Talking With 'Office' Star B.J. Novak NBC's announcement that it would create an American version of the hit British TV show sounded like a desperate move. But today, the program shines, partly because of actor B.J. Novak, who plays the character Ryan Howard.
NPR logo

Talking With 'Office' Star B.J. Novak

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Talking With 'Office' Star B.J. Novak

Talking With 'Office' Star B.J. Novak

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of "The Office" theme song)


When NBC announced a few years ago that it would create an American version of the hit British TV show "The Office," well, that sounded like the typically desperate move of a studio exec out of ideas. But fast forward to today, and "The Office" is one of the best and most popular shows on TV, with no sign of slowing down. B. J. Novak plays Ryan Howard, the intern-turned-executive who is trying to drag the Dunder Mifflin paper company into the new millennium with the launch of a new website, Dunder Mifflin Infinity. Here he is explaining to the staff of the Scranton branch why they had to come in on a Saturday.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. B. J. NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) I'm here today to do some creative problem solving about Dunder Mifflin Infinity, and field your questions.

Mr. RAINN WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Question.

Mr. NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) Dwight.

Mr. WILSON: (As Dwight ) Why am I being forced to come in tomorrow and pretend that a website made sales that I made?

Mr. NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) This is a temporary measure to increase the legitimacy of the site.

Mr. LESLIE DAVID BAKER: (As Stanley Hudson) I don't like when my clients call me to help them use the website. I'm not seeing commissions on that.

Mr. NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) I hear you, Stanley. That is a great observation. Problems like that will not happen when we launch Dunder Mifflin Infinity 2.0.

Mr. BAKER: (As Stanley Hudson) When will that be?

Mr. NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) TBD. Phyllis.

Ms. PHYLLIS SMITH: (As Phyllis Lapin) Did the police solve the problem with the...

Mr. NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) Yes, yes they did. Yes, they did. Yes. The social networking feature of the Dunder Mifflin Infinity website was infiltrated by sexual predators.

PESCA: Novak is also a writer and producer on "The Office," which airs its season finale this Thursday on NBC. He joins us now. Thanks for coming in, B. J.

Mr. B. J. NOVAK (Actor, Writer, Producer, "The Office"): Thank you for having me.

PESCA: So, you know, in that intro, I referred or alluded to the fact that maybe someone could say, oh, my God, they're taking another British sitcom and trying to Americanize it. But did you have any thoughts about that, or any trepidation when you heard that they were going to try to Americanize "The Office"?

Mr. NOVAK: Sure. When it started, there was a lot of skepticism. I - including for me. I felt that all things being equal, there was a bigger risk in not even aspiring to do something great. The great thing about the fact of trying to remake "The Office," at least you knew what you were aiming for.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. NOVAK: And a lot of shows on the air were just bad, and they were imitating other shows that were bad, and imitating other shows that were bad, et cetera. At least we were imitating something that was, or trying to live up to something that was fresh, and that we actually admired, as opposed to that we just thought would work on the air.

PESCA: When - early on, and you were involved in it from the get go, right?

Mr. NOVAK: Right. I mean, I didn't create it or adapt it. That's Greg Daniels, who's the executive producer and show runner who developed it. But I was one of his staff from the beginning, so I did see the whole process.

PESCA: Did they hire you as a writer, and then they said let's put him on TV?

Mr. NOVAK: Greg had always envisioned having writer-actors. He came from "Saturday Night Live." The British show, too, I mean, Ricky Gervais, was a, you know, writer-actor. So, I think he thought that there was something organic and fun, and sort of like a playful rebellious spirit in just doing it yourselves like "Monty Python" or something.

PESCA: The first few episodes of the American "Office," was it just that I was comparing it to the other one? Or do you think that the show has actually gotten a lot funnier? And one of the things I want to point to is I think in the first few episodes, the fact that it was done in the mockumentary style, like that itself was the joke. You weren't really making jokes or, you know, terrific zingers when they would cut to you guys for the closeups. Were you trying to bring the audience along? Am I just wrong? Was I comparing it to the British "Office"?

Mr. NOVAK: You're a little wrong, in my opinion, in that...


Mr. NOVAK: We worked very hard on our jokes. I think we had a lot of good jokes in the first season, but you are definitely right in that we also thought, at that point, that we could live and breathe as a show partly by simply showing without commenting on what it's like to work in an office.

PESCA: That's what I meant to say.

Mr. NOVAK: Yes, and I think in the second season it was faster-paced, it was more of an emphasis on, OK, we get it, we know what it's like to work in an office, we agree with you, we have it down, what are these characters doing and saying that is specific, and interesting, and unique, and all that? And it's great that we can have a show - I think our show wouldn't work as a multi-camera show for a number of reasons, but one of which is that we don't want to force the pace, and we're really trying to make it feel real and transport people to experiences they've actually had, and sometimes you'll laugh five times in 10 seconds, and then you'll just watch a scene unfold for a minute.

PESCA: So, to speak specifically, a recent episode that you wrote that recently aired was "Office: The Chair Model"? Is that the name of the "Chair Model"?

