B.J. Novak’s deep thoughts

5 MAR 2009 • by Zack Smith

Reprinted from The Independent Weekly

On NBC’s The Office, B.J. Novak plays one of the show’s most unassuming characters: Ryan Howard, the temp-turned-salesman-turned-drug-addicted-corporate-sleaze-turned-receptionist. But while Novak’s character often tries to avoid the show’s mockumentary camera (or awkwardly tries to play up to it), Novak was in the spotlight Saturday night, Feb. 28, as his comedy act played to a sold-out crowd at Duke University’s Page Auditorium.

Clad in suit pants, a flannel shirt and a thin jacket, the wiry, wide-eyed Novak resembled his collegiate audience, though his demeanor also suggested that acting, writing and producing The Office while fitting in a comedy show and a role in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Inglourious Basterds had aged him a mite.

Unfortunately, your correspondent got bad information from his editor about the show’s start time and showed up late. Post-show inquiries revealed that Dan Mintz opened the show, and that Novak employed a number of routines that are well known from the Internet, including a riff on Google Maps (its claim that the trip from RDU to Duke takes seven minutes was met with disbelief) and his popular riff on children’s detective stories, “Wikipedia Brown.”

After I finally arrived, I caught a routine in which Novak appeared on stage with a suitcase on one side, a garbage can in the other, and a stack of “new material” in his hand. Audience reaction determined which jokes went into his act and which went into the garbage. Winners included such one-liners as “For me, a strip club is like being a kid in a candy museum,” and “I’ve had some pretty bad experiences with bestiality, but the trick is just getting back in the horse.” (Well, I liked it.)

Novak’s act also included a routine with “Shy Puppet” and a Q&A with audience members about The Office. For him, Ryan comes from “this place of real insecurity.” “When people are insecure, they’re at their worst, while people who are confident are friendly,” Novak said. “So when I play Ryan, I try to be as insecure as possible.” He revealed that he wrote the recent Office plotline about a debate over Hillary Swank’s hotness when he was on a plane coming back from a comedy show, and the two in-flight movies were Swank’s P.S. I Love You and The Great Debaters. “So I figured, why not a debate about Hillary Swank?” He demurred as to whether or not he considered Swank hot.

Most disturbing was Novak’s answer to the question of which Office actor was most like their character: “Creed Bratton is Creed Bratton.” If you’ve ever seen the show, this might give you nightmares. As for what he’s most proud of about The Office, Novak’s answer was simple: “I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve stayed true to what we were doing when we started and no one was watching.”

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