While writing for eight seasons on The Office, B.J. Novak took small, relatable ideas and turned them into bombastically brilliant gems.
In a TV episode like “Diversity Day,” the antics of Michael Scott attempting to stomp out racial discrimination features a simple moment of sweetness between Jim and Pam. It hooks into the viewer’s memory and sticks.
Novak’s first book, a collection of 64 short stories, offers not only has some ingenious conceit in almost every hilarious segment but also the familiar hook. He presents fascinating ideas that bring more than just big laughs.
Compiled from notes Novak made during his tenure at The Office, One More Thing came from scraps of ideas that wouldn’t work for the show. But they fit together wonderfully here.
What melds so many disparate ideas? Surprise.
“Dark Matter” starts with a man forcing a scientist to admit that he knows the real nature of mysterious dark matter. It ends (spoiler alert here) with the man getting free pizza and making fun of Citizen Kane with his friends.
In “Kellogg’s,” a boy wins $100,000 in a cereal box, but loses it thanks to his idealistic parents. At the end, the child discovers his real father.
The collection tracks Novak’s career. “A New Hitler,” a bit from Novak’s standup days, suggests that a new person with that poisonous moniker could turn things around for the name. In the acknowledgements section, we find a sly poke at The Office, with joking about a lunch Novak had with actor John Stamos.
In “J.C. Audetat,” the book’s final and longest story, the translator of Don Quixote gleefully jokes about the writing styles of Nick Hornby, Chuck Klosterman and Junot Diaz, among others.
Novak can also boil down a great idea into just a few short lines. “If You Love Something” simply states:
If you love something, let it go.
If you don’t love something, definitely let it go.
Basically, just drop everything, who cares.
Novak doesn’t belabor his points—most stories run a page or less. He’s not an author to let a well thought-out idea overstay its welcome. One More Thing plays with readers, jumping ahead to shorter segments, connecting seemingly unconnected stories, even asking his own discussion questions. (A story featuring a date with a warlord ends with the narrator asking if one should ever sleep with a murdering, torturing monster.)
Novak compares to Woody Allen or David Sedaris. This reviewer also sees similarities to Michael Ian Black’s essays and the overall aesthetic of The State. No matter where a story begins, you almost certainly won’t guess where it ends.
Novak’s entire career surprises, from the twists and turns of skits on Punk’d to appearances in films as different as Inglourious Basterds and Saving Mr. Banks. In a career filled with great moments, maybe most shocking is that Novak’s most compelling and exciting work comes now, in little bits of ideas filling his fantastic first book.
It ends up (spoiler alert) being one of the best comedic debuts of the year.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter at @rbonaime.