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The B.J. Novak formula for a funny book

Inspired by Jack Handey, crafted in a beach-town hideaway, edited by a crowd.

Jennifer Rocholl/Retna/Retna Ltd.

THAT B.J. NOVAK has a book coming out is no surprise. His Office costar — and onetime girlfriend and Cambridge native — Mindy Kaling published her essay collection in 2011. That same year, Tina Fey’s autobiographical book climbed bestseller lists. In 2012, Fey’s former SNL castmate and Lexington-bred Rachel Dratch released her memoir. A compilation of witty advice is due from Girls creator Lena Dunham in October. Aziz Ansari, star of Parks and Recreation, has his take on modern relationships scheduled for 2015. For smart comedic actor/writers, a book deal seems like a requirement these days.

Hitting shelves February 4, Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories is funny and, at times, surprisingly touching. It continues the impressive list of credits he’s been accumulating since he left for Los Angeles in 2001, the same week he graduated from Harvard. The brainy, affable 34-year-old grew up in Newton, where his parents still live, and went to Newton South High School. Since he landed on the West Coast he has, for the most part, been working steadily. His big break came in 2005 when NBC’s The Office debuted; Novak would serve at times as writer, cast member, director, and executive producer until it went off the air last year. Recently he has been promoting the December release of Saving Mr. Banks, about the making of the movie Mary Poppins; in it, he plays one of the Sherman brothers, who wrote the music for the famous Disney film. Then it’s on to his literary tour, essentially a live comedy act, to draw attention to a book that got rolling after a chance encounter with Jane Seymour. Really.



“I THOUGHT MAYBE I would write  .  .  .  a comic memoir, like a lot of stand-ups do,” Novak explains. “But I didn’t have any ideas for that. Then, last summer, [I realized] I had all these ideas for movies and stand-up bits, things that were a little too conceptual or too emotional to work as pure comedy. I started going through all of [them], and that became the genesis for the book.”


But the idea to hold onto those ideas in the first place came from the former Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

Years ago — Novak estimates it was when he was in season three or four of The Office — he went to a party at the house of his then assistant, who also happened to be Seymour’s daughter. There he bumped into the actress, and, unprompted, she gave him some career guidance. “She said: ‘Let me tell you what’s going on with you right now. You’re frustrated, you hate being part of a team, you have all these ideas that you think are better, and you want to quit the show and go make them.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, kind of. How did you know?’ ” Seymour told Novak he should fight his urge to leave and instead write all of his ideas down and put them aside until the show ended. He took her advice.

Over the next five-plus years, Novak compiled “dozens and dozens of pocket notebooks.” Then, once The Office was winding down, he rented a little house in Malibu and spent two weeks transcribing his collection of notebooks, which contained “every little idea for a screenplay, a stand-up bit, or a TV pilot that I had.”


Novak had hoped the final product could be massaged into “a screenplay or two,” but he quickly saw that wasn’t possible. “I had like 900 opening shots and a joke” and no idea how to “shove them all into the same thing.” After months of meditating on the issue, Novak decided to “write out every idea as completely as I could, even if the idea was only worth a couple lines or so . . . and try to do justice to each one.” That effort led to the book, which contains a mixture of full-length stories, multi-paragraph amusements, and even briefer jokes.

It makes sense that Novak lists humorist Jack Handey as one of his inspirations. Handey, who is arguably best known for his dry haiku-like pieces read aloud on Saturday Night Live, looms large in many of the shorter items in the book, such as the three-line “If You Love Something.”

That piece proffers: “If you love something, let it go. / If you don’t love something, definitely let it go. / Basically, just drop everything, who cares.”


NOVAK CAME AWAY from Malibu with hundreds of pieces — 64 made it into the book. As Novak began the work of massaging his stories, he also started performing them on stage as part of a new routine. That the book works as well on page as it does on stage — Novak reads the stories straight, improving on some with voices that animate his characters — is surprising. But for Novak, performing the stories was incredibly helpful in the editorial process.


“I would recommend [this process] to any writer in the world who has the ability to do this,” he says. “The audiences were the best editors a person could have, because you have to feel the impact of everything you wrote.” The brutality of a live crowd is, in the end, a gift. “If you write something kind of boring and you read it in front of a hundred people, you will feel how boring it is. You will be ashamed and embarrassed, and you will never want to say those sentences again until you make them a lot more interesting.”

While there are other projects percolating — Novak will be appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, due out in May, and also has a children’s book coming out in September called The Book With No Pictures — his focus right now is One More Thing. He is hoping that readers will see in his pages, and in his stand-up, some of the lessons he learned from The Office, namely to “never go for a joke” and instead to “get comedy out of truth and character.” That is what Novak poured into One More Thing: “I was trying to write a book that was as funny as possible, but I was trying to do that by being as emotionally honest as possible, too.”


B.J. Novak will be performing stories from One More Thing on February 10 at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre, hosted by Harvard Book Store (617-661-1515; harvard.com), and on February 11 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at The Music Hall (603-436-2400; themusichall.org).


Rachel Deahl is a senior news editor at Publishers Weekly and a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com .