Monday, August 24, 2009

B.J. Novak speaks on Jewish comedy

A.V. Club:
AVC: Have you always wanted to be a comedy writer?

BJN: I always wanted to be a writer. I took for granted that I was funny, because I was in a funny family. I didn’t think being funny was a great skill. I thought I would rather be cool, I would rather be great at baseball or something. I thought being funny was just like your eye color or how tall you were. When I looked more strategically at how I would become a writer, I thought comedy would be my way in, and then I’d gravitate toward whatever I really wanted to write, in the end. The more I did it, the more special it felt, and the more bored I felt writing things that didn’t have comedy. And also, I think people underrate comedy’s relation to the rest of writing. Star Trek was a movie this summer where the secret ingredient was wit. And you don’t necessarily have to be writing a comedy to benefit from good comedy writing. The Office is less a comedy than so many other “comedies” that have been on the air. It’s really about the balance between what is real and what is comic. Now I’m going on a tangent, but I started out thinking comedy would be my path to writing, and then as I got into that, I realized, “Well, either this is my calling or it’s all comedy,” or something like that.[...]

AVC: Your father literally wrote the book on Jewish comedy. Growing up, did you have a sense of the distinction between Jewish comedy and non-Jewish comedy?

BJN: I maybe thought I did. [Laughs.] But I don’t think so. I would read his book, The Big Book Of Jewish Humor, and I gravitated toward certain things that I think I could academically explain why I think they’re more Jewish humor than other things. But what I really took out of the book is, it had a lot of my favorite jokes in it.

AVC: One of the jokes from your stand-up act—“I was a double major: psychology and reverse psychology”—particularly sounds like a Woody Allen line.

BJN: I’m not an expert in other forms of comedy, so I don’t really know, but I do think something classic Jewish humor has as a thread is logic at the center. And what I was saying before about what I love about Michael in particular—and I don’t think the character’s being written with this in mind, it might just be something pre-existing about the character that I gravitate toward—is that there is such an elegance to the logic of a character like that, who sees the world that makes perfect sense from one angle, and is utterly absurd from another.

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