It's been nearly 20 years since B.J. Novak first took the stage as a stand-up comic. He still remembers the date: Oct. 10, 2001, less than a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
It was a tough time to be telling jokes and Novak was inexperienced. His set bombed.
It took him three months to get back on stage after that show. But when he did, he booked five shows in a single week, vowing to himself that he wouldn't let a single show be a referendum on whether or not he should continue.
"The first night I did well, the second night I didn't. The third night I did, OK," Novak says. "And I realized, Oh, OK, you just have to do this a lot. ... It feels like all of my formative lessons are from that brutally exposed and honest trial and error in front of an audience."
Novak went on to work both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. He was a writer-director and executive producer of the NBC series The Office — and he played the role of temp worker Ryan on the show. He also wrote a best selling collection of short stories, called One More Thing.
Novak's latest project is The Premise, an FX on Hulu anthology series which he writes and directs. Each episode deals with a current issue, like social media obsession and celebrity worship, and each ends with a surprise twist. Novak says the series plays to his strengths as a writer.
"I do have these wild premises that make me smile," he says. "I really think there is something to giving people ... a really memorable idea, play it out to its limit and move on."
On exploring internet trolls and online criticism in The Premise
I do have this — a lot of us do — this compulsion to find out what people are saying. I look up reviews of what I do and then I tell myself I won't again. But it's largely because I'm looking for the truth. And I think the reason we do that is because the truth is often absent from our lives these days, and it's this bifurcated reality. ...
Everyone has that thing that they're completely self-conscious about, completely terrified that people will notice about them. And sure enough, that is what everybody shouts at you as though you don't know it as though I don't have all of these fears about myself, my appearance, my writing, all of this imposter syndrome. So when people yell, "You're an imposter!" you say, "I know! I know!" ... So often we are our own worst critics and we are the people that have thought about ourselves the most. Unless you get a thick skin over time, which I have a medium skin. Of course it hurts!
On getting the part of Ryan in The Office
I was doing standup at the Hollywood Improv, and Greg Daniels, who created the show, saw me perform and I was doing one liners, essentially, and pausing between the jokes. He told me afterwards that it was my first joke that got him, which was, "I learned nothing in college. It was really kind of my own fault. I had a double major: psychology and reverse psychology." He said it was that joke. But then when he met me, he said, "You know, it was really the pauses between your jokes, because I have this idea for this temp character who kind of thinks he's better than everyone. And in those pauses you had a little arrogance that I thought was very funny." So that's actually what got me the part. And then he had heard that I very much wanted to be a writer. So he offered to read my spec script, which all writers carried around then. And I got hired for both jobs at the same time. And then Mindy Kaling was hired for both as well, too.
On what he learned from Steve Carell about writing jokes
Steve [Carell] knocked down a lot of jokes, in the best way. I'll always remember, like [as] a real eager 25-year-old comedy writer, I brought down a bunch of jokes to set when a scene wasn't working. That was often the young writer's job, "go write alts." I ran a bunch down to set. And I was really proud of them, and he said, "I don't know. These all seem like jokes." And I thought, Well, yeah, that's my job! These are jokes. And he meant that it all had to come from character and truth and feeling, that was really his school of comedy. ... I learned a lot about emotion and truth being more important than the desire to prove how clever you were. I think it's why my early stand-up at that youth hostel didn't work, and the lesson I've really slowly learned over time.
On Comedy Central pulling The Office episode "Diversity Day" from a recent marathon — the episode is about sensitivity training and racism
I did write "Diversity Day" and I do think it's a wonderful episode, but you need to do these things at the highest level. I mean, it's a risk. If you fail with something like that, it's bad. But I think that, we should all be going for that.
In my opinion, audiences are not afraid of this kind of thing. They like if someone takes a risk in comedy, they understand it, they get it. And an episode like "Diversity Day" or these episodes are fine with people. It is the gatekeepers that are often very nervous on behalf of an audience. And that, I think, is the disconnect. And you see it in stand-up a lot. The most popular stand-ups are the ones that are talking directly to people. They have no one censoring them and their audiences get it, and their audiences love it and hunger for it. I'm sure there are some people offended by things. .... I'd be hurt and worried if the things I was doing were offending people, I really would. And I do feel bad if and when that does happen. But I think that people like that kind of thing and it is the gatekeepers that are very nervous.
On how his on-again, off-again relationship with co-star Mindy Kaling informed their characters in The Office
I think it fueled the show in the sense that all of us were putting everything we had into the show every day. So if Mindy and I had a fight or an argument, other writers were taking notes, or we would just improvise it on set. So none of us had lives. And I think that's why so many of us, including me and Mindy, became so close. You go home at 2 a.m. or suddenly it's the weekend and you don't know anybody else. So you just keep hanging out with everybody. She's one of the closest or the closest person of my life to this day.
The whole reason our characters started dating on the show is because they couldn't get over this dynamic we had in the writers' room that neither of us realized was funny at all. And other people would laugh and shake their heads. And we'd say, "What?" And they'd say, "You two!" And then before we knew it, they had written us in as this horrible partnership.
