This book reminded me a lot of a That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch where David Mitchell is planning out the next episode of their show: “I think it should go: hit, miss, hit, hit, miss, miss, miss, hit, miss, hit, hit.” When Robert Webb asks him why they even have to include the misses (because they are such a bother to write), Mitchell replies that they have to “perversely include about 50% deliberately unamusing material” because that is what people expect from a sketch show.
B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories reads a lot like a sketch show, consisting of one “wouldn’t it be funny if” scenario after the other: what if an Ugandan war lord went out on a date? What if there was a Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela? Appropriately, One More Thing has about 100 pages of misses that could have, and should have, been cut.
Not that B.J. Novak isn’t funny. In fact, he has more than proven that he knows his comedy. He is known for his dead-pan delivery, was a writer and actor on one of the most successful TV shows in recent history (The Office US), and kills on Twitter. One of his best tweets is actually included in this book. There are some gems in this collection where his dry wit really shines (the final line of “The Ambulance Driver” got a full-minute laugh from me) and it is easy to imagine him performing some chapters at a comedy club, eyes twinkling as he gives the audience one of the recurring discussion questions (“Do you think ‘why not’ is ultimately a better question than ‘why?’ Why or why not?”). Even most of the misses have great comedic potential as an idea, but are then let down by the execution; without Novak’s personal charm and delivery, some jokes fall flat on the page. Case in point: how funny the book trailer he wrote and directed (featuring his bestie Mindy Kaling) is compared to some of the included material.
As a writer, Novak is no poet and he knows it. He sticks to a clean, straightforward style of writing that suits his purpose well, allowing himself a literary digression here and there, but always quick to return to the punchline. One exception is the final story, an hommage to Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” entitled “J.C. Audetat, Translator of Don Quixote.” It is a love letter to Borges, footnotes and all, that is surprisingly thoughtful and reveals that Novak is a lot more well-read than you might think. This is a story that is likely to go over the heads of most of his readers, but was an unexpected little delight for a literature nerd like me, with the deliciously pretentious review quotes as a particular highlight (“Like the tea-soaked crumbs of its famous madeleine, J.C. Audetat’s vibrant new translation of Proust…”).
All and all, One More Thing is not a bad debut and I definitely hope that Novak will keep writing more material, but as a book, it needed stricter editing. Come to think of it, it would actually be a pretty good hit-and-miss comedy sketch show. Novak, you should contact the people of That Mitchell and Webb Look and make that happen. David Mitchell would make an excellent J.C. Audetat, it’ll be brilliant.