“A good comedy operates the exact same way a good mystery operates. [Which is] the punchline is something that is right in front of your face the whole time and you never would have put your finger on it.”
B.J. Novak (TW: @BJNOVAK) is best known for his work on NBC’s Emmy Award–winning comedy series The Office as an actor, writer, director, and executive producer. He has appeared in films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. He is the author of the acclaimed short story collection One More Thing and the #1 New York Times bestseller The Book with No Pictures, which has more than 1 million copies in print. Last but not least, he is co-founder of li.st, a new way to create and discover lists about anything and everything.”
“ANY TIME I’M TELLING MYSELF, ‘BUT I’M MAKING SO MUCH MONEY,’ THAT’S A WARNING SIGN THAT I’M DOING THE WRONG THING.”
Looking back at his career, B.J. noticed that he could have stalled in a number of places. Instead, he became very well known for The Office and other mega-successes. How did he repeatedly choose the right fork in the road? He attributes a lot of it to heeding the above rule of thumb.
If you find yourself saying, “But I’m making so “much money” about a job or project, pay attention. “But I’m making so much money,” or “But I’m making good money” is a warning sign that you’re probably not on the right track or, at least, that you shouldn’t stay there for long. Money can always be regenerated. Time and reputation cannot.
GETTING VIPS WHEN YOU’RE A NOBODY
One of B.J.’s extracurricular activities as a Harvard undergrad was putting on a show called The B.J. Show with another kid conveniently named B.J. During their senior year, the two B.J.s decided to put on a show, and thought to invite Bob Saget to perform. They’d heard that the wholesome Full House star was, in fact, a really filthy standup comic.
But how could two no-name kids get a massive celebrity to come for free?
B.J. Novak (henceforth “B.J.”) came up with two ideas. The first was to “honor” Bob at the Harvard Lampoon, hoping that he would agree to perform in order to receive an award. The second part of the pitch was that all the proceeds of the show would go to charity. This approach was so successful that B.J. “used it repeatedly later in life: When possible, always give the money to charity, as it allows you to interact with people well above your pay grade.
B.J. cold-called Saget’s management, pitched all this, and it worked like a charm. He talked to Saget’s manager (who later became B.J.’s manager). Saget came to Boston with Jonathan Katz, the creator of Raising Dad (their new show at the time), they liked B.J.’s edgy writing style, and they offered him a job on their staff.
GET THE LONG-TERM GOAL ON THE CALENDAR BEFORE THE SHORT-TERM PAIN HITS
The first time B.J. tried standup comedy at an open-mic night in L.A., it was a disaster. It took him 3 months to work up the courage to get back on stage. B.J. advises first-time comics to book their first week of shows (open mic commitments) in advance, so they can’t quit after the first performance. He learned that you can’t make each night a referendum on whether to continue or not. “I was really bad for a while, but let’s say you do 20 jokes and 3 of them get “pity laughs—well, those are the 3 you keep. And then, after a while, 1 of them always does well—well, that’s your opener. And now 2 of them do well—well, you have a closer. . . . It evolves that way.”
TF: Schedule (and, if possible, pay for) things in advance to prevent yourself from backing out. I’ve applied this to early morning AcroYoga sessions, late-night gymnastics training, archery lessons, etc. Make commitments in a high-energy state so that you can’t back out when you’re in a low-energy state.
TO GO BIG, AIM SMALL (AND FOR TECH, IF YOU CAN)
B.J. said it was bizarre when The Office became so successful because they weren’t aiming for a huge national success. They were just trying to achieve “cult status” with a small and loyal following. One factor that made a difference: the launch of the Apple iTunes store. Their cult following was very young and tech-savvy, which made them a huge hit on the iTunes store, even though they weren’t a huge hit on NBC at that point. The Office was one of the first shows to be an online hit, and it created one of the “first viral drivers for a primetime TV show.
TF: Once again, see “1,000 True Fans” (page 292). By design, The 4-Hour Workweek benefited from the launch of Twitter at the SXSW conference circa 2007, where I gave a keynote presentation. I was deliberately aiming for tech early adopters. I’ve done this for each book launch since, embracing different technologies that are uncrowded but gaining influence quickly (e.g., Product Hunt, BitTorrent Bundles).
ON WORKING WITH STEVE CARELL
B.J. once brought a bunch of jokes to Steve Carell, who said, “These just feel like jokes to me.” For Steve, comedy was a by-product of authenticity. This is the difference between a kid who knows he’s cute and one who doesn’t (the one who knows he’s cute isn’t cute).
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE “BLUE SKY” PERIOD
The season writing process for The Office began with the Blue Sky Period, which was B.J.’s favorite part of every year.”
