UF students watched a familiar face from “The Office” on Zoom Thursday night. Instead of sporting a cringy goatee or pushing his latest get-rich-quick scheme as Ryan Howard, B.J. Novak told stories about writing for the show and advised students to take criticism.
UF’s Reitz Programming Board, a student-run event hosting organization, and Student Government Productions hosted 41-year-old Novak during his moderated conversation on Zoom for an hour Thursday evening. It is unclear how much Novak was paid for the event.
UF journalism chair Ted Spiker moderated the 45-minute conversation about Novak’s favorite lines from the comedy show and his upcoming projects. The event ended with 15-minutes of rapid fire questions from Reitz Programming Board’s talent director Christopher Cann.
Novak traded a suit for a long-sleeve T-shirt and a fluorescent-lit office building for a chic Los Angeles apartment filled with books. He also dropped his Ryan Howard character’s pretentious attitude to talk about the benefits of taking feedback and writing for a wide audience.
"Those are just books I accumulate and move around to look smart," Novak said.
Spiker asked about aspects of the actor’s career, beginning with “The Office” and ending with his upcoming thriller “Vengeance,” where he directs and stars as a podcaster reporting on a missing girl. Novak is also writing an unnamed FX TV show. He admires the network’s other TV shows for their innovative comedy.
Novak gained acclaim executive producing and writing for the comedy TV show “The Office”. The actor is also a Harvard University graduate and drama actor in movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”
Novak was a little surprised “The Office” found such massive success. He and the other writers tried to balance the show between innovative and popular humor.
“We're really lucky we hit the spot about being so good and so popular," he said.
Novak’s favorite line from the show was a Micheal Scott one-liner: "I'm not superstitious, but I'm a little ‘stitious.’"
“The Office” writers’ room was always filled with brainstorming to come up with lines like that which hit wide audiences. After nine seasons and eight years, Novak said it got a little harder to see things differently.
"By the end of the show, our showrunner was writing ideas down on paper cups and putting down on the table, just to jar your mind into seeing them differently," he said.
Novak always tried to keep the comedy of “The Office,” and any of his other works, for a wide audience. If a joke didn’t get a laugh, he would scrap it.
"Anyone who's done standup knows: feedback, feedback, feedback," he said. "If you get a laugh from the accountant in the production office, then your best friend will probably love it."
Novak was glad to leave “The Office” and move onto other projects, but he carried his love for audience feedback with him.
"Any time you get criticism you go through a three step process: 'F--- you.' 'I suck.' 'Now what?'” he said. “The sooner you get to 'Now what?' the better you're going to be.”
Novak made room for criticism throughout his career in comedy writing and stand up
He’s had many misses, like a routine he did for a corporate convention. He started off light with the crowd, commenting on the long convention and tired room.
“Everything I approach in life is with the initial thought, is this crazy or is this good? And sometimes it's crazy," he said. "I don't gamble, but that's the closest I get to gambling."
In the rapid fire segment, Novak was asked to label things overrated or underrated. Despite graduating Harvard University as an English major, Novak thinks college can be overrated.
He said people can come out of college pretentious. Those who skipped higher education can contribute the most to a writers’ room in his experience.
“There are good things that can come out of it," he said. "There's an assumption it's the path, the binary dividing line between a successful life and one that isn't and it's nothing like that."
Lianna Hubbard is a reporter for The Alligator’s Investigative Team. The UF women’s study major began as a freelance reporter three years ago. She founded her community college’s award-winning newspaper before beginning at The Independent Florida Alligator. See an issue in your community or a story at UF? Send tips to her Twitter.