B.J. Novak with Jon Bernthal as Chase Milbrandt
With Kaitlyn Dever as Abbi Miller
With Lucas Hedges as Jesse Wheeler
B.J. Novak is full of ideas.
"Millions," he says, "and it's easier for me to write a hundred than it is for me to write one." It was this embarrassment of riches that led him to create The Premise, an anthology series that premieres September 16 on FX on Hulu.
Novak, who is best known for his role as Ryan Howard on eight seasons of NBC's The Office, is taking a step back from acting in his new project. He serves as the creator, executive producer and writer or cowriter of all five episodes and the director of two. He also steps in as host — introducing each of the 30-minute episodes, which vary in subject (identity, social justice, social media and more) as well as tone.
"With all these episodes being different, I wouldn't show them to a friend without explaining a little bit first," Novak says.
So how does he describe them? "They're moral dilemmas that are timeless in the age of the unprecedented," Novak offers. "The other connective thread is that it's a comedy. Some episodes, like 'Moment of Silence' [which is about gun violence], are incredibly dramatic. But in every case, they're playing out a very comedic premise."
The Massachusetts native and Harvard grad began his writing career on the short-lived WB series Raising Dad, starring Bob Saget. His earliest acting credit, however, was for his work as a prankster on Ashton Kutcher's hidden-camera show Punk'd. No stranger to mischief, Novak was perfectly suited to the job.
In a 2016 interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he described how, at 14, he stole someone's identity to procure an ID from the DMV showing he was 21.
During his early years in L.A., Novak also performed as a stand-up comedian. That brought him to the attention of Greg Daniels, who was then adapting the original British version of The Office.
Novak was soon hired as a writer, producer and actor on the series, alongside his former high-school classmate John Krasinski, who played Jim Halpert. (Novak's real life wove its way into The Office once more when his on-again, off-again relationship with fellow writer and actor Mindy Kaling was written into the show. They're good friends now. "I had to talk her out of a Lamborghini SUV," he says of their most recent text exchange.)
Novak's plethora of ideas also led him to write a children's book (The Book with No Pictures) and a collection of short stories (One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories), both New York Times bestsellers. Earlier this year he launched a popup restaurant in West Hollywood called Chain, which puts a gourmet spin on popular dishes from franchise restaurants.
Emmy associate editor Sarah Hirsch spoke with Novak about his new anthology series and a few of the other ideas tumbling around in his head.
How did you come up with The Premise and what is it about the anthology format that appeals to you as a writer?
The initial inspiration was watching The Twilight Zone, high, with my college roommate, and immediately understanding that's what I was born to do. I thought, I want college roommates to be able to sit down and watch me show them one story after another.
My mind is always jumping to a new premise. Sometimes I have a parable or a question to explore. I feel like there's really a hole for that — for philosophy and morality and ideas that are not played out with argument, but with art. We haven't updated the parables that we live by for a very long time. Sometimes I refer to myself as "Hans Jewish Anderson" to the network.
Did you gain a new perspective on any of the subjects you covered in the show?
Yeah, every episode incorporated perspectives I didn't have. In the episode "Moment of Silence," I really got in touch — as did [episode star] Jon Bernthal — with the side of my mind and heart that has different points of view than I have. I love the idea that anyone could watch "Moment of Silence" and connect to it regardless of their politics.
Were any subjects off-limits?
One of the writers pitched a story about a time traveler who goes back in time to kill Hitler, then finds out that Anne Frank became a way worse mass murderer, so he needs to go back to kill Anne Frank.
To me, it's always about: is it funny enough to justify the danger? The more dangerous something is, the better it has to be. If we were to do another season, it would be much easier. The writing and producing were very taxing. It was like the hardest part of making five pilots with the hardest part of making five movies.
What do you hope viewers take away from this show?
The ultimate success as a writer is to give people a reference for things in their own lives. For people to be able to say, "It felt like that scene in blank." Doing shorter form let me take more swings at things that people might enjoy having in their minds as metaphors or memories.
I think that's why memes are so successful. You see one of those — like the guy checking out the other girl — and you're like, "That's like this!" I like the idea that these episodes are halfway between memes and movies.
You wear many hats on this project. Do you have a favorite aspect of the production process?
To me, it's all writing. When I act, I feel like I'm writing a character. When I direct, I feel like I'm writing the aesthetics of the scene. That's how I see the world. And I think writing is a misnomer, by the way. Writing is something more like composing. People grow up thinking they can't write because to them, writing is penmanship in third grade, or spelling bees in fourth grade. But that has nothing to do with writing. Writing is expressing an idea.
Do you enjoy writing?
No. Someone once said that writers are people for whom writing is harder than it is for other people. And Philip Roth said, "Writing isn't hard work, it's a nightmare." I've always related to quotes like that. The idea stage is breathtakingly fun for me. That's why I'm doing this series — because I have so many ideas that I love. What is harder is staying with them for a long time. I would rather complete a great idea like it's a song and quickly move on.
Everyone says, "That's so hard, an anthology series, because it's all these different stories." It's actually easier for me, because that's how I think.
Your father, William Novak, ghost-wrote memoirs for Nancy Reagan, Lee Iacocca and Magic Johnson. Did you grow up wanting to be a writer?
I was never interested in writing because I thought it was like being a dentist or something — no offense to dentists. But I thought writing was a normal profession. When I saw Pulp Fiction, I suddenly understood how cool writing could be.
But you know, my favorite thing was to make my friends laugh. I would write stories about the teachers and our classmates, and I would slip them under the desk to my friends and see if I could make them laugh. That is much better training than writing an essay for a teacher.
