuff. And the few roles I’ve played I feel like, well, that’s the vision for it. That’s the guy for it. So yeah, I think it’s really about what’s a good fit. I wouldn’t want to play a role that I wouldn’t make sense in, like an action hero. And I wouldn’t want to write something I couldn’t get my creative voice in.
How did you go from appearing on “The Office” to writing, producing and directing some of it? Was it sort of a meritocracy, where you eventually proved yourself? Or was that part of the deal from the start?
It was part of the deal from the start. That was (series developer) Greg Daniels’ vision from the beginning and when he saw me do stand-up that was my way of proving myself for that job in those two fields. So that was the experiment he wanted to try, the way the cast is on “Saturday Night Live” or Monty Python — they’re writer-performers. He wanted to try that for the sitcom. Then Mindy (Kaling, who plays Kelly Kapoor) and Paul Lieberstein (Toby Flenderson), they were hired as writers but it was put in their contract too that they could act in it too.
Time for a standard “Why So Serious?” question: what was your first time on stage like? According to the always-reliable Wikipedia it was on Oct. 10, 2001 at the Hollywood Youth Hostel.
I’ll never forget how it felt at that place. It was really the worst. Take your fear of stand-up and pretend it’s fully realized. When everyone says “I could never do that,” what they’re picturing is my night at the Hollywood Youth Hostel. As I started saying the things I thought might be funny — my act — I realized it made no sense that this would be funny to anyone. And the crowd was largely foreigners that had a very limited grasp of English. And Sept. 11 was fresh, so it was a weird time to joke anyway. I had no stage presence and my material was completely bizarre and it was absolutely silent in there. And the host, after I got off the stage, paused for moment and then said, “It’s a brave thing to get up here!”
Yeah, so I didn’t perform for two months after that and then I started again in earnest.
What made you want to come back?
I really wanted to do it, and I tell this to any comic starting out — you need to book a bunch of shows in a row, even open mics, which is what I was doing. You need to sign up for a bunch in a row because you can’t make every night a referendum on whether or not you should be doing this. If it takes me two months to hem and haw after each show, I wouldn’t be doing it for awhile. So when I started again I did six shows that week, and some were good, some were bad.
A lot of comics think it takes 10 or 15 years to get good, as I’ve heard people like Louis C.K. and Marc Maron say.
But they were GOOD in the past. I mean, that early stuff got ‘em on TV. Hopefully I’ll do much richer stuff someday too. Not that I’m comparing myself to them except to say to that there was merit in (the early material).
What’s your favorite joke of the moment?
The guy who opened for me last night at the UCB Theatre, Mark Normand, had a couple terrific jokes. I love great one-liners, as my favorites are Mitch Hedberg, my friend Dan Mintz, Demetri Martin’s new one is great. So one of them was: “A lot of people have a fear of dying alone. I’m afraid of dying in a group.”
John Wenzel is an A&E reporter and Features blogs editor for The Denver Post.