B.J. Novak is the kind of person who makes you feel inadequate. Though he’s most recognizable as that guy from The Office (temp-turned-executive Ryan Howard), the 35-year-old Harvard alum has applied his comedic Midas touch to stand-up, writing, directing, producing and, most recently, authoring two books.
B.J. Novak is my artistic idol.
So, I was excited when I learned that he’d be headlining the Vegas Valley Book Festival; this would be my chance to snag an interview. A probing discourse seemed like a done deal since Novak had been on the press trail for his second book, The Book With No Pictures, released in September.
But my request was denied. And my soul … was a little bit crushed.
Since I didn’t have the opportunity to personally ask Novak what’s in store for “An Evening With B.J. Novak,” which kicks off the festival October 16, I’m forced to imagine how I see it happening …
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Inside the Clark County Library’s theater, Novak is reading aloud from The Book With No Pictures. And yes, it really is a book with no pictures.
“My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo Boo Butt!” he says, dropping his jaw in fake surprise, just like he does in the promo Penguin Kids uploaded to YouTube.
Novak, single with no kids, procedes to explain why he wanted to write a children’s book. Just like he told The Atlantic’s Jennie Rothenberg Gritz in a September 24 Q&A, it started with his love for authors such as Maurice Sendak, H.A. Rey and Dr. Seuss. “For all of Dr. Seuss’ educational accolades,” he says, “every kid sees what he’s doing and knows ‘This guy is Team Kid. This guy isn’t trying to teach me anything. It’s a rebellious, joyous book just for me.’”
He then elaborates on how that spirit of rebellion informed his writing process for The Book With No Pictures. “If the adult had to say silly things, I knew the kid would feel very powerful,” he says, reiterating what he told The Atlantic. “I realized that if there were no pictures, it would be an even more delightful trick: The kid is taking a grown-up style book and using it against the grown-up.”
Novak segues into a discussion about his own grown-up book, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. Released in February, the collection of short stories was Novak’s first dive into the literary pond. It showed critics and fans alike that he’s a bona fide storyteller, delivering a strong comedic voice and intriguing narratives beyond the beloved characters and conventions he helped create as a writer on The Office.
Novak reads a passage from one of my favorites stories, “The Rematch,” in which Aesop’s fabled tortoise and hare race again: The hare trained like no one had ever trained for anything. He ran 15 miles every morning and 15 miles every afternoon. He watched tapes of his old races. He slept eight hours every night, which is practically unheard of for a hare, and he did it all under a wall taped full of the mean, vicious things everyone had said about him in all the years since the legendary race that ruined his life.
Just as I did when I first read the story, I marvel at how Novak uses detail to transform the classic tale into something so contemporary. I mean, I never thought I’d find a rabbit so … relatable.
During the question-and-answer portion that follows, the hypothetical audience seizes the opportunity to get personal. A hot topic is Novak’s famous friendship with actress and fellow Office alum Mindy Kaling.
“Everybody wants you to get married!” says a fan, echoing the sentiment of Bravo’s Andy Cohen when Novak was a guest on Watch What Happens Live on February 7. Novak nods sympathetically like he did on the show. “Yes,” he says, “but no one wants us to get divorced.”
He takes another question about what it was like working with Quentin Tarantino, who directed Novak in Inglourious Basterds. I tune out at this point because, 1) I think it’s ridiculous to ask someone as accomplished as Novak about another celebrity, and 2) I’m busy planning my own questions.
What will you write next? What was your favorite prank you pulled on Punk’d? What’s your advice for young writers?
As I regain focus, Novak is discussing his first television writing job: the ill-fated Bob Saget sitcom Raising Dad. The story sounds eerily similar to what he told Nathan Rabin in a 2009 interview for A.V. Club: “I was so grateful to have a job so quickly, which is something so many people wanted. But it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it wasn’t what I wanted to make. I thought, “Oh, wow, am I a sellout by the age of 22?” Novak punctuates the anecdote with a classic Ryan Howard eye-roll and thanks the audience members for their time.
Oh no! I didn’t gather the courage to ask my question in time … not even in my imagination! I hightail it to the lobby so I’m first in line for the book signing.
“I admire your career so much,” I gush. “And I was wondering what you think is important to successful comedy writing?”
“Surprise is such an important element in comedic writing,” he says, offering a literally copy-and-pasted answer from his February interview with A.V. Club. “I think there are some built-in expectations in literature and in comedy that if something is quality, it’s expressing something dark. Sometimes, the more transgressive, surprising, new angle to take involves some lightness.”
I’m so impressed by his answer that I can barely recall my other questions. The fictional fans behind me are getting antsy, so I blurt out, “What’s your favorite prank you pulled on Punk’d?”
Really? That one?
He answers: “Probably the one I did on Hilary Duff” as he told A.V. Club in 2009.
Then he signs my books, another fan takes my place and my Evening With B.J. Novak is over before it’s even begun.
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An Evening With B.J. Novak
7 p.m. Oct. 16 at Clark County Library, 1401 E. Flamingo Rd., free, 702-507-3400, LVCCLD.org.
Vegas Valley Book Festival
Oct. 16-18, Historic Fifth Street School, 401 S. Fourth St, VegasValleyBookFestival.org.