First things first, we might as well squeeze as much SEO value out of this interview as we can. BJ Novak has seen himself become the subject of a quote-tweeting frenzy this past week, under the general headline “BJ Novak says being a Harvard graduate is ‘the worst thing to have’ on a comedy resume.”
He put his face in his hands when I asked him about it and says the pulled quote is basically the opposite of what he was trying to say.
“Of course, [a Harvard pedigree] is the luckiest damn thing you can have to get a job in a writer’s room,” The Office alum told me over a Zoom call this week. “What I meant was that people don’t see you as being on the side of comedy. Harvard guys are the bad guys in the movies. I get it.”
Novak is the perfect kind of celebrity for this kind of quote to go viral, the kind of guy that you sort of know but don’t really. Maybe he’s just some annoying Harvard prick? He certainly looks the part. In fact, the main thing that kept me from assuming that BJ Novak is a smarmy douche in real life is that he’s so good at playing one in fiction. Surely that reflects a level of self-awareness fundamentally incompatible with smarmy douchedom.
Still, Novak was juuust obscure enough that I didn’t really know, which I imagine contributed to his quote being shared with no presumption of nuance in the first place. In fact, when I heard that he’d written, directed, and starred in a movie opening this week — Vengeance, from horror super producer Jason Blum (Get Out, The Invisible Man) — I had no idea what to expect. Something inspired? A middling indie banking on Office name recognition?
Vengeance turned out to be both the kind of movie that kept me guessing and eerily up my alley. Novak plays Ben Manalowtiz, a New York podcaster whose one-time hook-up turns up dead. He travels to her hometown in West Texas thinking he might’ve found the kind of true crime tale to reinvigorate his career.
As you might expect, Novak’s character is kind of a smarmy douche, and Vengeance is a comedy, at least at first. Think Doc Hollywood, if the Michael J. Fox character had been a New York podcaster. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with podcasts and public radio — I’ve been listening to NPR for as long as I can remember and have been compelled to dunk on it ruthlessly for almost as long — and Novak mines plenty of humor from poking fun at the wannabe Ira Glass archetype. Which, much as with Ryan from The Office, BJ Novak sort of is himself, which only makes the jokes hit harder (it’s much more fun to ridicule what you know).
But Vengeance is more than just a fish-out-of-water satire. Eventually, it reveals not just jokes about true crime pods and the hot take economy in general, but earnest critique — some of it from the mouths of co-stars Ashton Kutcher and Narcos‘ Boyd Holbrook, both playing against type to surprising success. As the movie goes on, it evolves into something approaching a thriller, and, if anything, only gets more entertaining.
Novak may be part of the same smarmy milieu that makes NPR so ripe for ridicule — with an author for a father and a resume that includes the Harvard Lampoon — but the fact that he actually has insight about it goes a long way towards redeeming him in my eyes.
So I really enjoyed the movie.
Oh, great. Thank you. That means a lot coming from you. I know Uproxx well.
I have sort of a love-hate relationship with podcasts and public radio, and it feels like a lot of the comedy in this maybe grew out of the same kind of relationship.
Absolutely, the love-hate. I tried to put as many details in there as I can. Like Ben’s hookup in the first scene is wearing a Pod Save America shirt, that I was sure she must have dug out of a drawer there. I got Terry Gross to play the head honcho of the whole podcast network. So I definitely know that world and love that world, but I also know it’s kind of eye roll to be into that stuff, and I wanted to enjoy the comedy of taking someone who’s very much from the NPR world and put him into something way bigger than he can handle. Then of course he thinks he can handle it because there is sort of a slight judgmental, smarter-than-thou attitude toward that world. So, yeah, I really enjoyed both showing what I like about that world and what makes me think it deserves to have some fun poked at it.
I think for anybody who listens to a certain amount of public radio, you’re like, “oh, that’s Terry Gross” right away. Do you have like a Mount Rushmore of favorite podcasters? Or as Marc Maron might ask it, “who are your guys?”
I don’t listen to that many, actually, I do like some of the interview ones. I subscribe to Marc Maron and Dax Shepherd. To me, podcasts are a way to just have voices in your head that you’d like to spend time with. I don’t listen to stories as much, personally. I did like Serial. I did like S-Town, but mostly I listen to those interviews and try to kind of learn or connect.