On shooting the last episode of The Office
I cried. It was hard. I think we were all so ready to be done with it because it had been so grueling for so long. I'm getting choked up now. The last shot that I filmed ... it was Mindy and I running off into the sunset together. It had an awfully dark undercurrent, which was that I was abandoning my baby, that I had left at the wedding to to run off with her. I remember, it was a sunset, it was Mindy. It really blended the reality and the workplace that Dunder Mifflin was where I worked for nine years and I had a lot of complaints about it and a lot of frustrations and a lot of disappointments, along with all of the ecstatic moments. But when it finally was over, it was sad.
On working on MTV's Punk'd early in his career
It was the most fun I've ever had in my life. My mom couldn't watch. I think it didn't even occur to me that pranks make other people uncomfortable. They're so exciting to me. ... Hilary Duff was, at the time, a 16-year-old TV star, and we pretended that I was her driving instructor. And so she went to get what she thought was her license test. And I was an instructor who had her drive through just to really break all the rules and eventually got in a fight with another driver. It was just the worst possible mishap of a driving lesson. ... And I just had to sort of be convincing while also coming up with what would further the scene along. So it was this incredible high-wire improv, because you're making it up on the spot and your scene partner doesn't know that it's fake. And so if they ever realize it is, you blew the whole day. So it was incredible improv training in that sense. It was so high-stress, but so much fun.
Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, B.J. Novak, became famous in his mid-20s for playing Ryan on the NBC series "The Office," where his character had an on-again, off-again relationship with Kelly Kapoor, Mindy Kaling's character. Novak was also a writer, director and executive producer of "The Office." He was in Quentin Tarantino's film "Inglourious Basterds" and in "Saving Mr. Banks." He also wrote a bestselling collection of short stories called "One More Thing."
Now B.J. Novak has a new TV series that he created called "The Premise." He's also the primary writer and director of the show. The first two episodes premiered last Thursday. It's streaming on FX on Hulu. "The Premise" is an anthology series, with each half-hour episode dealing with a current issue, like social media obsession, the gun lobby, how celebrities are seen as gods. Each episode ends with a surprise twist.
Let's start with a clip from the episode called "Social Justice Sex Tape." The episode stars Ben Platt as Ethan Streiber, a young man who was watching his sex tape, featuring him and a girlfriend, when he noticed that in the corner of the screen through his window, you could see a young Black man being assaulted by police. That young man is now standing trial, wrongly accused of assaulting the police. Ethan decides to come forward and offer his tape as evidence that the man is innocent. As helpful as the tape is for the defense, it makes the jurors cringe and avert their eyes because Ethan looks so awkward and kind of clueless.
Then the prosecutor plays excerpts of the tape while interrogating Ethan, which turns into a humiliating critique of his sexual ability and his credibility. Here's how he responds when the prosecutor asks why he was watching the tape. The music you'll hear in the background is from the sex tape.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE PREMISE")
BEN PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) I guess I was lonely. And I had some work I was avoiding doing. So I was procrastinating, I guess.
TALIA BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) So the woman on the tape, identified as Vanessa Delacroix, is - well, there's really no other way to say this - much more attractive than you.
AYO EDEBIRI: (As Eve Stone) Objection - opinion, not fact.
MARTIN COVERT: (As Judge) Overruled - I'll allow it as fact.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) Had you two had sex before?
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) Yeah, obviously.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) And she willingly engaged in that again?
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) Uh-huh.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) 7:47, please.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK THAT AZZ UP")
JUVENILE: (Rapping) Back that ass up.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) Well, you can see, he is completely missing her entire area there. It's just not adding up, is it? Now, you have a lot of Black friends, don't you, Mr. Streiber?
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) Yeah, of course - a ton.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) Well, is it possible that the man in the purple hoodie could be one of your friends, perhaps a fellow crisis actor?
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) Crisis actor?
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) Finally, tell us, Ethan, what is the name of the folder that you keep this video in?
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) Unreal.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) And what is the connection of the content of unreal?
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) This album in my phone where I keep all my - you know, everybody's got that place where they keep all the stuff that gets you...
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) Fantasies...
PLATT: (As Ethan Streiber) Yeah. Yeah - exactly.
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) ...That maybe never happened, that are maybe unreal?
JERMAINE FOWLER: (As Darren Williams) Are they going to believe this video is fake?
BALSAM: (As Prosecutor) Which is more likely? - a man who looks like this who had sex with a woman who looks like that in the most profoundly bizarre manner or a millennial incel who is so desperate to be a hero to his progressive peers that he might have fabricated a deepfake that is exactly what he says it is - unreal.
GROSS: B.J. Novak, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the new series. That scene is really funny (laughter).
B J NOVAK: Thank you. Thank you - so happy to be here.
GROSS: How did you start thinking about how a sex tape could inadvertently be used as evidence in a police assault against a young Black man?
NOVAK: Everyone that I know, and myself included, thinks of themselves as a good person and says all the right things publicly and believes them, that they support all the right causes. But the irony is it only makes us look better. It's the opposite of a sacrifice to proclaim your alliance to a trendy, even if correct, cause. So I was thinking, well, what if to really make a difference, you looked bad, you didn't look cool, and you had to sort of go through the opposite of that? So the idea that someone would find in the back of a sex tape that they would rather die than have public is something that would actually make a difference to me was very funny and very funny because it asked a question that I thought would be very interesting to try to answer.
