A lot of people probably know B.J. Novak best, as he puts it, as “that guy from ‘The Office.'” And yeah, he was really funny as Ryan the intern bro–turned-full time employee. But Novak, who wrote for the longtime sitcom from day one, considers himself first and foremost a writer. He just penned his debut book, a collection of short, irreverent stories called “One More Thing.” We got Novak on the line to talk about more than just one of the things we were wondering about.
Coming from TV, what made you decide to write a book of short stories?
I had all these ideas that I was bursting with after all these years on “The Office,” that really didn’t fit into this really contained environment that I was writing in for eight years. I would sort of accumulate them in notebooks — any ideas that didn’t fit into Dwight, Michael, Jim and Pam, or Ryan and Kelly, just went into a stack of notebooks that I would put away in a drawer and not know what to do with. So then when “The Office” was finally coming to an end, I looked through all the notebooks and I loved so many of these ideas but they didn’t all seem to be right for a movie or a TV show, I didn’t know what they were for. So I just started writing them, and it became very exciting to write in all different lengths and all different tones, just whatever I thought an idea called for. And it became a book of fiction.
Did writing a book feel more personal than your previous projects?
It feels a lot more personal! And the irony is, I didn’t think this was a personal book at all when I started it. I thought this was really just a book of pure comedy and entertainment. Unlike my best friend Mindy (Kaling), who wrote a memoir, I’m not really a personal writer, I don’t really have stories or opinions to share. I would bore people. So I thought, I guess I’ll just share fictional stories, and be as funny as I can. But before I knew it I was putting so much more of myself into it — my own opinions and fears and neuroses and fantasies — they were all working their way into the stories. So it ended up being the most personal thing I’ve ever done.
Was it a little scary to read the early reviews?
As I was first writing the stories, I would read them out loud, first to friends, and then eventually to theaters of people. I would book the Upright Citizens Brigade theaters in L.A. and New York, and hundreds of people would show up, because they knew the guy from “The Office.” They didn’t know what I was going to do, really. And I would read these stories in progress, So I really got to know what worked and what didn’t, what held their attention, what people seemed to want more of and what they wanted less of. So by the time the book came out and reviews came out, I kind of knew, more or less, how things would play.
Was it sad when “The Office” finally ended, or was it more of a relief?
It was both. Every now and then I drive by the old set, or the highway exit I used to take, or see the old gang or catch and episode on TV, and it does make me wistful for the past a little bit. It’s like if your high school or college photos were on TV every night at 7:30, you’d probably reminisce a lot too. But in general it was very exciting and freeing to be out of it. It was eight or nine years for most of us, and it was really kind of a static — and that’s the good thing about a sitcom, it’s the same world every week — but while that makes it very reassuring when you’re watching it, it can make it a little repetitive when you’re doing it.
You spent almost the first decade of your career on that show, and had so much success at a young age. Was it all kind of overwhelming?
Yeah, it kind of happened so fast that we didn’t really have time to adjust to it. You know, we knew that what we were writing — I really related more as a writer during those years on “The Office” — was great. Well, we thought it was great. You always think that something you’re doing is great, at first. And then, when people would come up to us on the street and say that they loved our show, it kind of felt very natural to us, because we had that cocky thing that kids have, where they think they’re the best in the world. It took some hard knocks during the show to realize that this was hard work and that not every episode was going to make everybody laugh, and just because you’re great one week, that doesn’t make it any easier the next week.
Speaking of Mindy’s memoir, what are some other books by fellow comedians you really liked?
I really liked Tina Fey’s book. My friend Rainn Wilson is writing a book and I bet that will be really funny. You know, my book, again, isn’t like those books, but it doesn’t mean I can’t admire them. I also really like David Sedaris, in terms of funny memoir writing. He’s really one of the best that I’ve ever read, as far as making his personal life so funny.
He’s one of the very few writers who can have me laughing out loud, in public.
Yeah, he really gets you emotionally and then turns it into comedy.
You have an Instagram account where you just post words, so you must be something of a word connoisseur. What’s your favorite word?
Oh, I have a number of them. ‘Favorite’ is actually one of my favorite words. It’s becoming quite popular now, because it’s an action, you can favorite something online. I like a lot of positive words. I like ‘pretty.’ I think that pretty sounds similar to what it’s describing. Pretty. And I like dismissing something as pretty, too. You know, ‘that’s a pretty idea.’ [laughs] That’s not a compliment.