“For 2 to 4 weeks, the writers’ room banter was each person asking, “What if . . . ?” over and over again. Crazy scenarios were encouraged, not penalized. Every idea, no matter what, was valid during this period. The idea generation and filtering/editing stages were entirely separate. As B.J. explained, “To me, everything is idea and execution and, if you separate idea and execution, you don’t put too much pressure on either of them.”
“I CONSIDER BEING IN A GOOD MOOD THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF MY CREATIVE PROCESS.”
B.J. typically spends the first few hours of his day “powering up” and getting in a good mood, until he gets an idea he’s excited about, or until he has so much self-loathing and caffeine that he has to do something about it.
It can take B.J. hours of walking, reading newspapers over coffee, listening to music, etc., before he hits his stride and feels he can write, his zone generally occurring between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Says B.J., “I find that being in a good mood for creative work is “worth the hours it takes to get in a good mood.”
He added, “I read the book Daily Rituals, and I am demoralized by how many great people start their day very early.” For lifelong night owls like me, it’s nice to know that when you get started each day seems to matter less than learning how to get started consistently, however your crazy ass can manage it.
NO ARTISANAL ASPIRIN
Every day, B.J. has the same coffee: a venti-size, black Pike Place coffee from Starbucks. He has found that brewing his own coffee at home is too unpredictable, and is “like getting artisanal Tylenol.” He wants a standard dose of caffeine.
IF HE TAUGHT A COMEDY WRITING COURSE
P.J. O’Rourke, one of the big National Lampoon editors, said that if he ever taught writing or English, he would assign parodies, because you really learn something when you attempt to parody it. B.J. would therefore assign parodies of literature that students were reading and studying in other classes. This “would open them up. Mischief is critical in comedy.
AND FOR SCREENWRITING SPECIFICALLY . . .
These are the screenplays B.J. would have students study:
Casablanca broke the form from its time period, and now it is the form.
Pulp Fiction completely breaks the form chronologically.
Ferris Bueller narrates the movie to the camera.
The Naked Gun will do anything for a laugh.
Adaptation completely comments on itself and breaks all of the rules.
LEARN HOW TO PERSUADE (AND LAUGH)
B.J. likes and recommends two podcasts related to debating, the second of which is completely farcical: Intelligence Squared and The Great Debates.
SHOEBOXES OF CAHIERS
B.J. uses a Moleskine Cahier notebook for jotting notes down throughout the day. He likes it because it is much thinner than a standard Moleskine notebook “so it’s easier to carry around, and he has a feeling of accomplishment when he finishes one. He orders different colors, and he also buys huge batches of shape stickers. Any time he starts a new notebook, he writes his name and phone number on the first page and puts a sticker in the top left of the book, which lets him know which notebook he is currently using. He doesn’t date them, which can be problematic, but he feels the lack of dates aids the creative process in some capacity. He keeps the untranscribed notebooks in a white box, and he uses a red box for those he has already transcribed to his computer.
✸ B.J.’s playlist for working
“Morning Becomes Eclectic” radio program, which has commercial-free new music from 9 a.m. to 12 noon every weekday.
Sirius XM #35—Indie music
“Early Blues” Pandora station
✸ Who do you think of when you hear the word “successful”?
“Shakespeare, because he made things that were moving, permanent, and popular.
✸ Most-gifted books
The Oxford Book of Aphorisms by John Gross because it contains the most brilliant one-liners in history. You can spend hours on a page, or you can just flip through it.
B.J. also recommended Daily Rituals by Mason Currey for anyone who would enjoy seeing the daily routines of legends like Steve Jobs, Charles Darwin, and Charles Dickens. “It is so reassuring to see that everyone has their own system, and how dysfunctional a lot of them are.” Small world: I actually produced the audiobook version of Daily Rituals.
✸ Advice to his younger self
B.J. was very anxious during the first season of The Office because he was always trying to write something extra on the side that he never had time to finish. He really didn’t stop to enjoy the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience of The Office. B.J. wishes he had told himself back then that it was a very special time in his life, and that he should own it and enjoy it “instead of being so nervous, for what ended up being no reason at all.
“And you know what I also tell people all the time? If Will Smith isn’t in a movie for 3 years, you’re not walking around saying, ‘Where’s Will Smith?’ Nobody’s paying attention to anyone else at all. You think everyone is, but they’re not. So take as long as you want if you’re talented. You’ll get their attention again if you have a reason to.”
✸ Favorite documentaries
Catfish—“It’s a cliché, but it’s a brilliant, generation-defining documentary.”
To Be and to Have—“This is a beautiful and simple film about a one-room school in France, and what happens over the course of one year.”
The Overnighters—“This covers oil exploration in North Dakota, which has become perhaps bigger than the Gold Rush in the 1800s, due to the process of ‘fracking.’”
Excerpt from: ‘Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers’ by Tim Ferris, 2016