April 1, 2008

Wikipedia Brown Comes to Cornell (And B.J. Novak Too)

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B.J. Novak walked on stage Saturday night at Bailey Hall, with a copy of The Sun open to a love letter written to — who else — B.J. Novak. He read over the piece and called its writer, Sydney Arkin ’10, on stage. And as she flatly denied in person the claims she had so lovingly made in the paper, he was genuinely let down. Really, though, this was a perfect moment for him to work within his self-deprecating tone.
Novak has mastered the art of post-joke self-deprecation, and he seems to have taken a great deal of inspiration from John Stewart in doing so. For the second half of his act Saturday night, he read jokes from a stack of flash cards, saving the wheat and throwing the chaff into a garbage can. Each weak joke was secretly an opportunity to pout at the audience’s quieter reaction, and, with dejection, throw away the card. Even the unfunny cards left the audience pleased in the end.
Pauses, dead air, the quiet after an awkward comment, these are the devices that made Novak and the rest of the cast of The Office rock stars on college campuses. The show has perfectly blurred the line between unfunny and hilarious.
Novak’s personality on stage is not far from his television character of Ryan Howard, the straight man of The Office. His humor is smart and is delivered soberly. He weaved wordplay, callback to other jokes and pop culture references into a neat package, crafted just for the college crowd. Mentions of McGruff the Crime Dog, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? played particularly well with the ’90s TV-addled crowd. Throughout the act, Novak proved himself knowledgeable on what kids like us think and joke about ourselves.
The highlight of the show was an extended bit, in which Novak read from a storybook he had written centered around a child detective named Wikipedia Brown. It was interesting to see a joke involving our middle school reading material, the children’s novel series, Encyclopedia Brown, in juxtaposition with the internet generation’s encyclopedia. And as the story of young Wikipedia Brown, an overly descriptive, often unreliable detective, and a spewing spout of random information, unfolds, Novak has cleverly wound a real tale, a critique of the website and our use of it, into a brilliant segment.
Wikipedia was not the only piece of modern technology Novak covered in his show. Complaints about the difficulties of technology, about its having an anthropomorphic attitude, are the bread and butter of The Office, and are certainly part of Novak’s repertoire.
Novak’s comedic style — understated, knowing, reserved — is very much in vogue these days. He subscribes to the school of co-star Steve Carrell, Michael Cera and Demetri Martin, where bad jokes get laughs too, and cultivating the awkward moment trumps the loudness, cursing and impressions of past trends in comedy. It’s a fun movement, and one that hits home with the awkwardness of real life, especially life on a college campus.
Novak began his act with extended bits, like the tale of Wikipedia Brown, but sped back up when he reached into his briefcase for his new one-liners, which he told the audience he was testing out. Of the 30-odd quick and pun-filled jokes, most were hits with the crowd. Any lurid subject matter, anything that deviated from the innocence of character attributed to the awkward humorist, was rejected by the audience.
Opener Dan Mintz, who travels with Novak, on the other hand, was successful because of his lewdness. His gross-out humor and creepy demeanor made the headliner seem that much nicer by comparison. Mintz’ catchphrase, “are you going to rape me,” as spoken by an imaginary girl he is pursuing, speaks well to his perverse humor. But, in the end, stand up is a bottom line game, and Mintz and Novak both delivered the laughs.