The Spectacular Mr. Novak
Because the deal with his investors hasn't been signed yet, B.J. Novak '01 can't say too much about his plans for after college.
"But," he says, "don't be surprised if there's a blimp crash."
Surprise is his business. Venture capitalists are paying the young comedian to make pranks-and they're not interested in joy buzzers and fake vomit. Novak's at work on a new business, designing large-scale hoaxes that will seize national media attention to spotlight a sponsor's name.
With financing from the New Millennium Entertainment Fund and a long history of making public spectacle at Harvard, he's got the money and the experience.
His plans are big, they often explode, and if all goes according to his design, he will loose his new strain of comedy-a blend of disaster, stunt, and circus-onto the airwaves.
With a variety show that's a Harvard cult phenomenon, investors' cash in his pocket, and a spot at the podium for the Class Day Ivy Oration, Novak's reputation around campus has gotten big, and whether public nuisances or the next big thing in comedy, his spectacles are getting bigger.
The Huckster and His Hoaxes
His plan assumes that all press is good press, and that companies will pay to have their name attached to a prank that's absurd enough to make the evening news and water-cooler banter the next morning.
Funding this peculiar business comes from the New Millenium Entertainment Fund, a venture capital start-up with $50 million in the bank.
"We're looking for people who will really push the boundaries of the comedic landscape," said the fund's president, Roger C. Lewis.
Advertisers have already put the idea into practice. This March, the retired space station Mir was set to crash into the Pacific Ocean near the Australian coast. Taco Bell floated a 100-square-meter target near the crash site, and guaranteed, if the station hit the target, a free taco for all 280 millions Americans.
Taco Bell purchased insurance to pay for the tacos in case Mir hit the target. The firm took the odds, Mir missed, and the stunt, with Taco Bell's name attached, become the subject of fluff news and chit-chat around the world.
While the fund will also finance "bullet-proof" traditional business models, it's taken up Novak as its most radical comedy experiment and poster boy.
"B.J. will be the public face of the fund." Lewis says, and Novak's public profile will hopefully draw in advertisers weary of always trying new tricks in traditional advertising formats.
For Novak, the Taco Bell stunt is just the beginning. Rather than paste brand names on random spectacles, his plan is to script the spectacles themselves.
There's talk of crashing blimps, but both he and his investors are mum on further details, beyond hints that the ill-fated blimp is only one part of a much larger stunt.
Novak believes that people sit down to watch the news not to find out what's going on in the world, but simply because they enjoy the show.
"People don't know that they're watching the news for entertainment," he says, "but they are."
Entertainment in the `80s, Novak says, was over-produced and rigidly non-spontaneous-"only valuable as kitsch, kitsch I love." The `90s began a backlash against inauthentic entertainment, where people turned their dials to real tragedy and spectacle: the O.J. trial, Princess Diana, the Clinton scandal.
Novak's stunts ride the last wave of this backlash: combinations of real drama and staged venue like The Real World, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and Survivor.
But Novak doesn't want to create another show, package comedy and offer it to the public. He plans to make the absurd happen in real life, and let the nightly news retell the story for a public that will, hopefully, appreciate the joke.
"It's Survivor to the next level," he says.
Big ideas abound in comedy, but by banking on his youth and the former successes of the Harvard Lampoon, Novak managed to find backers for his plan.
According to Novak, when people want radical new concepts in comedy, they look to young comedians.
"The best minds in comedy do their best work in the two or three years after college," Lewis said. "We want to snag him before he gets to L.A. and starts doing things with his own money."
Novak's Harvard Lampoon pedigree and the comedy magazine's history of commercial success enticed investors. Young Lampoon alumni filled the Simpsons writing staff, and also created the National Lampoon magazine and movie series of the same name starring Chevy Chase.
"The bottom line is that the National Lampoon made a whole heap of money," Lewis said.
I Knew B.J. When...
Novak has sharpened his skills for spectacle during his tenure at Harvard.
At a performance of this year's Hasty Pudding Theatrical "Fangs for the Memories," Novak hopped the stage in wig, wedding dress, and lipstick, and offered a line:
"Butterfinger, Butterfinger, you've got to help me, Dr. Funkenstein is trying to turn me into a monster."
"I was just seeing where they'd go with it," Novak says.
They escorted him offstage in a headlock.
The prank and the headlock have since been forgiven by both parties.
Novak's most well-known and legitimate spectacle was "The B.J. Show," a variety show that Novak put up for the first time last year with B.J. Averell '02.
The show's humor comes when things go wrong.
"We wanted to make a grand show that looks like a horrible accident," Novak says. "It comes from a pressing need for outrageousness and spectacle."
True-to-form, at last year's show, the female a capella group the Pitches came onstage to sing, but their harmony broke down into catfight. A slam-dunk contest broke out, and final club members paired off in gladiator bouts. The advertised Harvard Dance All-Stars turned out to be a dancing Alf and boy on crutches.
This year's "B.J. Show," on May 13, will move into the 1100-seat Sanders Theater, and proceeds will go to the Phillips Brooks House Association.
Novak promises soap-stars with rope tricks, a new slate of student groups in bizarre acts, and-with visible pride-Bob Saget, star of the `80s television show Full House.
The major disappointment at the last year's "B.J. Show" came when Jodie Sweetin, the actress who played Stephanie Tanner on Full House, cancelled at the last minute.
This year, Bob Saget has become the show's idol. The two B.J.s have decked the Yard with eerie two-tone posters of Saget's head above the text, "Obey Saget." Those expecting Saget's saccharine sitcom smile might find a more subversive side to the star, Novak warned.
"Saget might surprise," Novak says. "We wouldn't want it any other way."
The Life of the Artist, Briefly
It's difficult to reconcile the spectacle Novak makes of himself with the quiet manners and thoughtful stare of the off-stage man. What led Novak to his strange style of showmanship was a long search for the largest spectacle he could find. And if he stood at the center of attention, so be it.
"I always wanted to make big things," he says.
In junior high, it was carpentry-"I liked to build stuff"-but when he realized that houses would be too small, he scaled up his plans, and decided to be a real-estate developer, a "Donald Trump with a sense of the absurd."
What brought Novak from buildings to humor in his late teens was a realization that the he could make something bigger than the real world.
"I moved into film and writing, because there I could do things that were conceptually bigger than buildings are in actuality," Novak says.
He made a few bête noir student films with what he laughingly calls his leitmotif: "People getting killed because of messages they get in mass-produced food products."
But Novak once again shifted, discovering the kind of humor that he's selling today. By creating spectacles, he makes the stories, and lets the people and the nightly news tell them.
"It hasn't always been a dream of comedy, it's been a dream of making the biggest show I could," Novak says. "With that, I can affect what people talk about all day, what people dream about at night."
With investors' interests piqued, Novak is poised to stage his show on a much larger scale.
And even if his present plans fall through, Novak promises the show will go on.
"I'll just free-lance," he says, "and crash blimps on my own."
-Staff writer Matthew F. Quirk can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.