How about your least favorite word? I know a lot of people don’t like the word ‘moist.’
Yeah, that’s a very commonly disliked word. I don’t like that word either. What word don’t I like? Lousy.
That’s an interesting one, For me, it’s ‘panties.’ I can’t handle that word.
A lot of women don’t like that one! There’s another word with a ‘P’ that girls don’t like either…
I don’t know if we can print that one. Moving on!There’s a story in the book called “Nobody Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg.” Do you think he’d be insulted, if he could read it?
I hope he’d like the story! I sort of used to feel, as popular as I am, that nobody would go to heaven to see B.J. Novak. I might be the best comedian in town, in Milwaukee, on a Tuesday night in January, but would anyone really see me if Steve Martin were down the street? Or if Woody Allen were still performing live? If Jack Benny were still alive? Or if people from centuries ago, from Shakespearean times were still around? I mean, who knows who the greatest performers of all time were. We’re all really stars of our circumstances, and that’s something I used to think a lot about. You know, in the face of perfection, how do you find meaning? Because none of us are Elvis, really. We’re Dan Fogelberg.
Well, even Elvis wasn’t Elvis at one point.
Yeah, I know! And, actually, there’s a story about that too.
So, if you could see any musician perform live in heaven, who would it be?
I’d want to see Kurt Cobain perform. He meant a lot to me when I was growing up. I think it’s whoever was formative to you when you were that age, you know, 12, 13, 14.
You hang around with a lot of very funny people. Do you ever find that to be exhausting, that you’re fighting to be the funniest in the group?
You know, when people are really funny, you often don’t see them as funny people. You just think of it as a great conversation. Sometimes I’m intimidated before I meet someone funny. But usually funny people have a way of making you feel comfortable, otherwise you wouldn’t be laughing.
So, who’s someone you met recently that you were intimidated by until you met them?
I was really intimidated by Tom Hanks before I met him. As soon as you meet him you feel like you’ve known each other your whole lives — that’s his magic. But before I met him I was so intimidated. And George Saunders is one of my favorite short story writers, and we met once, and every time I’ve emailed him he wrote something so warm and wonderful back right away. But even so, I’m, like, too star struck to write back. I have people I can’t even write to because I have writer’s block about the email. So sometimes people I’ve already met I’m intimidated by, still.
There are some comedians who I feel, if I met them, we’d be friends. Are there any people in the business that you just know, if you could meet them, you’d be buds?
Oh, that’s a great question! Let’s see. David Letterman. Every time I’m on his show — I’ve been on his show twice — I know that I’m just a guest, and that everyone is just a guest to him, but I really think if he’d let just one more friend into his life, just one, we’d really get along. He just seems so wry and chill and smart.
I read somewhere that when you lived in Boston you pulled a big prank at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tell me about it?
There was an exhibit of ancient Chinese art, and this was back when they put audio cassettes in the headsets on tours, like actual tapes. So my friend and I took the tour and we were like ‘well, we could make a more interesting tour.’ So we borrowed one of the tapes and transcribed where everything on the tour was. And then we wrote a new tour. Then we got a friend with a deep accent to narrate the new tour. And for the first three minutes it was exactly the same. So, we sent some people kind of slyly into the museum to switch out the tapes, and people got deep into the tour, but then, three minutes in, the narrator just goes off the rails. You know, insulting some of the paintings, insulting the museum-goers. So that was incredibly exciting for us, to know that these people were just being ambushed with extreme vulgarity in the middle of their museum tour. [laughs]
Did you stick around to watch?
No, we got out of there. But the next day it was in the Boston Globe, so we knew it worked.
This is going to be a weird question, but bear with me. Have you ever seen the movie “The Good Son?”
No, I don’t think so. What’s that about?
It’s got Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood in it, as kids. Culkin is evil and, well, long story short, at the end, they’re both about to fall off a cliff and the mom can only save one. Basically, what I’m asking is, if you could only save either Rainn Wilson or John Krasinski from plummeting to their death from a cliff,who would you drop?
Oh man. [laughs] I could only pull up one? I think I’d save Rainn. Because I know that if I didn’t he’d come back from the dead, and kill me.