BJ Novak, cast member and co-writer of the hit NBC television series “The Office,” revealed what he believed to be the cornerstones of success in the entertainment industry: Index cards.
“Index cards are the keys to television and movies,” Novak said in an in-person interview with The Hatchet. It was a seemingly simple answer for a guy who has experienced a remarkably rapid ascent in the world of television in recent years. But when you look at Novak’s approach to comedy and to his work in television, his easy response makes a lot of sense. Armed with a wide array of jokes (written on index cards, of course) Novak is set to take the stage at Lisner Auditorium this weekend as part of Program Board’s “Winter Hoopla” Series.
While most people recognize Novak as Ryan Howard from “The Office,” his story in Hollywood begins long before “The Temp” ever debuted on TV. After graduating from Harvard University, Novak followed in the footsteps of many writers before him, leaving his home in Boston and heading to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter. His first job was writing for “Raising Dad,” a sitcom on The WB. Landing the job was a big success for Novak, but the business quickly brought him to a realization that would shape his future as a stand-up comic.
“I was really frustrated because I couldn’t get the jokes I was most excited about on the air,” he said. The more he wrote, the more he began to realize that the material that was left out was really the stuff that he wanted to put in. “I started doing stand-up as a way to do the jokes I really wanted to do.”
With the slightest satisfaction, Novak recalled how his show was quickly canceled – but in the end, that turned out not to be such a bad thing. “I was 24 and all I really had to do was to perform every night,” he said. Not having a show meant more time to work on his stand-up act and refine his technique. Luckily for Novak, “At a certain point it just clicked.”
In an industry with a lot of competition, it took a long time for Novak to develop his own style and figure out what worked. “I started with ‘what’s a funny one-liner?’, ‘what’s a pun that will make people gag?’, ‘what’s a funny observation that I’ve had?'”
Using those strategies to fill an hour with jokes seems impossible for most people, but according to Novak, stand-up is all about trial and error. “Years of open mics at bars and clubs, talking with your friends – these things teach you what’s lame about your own act,” he added.
Figuring out what jokes are lame can be a painful process. While Novak is grateful that he has not bombed very much, he admits that a few times he went down hard.
“One time, I opened for this punk-rock band and the crowd was all there to see them. They didn’t know who I was. I had made the mistake of signing up to host the whole night of music so not only did I go out and bomb for 20 minutes and almost get booed off the stage, but to their great surprise, I came back to do another 20 minutes after that.”
Six years later, his early bombs seem only to have made his act that much stronger. “I learned what my personality was more than I chose what my personality was. I learned from what actually held the crowd’s attention and what seemed to resonate with them. I tried the stuff I thought of late at night with my friends at a bar that seemed too goofy for anyone to ever get and, in fact, people laughed.”
Trial and error have paid off for Novak. They have taught the comic how to connect with an audience and, although he admits his act never stops evolving, the material he finds in everyday life is simple and clever. If his work on “The Office” is any indication, Novak’s calm and confident approach to giving the crowd, as he put it, “only what I truly think is funny,” is sure to make for some good stand-up at GW.
BJ Novak is performing at Lisner Auditorium on Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets are now sold-out.