Fresh off the ninth and final season of NBC's The Office, B.J. Novak is keeping busy. He is known both for his portrayal of the bratty temp Ryan Howard, as well as writing some of the show's most beloved episodes, such as "Diversity Day" and "The Fire." In his post-Office life, however, he's working on a book of "Woody Allen-esque" short stories and will appear in Saving Mr. Banks, the forthcoming Walt Disney biopic about the making of the film Mary Poppins.
Novak also has an intriguing history with board games, which he revealed to Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg at Central Park's SummerStage. "I lost a game of Scattergories to Michael Jackson," Novak shared. "And then he sang 'We Are the Champions'." True story.
From the King of Pop to the King of Denmark: Thanks to the Internet, we know that the title of Novak's college thesis was "To Be or Not to Be: Hollywood's Answers to Hamlet's Question." And coincidentally, we were just a short walk from the Delacorte Theater, home of the Public Theater's legendary Shakespeare in the Park summer program. So in honor of the Bard, we put Novak up to a game called Hamlet on Rye, about various films that feature the greatest inaction hero, Hamlet. Just think "Hakuna matata," and the rest will be a breeze.
This story originally ran on July 12, 2013.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Joining us onstage right now is writer, actor, comedian who you may know as being Ryan Howard on the NBC series "The Office." Please welcome B.J. Novak.
B.J. NOVAK: Hello.
EISENBERG: Welcome to Ask Me Another.
NOVAK: Thank you for having me on.
EISENBERG: My pleasure. How is life after "The Office"?
NOVAK: It's nice.
EISENBERG: Now, how did - you were writing on "The Office" and then you went to acting on "The Office." How did that transition happen?
NOVAK: Well, I actually started doing both at the same time.
NOVAK: And we kind of adjusted myself and Mindy Kaling and Paul Lieberstein who played Toby on the show, we all were actor-writers and we kind of adjusted accordingly. If we were very involved in the writers' room one season or one episode we would be more there. And if our character had suddenly something really fun to do we'd spend more time on camera. So we would feel it out as it went.
EISENBERG: And you wrote 15 episodes.
NOVAK: Something like that, yeah.
EISENBERG: And directed five or?
NOVAK: Something like that, yeah.
EISENBERG: Was there one that stands out to you that you are particularly proud of or was a favorite moment?
NOVAK: The first one I got to write was called "Diversity Day" and it had Steve Carrel's character Michael Scott leading a workplace session on sort of tolerance of different ethnic and racial sensitivity issues. And he was really the worst person that could ever lead such a thing.
NOVAK: And we really got to meet him through both how offensive he was and how hard he was trying. And that was a really - it was just sort of a comedy killing field. To get to write someone to be that offensive and that vulnerable was really, really fun.
EISENBERG: Now, you grew up with funny parents and a funny family. Your father cowrote the "Big Book of Jewish Humor." But were you a game playing family?
NOVAK: This is a crazy story that will take too long to tell, but when I was 10 years old I played Scattegories with Michael Jackson.
EISENBERG: I don't care how long the story takes, by the way.
NOVAK: My father is a ghostwriter, primarily, for celebrity and political memoirs. And he was working with a guy who had a charity initiative with Michael Jackson. We were told that in Lincoln, Massachusetts at the house of medical guru Deepak Chopra - and we were sitting in this living room and a man in a black hat dashes into the room in aviator sunglasses. And I thought it was an impersonator.
NOVAK: Because who - I thought Michael Jackson on his off day is going to be wearing, like, khakis and a t-shirt.
NOVAK: He's not always Michael Jackson. But he was always Michael Jackson. He practically moonwalked into the room. I don't mean to imply anything with this anecdote but I was hoping to sit at the adult's table because that's where I assumed Michael Jackson would be. I was disappointed to be put at the kids' table but who was sitting next to me at the kids' table?
EISENBERG: Michael Jackson.
NOVAK: But Michael Jackson. I couldn't - Ophira, I couldn't make this up.
NOVAK: And then the Chopra kids after dinner...
EISENBERG: The Chopra kids.