GROSS: One episode in the series is about a woman who puts everything she does on Instagram. She's always taking selfies to post. And everyone adores her. And she's about to receive the Miss Generational Inspiration Award. But she comes obsessed with that one commentator who's telling her that her smile is fake and that she's fake, too, that she's not the perfect person she's being told that she is. And she's totally obsessed with this, like, one negative commenter. What's your relationship to social media?
NOVAK: Well, to me, that episode - and everyone will take something different - to me, that episode is a critique of real life and a defense of the online anonymous troll because, to me, why do we listen to these trolls? Why are we drawn to these negative voices online? It's because there's something we know we're not hearing in our lives, in this sort of bubble of politeness that I find myself surrounded by. And of course, I'm in Hollywood a lot of the time. But I do think it is very, very common that this relationship between criticism and support becomes completely divided.
And you have all the people that - all this culture of positivity and self-help and therapy - and all of this is very positive messaging. And so people are drawn to this jolt, this rush of critique and negativity. So to me, I do have this - you know, a lot of us do - this compulsion to find out, what are people saying? I look up, you know, reviews of what I do. And then I tell myself I won't again. But it's largely because I'm looking for the truth.
And I think the reason we do that is because the truth is often absent from our lives these days. And it's this bifurcated reality. And so, you know, I think that the flaws of our real lives are often why we search.
GROSS: Do you believe the negative tweets and the negative posts more than you believe the positive ones?
NOVAK: Yeah (laughter). I think that - I don't know if that's my nature (laughter) or just the truth. But, you know, how do you know? To me, it's really what resonates. I mean, to me, the funny thing about comments at people in the public eye is that before I was known, I would sort of think, why doesn't Paris Hilton realize this, you know, or whatever?
But in reality, everyone has that thing that they're completely self-conscious about, completely terrified that people will notice about them. And sure enough, that is what everybody shouts at you, as though you don't know it, as though I don't have all of these fears about myself - my appearance, my writing, my - you know, all of this imposter syndrome. So when people yell, you're an imposter, you say, (laughter) I know, I know. And it's not - I think when you're on the other side of it, you think, oh, these people are so insulated; I realize something they don't.
So it often - you know, we are our own worst critics. And we are the people that have thought about ourselves the most. So I think it does - unless you get a thick - you know, a thick skin over time, which - I have a medium skin - it can - yeah, of course it hurts.
GROSS: One episode is about a rock star who returns to his high school to donate a million dollars to the library. And he also makes an unusual offer to the valedictorian. And part of the story is about what he imagined it would be like, back when he was in high school, if he could return as a famous person and say what he really thought of all the students who had been mean to him when he was in high school. Was that a fantasy you had in high school?
NOVAK: I did want to sort of transcend things that I thought - you know, I think pains and slights. I had a good time in high school. I went to a good high school, and I didn't want to give everyone two middle fingers as this character had always fantasized. But I've - of course, I know what it's like to want to prove people wrong. And I think, you know, he didn't do that when he came back to his school at the end. And he was disappointed that he didn't because he had moved on. I think there is something bittersweet when we outgrow the revenge. You know, revenge is a dish best served cold, and then maybe, you know, the waiter took it away before he had a chance to eat it. So yeah, there can even be a remorse about regret. Sounds like a very heady show - I mean, the plot is that he offers to have sex with the valedictorian as an incentive prize. So you know, all of these ideas are, you know, in the background of what I try to make funny stories.
GROSS: Before we talk about "The Office" - 'cause I do want to talk with you about that - I want to talk with you a little bit about how you started in comedy. I know that you wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. And there have been several alums of the Lampoon who went on to "Saturday Night Live." Was that an ambition of yours, that it would be a kind of jumping-off point to write for "Saturday Night Live"?
NOVAK: Yes. I applied many times. I wanted to write. It wasn't necessarily "Saturday Night Live." It was "Saturday Night Live," "Conan," "The Simpsons." I mean, these were just, you know, reverential places to be to me. And so that was why I wanted to go to Harvard, honestly, is 'cause I read once that that's where all those people came from. And that's what I wanted to do.
GROSS: How close did you get?
NOVAK: I don't think - I don't know. Ask Lorne Michaels. I don't think he ever heard of me. I don't think I got that far.
GROSS: So you didn't get a response from any of the shows that you just mentioned?
NOVAK: I - you know, it's like - agents probably are like, oh, they liked it, but they went in another direction. Well, if they liked it a lot, they would have gone in my direction. That's what I always think.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's right. While you were in Harvard, you wrote your honors thesis on the film adaptations of "Hamlet." Just curious if your interpretation of "Hamlet" has changed as you've gotten older.
NOVAK: Well, the thesis of the thesis - you know, what I was writing about is probably only become more interesting to me, which is how the films show the line to be or not to be, which is basically the meme of "Hamlet," right? You can't - if you make a "Hamlet" movie, that's what you want to know how the person handles. And to me, it's about, well, what is the spectacle of something like that versus the art of it? And how much is the spectacle the art? To me, that's the question that I always am, you know, thinking about when I make TV. But Hamlet, I think, his indecision makes a lot more sense to me when I - the older I get. And I can't even decide, you know, necessarily how to end an episode. The idea of whether you kill the king of a country who is also your uncle because a ghost told you to - but the ghost was convincing.
