By Jessica Ganga
Students at the College became the judges of writer and actor B.J. Novak’s jokes on Tuesday, April 25, during the College Union Board’s Spring Comedy show, deciding which ones made the cut and which ones would never again see the light of day.
“I did bring some jokes, I am going to try them out and I do want you to be honest,” Novak said. “The jokes that you don’t like, stay here. In New Jersey.”
Before Novak took to the stage, the College’s premier improv comedy group The Mixed Signals helped warm the audience up by playing improvisational games on stage.
Next, Kiss on the Lips entered the stage to dimmed lights and an intro video on the big screen, giving a little background on the group. The New York City improv sketch comedy group got their start performing in the basement of the their friend’s home in Ewing, N.J. and is comprised of College Alumnus Alex Guaglianone (’15), Alumnus Jonathan van Halem (’16) and Garrett Verdone, a senior marketing major.
The comedic trio viewed opening up for Novak as a great opportunity.
“What was so nice about opening for B.J. Novak is that the audience was so eager to laugh,” van Halem said. “We had won them over with our first sketch, and from there on out it was smooth sailing. Performing at TCNJ again was a dream, and we’ll keep coming back until they don’t want us anymore.”
Novak had requested for student comedy groups to open up his show, something he does for every college show he performs, according to Verdone.
The group was eager to introduce Novak, who brought with him a suitcase and a copy of The Signal.
“I wanted to know what kinds of stuff you guys are used to, so I went through The Signal,” Novak said. “I have a lot of competition tonight because I know that you are used to ‘Fun Stuff.’”
Novak went on to inform the audience that, instead of coming to the show that night, they could have stayed home and matched flowers, which was the content for that week’s edition of “Fun Stuff.”
“Now, I really want to be sensitive to any potential color blind editors, but this is a black and white paper,” Novak said. “Imagine how much more ‘Fun Stuff’ it could be if this fun game were colored.”
He didn’t just stop there. Novak continued going through the paper, turning to a portion of The Signal: “Cop Shop.” The audience cheered at the mention of the column that reports on College crime.
“Oh you’re proud of this?” he said. “Interesting.”
Like most comedians that perform at the College, Novak did his research. He joked about the numerous name changes the College has been through in its 162-year history. When the College was first established, it was called New Jersey State Normal School, an ironic title Novak did not hesitate to point out.
“It’s really shady when someone keeps switching their name around, like another example of that would be The College of New Jersey,” Novak said. “‘So where do you go to school? Normal College. Just Normal College.’”
Novak, who is well-known for his role as Ryan “The Temp” Howard on the comedy series “The Office,” along with being a writer, producer and director of the series. Novak talked about the success of two great comedic writers –– Charlie Chaplin and Benjamin Franklin.
According to what Novak read in a book about the silent film actor, in 1917 Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest and came in third place. This narrative is what made Chaplin a superstar and, to Novak, posed as a lesson for those trying to reach that level of fame.
“The story had a great moral… even Charlie Chaplin can’t catch a break sometimes,” Novak said. “If you think about it, that was the biggest break in show business because if Charlie Chaplin had won that look-alike contest — which we should have every expectation he would have done — the moral of that story would be the complete opposite. The moral of the story would have been ‘Charlie Chaplin is a fucking dick.’”
Novak continued talking about Franklin who was not only a comedy writer, but was also a contributor to historical U.S. documents.
“I’ve been in some pretty good writer’s rooms, (but) this guy was in the room that wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and he just kept upping levels,” he said. “He discovered electricity, separately… and he did it by flying a kite in a rainstorm, which I consider his greatest accomplishment right there.”
For other aspiring comedians, Novak is admired as highly as he regarded Chaplin and Franklin.
“B.J. is an incredible writer. I’m inspired by how witty and smart he is when it comes to his one-liners and bits,” Guaglianone said.
With a stack of notecards in hand, Novak showed the audience his talent for writing when he trusted them to decide which of his jokes were funny.
“I spent four years in college myself,” Novak said. “Didn’t learn a thing. I learned literally nothing in college. It was my own fault — I had a double major in psychology and reverse psychology.”
In reality, college was quite the opposite for Novak. He graduated from Harvard University and was a member of the university’s undergraduate humor publication, The Harvard Lampoon. Novak would occasionally perform in different shows with fellow classmates.
Novak got his own big break while performing stand-up in Los Angeles, where he was discovered by Greg Daniels, the creator of “The Office.” Daniels noticed how Novak used facial expressions between each joke like he was smarter than other people –– a quality Daniels thought made sense for a temp.
It wasn’t easy getting to where he is now, according to Novak. Like his joke test run at the comedy show, he went through a lot of trial and error.
“(It was a lot of) telling a lot of jokes that didn’t end up in the trash, essentially,” Novak said. “I did a lot of open mic nights and the jokes were all bad except for one, then all bad except for two.”
During his performance at the College, some of his jokes ended up, literally, in the trash as he dropped each failed attempt in a trash can beside him.
“I used to sponsor an orphan in South America until I saw an ad on TV that said for the same cost I can buy myself a cup of coffee every day,” Novak said. “I have so much more energy now. That ad changed my life.”
The joke was followed by some scattered boos prompting Novak to trash the joke and move on.
Despite the failed joke, Novak is known for his sharp comedy writing. He also has written a couple of books that landed on The New York Times bestseller list.
“One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories” is a compilation of funny short stories that were inspired by his own personal life. One story that Novak spoke about involved a robot that was able to express the human emotion of love, to only be rejected by her owner.
“He becomes a famous national punch line because he’s the guy that returned the landmark piece of robotics that felt love because he didn’t want a relationship,” Novak said.
Along with the novel, Novak wrote a children’s book that he took inspiration from reading to his friend’s children. “The Book with No Pictures” is what the title suggests, and has readers say ridiculous things and make the words come alive.
“You have to say everything the book says,” Novak said. “So you end up saying, ‘Yes I am monkey. Also I’m a robot monkey. What?’”
Students couldn’t resist asking Novak questions about “The Office” such as who’d he want to play other than Ryan. He would have played Toby. One student asked if the actor and his co-star Rainn Wilson was similar to his character on the show, Dwight K. Schrute.
“Want to call him?” Novak asked the audience as he pulled out his cellphone and proceeded to call the actor, who didn’t answer. The audience left a voicemail shouting “Bears, beets, Battlestar Galactica,” a famous line from the show.
“To answer your question, he’s a huge asshole,” he said.
It was evident that despite almost four years since its series finale, the show still has a special place in Novak’s heart. Novak showed his gratitude to the audience for being fans of a “very weird, little, soft, bizarre show” that might ultimately define his career.
“This is going to sound self-serving, but I want to picture it going in the reverse way,” he said. “Picture me as a mirror thanking you for the support (to) anyone who’s a fan of ‘The Office.’ Round of applause and thank you.”
Featured image via Instagram