NOVAK: The Chopra kids said let's play a game and we went into the living room. And they broke out Scattergories which happened to be my favorite game. I lost the game of Scattergories to Michael Jackson and then he sang "We Are the Champions."
EISENBERG: That is an incredible story.
NOVAK: I'm glad I didn't go with the Boggle with Madonna story because it's not...
EISENBERG: Exactly. Next time. Next time.
EISENBERG: B.J., thanks to the Internet we actually know your college honors thesis was titled "To Be or Not to Be: Hollywood's Answers to Hamlet's Question."
NOVAK: That is correct.
EISENBERG: Really? Oh, good.
EISENBERG: Because Wikipedia said it and we were just hoping. But that is correct. Coincidentally, we are a short walk away from the Delacorte Theater, home of the public theater's legendary Shakespeare in the Park summer program.
EISENBERG: So in honor of Shakespeare in the park we're going to play a game...
EISENBERG: ...about various films that feature the greatest inaction hero Hamlet.
NOVAK: Hmm. OK.
EISENBERG: What do you think of that?
NOVAK: I think this is literally a nightmare.
NOVAK: That after you graduate school, 10 years later you're taken on a large stage and given a pop quiz. I think it is literally a nightmare. Since you asked that, that is how it feels.
EISENBERG: Now, here's a little - extra little thing. If you get enough questions correct Erin Schlemme in Anchorage, Alaska will receive a special Ask Me Another prize.
NOVAK: All right.
EISENBERG: And it's going to be great.
NOVAK: This is for you, Erin.
EISENBERG: Some of the greatest actors in history have played Hamlet on film - Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson. But the most financially successful film adaptation of "Hamlet" is arguably what animated Disney movie which featured a warthog and a meerkat telling Hamlet to stop worrying about his sad past.
NOVAK: Oh. I'd like to phone a friend.
WILL SHORTZ: Well, we have a hint. In Swahili you might say hakuna matata.
NOVAK: Oh, well now I know.
EISENBERG: There you go.
NOVAK: Is this "The Lion King"?
EISENBERG: There you go.
NOVAK: Huge disparity between the clue and the hint, by the way.
EISENBERG: You think?
EISENBERG: In 1990, Tom Stoppard directed the film adaptation of this play about two minor characters in Hamlet who are unable to change their fate. Name the play.
NOVAK: Well, I played Guildenstern in college so I don't consider him minor. And that's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead."
EISENBERG: That is correct.
NOVAK: I was told it was a very important role.
EISENBERG: In a 2000 film adaptation set in modern day New York City, Hamlet is a film student who delivers his to be or not to be speech in a Blockbuster video store. What Gen-X actor plays Hamlet wearing knit caps that a New York Times reviewer said made him look like a lost member of the Spin Doctors?
NOVAK: Sounds of its time. Ethan Hawke.
EISENBERG: That is correct.
NOVAK: With a brilliant Polonius, the best Polonius in film by Bill Murray.
EISENBERG: Awesome. And that film...
EISENBERG: ...was supposed to be modern Hamlet.
EISENBERG: But if you look at it now it's like modern Hamlet with Polaroid cameras.
NOVAK: Right. Blockbuster Video, the most dated thing, it turns out, you could've had in that movie about Hamlet.
EISENBERG: Right. Surveillance bugs.
NOVAK: Yeah. Kids are like I know what the Danish royal family was like but what's Blockbuster?
EISENBERG: That does not hold up. Finally, what Alfred Hitchcock film takes its title from a line in Act Two, Scene Two when Hamlet says: I am but mad, blank. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.
NOVAK: North by Northwest.
NOVAK: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Will, I think he did...
EISENBERG: He did perfecto. Congratulations. For Erin.
NOVAK: Thank you for the hints. I needed them very much.
EISENBERG: Is going to win an Ask Me Another Rubik's Cube and you are going to win all of our adoration, not only for being great at this quiz but for having one of the best stories I have ever heard on our Ask Me Another show.
NOVAK: I didn't earn the story, it just happened to me. But thank you.
EISENBERG: Well, thank you for telling it and being a wonderful guest. B.J. Novak, everybody.
NOVAK: Thank you very much.
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