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B.J. Novak on entering the twilight zone with ‘The Premise’

‘I always start with an idea that makes me smirk and think, “That’s something I’ve never seen.” '

B.J. Novak of "The Office" fame is back on the small screen with "The Premise," an anthology show he created that covers timely topics with a comedic edge.Amy Sussman

B.J. Novak is keeping himself busy, to say the least.

His anthology series “The Premise” — five vignette-style episodes exploring hot-button topics like performative activism and gun violence — premieres Thursday on FX on Hulu. He also has in the works the film “Vengeance,” a dark comedy thriller, and “Young People,” a half-hour comedy series for HBO Max.

So what attracts the Newton native — best known for writing for and starring in “The Office” — to a project these days?

“Boldness,” Novak, 42, says in a phone interview from New York. “I was so lucky with ‘The Office’ to work on a show that meant so much to so many people, and had such real characters. It raised the bar for me — I don’t want to make forgettable content just to make a living. I really want to try things that are bold and special, even if I fail.”

The Globe caught up with Novak about “The Premise,” his writing lesson from “The Office” co-star Steve Carell, and what he misses most about Boston.


Q. You’ve called “The Premise” your dream show. Why is that?

A. My two dreams when I was growing up were to be a talk show host, like David Letterman — or really like Don Francisco on the show “Sábado Gigante” — or to be a filmmaker, a writer/director. Then, in college, I saw “The Twilight Zone” and thought, “That’s it! I should do that, but for comedy. I can proudly, excitedly, be a host of the things I most want to write.”

I also love short-form, and I think that there’s a whole new desire for a different kind of story. I think we’re ready for stories that are more the length of say, “Black Mirror,” which I like so much, that are just really intense, compact stories.


Q. This is your first major show since “The Office.” How do you feel like your narrative style has changed since your days in that writers’ room?

A. I think it’s really the same. I learned all of my fundamental lessons from working on “The Office.” One of many I learned from Steve Carell, who once rejected a whole list of pitches I brought him on set, with: “These feel like jokes.” And I thought, “Well, of course. This is a comedy show! I’m a comedy writer!” It took me a while to realize what he meant, which is that real comedy comes from drama. It comes from character. A character is funny when they have no idea that what they’re saying is funny, and it’s just so true.

Q. Raising the stakes, so to speak?

A. Yeah, and I also learned from “The Office” that the more dangerous your topic is, the better it has to be. With [”The Premise”], the season premiere is “Social Justice Sex Tape” — if you’re going to go into those issues, you really better bring it. You better bring all the perspectives you can, all the truth you can, the jokes have to really work. That kind of dangerous writing I feel is worth going for in these times.

From left: Tracee Ellis Ross, Ayo Edebiri, and Ben Platt in "Social Justice Sex Tape," the premiere episode of B.J. Novak's "The Premise."Alyssa Moran/FX

Q. Do you ever worry something is too out there?

A. I don’t worry about that, because I really believe that viewers are extremely smart — and in fact, it’s often the gatekeepers that think that viewers are are too dumb or too sensitive to handle good stuff. I’ve always found from “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” to “Mad Men” and “The Sopranos,” the smartest shows tend to be immensely popular. So I’m never afraid of trying to write something smart, and I’m never afraid of writing something that might be offensive. I’m only afraid that networks will be afraid. And FX was not afraid.


Q. What was it like to work with such a star-studded cast, like Ben Platt, Tracee Ellis Ross, Daniel Dae Kim, Kaitlyn Dever, and Lucas Hedges?

A. It was a great honor, because I think what is new about the tone of the show is this attempt to ground these outrageous ideas in utter truth, because I think that’s what reflects the times that we live in. We live in these times that seem so outlandish and ridiculous, and yet they’re dead serious for those of us who are living through them. So the only way to do these the way I wanted to was to have incredible actors, and always tell them: Never judge the character, never play the joke, always play [as] if this truly happened to you.

B.J. Novak in his 1997 Newton South High School yearbook. Courtesy of Newton South High School

Q. What do you find yourself missing about the Boston area?

A. The realism of people’s lives. You walk around Boston, and you can overhear a conversation about anything. It’s a city that is street smart, it’s book smart, so the range of lives that you get exposed to is the most fun part. I also just miss how it looks — I miss the brick buildings in Kenmore Square and Newbury Street.


Q. How did you straddle the line between making sure the episodes were timely but would stay relevant even when the issues aren’t?

A. The real thing I wanted was to explore the underlying themes of every episode, and make classic philosophical stories. But the way I wanted to do that was to do them through tales of now. I wanted to make these timeless stories. “The Twilight Zone” puts philosophy into the genre of sci-fi and spookiness, and I wanted to put philosophy into comedy. It’s so much more fun to watch, and then if you’re left with a little depth or a question to ponder, all the better.

Q. How did you come up with all the topics and twists in “The Premise”?

A. I had literally hundreds of ideas. I probably cut 150 ideas into these five. The challenge is finding the ones that will speak to people the most. I always start with an idea that makes me smirk and think, “That’s something I’ve never seen.” The ones that survive are the ones that have some emotion to them.

Q. What do you think Ryan Howard, your character from “The Office,” would think of “The Premise”?

A. I think he would try to tell everyone else that they didn’t get it. I think debating “The Premise” afterwards is a fun part of it, and Ryan would definitely tell everyone that they did not understand it.


Interview has been edited and condensed.

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @danagerber6.