NOVAK: I understand needing to take a beat.
GROSS: I've never heard it put quite that way.
NOVAK: Yeah, I think give the guy some room, Ophelia. Like, you know. So yes, I've been indecisive over much smaller things, to say the least.
GROSS: So what does to be or not to be mean to you?
NOVAK: To be or not to be (laughter)? It's a great question. I mean, honestly, to me, it means the most famous line of all time (laughter). I think I think about the symbolism of it at this point more than - but I mean, it - why it's so great. I mean, it's the shortest five syllables, and it means everything. I mean, you can't get more compact than that. What a one-liner.
GROSS: Yes, OK.
NOVAK: As a stand-up comic, I can, you know - that puts take my wife, please, to shame.
GROSS: (Laughter) You started in stand-up. And I think you started right after 9/11. Do I have that right?
GROSS: That is a really terrible time to start in comedy.
NOVAK: Well, I didn't know that, and that was reflected in the early responses to my material, which I thought, you know, OK, let's make fun of what's happening in the news. But no.
GROSS: What was some of your material like?
NOVAK: You know, they were ironic. What - I mean, it wasn't good. It was, you know, I was trying to be ironic or make the opposite of the joke you'd expect me to make. You know, it was overthought. It was really a lesson. I mean, I had been a good student. I had been, you know, the smart kid who wanted so badly to be in comedy. And so many of my lessons after that were about - it's not about thinking, you know? It's about getting somewhere deeper and, you know, being funny in a real way. And so I think a lot of my early jokes were very sort of cerebral.
GROSS: So did you feel like, this is not for me; I can't do it?
NOVAK: Well, the first time I ever performed, which was October 10, 2001, was at the Hollywood Youth Hostel in Los Angeles. Most people had trouble with English. They were international people. The person before me did a silent impression of Robert De Niro in the bathroom, and that's really what worked. When I got offstage, the emcee transitioned into the next act by saying, takes a lot of courage to get up here. So...
GROSS: Oh, gosh. That hurts (laughter).
NOVAK: Yeah. No, it hurts. And you know, I went through a lot. You bomb a lot as a comic. And that's - and you learn to listen to the audience a lot.
GROSS: But you don't want the emcee to acknowledge - like, have sympathy on this guy. It's hard to do.
NOVAK: No, no. That's - yeah. No, that was about as bad a response as you could get.
GROSS: Did you try to engage the audience and either berate them for not laughing or, you know, start sweating and trying harder to make them laugh, which only made it worse?
NOVAK: I think I just - I recited everything I had memorized with no interaction. It was - yeah. And - no, there's a lot of hard times when you try to do stand-up.
GROSS: How do you recover from that?
NOVAK: You get onstage again. You get onstage again is the answer.
GROSS: And what if it happens again?
NOVAK: Well, it will happen again. But you know, the first time I did stand-up, I couldn't get onstage for another three months. And then when I did, I decided I'm going to book five shows this week, and I'm going to get on stage no matter what, because I can't let each show be a referendum on whether I do this at all. You know, I need to just - and you know, the first night I did well. The second night, I didn't. The third night, I did OK, you know? And I realized, oh, OK, you just - you have to do this a lot. And you know, I learned - I didn't do stand-up for that many years, but it feels like all of my formative lessons are from that, you know, brutally exposed and honest trial and error in front of an audience.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is B.J. Novak. His new series, "The Premise" is on FX on Hulu. He co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan and was also a writer, director and executive producer on the show. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUTHERN CREEK PLAYERS' "'THE OFFICE' THEME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with B.J. Novak. He created the new anthology series "The Premise," which is on FX on Hulu. He also wrote and directed most of the episodes. And of course, he co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan and was a writer, director and an executive producer of the series. When you were trying to be a stand-up comic, did you meet a lot of successful comics and get advice from them?
NOVAK: Yeah. I mean, the most memorable one was Louis C.K., who gave me these profuse compliments and then - for all the things I was doing, which were, you know, one-liners and observational bits. And then I immediately heard him on an interview - maybe your show - about a month later where he said, I'm never doing one-liners or observational bits again. I'm only telling stories from my life. And I thought - and then he became, you know, a stratospherically successful comic. And I thought, oh, wait, he - when is that going to happen to me, you know, because - and I do wonder - if I go back on stage again, I would want to try to have some second phase like that. But that was the most interesting compliment because I knew who he was. He wasn't yet that big a name, but he was very respected among comics. And he praised me for everything he then said he thought was trivial, you know? That was a fascinating sort of head-spinning thing.
GROSS: So early in your career, you were on the MTV series "Punk'd," which I've never seen, but I've read that it was about pranking celebrities. What was your role on the show, and what were the pranks like 'cause, like I said, I've never seen it?
NOVAK: It was the most fun I've ever had in my life. My mom couldn't watch. I think it didn't even occur to me that pranks make other people uncomfortable. They're so exciting to me. So, oh, what did I do? Hilary Duff was this - you know, at the time, a 16-year-old TV star, and we pretended that I was her driving instructor. And so she went to get her - what she thought was her license test. And I was an instructor who drove - had her drive through - just really break all the rules and eventually got in a fight with another driver. It was just, you know, the worst possible mishap of a driving lesson. So it that sort of thing.
