You probably know B.J. Novak best from his work as an actor on The Office, but he’s also a writer, comedian, author and Harvard graduate. A couple weeks ago he appeared on The Nerdist podcast and discussed his career, what he learned from writing for the Harvard Lampoon, how he approaches his work and much more.
Check out a few of the highlights of what he had to say below and listen to the full episode here.
1. What You Can Learn From The Harvard Lampoon
At around the 20-minute mark, Novak discusses what he learned from working at the legendary Harvard Lampoon when he was in college. He explains that what he really took from it was some lessons in authenticity and style.
Specifically, he talks about the Lampoon’s ethos of not caring and explains that for the people that worked there it was more about impressing each other than their audience.
That style bled over into shows such as The Simpsons, which were staffed by many former Lampoon writers and carried a similar tone – an attitude that “We don’t care if you get it or not.” As Novak explained, “There’s an aspirational intelligence” to what the Lampoon does.
2. You Have To Want To Be Good And Be Willing To Work At It
Around the 31-minute mark, Novak and host Chris Hardwick discuss their shared experiences on the open mic circuit as younger comics. Hardwick, who found himself doing open mics after his initial success as an MTV host had fizzled out, explains that it only made him work harder and notes that he was willing to do open mics and build up a new career for himself. He didn’t let any ego he may have had based on former success prevent him from putting in the work he needed on the open mic circuit.
For his part, Novak explains that he also was driven to be good and took it very seriously. He used to write notecards evaluating his performance each night, but hid them because he was self-conscious about what other comics might say about his serious approach to his comedy.
3. The Upside Of The Los Angeles Comedy Scene
Around the 36-minute mark, Novak shares his take on the differences between the Los Angeles and New York comedy scenes. While people often assume that New York is a better pure standup scene and LA is negatively impacted by the industry influence, Novak actually believes the opposite.
He points out that most comedians will ultimately want to entertain everybody and that the LA market is more focused on that than New York, where it’s easy to get distracted and “obsess over the 10 people in the room.”
4. Look For Things That Can Make An Impact
Around the 69-minute mark Novak explains his philosophy on how he chooses what he wants to work on – whether it be writing, acting, or performing. He looks for projects that can make an impact and points out that almost all movies and TV shows have no impact on people – they get produced, they come out, people watch them, and then they get forgotten.
He said his biggest fear is working on things that will have no impact on anybody. Instead, he tries to work on projects that don’t go to waste and that matter. “I want to have an impact,” he said.
5. You Have To Be Personal
Around the 73-minute mark Novak talks about what he thinks comics should strive to do when they perform – be personal and get noticed. He talks about how you need to be personal so that nobody can forget seeing you.
“That’s what makes the difference,” he said. “One guy after another kills on stage, but with most of them you don’t feel like you need to know who they are.”
It’s a good reminder that just making people laugh usually isn’t enough to make it in this business.
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