You have so many incredible stories from your childhood — like playing Scattergories with Michael Jackson at Deepak Chopra's house, which sounds like a Mad Lib. Do you have any other stories from that time you can share?
They all sound so crazy. I was really fascinated by Cuba when I was a teenager, and there was this advertisement in The New Yorker about traveling there legally. So I wrote them and they sent back a brochure.
A few months later, I got a letter from the FBI that said I was on a list of people who were in touch with this company that was illegally taking people to Cuba. The same part of me that wanted to go to Cuba wanted an FBI file because I had grown up reading these counterculture books in my dad's library. I thought, This is my chance.
The FBI guy was like, "I'd love to meet with you and ask you some questions." I said, "Yes, but it needs to be in a public park." The guy's like, "It could be a Starbucks, or we could even do it over the phone." I was like, "No, it must be at Cold Spring Park in Newton."
So I get there, and my friends have dressed up like how we imagined Secret Service agents — suits with no shirts, sunglasses, slicked-back hair and briefcases, and one of them had an earpiece. They flanked me as I sat on a bench and this poor guy — who was just a normal guy doing his job — clearly knew that we were up to silliness.
During the interrogation, my friends quietly walked up to each other and switched briefcases. I don't know if this was ever written up by the FBI, but it was a great way to spend a Sunday.
It's surprising that your first book was a collection of short stories rather than a memoir detailing all these stories. Do you have any plans to write a memoir?
I would like to. I think I wrote short stories because I was a little shy and I felt self-conscious about how a lot of these stories aren't relatable. I think [when you read] the great memoirs, you're like, Even though this is an extraordinary person, this guy is just like me . And I feel like my book would be the opposite: He's not that extraordinary, and he's nothing like me.
Did comedy play a big role in your childhood?
Comedy was our love language in the family. My dad compiled The Big Book of Jewish Humor, and the family shorthand was punchlines from that book. There was a joke about a man who anxiously asks a train station attendant, "Does the train to Minsk run every day?" And the man says, "Every day." And the anxious man asks, "Thursdays, too?" S
o whenever one of us was anxious about something that had already been answered, the family shorthand was, "Thursdays, too?"
With my younger brother Jesse, who is the composer on this show, we would compose songs — quite dirty ones, in retrospect — to sing at Thanksgiving with our cousins. We'd create characters, and I would generally do the performing, and Jesse would do the music. And with my little brother Lev — I'm 12 years older than he is — I just lived to tell him bedtime stories.
They would get so wild and rambunctious, my mom would say, "You either have to tell him quieter stories or tell him a second story to wind him down." So I added a wind-down story. That's probably where The Book with No Pictures came from — which the publisher asked if they could market as "not a bedtime book."
Do you have any more children's books in the works? It seems like you could write a whole series in that vein.
You know, I wrote several in that series and I didn't publish them. I had a whole manuscript, and I would take it to kindergartens to test it. The kids laughed, but at the end they would say, "Okay, now read the first one again." And I just didn't like the idea that I would dilute the joy of the first book with a second book that was good, but not great. It's kind of special — it's like the one pure thing I've done.
I have a lot of other kids' stories sketched out. I like to imagine I'll have a big phase of that someday, but without kids to test them on, it's hard. I'm a relentless tester of material. I would drive to every parent I knew and just read The Book with No Pictures or the sequels to the kids . It was just too much driving.
What's the most important writing lesson you learned from Greg Daniels?
I learned everything from Greg Daniels. A lot of principles and values about how hard you had to work and how uneven and unfair the process of revisions could be. And yet, it would always lead to the draft you were supposed to have. You'd write a great draft and throw it out, you'd write a bad draft and throw it out, you'd write a medium draft and throw it out.
And he was incredibly intuitive and respectful of the compass that actors have for material. I've never seen that in another showrunner who hasn't been an actor. I wrote a lot of jokes in the early years of The Office that Steve [Carell] or Greg would delicately reject, because they sounded like "jokes."
At first, I was confused. I said, "Yeah, of course, they're jokes. They're jokes I wrote for your comedy show." And Steve explained that he doesn't want to do anything that feels like a joke. He wants to do things that feel like the character is true and funny. And that is so much better. That's a lesson I learned from both Greg and Steve.
And from Steve Carell in terms of performing?
I've never been able to approach anywhere near what Steve can do as a performer. Few people can. But the lessons to learn from Steve are to start from a place of realism and then see how far you can push it.
He really challenged the writers. Because there was almost nothing you could write that was too wild for him to make emotionally believable. That's what makes a great comedy actor — incredible dramatic grounding. The Office taught me how connected drama and comedy are. The best comedy is grounded in dramatic realism, and that is the tone of these stories — even though they are more imaginative and less grounded than Dunder Mifflin.
After The Office, did you get offers to do another sitcom and did you ever seriously consider doing one?
I'm sure I could've done a lot of them, but, you know, I left The Office before I needed to — I left before the final season. And I certainly could've, at the very least, stayed and done any number of things at NBCUniversal or elsewhere. But I really wanted to carve my own path, which I've always done.
I like being something of an outlier creatively. I wrote the books, and I wrote a movie [Vengeance, which he also directed and stars in] that's coming out a few months after the show, and I wrote a million ideas for this show. It's scarier, but it's more exciting to go off in your own direction.
The executive producers of The Premise are Novak and John Lesher; the production company is FX Productions. Following the September 16 double-episode debut, subsequent episodes will drop on Thursdays.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2021