Published October 17, 2012
Most people become artists or actors so they don't have to go to an office.
Not B.J. Novak.
He's best known for playing Ryan on NBC's hit comedy "The Office." He also writes and has worked as an executive producer for this Emmy Award-winning "mockumentary," which is now in its ninth and final season.
"'The Office" is such a bland environment," Mr. Novak said. "It's bleakness and despair."
So why do people work in offices and then go home to watch "The Office" on TV?
One of the most common places they watch it is on a plane, Mr. Novak said. And when he's seated beside someone watching it on a plane, he tries to freak them out: "I say, 'Hey! Do you ever see this show? The place I work at is exactly like this.'"
Mr. Novak's character started off as a temp at the fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company's branch in a dismal business park in Scranton, Pa.
He enjoyed a meteoric rise to the company's corporate headquarters in New York City. But he soon was exposed for corporate fraud. He then had to return to Scranton as a lowly temp. And from there, he rejected all things corporate and struggled to become a hipster.
If this is social commentary, like the kind you read in Dilbert cartoons, I have no idea what it means. Mr. Novak wouldn't tell me, either. "I think it was just in the air," he said.
If he's a satirist, he didn't share any of his thoughts on business, the economy, corporate America or even Ponzi schemes. "I am against Ponzi schemes," he said.
As near as I could tell, he is just a guy who somehow thrives on the kind of skull-numbing boredom that only an office environment can provide. And soon he will be out of a gig in Scranton. So he's had to find work in other cities with sprawling office parks, like Aurora.
Mr. Novak, who also played a role in Quentin Tarantino's film "Inglorious Basterds," was flown in as the keynote speaker for the Aurora Economic Development Council's annual "A-List" dinner.
Past speakers for this posh event have included former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, tennis great Andre Agassi and ubiquitous political commentators James Carville and Mary Matalin. It is such a big deal, Aurora has to host it in Denver, for lack of a large-enough venue. This year, Mr. Novak addressed about 1,500 at the Wings Over The Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, beside discarded old rocket scraps and ancient Air Force bombers.
"To signal to the world that Aurora is a community about business growth and progress and innovation, there's no better person...than an actor known for playing the worst employee of the world's most inefficient company," Mr. Novak opened.
It's been a tough year for Aurora, given the horrific theater shooting as well as some high-profile economic setbacks.
Gaylord Entertainment Co. leaned heavily on Aurora for obscene millions worth of economic development incentives. Then, after putting all the economic development people through all kinds of work, the company stalled its $824 million hotel project while it struck another deal to sell its hotel brand to Marriott International Inc. (MAR).
On another disappointing eco-devo front, General Electric Co.'s (GE) Primestar Solar postponed a manufacturing plant that was to employ 355 workers. The Chinese solar subsidy strikes again.
"We just wanted to laugh," said Aurora EDC president Wendy Mitchell of the choice of this year's keynote speaker. And on laughs, Mr. Novak delivered:
--"Popeye is a smart businessman. He opened a chain of fast-food restaurants and does not serve spinach. Popeye wants to keep us weak."
--"I used to sponsor an orphan in South America until I saw on TV that for the same price, I could buy myself a cup of coffee every day."
--"I didn't learn anything in college....I had a double major: psychology and reverse psychology."
--"Trident: How did we end up chewing a gum that means three teeth?"
"The Office" debuted in 2005 before America's great economic bubble burst, and it will air its final episode in May, long before the economy recovers. The fictional Dunder Mifflin paper company represents the universal bleakness we all suffer at the office, Mr. Novak said. But from his vantage point as a comedy writer, it is really just a blank page where the human drama unfolds.
"It's actually a very optimistic show," Mr. Novak said, "because after a while, it takes all that bleakness for granted. And then it's about the life that springs out of it."
It's kind of like the joy I feel when I go on TV to tell the viewers that after all these years of recovery, our economy is still not producing jobs. At least if you don't have an office to go to in the morning, you can still watch one on TV in the evening.
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at firstname.lastname@example.org or tellittoal.com).