B.J. Novak, best known for his role in the beloved NBC comedy The Office, picks a handful of songs that use comedy in interesting ways – most of them on purpose - from the comedic swagger of Kitty Pryde and Riff Raff to late era Elvis and The Kingston Trio. B.J. just released his first book called One More Thing and will appear in The Amazing Spiderman 2.
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1. The Kingston Trio - M.T.A.
2. Wesley Willis - Rock n Roll McDonalds
3. Beck - Debra
4. Kitty Pride feat. Riff Raff - Orion's Belt
5. Elvis Presley - Something
Dan Wilcox: Hey, this is Dan Wilcox from KCRW and I am sitting here with BJ Novak. He starred in the beloved NBC comedy The Office, and also wrote and executive-produced episodes of the show over its run. He will release his first book this year titled “One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories” in addition to appearing in “The Amazing Spiderman 2”. Today, we’re going to be talking about some of the songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project. Welcome, B.J.
BJ Novak: I’m so excited to be here Dan, thank you.
DW: So, let’s just dive on in. What’s the first one you’ve got for us today?
BJN: Well, all the songs I picked are ones that use comedy.
So, the first one that I picked is The Kingston Trio’s version of “M.T.A.” I’m from the Boston area, and everyone in Boston knows this song. This was a folk song that was used as a campaign song for a mayoral candidate named Walter O’Brien who was running for mayor of Boston on a platform of rejecting a proposed nickel increase in the subway fare that you would have to pay when you got off the subway.
And this is a song about a hypothetical man named Charlie who can never get off the subway and he is riding forever beneath the streets of Boston. It was extremely funny to me that every day in the song, Charlie’s wife hands him a sandwich through the window, and I always thought, “Why doesn’t she hand him a nickel?” This is a very bad marriage.
Song: The Kingston Trio -- “M.T.A.”
DW: Ok, we just heard the song “M.T.A.” by The Kingston Trio. I’m sitting here with B.J. Novak and we’re going to go from The Kingston Trio to Wesley Willis. Tell me about the song “Rock n Roll McDonalds.”
BJN: Well, Wesley Willis was a cult phenomenon in the probably late 90s who was… really sets the bar for insane. I mean, this is not like, ‘Oh, my girlfriend’s kind of crazy.’ This guy was the textbook definition of psychotic; he really had chronic schizophrenia; he was well over 350 pounds and had been homeless and constantly saw demons.
As a street artist -- and I actually have one of his drawings at my house now -- he then became a street musician, and he pressed a preset button on a Casio-like keyboard and just recorded thousands of songs. And someone put them on tape and released them. This one, “Rock n Roll McDonalds”, was the first one I heard, and it kicked off his Greatest Hits Vol 1, and it’s just unabashedly joyous, and are you laughing at this guy? Yeah, you are. And is that bad? Maybe. But, you are also in his head, you are enjoying how great this “Rock n Roll McDonalds” is.
Song: Wesley Willis -- “Rock n Roll McDonalds”
DW: Ok, we just heard “Rock n Roll McDonalds” from the great Wesley Willis, sitting here with B.J. Novak and where we going next?
BJN: The next song I chose is a song that is probably more familiar to people; this is Beck’s song “Debra” from the Midnight Vultures album. And this was a song that, the first time I heard it, it kind of changed the way I thought about a lot of things… creatively anyway. That a song that could be so clearly comedic could be so beautiful and… feel comfortable integrating those;
From the first line, ‘I met you at JC Penny’ and all the way through to, ‘I want to get with you, only you and your sister; I think her name’s Debra.’ And yet this is a, this is really a beautiful song musically, and it captures this real true euphoria of a certain type of love and lust and ecstasy, and it was just a fantastic song musically.
And the fact that the song could have so many funny lyrics without trying to make you laugh fascinated me, and really made me think about everything I wanted to do and how I could try to use comedy the same way.
Song: Beck -- “Debra”
BJN: I remember hearing, you know, ‘I’m gonna take you up to Glendale; take you for a real good meal.’ And I didn’t live in LA then, but even then I knew… I bet Glendale is not that fancy of a place. I could tell there was something funny about all of it. ‘Ladies, step inside my Hyundai,’ I knew that this was not your typical great date, but that he meant it on a level, and I loved it.
DW: Alright, that was “Debra” from Beck. I’m sitting here with BJ Novak, and BJ what do we have next?
BJN: The next song is a Kitty Pryde song, and it features the rapper Riff Raff. And the song is called, “Orion’s Belt,” and a guy named Beautiful Lou made the beat. I love this song, and it also has a lot of comedic swagger, kind of in a Beastie Boys way, I guess, but it does feel very organic to these particular people. And it’s not meant to be a joke, but they’re kind of joking, too. And it just was very cool to me; it was right on that line of, ‘Is this meant to be funny or cool?’ and they clearly had integrated them.
One thing I love about this song is the Riff Raff lyric, ‘When it comes to hateful words, I got skin like a rhinoceros,’ and that was so revealing that he would boast about that.
DW: I would say that you as an actor would probably have to have a thick skin as well in what you do. Is there something about that that you related to in the song?
BJN: Oh yeah. I told someone once, if you want to know what’s it’s like to know what everyone really thinks about you, just become famous, and Google your name. Because every sort of awful, hateful thing that could be said about you is out there somewhere and you will find it. I think people think that every celebrity has decided that their famous flaw is not a flaw. And in general that is what they are most sensitive about, and what they are paranoid that is the flaw that is going to bring them down. And yet everyone is sort of shouting it at them on the internet like… whatever peoples’ biggest vulnerability is, is obvious, generally, and real. And so I guess it was fun for me to see Riff Raff admitting - while trying not to admit - that everything people had said about him hurt his feelings tremendously. It was refreshing.
Song: Kitty Pryde feat. Riff Raff -- "Orion's Belt"
DW: Okay we just heard “Orion’s Belt,” from Kitty Pryde featuring Riff Raff. Song selected by BJ Novak. And what’s the last track that you got for us?
BJN: The last track was hard for me to decide because I wanted to include a late Elvis Presley cover. And I ultimately chose his version of “Something” by The Beatles.
I was never much of an Elvis guy but, writing this book, I got really into Elvis and I wrote a couple stories about Elvis. I was fascinated by the idea that Elvis must have known on a level that he wasn’t Elvis any more, and that Elvis was such a mind blowing thing to be that I bet he was star struck by himself, in a way. And you can hear it in his music, he’s trying so hard to elevate everything he’s doing to this mythical level, and it’s just not working. But there is huge heart behind it.
He covered all these songs late in his life that he seems to have completely misunderstood and you can hear in the second line of the song which is ‘something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover, haha damn.’ That’s how Elvis sings this song. That’s a misinterpretation of the tone of “Something”. And yet, it is his interpretation, so maybe it’s not a misinterpretation, it is Elvis Presley singing his heart out... and feeling all these things or feeling what he feels about the song.
Song: Elvis Presley -- "Something"
DW: Okay, we just heard the song “Something”, Beatles song, as done by Elvis Presley, as selected by our guest DJ BJ Novak. BJ, thank you so much for joining us here at KCRW.
BJN: I’ve wanted to do this for years, I love these programs, thank you so much.
DW: You got it.