Fall 2011

B.J. Novak Steps Out of ‘The Office’ to Discuss Everything from Malick to Magic

Fall 2011

B.J. Novak Steps Out of ‘The Office’ to Discuss Everything from Malick to Magic

FAMILY: My mom has a lot of philosophies about matchmaking and dating. I still reference them sometimes. Someone who has your weakness but more pronounced will often be a good match for you because it will draw out the strength that you didn’t know you had. It will force you to become the leader in that area. I thought that was interesting. I’m paraphrasing what I think her philosophy is. Also, you don’t meet the person who you end up with; you become those people together. My mother was, at various times, a social worker, an aerobics instructor, a schoolteacher, a dating service impresario—a matchmaker. But I learned more about being between worlds from my father, who was a ghostwriter and would assume different perspectives for each book. He would write one book through the eyes of Lee Iacocca, and one through the eyes of Nancy Reagan, and then through the eyes of George Stephanopoulos, or Magic Johnson. He would immerse himself in the world of the Iran Contra or basketball or liberal or conservative causes and become the voice of it.

WRITING: I think it probably made me feel very at home with the idea of immersing myself in something else, immersing myself in another perspective as a writer or as a character. What I feel most confident about in my writing is the very, very specific minutia of somebody’s voice. Why two people who seem to be very similar—how they would talk differently. That’s my favorite thing about writing. I started as a writer and still am a writer, and any other role I have comes out of that, comes out of imagining things the way a writer would. Acting has definitely helped my writing because I know what type of thing is false to give an actor and what kind of thing is incomplete to give an actor.

COMEDY: I did standup for about two years as my main focus in life before The Office. I absolutely committed 100 percent, foolishly. I thought I was going to be Jerry Seinfeld. As soon as I started, it was either going to be the greatest or a bust. Now it fits in a different place in my life. I think if someone is truly funny, they are doing something at a level that you have never seen before. They are tapping into some great truth about who they are or what life is like as a writer or an actor. It’s hard to make a smart person laugh, so if someone’s actually making you laugh, that’s the person. As a writer on The Office I have, like, 17 characters to write for and endless combinations of possibilities. But it’s hard. I laugh a lot in my office alone as I write. Other writers laugh at me for it. I go into my little room and they hear me crack up, and I don’t even notice I’m doing it. Sometimes I think I’m just forcing myself to laugh to see if I find it funny—being an easy audience on my writer to encourage myself. I would like to create projects that make some people insanely happy and a few that people don’t understand.

ALIENS: I believe that aliens exist, but I think they are failures, and I think they will never amount to anything. I would love for them to prove me wrong. I think they suck, and I think that’s why you have not seen them visit this planet, because they are losers. I don’t even think they’ve tried to get here and that’s why they’re such failures. You’re an even bigger failure if you don’t even try. “What are they doing in outer space?” Who the fuck knows? They suck. If I made a movie about aliens, I would like to be a very gentle, excited astronaut who doesn’t wear a helmet, and is just overwhelmed with love and excitement upon discovering the aliens and completely forgets all the protocol that he learned at NASA and is sort of adopted and raised by them… Not adopted and raised, because he is a very prominent scientist who received this mission in the first place. There’s no conflict in this movie. There’s no plot, really. It’s more a Terrence Malick tone poem meets a sort of trippy Sesame Street type of energy. Terrence Malick directing Sesame Street, taking place in a foreign world with lots of aliens. I am sort of what the humans are to Sesame Street. A few details would have to be worked out, but that’s basically the movie, and I’m looking for buyers.

THE FUTURE: In high school, we read a lot of books that dealt with utopias, and there was a lot of superior disdain for these 19th-century novelists who thought that a utopia was an idea worth considering. But I always thought that it made a lot of sense. Not that I’ll be there to see it, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the world were in some utopian state in, say, 300 years. Not surprised in the least. I think that if you look at where we are compared to where we were a few thousand years ago, it is so cynical and pointedly negative to focus on the advancements of war at the expense of advancements in moral progress and, secondarily, scientific progress. I think we could definitely have a utopia. But I won’t see it, probably. I think 1984 is not a good book, but Brave New World is. I think that, in terms of dystopia, the Brave New World route in which we, out of temptation, chase more and more authoritarian control over us because it is convenient and it enriches us in different ways… I think that could lead to a dystopia, an authoritarian hell. But I don’t think that it will be imposed upon us. I think that we will impose it upon ourselves. And you know what, we could also just be in the middle. Just a lot of traffic and cool new iPhones. That’s good, too.