Just the mention of Harvard makes B.J. Novak wince.
“I don’t like talking about it,” he said. “I will, but I don’t like to.”
It’s not modesty or regret. Novak worked hard in high school — Newton South, class of ‘97 — specifically because he wanted to write for the Harvard Lampoon. The problem, said the 42-year-old writer/actor/director known for his role as Ryan on “The Office,” is that Ivy League cred can actually count against you in comedy.
“It’s the worst thing to have on a comedy resume, the worst,” he said. “Comedy is an underdog profession. You’re speaking up for the underdog. You’re saying what isn’t said by the people in charge. But [Harvard] makes people think you’re in a different category. Or that you think you are.”
Both Marc Maron and Dax Shepard, in separate, uncomfortable conversations with him on their extremely popular podcasts, told Novak his privileged background was off-putting and, for a while, they perceived him as some combination of entitled, aloof, and pompous. “I’m going to start with love and benevolence and say I think I don’t like you,” Shepard told Novak.
During a visit to Boston last week, Novak acknowledged the negative impression some people have of him. “I get it,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve been cast as this guy I don’t feel I am.”
Novak clutched an extra large cup of Dunkin’, one of two he downed during an hourlong interview in a suite at The Newbury Boston hotel to promote his new movie, “Vengeance,” opening in theaters July 29. The film, which Novak wrote, directed, and stars in, is a dark comedy about a wannabe podcaster enlisted to investigate the death of a young woman he hooked up with a few times. The film co-stars Issa Rae (“Insecure”) and a Nudie Suit-wearing Ashton Kutcher, who in 2003 gave Novak his first TV acting gig, hiring him to pull pranks on MTV’s “Punk’d.”
“Vengeance” is the first feature Novak has directed — he helmed several episodes of “The Office,” a few of “The Mindy Project,” and all five of his underappreciated Hulu series, “The Premise” — and he enjoyed it. He considers himself a writer first, but he views directing as very much related.
“To me, it’s an extension of writing,” Novak said. “There’s no difference between saying in the script that the house is at the end of a long, lonely road and saying, ‘Let’s put the camera here.’ I know what I want to convey.”
Novak has always been ambitious and began writing early on. He was editor of The Lion’s Roar, Newton South’s student newspaper, which isn’t surprising considering his father, William Novak, was a successful ghostwriter; notably, the elder Novak wrote Lee Iacocca’s bestseller, “Iacocca: An Autobiography,” as well as Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan,” and Magic Johnson’s “My Life,” and also co-edited “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.”
Humor was prized in Novak’s house growing up, but he also believes Boston is just a funny place. “Humor is good in Boston,” he said. “It’s good on the playground, it’s good in the grocery store, it’s a currency everywhere.”
The city and its environs, he added, have an uncommonly high quotient of witty, waggish people, and that’s why it’s produced so many terrific comics: Conan O’Brien, Denis Leary, Patrice O’Neal, Steven Wright, Eugene Mirman, Jen Kirkman, Jay Leno, Sam Jay, Bill Burr, Amy Poehler, Pete Holmes, and on and on. (They’re not comics, but the Wahlbergs also fascinate Novak, who’s watched all 95 episodes of the family’s A&E reality show “Wahlburgers.” “I can analyze it like Shakespeare,” he said.)
Novak’s own humor tends to be cerebral. His bestselling 2014 book, “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories,” which The New York Times described as ”droll and smart in spades, but often humane and vulnerable,” isn’t always laugh-out-loud funny, but it is relentlessly clever. A story titled “The Walk To School On the Day After Labor Day” is just two sentences: “I was sad that summer was over. But I was happy that it was over for my enemies, too.”
Last Saturday, while in town hyping his movie, Novak dropped by the Comedy Studio in Somerville and took a seat in the back.
“The closer — I wish I could remember her name — was very local, but very strong,” Novak said. “I was so happy to see there’s still a killer closer in Boston.”
That closer was Laura Severse, who’d done a set earlier in the night at Nick’s Comedy Stop. When she arrived at the Comedy Studio and heard that Novak was in the audience, she was immediately on edge.
“I bombed for the first, like, three minutes,” Severse said. “I got it in my head that there was this incredible writer, this person who created an iconic television show that I make my kids watch. Then I smoothed out and had a really fun set.”
Severse added that she was barely off stage when Novak introduced himself.
“He said, ‘That was really great.’ He was so kind and encouraging, and he asked me a ton of questions about the Boston comedy scene,” she said. “I know his background. I live in West Roxbury. I almost said to him, ‘I live in the poor man’s Newton,’ but I didn’t want to be insulting.”
As much as he downplays his connection to Harvard, Novak credits his time on the Lampoon staff for helping hone his comic chops. He said the 145-year-old journal, famous for its naughty puns, barbed parodies, and withering social commentary, is an incomparable training ground.
“It’s a place where people tell the funny guy at the party why he’s not as funny as he could be, or what he could do differently,” Novak said. “It makes you better because it takes you seriously.”
But more than clever jokes, Novak appreciates ambiguity, stories that prompt people to think even as they laugh. An example is the finale of “The Premise,” titled “Butt Plug.” Ostensibly a story about a man who’s given the task of designing the perfect sex toy, the episode is really about forgiveness and revenge.
Likewise, “Vengeance” works on a couple levels. It’s an amusing whodunit that also has something to say about the red-state-blue-state divide.
“I don’t think in terms of distinctions,” Novak said. “I’m thinking, ‘What is the biggest comedy swing I can take?’”
Sometimes a bolder approach is best. No one, least of all the people who worked on it, expected “The Office” to be such an enormous hit. Novak, who was 26 when the sitcom debuted in 2005 (he wrote the second episode of the show’s first season) said the cast and writers assumed the show, based on a beloved BBC series of the same name, would fail to find an audience, or, at best, become famous to a few, like “Freaks and Geeks.”
“It was considered a suicide mission,” he said. “The shows on TV then were so shiny, fast-paced, and comfortable.” But, “The Office” “was quiet and uncomfortable, with no laugh track, just a dreary, drab office.”
Novak is already working on another movie, but he’s not ready to talk about it. In the meantime, he’ll keep writing, which, he noted, still doesn’t come easily. Novak’s daily schedule goes something like this: Wake up, drink an immense amount of coffee, freak out.
“I’m finally, like, I better [expletive] write something today, so from, like, 3 to 6, I write,” Novak said. “There’s a quote, ‘Writers are people for whom writing is harder than it is for other people’ — and I identify with that.”