Eight years ago at a comedy show in Los Feliz, B.J. Novak took the mike and regaled the crowd with a jaw dropping story: As a tween, he had a personal encounter with Michael Jackson.
The theme of the night entailed comedians' run-ins with celebrities, and before the crowd's imagination could assume the worst for Novak as a child, he hysterically put us at ease recounting Jackson's presence at a dinner party at Deepak Chopra's house in Massachusetts. The jokes were in the details, and Novak's sincere boyish demeanor not only heightened the story, but also made what might be perceived as a whale tale more believable: Jackson whisked into the room disguised, sat at the kids' dinner table, played Scattergories, and finished the night by singing Queen's “We Are the Champions” a cappella after he and Novak won the game. (Years later, Novak recounted this story on the Late Show With David Letterman)
Upon hearing that Novak is releasing a book of his comedic prose this February entitled One More Thing, culled from his public essay show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Uncollected Stories, the mind savored what other anecdotes The Office scribe and star had in his pocket. One could assume that Novak had some wacky takeaways from his childhood memories of Nancy Reagan and Lee Iacocca standing around in his kitchen. Novak's father, William, was a noted ghostwriter of memoirs for such celebrities. However, rather than pull from these true-to-life moments — and the Jackson story is true — Novak's UCB show and upcoming book take the opposite approach: They're a collection of essays without any ounce of credibility.
“With that Michael Jackson story and some others, I felt like I lucked out on a few amazing experiences. I didn't earn them. I was lucky that happened to me,” explains Novak in a phone interview. “I feel like my prose writing is my way of being personal. My values and sense of humor come to the surface.”
Each month over the last year, Novak has been reading the stories from a music stand before L.A. audiences at Upright Citizens Brigade. However, the night is far from being a humdrum college lecture or lofty poetry recital. Novak's stories are as visceral as New Yorker humor pieces (and he is currently submitting some of those). When the announcement was made that Novak was nabbing a seven-figure book deal, his manager heralded to the press that the book is akin to Woody Allen's stories. While that sounds like a brash PR headline, after taking an aural ride with Novak, you realize it's a statement that's right on the money.
A couple of Allen's greatest hits include the one about a group of men dressed up in red long underwear, believing that they're firemen and running around Manhattan trying to find a fire, or The Moose who waltzes into a costume contest party, only to lose at the end of the night to a couple that is dressed up as a fake moose.
Like Allen, Novak is a zany wordsmith who also revels in the ridiculous. In one story, To Catch a Predator host Chris Hansen argues with his teenage daughter over his attending a Justin Bieber concert with her. Yes, because he's Chris Hansen. He's the only guy that can get her tickets, but what will the crowd think if he's there? Will they think Hansen is a closet predator or is he at the concert to catch a predator? Then there's “Dark Matter,” in which a teenage boy chokes a nebbish planetarium tour guide to try to get him to to divulge the full theory behind dark matter in space.
Sprinkled between such longer stories are snappy ironies, like one titled “Kate Moss.”
When I was 16, I would come home from school everyday and stare at pictures of Kate Moss for hours. Then one day on a school trip to New York, I saw Kate Moss. I went up to her and pulled her coat. “Are you Kate Moss?” I said. “Of course,” she said. “How did you become Kate Moss?” She moved her face close to mine, and smiled and whispered, “Everyday,” she said, “when I came home from school, I would stare at pictures of Kate Moss for hours, until one day, I was Kate Moss.” “How many hours, I asked?” “Four,” she said. When I went back home, I tried staring at photos of Kate Moss for four hours a day. Now I'm Kate Moss.
The story is akin to an Allen tale in its hyperbolic ending. But Novak didn't set out to emulate Allen. While both have a penchant for the outlandish, “The subject and the comedic ideas I'm drawn to are pretty contemporary,” says Novak about their differences.
What also sets Novak apart are the deeper philosophical messages buried within Uncollected Stories. Out of respect for the upcoming tome, Novak asked that we avoid spoiling the endings to each and every story, but one touching tale involves a grandmother and a grandson grappling with the notion of “What falls by the wayside in life when one is given infinite options.”
One More Thing is nearly finished and Novak used his stage time on Tuesday to polish up and copy edit a few essays that he was reading aloud, taking notes as he went along on the page. It's easy to assume that Novak was keeping a log of the laughter, but that's something he keeps track of mentally. Actually, the checks that he makes on the page are notes to himself of where he might rift or drop a word or two for effect.
At the end of the performance on Tuesday, Novak politely asked the crowd if they had any questions or suggestions about the fictional essays he read. There were no show of hands. The packed theater couldn't have had a more hilarious time. But he honestly does want feedback on his work.
Novak explains his m.o.: “I actually learned this from [The Office executive producer] Greg Daniels. He asks everyone for their opinion. Many of the responses may be useless or contradictory, but he knows the right advice when he hears it. Out of five different notes, one rings true. I remember reading on Twitter that an audience member thought my narrator in 'Dark Matter' was too aggressive. Then I ran into a woman at the Hollywood Farmer's Market who saw my show and told me, 'Don't listen to that person!' And I agreed. It was the narrator's aggressiveness that made the story funny and creates a sensitive effect when he gets lonely.”
Novak's trajectory in this town is nothing short of remarkable given how fast he met success head on. Unlike other Harvard Lampoon writers who landed spots on the writing staffs of Saturday Night Live via nepotism, Novak cut his teeth at the Los Angeles alternative comedy lounges, practicing observationist humor with a one liner style, a brazen feat in the post-Seinfeld era, when it was tough to distinguish your voice from the throngs of “Did you ever notice”-type comedians.
But it was Novak's sharp insight that set him apart from the pack, earning him a spot on Variety's 2003 “10 Comics to Watch” list, followed by a writing-acting gig on NBC's then-underdog show The Office. His tenure on that sitcom paid off in spades, leading Novak to character roles in Inglourious Basterds, next summer's Amazing Spider-man 2 and the upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, in which he plays Disney tunemeister Robert Sherman to Jason Schwartzman's Richard Sherman.
A significant rule of thumb that he pulled from The Office was realizing that honesty is the best policy when it comes to comedy. Comedic material would spark, he syas, when “we were honest about how a character behaved. Overlooked honesty is what would fuel comedy and develop a strong balance. Honesty is the compass.”
And no matter what ledge One More Thing's tall tales leap from, it's Novak's sincerity that sells it.