B.J. Novak may have become the most famous "temp" on television thanks to his role in the series "The Office." This morning, he's out of the office, and in a Question-And-Answer session with Ben Tracy:
For eight seasons on the hit comedy series "The Office," B.J. Novak played Ryan Howard, the sarcastic and only occasionally ambitious temp.
But Novak was one of the hardest-working people on set: an actor, writer, executive producer and director.
"What are you not good at?" asked Tracy
"Anything besides this!" Novak laughed. "I don't actually feel multi-talented. I just feel that I'm in this business where we give ourselves 100 titles and gold statues. It's like, lawyers aren't like, 'You're incredible! You're a professional arguer in front of the judge! You're great at paperwork!' No, you just get credit for one job."
"You know how to write a brief."
"Yeah, right, 'You're great at briefs.' What can't you do? Anything besides being a lawyer. So I can't do anything besides coming up with funny stuff sometimes."
Actually, he comes up with funny stuff so often that his ideas fill notebooks that fill boxes inside his house in Los Angeles.
"Here's an idea for a book called 'Other People's Problems,' where people send in their problem anonymously, and then it's just collected in a huge coffee-table book that, anytime you're feeling low, you can just flip through this book and be like, 'God, I'm glad I don't have those problems!'"
"So this is what you're doing while other people are watching reruns of 'Law and Order'?"
"No, this is what I'm doing when I'm at dinner with a friend!" Novak laughed. "Like, I'm the most anti-social person. And they always think I'm writing about them. And it's even more insulting when I'm like, 'No, this has nothing to do with you. I'm not even paying attention to you. I'm in this! I'm in my own head.'"
The 36-year-old got to express a lot of the ideas in his head in his 2014 bestselling book of short stories called "One More Thing." It includes everything from an imagined rematch between the Tortoise and the Hare, to a Comedy Central roast of Nelson Mandela.
Tracy asked, "You went to Harvard, you majored in English and Spanish literature. Was any of this a bit about showing your academic cred, that you really were a writer's writer?"
"My father accused me of showing off in the last story," Novak laughed. "So I'm sensitive to that accusation, 'cause it's the opposite of how I approach everything. I think of entertaining people as better than showing off. So for me this was just -- I didn't know how else to say these things."
But just to make sure everyone knows that Novak is aware writing short stories might seem pretentious, he fired the first shot, making a book trailer (in black-and-white, and in French) with his former "Office" co-star and one-time girlfriend Mindy Kaling:
He then wrote another book for a slightly younger audience. "The Book With No Pictures" is one of those ideas he once wrote down in a notebook.
"I believe you are the only person to write a book with no pictures for preschool-age kids," Tracy said.
"I would imagine I am!"
"That's quite a distinction."
"It is! When it hit the number one spot on The New York Times bestseller list of picture books, I had that framed!" Novak laughed. "The mischievous kid in me was very excited to have pulled that off."
Hear an excerpt from "The Book With No Pictures," read by B.J. Novak:
The book is cleverly designed to make adults the butt of the joke. They have to say all sorts of silly things (like "Boo Boo Butt"). Novak agonized over every word of gibberish, and the color and size of every font.
"Oh yeah, I was obsessive," he said. "I drove them crazy. I went through two designers for a book that, like, looks like the plainest thing in the world."
Benjamin Joseph Novak was born in Newton, Massachusetts, and credits his love of writing to his father, one of the most famous authors you've never heard of. William Novak was the ghostwriter behind many bestsellers, including memoirs for Nancy Reagan and Lee Iacocca. And his job provided B.J. with a real life story that sounds like something he might make up: As a child he played Scattergories with Michael Jackson.