But it is an optical illusion, or an… audio-cal illusion — I don’t know how you say that — in that, on the one level, it’s so intimate, you’re so close to that other person’s voice. But on another, you just chose them from a menu. You don’t know them at all and even worse, you’re not listening on their schedule. I thought that that was an interesting theme of the movie too, that we all enjoy people on our own schedule. We text someone when we feel lonely. We hook up when we want to have sex, and if someone else texts us, we maybe text back later. And this guy, his biggest flaw is he goes to this town to see these people as characters in a podcast. Which is really I think the danger of listening to these true crime podcasts, reducing everyone in our lives to characters. People can just become characters to us when we’re disconnected from life in real-time.
That also seems like something that maybe you’ve been able to do with yourself in your career in some ways, to sort of turn yourself into a certain kind of character. Like it feels like you’re not afraid to write yourself as obnoxious or pedantic or whatever.
Yeah. I mean I know my flaws and I don’t like them any more than anyone else does. And that is a better place to start in comedy than to look at my heroic inner nature or whatever. And it also gives you somewhere to go. In a movie, I couldn’t just make jokes about what I don’t like about myself. I had to see, all right, well, if this were a character, not me, what’s an interesting character? So then that was a different challenge, to really humbly think, “Well, what might someone else see in me that I could live up to?”
Do you think that that has gotten harder in comedy, to sort of write yourself into roles where you’re not the hero or you’re not righteous in a way? Do you think people confuse the characters that you create for yourself with your actual personality?
I mean, yes and no. On the one hand, it can be frustrating, to be so associated with Ryan on The Office, who was such an obnoxious guy. On the other hand, there were a lot of my own worst traits in Ryan, and that’s why I was able to play him. But I do think that look, ideally, I’d be the best person in the world and play the best person in the world, but I think no one is really like that. Not even The Rock or whoever. So, in comedy you need to be brave enough, especially if you’re writing it yourself, to really try to mine the worst of you as well as the best.
Speaking of that, I thought this was an interesting role for Ashton Kutcher or maybe just an interesting role in general. What did you see in him that made you think that he was right for this character? I don’t know how you describe this character, sort of like a hillbilly Svengali or something.
Well, exactly. And I knew I needed someone who my character meets and thinks, “oh, this will be kind of an easy character to make fun of” and he leaves thinking “this guy is smarter than I am. He’s everything I wish I were.” And so, I knew I needed someone who could surprise people. I met Ashton a little bit years ago and I worked on Punk’d, but I had picked up over the years that he has this huge tech investment company, and whenever I’ve seen him in an interview, he’s so intelligent and charismatic and really gives these long explanations and theories. And I thought, I bet he could not only pull that off, but he’d be a shock. You never expect him to be that, which is what I needed for the character. Someone suggested him and I thought, “Well, that’s pretty brilliant.” And I met him at his office and I pointed to the whiteboard and I said, “Oh, tell me about this company.” And he did, at great length. I would’ve invested all my money in that company. And I said, “That’s the character. What you did just now, that’s who this guy is.”
Speaking of some of the other people in the movie, I was really sort of surprised and impressed at how well Boyd Holbrook took to comedy. I think I actually like him better as a comedic actor now. Again, what did you see in him?
The most important thing was not to make jokes out of the Texans. They’re funny, and the contrast between them and my characters is especially funny, but I couldn’t live with myself if I made them one-dimensional. And Boyd Holbrook has this amazing dramatic career. But by the way, he also looks the part. I knew that me in a truck with him is a funny image — this tall, handsome blonde guy, clearly, he grew up in Kentucky and always seems to have a smile on his face, but his dramatic career was what sold me. And he has a little spark of mischief and comedy in, for example, Logan.
I saw that in him, but he was terrified. He came the first day with his script just covered with notes, ideas and thoughts. And I said, “You don’t need any of that. I promise you. Play it like a drama. Just invest in this and it will come out funny.”
It’s funny because he does have that authentically rural aspect to him like you say, but then he’s also cartoon character handsome, like he almost couldn’t exist in real life.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s hard to find with American actors now, especially. I feel like maybe people like that aren’t encouraged to pursue acting, it’s not like a macho or cool enough profession, so you have to go to Australia or England to find the macho American red state type. And I did not want to do that. I wanted Americans to play the Americans. I wanted people from red states to represent that. I liked that Ashton was from Iowa for example, so yeah.
