“The hippest nerd to occupy a cubicle spills the beans on his Office co-stars, talks about his adventures in Inglourious Basterds and recalls playing Scattergories with Michael Jackson.”
PLAYBOY:Have you ever had an office job?
PLAYBOY: Doesn’t that pretty much disqualify you to write, produce and act on The Office?
NOVAK: I have friends. They work in offices. They tell me what goes on. A week ago a friend told me, “I can’t stand this job. What should I do?” I said, “Write down every miserable little thing that happens and show it to me.” Last night we met again. She told me about this rich girl she works with who steals cans out of the recycling bin so she can get the reimbursement. I thought, That’s what I’m talking about.
PLAYBOY: As a writer and producer, how do you resist the temptation to give Ryan, the character you play, all the funniest lines and hottest office hookups?
NOVAK: For a while nobody wanted to write for Ryan. If I did it, it would look as though I was whoring for attention. The other writers avoided it because they assumed I knew Ryan better than they ever could. But somehow that all helped shape the character. Ryan is someone who’s lost. He’s trying on different identities. Some of them are hateful and obnoxious, but lately I’m liking him, which I wasn’t for a while. For the past few seasons he had just enough screen time to be a bad guy yet not enough for us to know why. But ever since he went back to being a temp last season, he’s made more sense to me. He’s kind of pathetic and definitely flawed, and I appreciate that about him.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever think The Office would go 100-plus episodes when you were the first actor hired on the show?
NOVAK: Honestly, at every stage I thought it would be a big hit. No one really believed that back then, but I never doubted it. It’s like The Simpsons. You can watch that show on mute at the gym and still laugh, because you get a sense of four clearly drawn characters. Same with The Office. There’s the boss, the guy, the girl, the weirdo. Totally clear. It’s icing on the cake to turn on the sound and hear how smart and verbal and subtle those characters are. But if a show passes the mute test at the gym—which The Office pilot absolutely did—it’s going to be a hit.
PLAYBOY: Are the actors on The Office as weird and eccentric as their characters?
NOVAK: All actors are pretty weird. Think about it. When most people are kids they watch a cowboy movie and think, That’s what I want to be. I want to be a cowboy. Yet there’s another type of kid who says, “That’s what I want to be; I want to be the guy pretending to be the guy who’s the cowboy.” You have to have some odd extra kink in your brain to want to become an actor.
PLAYBOY: So you were a strange kid?
NOVAK: Mischievous, definitely. I loved pulling off elaborate pranks. I was shy, but pranks gave me a thrill like nothing else. I did one at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I grew up. I got a bunch of friends to steal the audio cassettes from one of those selfguided tours and replace them with cassettes we had narrated. It was for a Chinese art exhibit, so we put on ancientsounding Chinese music. Some kid we knew with a deep voice and a Romanian accent did the voice-over. For the first three minutes the script was exactly the same as the regular tour, but then he started telling people to remove the glass on certain exhibits and get high on the paint fumes, things like that. By the end he was swearing at everyone pretty abusively. We had worked on it for weeks, and it went off perfectly. The next day I woke up and The Boston Globe had done a story on it. My parents figured out it was me, and I thought I’d be in huge trouble. But my dad was kind of proud of it. I remember catching him faxing a copy of the article to a friend in New York.
PLAYBOY: Your father, William Novak, was a successful ghostwriter for celebrities such as Nancy Reagan, Lee Iacocca and others. Did you hang out with famous people growing up?
NOVAK: Sydney Biddle Barrows, the Mayflower Madam [whose best-selling memoirs about high-class prostitution Novak’s father co-authored], was at the house when I lost my first tooth. She told me to gargle with salt water. Another time my dad took me to a party at Deepak Chopra’s house. All of a sudden this figure sweeps into the room in a red military outfit and black hat and sunglasses and sits down at the kids’ table. I thought, How weird. Deepak hired a Michael Jackson impersonator. Then I realized, It is fucking Michael Jackson! I remember three things about it: He didn’t touch his food at dinner, we played board games, and nobody believed me at school the next day when I said I’d played Scattergories with Michael Jackson.
PLAYBOY: Is it true you stalked Bob Saget when you were a student at Harvard?
NOVAK: I invited Bob to the Harvard Lampoon when I was an editor there. I cold-called his agent because I’d heard Bob was a filthy comic, which most people didn’t know at the time. I wrote a lost Full House episode for Bob to do. The idea was that Bob’s character, Danny Tanner, learns what sex is. He had gone his whole life without knowing, and after Uncle Jesse and Joey explain it to him, Danny becomes obsessed with it. At first Danny doesn’t believe sex is real. But then he goes out and gets some pornography and is like, “This is sex? Holy shit! This is awesome! I’ve got to get me some pussy!” And that becomes his mission for the rest of the episode.
PLAYBOY: What was your stand-up routine like when you first came to Hollywood?
NOVAK: A lot of one-liners: “‘Battered women’ sounds delicious; doesn’t make it right.” That would always do well. Or “I spent four years at college; didn’t learn a thing. But it was really my own fault. I had a double major in psychology and reverse psychology.” I still love doing stand-up, especially because I get to say things I can’t say on television. Like this thing I do now about pandas. “Pandas are cute, and they’re endangered. But that’s crazy because it means pandas don’t think other pandas are cute. [thoughtful pause] If I were a panda I would be fucking the shit out of pandas just so I could cuddle afterward.”
PLAYBOY: Was comedy a path to sex for you?
NOVAK: Absolutely not. I’ve always been shy and inept with women. Like, every time I got near a girl in junior high or high school, it felt like a fluke. I still feel that way.