You know, there was always an accomplice that helped Bow Wow or Missy Elliott, you know, get them into these situations. And I just had to sort of be convincing, while also coming up with what would further the scene along. So it was this incredible, you know, high wire improv because you're making it up on the spot and your scene partner doesn't know that it's fake. And so if they ever realize it is, you blew the whole day. So it was incredible improv training in that sense. It was so high stress but so much fun.
GROSS: Did you ever feel guilty about misleading the celebrities who you were pranking?
NOVAK: No. I don't know what's wrong with me. I thought it had a context, you know? I was like, oh, they're going to love this. Ashton Kutcher is going to jump out and give them a hug. I also - I love bad dreams. I love waking up from a bad dream. You know, it's like, you think you're in this terrible corner. How am I ever going to get out of this? And then you wake up, and you're like, brilliant, brilliant - a dream. I never remember dreams. So I don't know - to me, coming out of a prank is like coming out of a dream. But I'm - you know, I'm me. Not everyone probably gets that.
GROSS: For me, the good thing about a bad dream is that life seems better than the bad dreams. I feel like, well, I might have been kind of down before, but like, hey, compared to that dream, like, life's great.
NOVAK: Yeah, absolutely. I hate good dreams. I hate waking up and realizing it was all a dream. That, to me, is so sad. But waking up - you're like Houdini when you wake up out of a bad dream. You're like, oh, they never expected that, did they?
GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is B.J. Novak. His new series, "The Premise," is on FX on Hulu. He co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan and was also a writer, director and executive producer on the show. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with B.J. Novak. He created the new anthology series "The Premise," which is on FX on Hulu. He also wrote and directed most of the episodes. Novak also co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan and was a writer, director and executive producer of the series.
Let's talk about "The Office," which is - is it crazy to you how popular it is now, and how it's kind of streaming all over and syndicated in various places? I mean, even if you didn't want to watch it, you'd probably end up seeing it. It's, like, all over.
NOVAK: It's - yeah. It's so much bigger than it was at the time. And, you know, it was popular. But it's a phenomenon now.
GROSS: As it should be. It's such - it's really just such a great show. How did you get the part as Ryan on "The Office"?
NOVAK: I was doing standup at the Hollywood Improv. And Greg Daniels, who created the show, saw me perform. And I was doing one-liners, essentially, and pausing between the jokes. He told me afterwards that it was my first joke that got him, which was, I learned nothing in college. It was really kind of my own fault. I had a double major, psychology and reverse psychology. And...
NOVAK: And he said it was that joke. But then when he met me, he said, you know, it was really the pauses between your jokes, because I have this idea for this temp character who kind of thinks he's better than everyone. And in those pauses, you had a little arrogance that I thought was very funny. So that's actually what got me the part. And then he had heard that I very much wanted to be a writer. So he offered to read my script as well, my spec script, which all writers carried around then. And I got hired for both jobs at the same time. And then Mindy Kaling was hired for both as well, too.
GROSS: What was your reaction when he told you he heard arrogance in the pauses?
NOVAK: I thought it was good-natured. I mean, yes (laughter), you know, any - as we were saying before, any criticism, your mind sort of latches onto. But, you know, he was giving me compliments and offering me a job. So you know, it's funny how much people become actors, I found, because they have some need for validation. And then when you search for roles as an actor, you'll throw all of your validation out the window. You hear there's an audition for an arrogant loser. And you're like, I'm an arrogant loser. I'm born to be an arrogant loser...
NOVAK: ...Because it's just this weird cycle or something - or circular logic. So yeah, at the time I was like, yeah, yeah. Great. Great. Arrogant. Sure. That's me. I got it.
GROSS: So you were not only playing Ryan, you were writing some of the episodes that he's in. So how did you shape the character in your role as a writer?
NOVAK: Well, it was - you know, it was a little complex because sort of the writers' room etiquette was I didn't want to pitch for myself, exactly. So it was really more when someone else had an idea for Ryan at the center of an episode, like in the episode "The Fire" or "Initiation" or "WUPHF" - actually, I didn't write "WUPHF." But the first two, "The Fire" or "Initiation," they would just assign that script to me to write so I could sort of, you know, like, take it away (laughter). But I think, you know, it was really a couple of the younger writers - Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky and Mindy - who really were excited to, you know, satirize the sort of swaggering young guy they knew, not just in me, but, like, you know, that we all knew at that time. So they really wrote the more wicked aspects of Ryan.
GROSS: Why don't we play a clip with the more wicked aspects of Ryan? (Laughter) This is - your character, Ryan, and Mindy Kaling's character, Kelly Kapoor, have this on-again, off-again relationship. And she always wants to kind of get married and have children. And he's like, no, no. So this is an episode where - this is from Season 5. And she's just broken up with her boyfriend and wants to be with you again. You've both just kissed. And then you say...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
NOVAK: (As Ryan) I can't do this.
MINDY KALING: (As Kelly) Can't do what?
NOVAK: (As Ryan) It's not fair to you. And it's really not fair to me.
KALING: (As Kelly) Wait. What are you saying? I broke up with Darryl so I could be with you.
NOVAK: (As Ryan) That was your choice. Don't put that on me. I'm just going on a little trip.
KALING: (As Kelly) Oh. Can I come?