You mentioned Punk’d. I actually didn’t know that you worked on that show. What was that like? What was going on in your life at that time?
Oh man, it was and maybe still is my favorite job I ever had. I was Hillary Duff’s driving instructor. I was a clothing store person who busted Usher’s little brother for shoplifting and demanded that he film a rap commercial for me in order to let the kid go. These really outrageous situations and these were the first celebrities I’d ever met, and I was playing the worst day of their lives out for them. It was so surreal to suddenly be doing that and on MTV. Which at the time, Ash and I were just telling someone yesterday, people don’t understand how big MTV was back then. There was no TikTok. There was no Instagram. There was no YouTube. All of youth culture was centered around MTV, so it felt like it was really his stage and I just walked onto the coolest stage in the world.
And that was before The Office?
Yeah, that was before The Office.
Do you think that that sort of Borat slash whatever type comedy, where you’re using real people, do you think that that helps in scripted comedy? Are those skills complementary?
Very much. I think that, well, at least in the comedy that I’ve done, which is not very mannered comedy, it is sort of the current style of comedy. People ask all the time, how much was The Office improvised? The answer is not as much as you’d think, but the fact that it could be improvised at any moment made the actors really alive in every moment on screen and made the writers write very realistically. I do think that sort of improv blurred line has been an incredibly good influence on comedy.
Okay, I’ve been seeing a quote of yours going around, talking about going to Harvard [BJ sighs and covers his face with his hands] making it more difficult to have a career in comedy. I was wondering if you wanted to clarify or elaborate or be annoyed with that.
It’s so 100% the opposite of what I was trying to say. And I’m so sorry to anyone that thought that. I didn’t mean that. Of course, it’s the luckiest damn thing you can have to get a job in a writer’s room. What I meant was people don’t see you as being on the side of comedy. Those are the bad guys in the movies. I get it. So, I truly meant the opposite and I’m sorry it was misinterpreted.
I mean, you’re taking that on yourself, but do you feel like the internet is like a context and nuance-removing machine?
Yeah. Again, I’m not playing victim about it because I’ve been on all sides of it too, I’m sure. But yes. And I think that when you’re online, attention can be confused with connection. And the way to get attention is by having a take. I mean, it’s really one of the themes in the film and it’s even expressed outright by one character, that yeah, we’ll all be on all sides of it. But I also think that if you’re in the public eye, you can get made fun of and beaten up, you are a character out there. And I’ve been guilty of it too, so I get it. Sometimes you need people to represent things that you have an opinion about, but as someone said about reviews, it always says more about the reviewer than about what they’re reviewing. And if that’s a way for people to express how they feel, that’s okay. Because often, their points of view are good.
So this movie, it started out like it was kind of like Doc Hollywood, only with a podcaster at first. And then, it sort of evolves into almost like a thriller. Was the tone something that was always intentional or did it sort of evolve as you were writing it?
The tone was always there. The tone is really why I wanted to make it. And then I wanted to direct the movie because I thought I had to protect that tone. And I had to play the role because I had to protect that tone.
Having Jason Blum as a producer, is there a pressure to make it more like what he’s known for, like a thriller or whatever?
I completely wanted that pressure and sought it out. I didn’t want to make a sort of small acclaimed indie that no one actually laughs at or is invested in, I wanted to make something that people actually enjoyed and I knew that I would really need some help getting that made. Because those aren’t my instincts and I am more like the NPR listener that I play in the movie. So, I thought, okay, well, Jason Blum, he’s done it with Get Out. He knows how to take a brilliant idea and produce a movie that hits us in our primal storytelling bones. I said, “Help me make this more of a movie and less of an essay.”
What did that help look like?
Well, it’s really his executive, Cooper Samuelson, who was really an incredible help sort of speaking on behalf of Blumhouse, but he suggested taking out the comedy in some places, adding longer moments of actual emotion and danger that I would’ve been too shy to do.
Well, my time is about up. Anything you’d like to add before we jump off?
No, thanks. I mean, whatever this is will just be the pull quote. So, we’ll see how the world takes whatever they take out of it. But I will say I have enjoyed the full conversation with you a lot.