What Wakes B.J. Novak Up In The Middle Of The Night?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When we talk about a triple threat we're often talking about a versatile athlete. Think about a basketball player who can score, defend, and rebound. In show biz, B. J. Novak may be that triple threat. He can do standup, act, and write successfully in all cases. He got his start doing standup comedy. That led to a job on the hit comedy series "The Office" where he had a regular part and was one of the writers.
And now he's put his writing talent to work on one more thing. Literally. That's the name of his book of stories, "One More Thing." An appropriate title for someone so multifaceted and as NPR's Lynn Neary says the book is funny. She can also tell Novak used his acting instincts to create the book.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: B.J. Novak's face is probably familiar to anyone who's been to the movies in recent years. He's had a series of small parts in big films like Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds." But Novak is probably best known as the weaseley young temp at the dysfunctional paper company where "The Office" is set. He's the kind of guy who will do anything to get out of going to lunch with his boss.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
STEVE CARRELL: (as Michael Scott) Ryan, come on, we're going to Asian Hooters.
NEARY: (as Ryan) Oh, man. I can't.
CARRELL: (as Michael Scott) Why not?
B.J. NOVAK: (as Ryan) I'm not feeling so well. I've got a ton of work to do here. MSG allergy, peanut allergy. I just ate there last night.
UNIDENTIFED MAN: (as coworker) Wow. Thanks for taking all the excuses there.
NOVAK: (as Ryan) Doctor appointment, car trouble, planter warts, granddad fought in World War II. Use your head, man.
NEARY: Although Novak divided his time between writing and acting on "The Office" he says he always fell in most easily with the writers, forming a fast friendship with fellow writer-performer Mindy Kaling. And during the show's long run, he would jot down his thoughts in notebooks. Later when he looked them over, Novak realized he had the beginning of a book.
NOVAK: You know, when I went through all these notebooks I had kept through those eight years of "The Office" I had so many ideas and this became the form for them, sort of a scattered - purposefully scattered, book of different tones and feelings and ideas.
NEARY: It's hard to characterize the stories in "One More Thing." Some are fully realized short stories like "Kelloggs" about a young boy's journey to redeem a prize winning coupon he found in a cereal box only to discover his true identity in the process. And there are moments of eloquence here and there. But Novak's bread and butter is humor, which shines through in stories like this one about a man who invents the calendar.
NOVAK: (reading) January 2nd. I'm still so excited about this calendar thing. It just makes so much sense. One thousand days a year divided into 25 months, 40 days a month. Why didn't anyone think of this before? January 3rd. Getting so many compliments on the calendar. One guy came up to me today and said he's going to organize his whole life around it. Literally, someone said that.
NEARY: The book also includes brief vignettes that seem like scraps of ideas drawn whole cloth from Novak's notebook. Some of these stories are a paragraph or two, some just a couple of sentences.
NOVAK: Well, I wanted to be true to all these different ideas I had had, and I was excited to break the form. I think sometimes people, these days, on Twitter or their phones on text messages, they're used to reading content that is purposefully articulated in an extremely short burst and you would never want to expand a perfect text message.
So I felt well, if you have an idea which short like this piece "Kindness Among Cakes" which is two lines long, I thought oh that is an interesting idea, why is carrot cake. Why does it have such good icing but is such a bad cake? (reading) Kindness Among Cakes. Child: Why does carrot cake have the best icing? Mother: Because it needs the best icing.
NEARY: If some of Novak's stories have a hint of stand up comedy in them, it may be because Novak would rent a theatre from time to time and try them out in front of an audience. He says he wanted to make sure the book would work as entertainment.
NOVAK: I would read the stories out loud with a pen in my hand, and I would try to entertain people. And some of them fell flat and they're not in the book. And some of them got really full attention and laughter except for one part which I would go home and revise. But it was very fun and visceral for me to really make sure this was an entertaining and not self indulgent book, to test it by standing alone in front of a hundred people alone on a stage.
NEARY: Performing is obviously a big part of Novak's life and personality. Most recently, he appeared in "Saving Mr. Banks" as one member of the team that came up with the music and lyrics for the movie "Mary Poppins."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "SAVING MR. BANKS")
NOVAK: (as Robert Sherman) It's got to be like a slogan, prescription for life. An apple an day, a stitch in time. Time and tide wait for no man.
JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (as Richard Sherman) Sugar.
NOVAK: (as Robert Sherman) Sugar. Yeah. Jeff had vaccination day at school yesterday.
SCHWARTZMAN: (as Richard Sherman) Ouch.
NOVAK: (as Robert Sherman) No ouch.
SCHWARTZMAN: (as Richard Sherman) No ouch?
NOVAK: (as Robert Sherman) Sugar. They put it in a cube.
SCHWARTZMAN: (as Richard Sherman) Medicine in sugar?
NOVAK: (as Robert Sherman) Cube's an odd word. Spoonful.
NEARY: Novak says he loves to act, but if he had to choose between writing or acting, it would be no contest.
NOVAK: You know, anytime someone calls and says they want to put you in a movie, it's very exciting. I think, no matter who you are, I've got to think that it's just exciting. There's just some - it's like an almost mythological thing to be in movies. And, no. So if someone called and said we want you to be the star of this, I'm listening, I am.
NEARY: If you were to look at the range of things you can do and you're looking ahead, I mean, do you aspire more towards getting the lead role, or writing the great screenplay or doing the great standup act?
NOVAK: Writing. Writing the great thing. I realized a while ago that I never once had a fantasy of a role I wanted to play. I never once woke up in the middle of the night thinking I should play a cowboy who lost his wife and needs to - you know, it's never - that fantasy has never come to me.
What always comes to me is I should write a movie about, or I should write a TV show about or - that's what wakes me up with a smile on my face in the middle of the night, is always something that I want to write and then test and then see if other people love it the way I do in that moment.
And I want to see if. I don't know if that's selfish or if that's the exact level of performer in my DNA or if everyone feels that, but I always want to see that. It makes me write as hard as I can.
NEARY: Novak probably won't have to choose. As long as there's a theatre or a club nearby, he can always try out new standup material. And as long as the acting offers keep coming in, he can keep performing. With a notebook back in his trailer, he's sure to have lots of material for the next collection of stories. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.