NOVAK: (As Ryan) It's not that kind of trip. I'm going to Thailand with some friends from high school - well, a high school. And if I don't do it now, I'll never get to go. And I'll always resent you for it. You don't want me to resent you, do you?
KALING: (As Kelly) So you're dumping me?
NOVAK: (As Ryan) Let's be adults about this. Let's have sex one more time. And if you have any extra cash, that would be amazing.
KALING: (As Kelly) OK.
GROSS: What a creep you are (laughter).
NOVAK: Oh, that's brutal. Oh, my God. I haven't heard that in all these years. That is brutal. You know, how did I ever get deep in that...
GROSS: It's really, really funny.
NOVAK: ...In that character? I know. I know. But I remember he also - and I did write this line, that Ryan excused his own behavior to Kelly by saying, I think I never really processed 9/11. So yeah, there is a 9/11 joke that made its way in.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
NOVAK: And I also had in "The Fire" episode - I had Steve Carell say 9/11 to the firefighters to try to get their - to win them over. And I don't think it felt right. But it was Steve Carell who said, you know, I think if you'd been in New York that day - he said, it's very funny. But if you'd been in New York that day, it wouldn't feel the same to you. And I understood that.
NOVAK: Steve - you know, Steve knocked down a lot of jokes in the best way. Steve, I'll always remember, I brought down - you know, like a real eager, 25-year-old comedy writer, I brought down a bunch of jokes to set when a scene wasn't working. That was often the young writer's job, you know? Go write alts, you run them down to sets. So I ran a bunch down to set. I was really proud of them. And he said, I don't know, these all seem like jokes. And I thought, well, yeah. That's my job. These are jokes, you know? And he meant that it all had to come from character and truth and feeling. That was really his school of comedy, this - I think Del Close was his mentor in Chicago, who wrote a book, I think, called "Truth In Comedy." So yeah, I learned a lot about emotion and truth leading the desire - being more important than the desire to prove how clever you were. And that was - you know, I think it's why my early standup, you know, at that youth hustle didn't work, and the lesson I've, really, slowly learned over time.
GROSS: Well, it's time for another break, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is B.J. Novak. And he played Ryan on "The Office" and was also a writer, director and executive producer of the series. And now he has a new series he created on FX on Hulu called "The Premise." It's an anthology series. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON QUARTET'S "HUG")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with B.J. Novak. He created the new anthology series "The Premise," which is on FX on Hulu. He also wrote and directed most of the episodes. And he co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan, and he was a writer, director and executive producer of the series. And of course, as you probably know, there are so many ways of watching (laughter) - of watching "The Office" now. It's incredibly popular right now, even though the series started in - was it 2005? - and lasted for nine years.
One of the most famous episodes, perhaps the most famous episode that you wrote was the second episode of the first season called "Diversity Day." And the premise is that Michael, who is white, had done a Chris Rock routine. And to hear a white person do Chris Rock's routine was just really appalling. So there were complaints to the HR office. And consequently, Larry Wilmore's character comes in to do a diversity sensitivity training session. So this is a scene from Larry Wilmore conducting the diversity sensitivity training with Michael, who is always clueless, standing by his side. Larry Wilmore speaks first. But as you'll hear Michael thinks, like, he really knows - that Michael himself really knows how to run a session like this
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")
LARRY WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) At Diversity Today, our philosophy is about honesty and positive expectations. We believe that 99% of the problems in the workplace arise simply out of ignorance.
STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) You know what? This is a color-free zone here. Stanley, I don't look at you as another race.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) See, this is what I'm talking about. We don't have to pretend that we're color blind.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Exactly. We're not color blind.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) That's fighting ignorance with more ignorance.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Tolerant...
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) No, with more ignorance.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Ignorance.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Right, exactly. Instead, we need to celebrate our diversity.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Let's celebrate.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Right. OK.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Celebrate good times. Come on. Let's celebrate diversity, right?
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Yes, exactly. Now, here's what we're going to do. I've noticed that...
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) You know what? Here's what we're going to do. Why don't we go around and everybody, everybody say a race that you are attracted to sexually? I will go last. Go.
RAINN WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) I have two - white and Indian.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Actually, I'd prefer not to start that way. Michael, I would love to have your permission to run this session. Can I have your permission?
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Yes.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Thank you very much. And it would also help me if you were seated.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) OK.
WILMORE: (As Mr. Brown) Thank you. OK. So looking through the cards, I've noticed that many of you wrote down the same incident, which is ironic because it's the exact incident I was brought in here to respond to. Now how many of you are familiar with the Chris Rock routine? Very good. OK.
CARELL: (As Michael Scott) How come Chris Rock can do a routine and everybody finds it hilarious and groundbreaking? And then I go and do the exact same routine - same comedic timing - and people file a complaint to corporate? Is it because I'm white, and Chris is Black?
GROSS: That is just so funny (laughter). So it was the second episode of the series, and apparently it had half the viewers that the first episode did (laughter).
NOVAK: Oh, God.
GROSS: So was that a mark against you? Did the network criticize you for that?
