B.J. Novak ’01, an actor and funnyman best known for playing Ryan in “The Office,” stopped by the Brattle Theatre earlier this week to discuss his new book, “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories.” Before going on stage, Novak sat down with FM to talk about Harvard, 20th-century poetry, and the romantic ideal of Elvis.
FM: In 1998, when you were a freshman at Harvard, a column in The Crimson called you “an aspiring filmmaker,” but it said even then that you knew you didn’t want to concentrate in Visual and Environmental Studies. What did you think you wanted to do when you got to Harvard?
B.J. Novak: I wanted to do what I did which was study literature, get as much academic knowledge as I could out of Harvard and then use it for whatever I wanted. You know when you go to a restaurant and you’re like, “What’s best here?” I figured I went to Harvard and I was like, “What’s best here?”
FM: Did anything change for you while you were [at Harvard]?
BJN: Everything changed. It was all about the people I met.
FM: I wanted to ask you about the “B.J. Show,” which you did with B.J. Averell [’02-’03] when you were here. Is there one greatest moment from that?
BJN: There were many. It was really one of the most memorable experiences of my life. One moment that stands out to me is when Dan Mintz [Daniel A. Mintz ’02] now the voice of Tina on “Bob’s Burgers” came out as a volunteer translator who was willing to translate a man that we said was China’s greatest comedian who was doing a cultural seminar at Harvard. And people believed us, and then Dan translated the Chinese comedian and he turned out to be the filthiest, most ribald comedian you could be and everyone had thought he would be an international class act. So Dan Mintz translating this fake Chinese comedian in Sanders Theatre was my favorite memory of that.
FM: How do you think your time writing for the Lampoon [a semi-secret Sorrento Square Social Organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine] influenced your writing style or humor?
BJN: I think one benefit was being around people who took comedy so seriously always challenged me to never take the easy comedic path. But there’s a lot to learn that I didn’t learn in the Lampoon.
FM: At this point, you’ve written your senior thesis on “Hamlet,” you’ve written for The Lampoon, now you’ve written for TV, you’ve written Tweets, you’ve written a book; how are all those kinds of writing different form each other and in what ways are they similar?
BJN: Your best writing is when you’re writing in your own voice that would in theory be consistent across all those platforms. So I think my worst writing might have been, of the things you mentioned, my “Hamlet” thesis because it wasn’t in my voice necessarily, it was in a voice that I thought was smart and Hoopes prize-worthy but not necessarily the same voice that is in the rest of my writing.
FM: What are you reading and watching in between your signings and readings
BJN: [Today] I bought “The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry” because I always think that I’m about to get into poetry. I never do, but I always think, “God, I like abstract language and I have a very short attention span. Poetry’s going to be the thing for me.” I almost never connect to poetry, but I keep trying. And I also bought a young adult book by Daniel Handler about a breakup.
FM: In the trailer for your new book, Mindy Kaling tells you that people think you’re “pretentious anyway.” Do you think that’s true? Or do you think Mindy thinks that’s true?
BJN: A little bit. I think some people see Harvard, and they think that I assume I’m entitled to everything, which is the last thing I ever feel. I always feel I need to earn everything every time. But I think that coming from Harvard, it’s not the most endearing credit for a comedian to be introduced with. And often I’m very quiet and people mistake that for negative qualities when in fact it’s usually just contemplativeness or insecurity. But the more I tell that to people, the more I find almost everyone has that problem.
FM: Is being famous for being an author and doing all these book tours different from being famous from being an actor? Now that you’re both, can you ever be just one?
BJN: We’ll see. I heard someone talking about Adam Sandler recently and they called him “Adam Sandler from ‘SNL’” and I thought, “my God, he hasn’t been on ‘SNL’ for 25 years or something, and he’s done so many movies.”[But] you remember the first time you met someone. So if people met me for the first time on “The Office,” then in a way I’ll always be the guy from “The Office” no matter what I do. I think that’s endearing, I think it’s lucky. It’s lucky that it’s something I like, something I’m proud of.
FM: In a story in your book called “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg,” people go to heaven and get to see free concerts by great artists who have died. Who would you want to see in heaven?
BJN: I’d love to see Elvis. I’d love to be as close as I could be to Elvis. And the strangest thing is I’m not even an Elvis fan. He just fascinates me. To me that’s a romantic ideal. There’s a story about it in the book, too. That to me is like if Coca Cola had a heartbeat. How can you be so mythical and human at the same time? I wouldn’t know how to handle being Elvis. And I would love to just stare at him and think, “Is this Elvis?” When I knew Brad Pitt, I had a little bit of that. I was like, “This man is literally a human version of Brad Pitt.” Brad Pitt just seemed like an American institution to me, an icon. On a musical level I’d want to see Kurt Cobain because that was just the person I saw at that age when you form your favorites.
10FM: Did you play any role in designing what was on [Mr. Bartley’s “B.J. Novak Long Story Short” burger]?
BJN: No. But I like it because it seems like a populist’s burger. It seems like a burger that people would actually want. And that’s what I want to do in my career, is be a guy who gives you your favorite thing. I want it to be more about the audience than me. So when I saw that burger I was like, “Oh, that’s not what I would have designed, but it is what I think people would order.” And the populist in me was really happy.