Mr. NOVAK: Yeah.

PESCA: He - Michael falls in love, or at least he's inspired by the beauty of this woman sitting in an office chair in a catalogue, and he wants to start dating again.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott): Ladies and gentlemen, would you please open your supply catalogues and kindly turn to page 85? Getting back on the market. So, FYI, for those of you who are thinking about fixing me up, use the woman on page 85 as a template! That will be all.

Mr. NOVAK: The date scene, I remember, came out a lot like I had envisioned it with the date with the landlady, but, you know, a lot of that was casting, too. So, it is very collaborative.

PESCA: Did you write that gag where he's in the equivalent of Starbucks and says, no, no, I'm not Michael, and then the guy calls out his coffee name - Michael! Michael! He's the only one there.

Mr. NOVAK: Yes. Yes. And again, that was a very group-written episode, but I did happen to write that.

PESCA: Good stuff.

Mr. NOVAK: And I liked is "who, Michael, what?" as the line in response to, are you Michael Scott?

PESCA: Is who Michael what?

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Our suspect has straight brown hair. She is wearing blue jeans and a black top.

Ms. BROOKE DILLMAN: (As Margaret) Michael?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott): Oh.

Ms. DILLMAN: (As Margaret) Are you Michael Scott?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott): Is who Michael what?

Ms. DILLMAN: (As Margaret) Oh. I'm sorry, I'm supposed to be meeting someone named Michael.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Oh. It's not. Yeah, I'm not.

Mr. SEAN BURY: (As Coffee Shop Employee) Michael? Michael?

Mr. NOVAK: And again, a lot of times, you know, there's such a writer impulse to sort of cringe and brace yourself, when you hand your script off to be filmed and produced, and this is one of the only experiences I've ever been exposed to where the writers can't wait for it to get in the hands of the actors.

Like a line like that, Steve Carell is going to make it more brilliant than you ever thought, and that's so rare because writers are so egotistical about what they have written, and to actually honestly expect in your heart of hearts that they're going to make it better than you imagined, like there is very few places where that will happen.

PESCA: But this is a scripted show. This is not "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

Mr. NOVAK: Correct. It's scripted.

PESCA: Really everything is scripted, and you allow for some maybe bits of actorial improv.

Mr. NOVAK: Absolutely. There's some improvisation - especially Steve leads the way, Rainn, and everyone does to some extent.

PESCA: Back to the - one question about "Chair Model." That last scene where they were singing "American Pie," and kind of not getting the words...

Mr. NOVAK: Yes!

PESCA: Did you write that?

Mr. NOVAK: I'll tell you the whole process of that. The answer is no, but I contributed.


Mr. NOVAK: And that particular example, just to show you how complicated the process is, I had a very minimal story about the chair model herself, and they kind of pushed the story, restructuring, focusing on the chair model as this interesting dark thread throughout, and it was their idea to lead it up to the graveyard.

PESCA: Because we should say that he finds out that the chair model has passed away.

Mr. NOVAK: Yes. Dwight finds out.

PESCA: Yes. He sleuths it.

Mr. NOVAK: Yes. And so the staff then wrote a parody song of "Candle in the Wind." Elton John would not give us permission for that song. Apparently, we had heard "30 Rock," they're throwing up their arms in the studio here, "30 Rock" apparently had requested permission for a song parody of "Candle in the Wind" that offended Elton John deeply. I can only imagine what they came up with.

PESCA: Because we know of Elton John and his strict standards of taste.

Mr. NOVAK: Well, I'm telling you. I mean, obviously this is...

PESCA: I mean, this is a man who will dress like Donald Duck, but not Daffy.

Mr. NOVAK: But there is an integrity to him, and I can only imagine what the dark, wonderful writers at "30 Rock" had come up with to parody this. He wouldn't even consider licensing the song to us. He didn't even want to know what our concept was, apparently he was so offended. So, we wrote other parodies. We wrote "She's Got Legs," we wrote "Good-bye Ruby Tuesday," to "Good-bye Debra Shlaflashky (ph)." And eventually "American Pie" cleared. We had heard it never clears, but it cleared.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) (Singing) Bye-bye Miss Chair Model Lady. I dreamt that we were married and you treated me nice. We had lots of kids, drinking whiskey and rye. But why'd you have to go off and die?

Mr. NOVAK: The last take we were going to have them sing "she's got legs, she knew how to use them," which we had cleared, and then it was my idea on the set. I was like, so this is the one place I contributed the whole process of this song. I said how about when you cut back to them at night they're still singing "American Pie," they forgot all about the chair model aspect, they're singing their hearts out. It's just Michael and Dwight in a graveyard singing "American Pie" at the top of their lungs, dancing around. They forgot all about the death and the darkness.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. CARELL and Mr. WILSON: (As Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute) (Singing together) And you believe in rock and roll. Can music save your mortal soul and - then you have to dance real slow.

PESCA: And they don't really get the words.

Mr. NOVAK: They did one take.