NOVAK: No, they stood by us. I think some places didn't air it. But no, I think they liked it. They were - Kevin Reilly was the president of the network at the time, and he really believed in exactly that. I think he wondered if it should air even earlier because, I think, you know, it did take a bold, you know, a bold swing, which, you know, I always felt that the bigger swing you take, the better it has to be in terms of comedy, in terms of risk. So, you know, there was really no margin for error there. And you know, that cast - I mean, just hearing that clip again is just - so much of the things Steve says are, you know, improvised, even if they're just, you know, attempts at interruption.
GROSS: So as it turns out, Comedy Central deleted this episode from its recent Sunday marathon. Did they tell you why?
NOVAK: I heard that they did that. I don't think they told anyone why. I could guess. I could guess that it's - they felt shaky on it in today's times.
GROSS: What do you think about that?
NOVAK: Sure. I mean, you know, my position on it in that the premier of "The Premise" is called "Social Justice Sex Tape." So - and I did write "Diversity Day," and I do think it's a wonderful episode. But you need to do these things at the highest level. I mean, it's a risk. You know, if you fail with something like that, it's bad. But I think that, you know, we should all be going for that. And in my opinion, audiences are not afraid of this kind of thing. They like if someone takes a risk in comedy. They understand it. They get it. An episode like "Diversity Day" or these episodes are fine with people.
It is the gatekeepers that are often very nervous on behalf of an audience. And that, I think, is the disconnect, and you see it in stand-up a lot. The most popular stand-ups are the ones that are talking directly to people. They have no one censoring them, and their audiences get it. And their audiences love it and hunger for it. I'm sure there are some people offended by things, and you know what I was saying about criticism. I'd be hurt and worried if the things I was doing were offending people. I really would. And I do feel bad if and when that does happen. But I think that people like that kind of thing, and it is the gatekeepers that are very nervous.
GROSS: So in the series, you had an on-again, off-again relationship with Mindy Kaling's character. And of course, in life - and I know you've been asked about this a lot, so forgive me for asking again. In life, you had an on-again, off-again relationship, too. And you're still very close. You're the godfather to one of her children.
NOVAK: To both.
GROSS: To both children - great. Did having that kind of on-again, off-again romantic relationship ever get in the way of the show?
NOVAK: No. I mean, I think it fueled the show in the sense that all of us were putting everything we had into the show every day. So if Mindy and I had a fight or an argument, other writers were taking notes, you know...
NOVAK: ...Or we would just improvise it on set. So, you know, none of us had lives. And I think that's why so many of us, including me and Mindy, became so close. You know, you go home at 2 a.m., or suddenly it's the weekend. And you don't know anybody else, so you just keep hanging out with everybody. So, you know - but, yeah, she's one of the closest - or the closest person in my life to this day.
GROSS: So you'd have a fight, and then - would that turn into the funny version of the fight on the show?
NOVAK: Yeah. I mean, the whole reason our characters started dating on the show is because people - they couldn't get over this dynamic we had in the writers room that I didn't even - neither of us realized was funny at all. And other people would laugh and shake their heads. And we'd say, what? And they'd say, you two, you two. And then before we knew it, you know, they had written us in as, you know, this horrible partnership.
GROSS: So were you dating at the time?
NOVAK: You know, I think, like Ryan and Kelly, and like many people in their 20s, it depends who you ask and what hour you ask it at.
GROSS: Right, right. What was it like when you shot the final episode of "The Office"? Were you glad it was ending? Was it really sad for you?
NOVAK: I cried. I cried.
GROSS: You cried? Yeah.
NOVAK: Yeah, it was hard. I mean, I think we were all so ready to be done with it, but - because it had been so grueling for so long. But to actually - I'm getting choked up now. To actually - like, the last shot of - that I filmed was literally - this would be a better moment on television, Terry.
NOVAK: Like, on the radio it - you don't get the same impact.
GROSS: We could see your eyes tearing up, yeah.
NOVAK: Yeah. I wish this were Barbara Walters and this were, like, a famous moment. But, you know, it was Mindy and I running off into the sunset together. Now, it was a horribly - it had a horribly dark undercurrent, which was that I was abandoning my baby that I had left at the wedding to run off with her. But, you know, I remember it was a sunset. It was Mindy. And, yeah, you know, it was the end.
You know, it sort of like - you know, it really blended the reality and the workplace, that Dunder Mifflin was where I worked for nine years. And I had a lot of complaints about it and a lot of frustrations and a lot of, you know, disappointments and - along with all of the, you know, ecstatic moments. But, you know, when it finally was over, it was sad. Yeah, it was really sad.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is B.J. Novak. His new series, "The Premise," is on FX on Hulu, and he co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan - was also a writer, director and executive producer on the show. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOUTHERN CREEK PLAYERS' "'THE OFFICE' THEME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with B.J. Novak. He created the new anthology series "The Premise," which is on FX on Hulu. He also wrote and directed most of the episodes. And he co-starred in "The Office" as Ryan and was a writer, director and executive producer of the series.
So you probably know this, but I kind of discovered last night when I was reading about you - 'cause I didn't know that much about, like, your life - I know your father. He's been on our show, I think twice. I think once in - around 1981 for his book "The Big Book Of Jewish Humor"...
NOVAK: Yeah, "Of Jewish Humor."
