Lennox Cao/Sun Staff Photographer

March 23, 2023

B.J. Novak of ‘The Office’ and Cornell’s Ironic Crossover

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Perhaps the only time Cornellians feel truly under the spotlight of pop culture is through Andy Bernard in The Office. The hit sitcom repeatedly pokes fun at Cornell when mocking the alumni pride of Bernard, played by Ed Helms. So, when B.J. Novak — another star from The Office — came to campus for a Q&A, the event would not be complete without asking about the show’s obsession with Cornell. Novak (jokingly) explained this facet of Bernard’s character, saying, “We wanted him to be very proud of his Ivy League education, but the school couldn’t be too good… we’re not saying this guy is a genius, you understand?”

Novak visited Barton Hall on Sunday for this Q&A event, hosted by Cornell University’s Programming Board in collaboration with Cornell Hillel. While most famous for his role as Ryan Howard in The Office, Novak has acted in a multitude of other shows and movies, and is also a producer, director and writer.

The event began with a Q&A moderated by Elliot Shapiro, a Cornell Senior Lecturer in the Knight Institute and Jewish Studies, before opening up to questions from the audience. Shapiro began by asking about Novak’s Jewish identity. Novak described how he grew up with a Jewish community, and while he was often identified as the Jewish guy, this did not come across as good or bad but was instead a “curious” thing. Novak described that Jewish people learn as they grow up that being Jewish is “not just you looking in the mirror at the outside world… it’s the outside world seeing you a certain way.” It was interesting to hear how much Novak found his identity defined by what others thought and identified him as. A lot of times our identities — whether it is your race, religion, sexuality or something else — are only noticeable to us as kids when others place you in a box. While I am not Jewish, I still felt connected to Novak here, since his words spoke to a much larger message on identity.

I spoke with Rabbi Ari Weiss, Executive Director of Cornell Hillel, and he stressed the importance of bringing an inspirational Jewish figure to campus, saying, “It was a moment of Jewish pride.” Even when he was not answering direct questions about his Jewish identity, Novak made multiple allusions to his identity. When one audience member far back in the bleachers, unseen in the darkness, asked a question, Novak joked he was hearing Hashem. Referencing this comment, Weiss remarked, “You could see his Jewish roots come out.”

Novak’s charm not only came from the jokes he intertwined into his answers, but also from his overall relatability. While the moderated Q&A was interesting, I felt the audience Q&A generated a lot more energy. Novak even picked his microphone up off the stand when this portion started, signaling a more casual and vibrant atmosphere. When the audience Q&A started, the lights momentarily blinded me as they focused on the students, but it also made me feel more a part of the conversation. 

While there were obviously a lot of questions surrounding The Office, Novak spoke a lot on ambition and success. Novak stressed that even though show business often relies on people getting ahead and submitting to Hollywood’s cycle, it is important for people to make “valuable” content. He then gave a flattering nod to his audience, “The pursuit of being excellent is much harder to do but I think everyone at a school like this knows how to do that too.” However, reaching for excellence does not mean that you must do it all. Novak also acknowledged that his goals have changed over time, stating, “My ambitions have gone from ‘I want to do everything’ to ‘[I want to do] the things that I think only I can do.” I admired Novak’s reflection, since I believe tailored ambition is important to accomplish goals and be proud of your work. While ambition is a great characteristic, I have found that spreading yourself thin or not focusing on your true passions can be distracting. 

Throughout the event, it became clear that Novak’s largest passion is writing. Novak described what writing meant to him when he said, “I actually believe that writing is the wrong name for writing. I think that when people are in school as a kid you learn that writing is literally handwriting, and spelling, and grammar… but [this] has almost nothing to do with what great writing is.” Novak gave his own definition of writing: “Writing is really ‘composing.’” 

At Cornell, we can be so focused on the grammar or tactical components of assignments and projects. Sometimes creativity and people’s individual skills take a side seat, which can be especially disappointing to see when our campus is full of talent. I want to see people step up to showcase what they truly want to show to the world about themselves and what they have discovered, instead of the mechanical need to memorize for a prelim or write with correct punctuation. Obviously these aspects are not totally unimportant, but when others stress this too much, I see people — including myself — blinded to the creative, unique skills we could instead focus on. After listening to Novak, I found myself wondering if I am creating works I am proud of, or if I am simply completing things to get it “right.”

Cornell students connected to Novak whether they were Jewish, aspiring writers or simply had impassioned ambition. Nearly everyone in the many rows of seats felt some type of bond. In his last words, Novak’s relatability again shone through, advising that with everything we do, we should reflect on three things: “What do I want to say, what do I want to communicate, what do I want to make people feel.” With these words, Novak gave a final reminder of the importance of composing content that’s truly valuable, and in doing so, embracing your own personal flair. 

Gillian Lee is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].