B.J. Novak
The funny thing about life after “The Office”
By Jayne Jacova Feld

Photo: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

B.J. Novak might not be a celebrity you’d think has a fan base that spans generations. But it’s true. And some of his most devoted fans have never even heard of the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company.

Novak is best known for his role as Ryan Howard, the temp on “The Office” whose improbable climb up the corporate ladder was brought down by scandal. Also a writer, director and producer for the NBC hit, he is proud (and amazed) that the show he calls a “fake documentary about a dreary paper company” is still finding new audiences. After all, it’s been 10 years since the series wrapped up, he pointed out during a recent appearance in South Jersey. And many of the show’s most obsessed fans weren’t even alive when it debuted in 2005.

“It’s such a weird, small show,” Novak says. “It really did not seem like it’d be a hit. And at first, it wasn’t. So the idea that there would be Dunder Mifflin t-shirts all these years later, and that I would always be – first and foremost, no matter what I do – the guy from ‘The Office’ is surprising.”

“The Office is my home. Everything I do from now on is like, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thing for an Office person to do.’”

But it’s not just Gen Z that has discovered Novak since The Office’s 9-season run ended, and now finds him hilarious. For his youngest admirers – we’re talking toddlers and preschoolers here – recent tabloid stories hinting at a rekindling of a romance with fellow Office alumna Mindy Kaling hold no appeal. (Besides, he says, they’re just best friends.) It’s his best-selling “The Book with no Pictures,” they can’t get enough of.

Inspired by his college roommate’s 2-year-old son who, like many toddlers, loved having books read to him, Novak wrote the off-beat story to make the child laugh. “He would just waddle up to me and hand me a book to read. And I thought, what’s funny is that he doesn’t know what’s in the book.” Novak says. “He might have a guess. He knows that whatever is there, I just have to say it – like an actor being handed a script.” 

Putting himself in the mindset of a toddler, Novak, 43, created that script, brain-storming the most ridiculous things a captive adult reader would have to say out loud. Highlights include talking in monkey voices, pronouncing “BLuuRF” and protesting having to say such nonsense.

“I really care about the audience, for anything I do, and really only the audience,” Novak told the crowd at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill during its Festival of Arts, Books & Culture. “So I typed up the pages, and I glued them to a notebook…like a real book. I read it to him and he liked it. And then he said, ‘Now let’s read a book with pictures.’ Alright, I have some work to do.”

In the meantime, Novak is branching out. Last year’s “Vengeance,” the first feature film he wrote, produced and starred in, dwells in far darker material. He received some good reviews for the low-budget film about a big city journalist who goes to Texas to make a true-crime podcast about the death of a woman he had hooked up with a few times. Novak plays the lead role of the writer, who leaves his Manhattan bubble with selfish intentions but finds himself increasingly drawn into the investigation, and caring for the family of a woman he at first barely remembers casually dating. It features some of Novak’s real-life friends, including singer John Mayer more or less playing himself and Ashton Kutcher, who gave Novak his first TV break as an accomplice prankster in MTV’s “Punk’d.”

Clint Obenchain as Crawl, B.J. Novak as Ben Manalowitz and Boyd Holbrook as Ty Shaw in the film “Vengeance”

 

Like everything he does, “Vengeance” is at its heart a comedy – even though it’s written as drama, Novak says. He started with the idea of a smug New Yorker who is taken out of his element to avenge the death of someone he barely knew. “I thought, what is the worst thing that could happen to this really shallow guy? And how did this misunderstanding happen that would lead to this guy being pulled into far west Texas, where he does not belong?” 

Working in the writer’s room of “The Office,” he says, helped him fine tune the art of developing quirky characters with unlikeable traits that, despite their foibles, win over an audience. “If you care about the romance, or whatever the storyline is, when the characters say the most inappropriate thing, it actually hits you because you’re invested.” 

That somewhat explains the on-again-off-again office romance between his char-acter Ryan and Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor. “Partly why Mindy Kaling and I ended up playing such unlikeable characters is that it’s much more comfortable to pitch to the writers sort of bad things for them to do,” he says. “If I had pitched ‘Ryan saving a cat from a fire in a tree’ as a good thing Ryan would do, it would be laughed out of the writer’s room, and not in a good way. But if you propose your character doing something mean, evil or rotten, you could at least get a laugh and maybe it makes it onto the show.” 

That also explains an Office episode called “Fire” that will forever haunt him. After Novak’s Ryan starts a fire in the office kitchen by putting pita in the toaster oven on an oven setting, his office mates start singing “Ryan started the fire” to the tune of Billy Joel’s classic “We didn’t start the fire.” When one of his fellow writers predicted the song will forever be associated with him, he blew it off. “We all laughed,” Novak says. “I was like, obviously, no one is ever going to do that. And it happens to me almost every day.” 

It turns out that Novak’s approach to his profession – going through life observ-ing what’s funny in the mundane – may be an inherited trait. Novak was raised in a suburb of Boston, where his father William Novak was famous in some circles as the editor of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” which in the 1980s was a huge hit. 

Having a well-known writer/father was a mixed bag for him growing up. “So many people who want to be writers have to spend years torturing themselves over whether they are going to go for it or not,” he says. “I’m one of those rare writers who aid I’m going to be a writer and my parents were like, “Great, good luck!” It was a normal profession to them. But I thought it was lame because my dad did it.”

He stopped fighting his funny nature when he realized he didn’t have to be a carbon copy of his father, who is also known for ghost writing books for Nancy Reagan, Magic Johnson and businessman Lee Iacocca.

“My dad had, and still does have, such a boring, reliable routine as a writer,” Novak says. “I really wanted some thing more daring and exciting. But at the end of the day, you end up exactly like your parents.”

After graduating from Harvard University, Novak set out to make his mark in TV and movies, gaining some traction as a regular on the Los Angeles stand-up circuit. That led to some acting and writing gigs, including a small role in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds” and a writing stint on the Bob Saget WB sitcom “Raising Dad.” Novak was 4 years out of college when he signed on to work for the American version of “The Office.” In the first year of production, ratings were dismal and no one involved would have been too surprised if it was canceled, he recalls. The series caught on in the second season and, by its sixth, blew up, especially with younger viewers. Although no one could have predicted the staying power of the show’s popular-ity – Office memes often go viral, Dunder Mifflin swag continues to sell, and the show’s actors are still associated with their roles – Novak says he is ok with all of it, even with the people who serenade him with “Ryan started the fire” on a daily basis.

“If you’re from a certain place in pop culture – if it’s big enough – you’re always from there,” he says, noting that comedian Adam Sandler will always be associated with “Saturday Night Live,” even though he’s written, directed and starred in so many hit movies since his SNL days. “The Office is my home. Everything I do from now on is like, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thing for an Office person to do.’”

March 2023
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