GROSS: ...Which was a kind of a compilation of humorous bits from people ranging from the Marx Brothers to Philip Roth. And then - and I'm not sure what the occasion was for this, but we talked about ghostwriting. And it was right before - I think he had just agreed to write Nancy Reagan's memoir. And he had a lot of interesting things to say about ghostwriting, including that maybe he - for his first ghostwritten book, he wanted more money, which the publisher wasn't going to give him. So he said, well, instead of that, put my name on the cover, and so they did. And that basically started a trend that ghostwriters can get their name acknowledged, as opposed to secretly writing the famous person's memoir. And, you know, memoirs he wrote include Magic Johnson, Lee Iacocca, The Mayflower Madam, Oliver North, Tip O'Neill, Natan Sharansky.
Anyways, I wanted to tell you that. But since your father, like, edited "The Big Book Of Jewish Humor," did you grow up with a lot of - and he wrote - he edited two subsequent comedy collections. Did you grow up with a lot of comedy in the house? And I don't mean people being funny. I mean, you know, like, books and movies, TV?
NOVAK: Yes. Well, people were funny, too. But even more so, the house was just stuffed with comedy books and cartoon books. And not only did my father love comedy, but he had, you know, this sort of academic interest in it, too, as a - as an editor of comedy. So - and it was just so joyous as a kid to have a house that was stuffed full of Matt Groening cartoons and old joke books and - what - nothing would make my father happier than quoting a joke or a punchline at the dinner table, which really became shorthand in my family. So, you know, everyone in my family is, I think, very funny. And we certainly grew up - comedy was sort of our language.
GROSS: A lot of people, when they want to go into any aspect of show business or writing, their parents are upset because it's such an iffy, uncertain profession. But when you wanted to go into comedy and writing comedy, what did your parents think?
NOVAK: That was the biggest gift to me and the biggest advantage I had. And when people ask, did your father help you get started as a writer? He didn't in any way of, you know, making a phone call or pulling any strings or anything. But it was something way more fortunate, which is that it never felt weird to want to be a writer. It was a normal thing to do. My father went upstairs every day to the third-floor office, and he wrote. And then he was done. And we had food on the table, and he, you know, had a very normal, suburban life as a writer. So when I wanted to become a writer, it did not feel any different from wanting to be a dentist or a contractor or anything in my family. And I was so, so lucky that I never got any discouragement. My parents were really happy.
GROSS: Were there famous people in the house when you were growing up because your father was writing memoirs for famous people?
NOVAK: A little bit, a little bit. You know, Magic Johnson was - you know, I wasn't that excited about Oliver North as a 7-year-old.
NOVAK: But Magic Johnson was unbelievable. You know, I got to come out with my dad. He invited me to Los Angeles and sat in Magic Johnson's house. And that was an unbelievable experience. And one time when I was, you know, I think, 11 or 12 years old, he told me, all right, he was working at the time with this financier Michael Milken, a very controversial figure. And he had told my dad, I'm having dinner with a group of people, including Michael Jackson. You should bring your family.
And now, this is before there were any rumors or accusations about Michael Jackson, which I guess changes the nature of that invitation. But he was a superstar. I mean, I don't need to remind anyone how stratospheric Michael Jackson - there's no one like that and especially in the suburbs of Boston in 1991. And we go out there, and my dad is sophisticated enough to say, they promise me Michael Jackson will be there. I can't promise you he will be there. He knew promises fall through.
But we show up, and sure enough, this figure swoops into the room in a black hat and aviator sunglasses and a red military uniform. And I thought, OK, this is a Michael Jackson impersonator. This is a joke. There's no way this is what Michael Jackson wears on his day off. Like, he'd just be in, you know, khakis and a shirt like a, you know, like a normal grown-up.
But it was Michael Jackson, and I sat next to him at the table, and we played Scattergories afterwards. And you know - and there were no pictures of this. You know, this was not - he didn't bring a camera around, which I'm so glad because I get to tell this story. And Michael Jackson won the Scattergories game, and he's sang "We Are The Champions," an a cappella...
GROSS: Oh, gee (laughter).
NOVAK: ...You know, beautiful rendition. The whole thing was the most surreal night of my life to say the least. And then the next day, you know, I was at school. And so I think that I did grow up with a sense that there was this other world that you could cross into, that it wasn't insane to think that you could cross into this other world because my father was this very interesting, fascinating portal from this suburban Boston, you know, family life into, you know, Michael Jackson giggling over, you know, a plate of food at Deepak Chopra's house, by the way (laughter) - so many elements to this.
GROSS: That is really just such a great story. So it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. I want to thank you so much for coming on our show.
NOVAK: You know, Mindy and I were talking a while ago, and she said, do people know when they go on Terry Gross' show that that's the interview that will be played when they die (laughter)? So I don't mean to get morbid, but that's been in the back of my head. So I hope that I said some worthy things. Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: B.J. Novak created the new series "The Premise," which is streaming on FX on Hulu. He also played Ryan on "The Office" and was a writer and an executive producer of the series.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about documents leaked to The Wall Street Journal that reveal Facebook executives knew the platform was spreading misinformation, but some high-profile users were exempt from Facebook rules and sanctions and that in some developing countries, Facebook was being used by human traffickers and by armed groups inciting violence against ethnic minorities. Documents also reveal that executives knew that Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, was toxic for many teenage girls. We'll talk with one of the reporters who broke the story, Jeff Horwitz. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.