PESCA: They jump around. Some lyrics.

Mr. NOVAK: They had the words as much as you and I would if we had one take to get the words. They kind of sort of got the words, and it was so wonderful, and once we saw that once take, Jeff Blitz, the director and I, were like, there's no other way to end the show if you have that on tape. It was wonderful.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. CARELL and Mr. WILSON: (As Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute) (Singing) I know that you're in love with him because I saw you dancing in the gym. They turned off her shoes - no more rhythm and blues - return! Rhythm and blues. This'll be the day that I die.

PESCA: I didn't ask you about the character you play, Ryan Howard. In the original British "Office," this guy, he almost didn't have a line. He was just the guy who was showed the office, and they never went to him again. So, they introduce your character in episode one, but you grow, you stay with the show as a temp, and now you're in management. Are you happy with the turn your character has taken?

Mr. NOVAK: It's very exciting and fun to play something so different from where it started. That's very cool. And I think the fun of the character is that he's in so far over his head, and he wears it so poorly, and I cringe watching a little bit. It's very fun to be in that character, and it's fun to be like, oh no, that guy, you know, because for so long I was watching that guy go off and do his thing. But I think the key for me that made it actually satisfying to play was realizing, OK, when do - when am I the biggest jerk I am? When does my dark side come out, and it's always when I'm not confident at all. You know, I think the first instinct I would have had would be to play that character with so much confidence.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. NOVAK: But deep down whenever I'm confident, I am my warmest, truest self, you know, or best self. Maybe not truest, but my warmest self because I am comfortable with myself. I like you, you're a great radio host, everything's going well, and I'm grateful to be here. When you're not confident, and you're like, oh, he doesn't even want to say hi to me, who am I, you know? Then you walk past people with a scowl, or you, you know, overcompensate.

PESCA: Right. "The Office" is innovative not only in the fact that you have so many actor-writers, and that you say, hey, let's just cast the person who is funny in the writers' room, but also the way that viewers can get it. It's on iTunes, it's on this Hulu site. You seem to have embraced perhaps a lot more than other shows the fact that people aren't just going to watch on Thursday nights, they can watch it wherever. Does that affect your life at all? Either people coming up to you, or in any way how you do the show?

Mr. NOVAK: I think it makes people much more careful viewers. People often know which episodes I have written, and they know, you know, little details that they could only have caught in a second or third viewing, or background information. I was at a dinner last night, this is a crazy anecdote, I was at a dinner last night and John McCain was there, and someone told me John McCain loves "The Office."

I was like, oh, I would love to know what his favorite moments are, like, so I can tell the rest of the staff, because I wanted to know like does he really watch, or did someone tell him to watch? And when I was introduced to him he started giggling, and he said I love in the dinner party episode when they go up to Michael's bedroom and you can see that there's a camera set up there. And that went by so fast, like either McCain has a sharp eye, or he's the kind of guy who's like, wait, wait, go back, go back. And he said he watches on a Comcast DVR.

PESCA: I read on Wikipedia, so it must be true, your dad edited the "Big Anthology of Jewish Humor."

Mr. NOVAK: "The Big Book of Jewish Humor." He's the co-editor of that book, yeah.

PESCA: What's your favorite example from that book, or any kind of Jewish joke?

Mr. NOVAK: My favorite joke, I don't remember if it's from this book. My dad also co-edited the "Big Book of New American Humor," but it's definitely from one of them. A man walks into a cake shop, and he says I'd like you to make me a cake in the shape of a B, the letter B. And he says, OK, great, good, come back tomorrow.

So he comes back tomorrow, he opens the box, looks at the cake and says, I'm so sorry. I should have been more specific. I meant a lowercase B. I will pay for it. I will have you do it again. I'm so sorry. The guy says, no, no, I should have asked. I'll redo it for free. Come back tomorrow. Comes back the next day, guy looks at the cake says, oh, my mistake.

I can't believe I didn't say this. It has to be a lowercase cursive B. Guy at the store says, all right, well I am going to charge you this time, but come back tomorrow. Guy comes back the next day, looks at the cake, it's a lowercase cursive B. The guy says, perfect, oh, perfect, exactly what I wanted. Thank you so much. Here's your money, here's a tip. The guy in the cake store says, oh, I'm so relieved, let me wrap that up for you. And the guy says no, no, that's OK. I'll eat it here.

PESCA: That's awesome.

Mr. NOVAK: I don't know why that was always - that joke blew me away. It's like a joke structure that you should see more often. It's just such a weird surprise to me. Maybe it's not funny. I always liked it.

PESCA: No. That's a great joke. B. J. Novak, costar, writer, and producer of "The Office." The season finale is Thursday. Also upcoming standup comedy performances at the Moore Theatre in Seattle on May 30th, and Caroline's in New York on June 5th through 8th. Thanks a lot, B.J.

Mr. NOVAK: Thank you so much. It was really cool to come in.


Hey, that does it for this hour of the BPP, but we are always online at I'm Rachel Martin.

PESCA: And I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.