Long before B.J. Novak brought his wit to the little screen as a writer and actor on the hit comedy “The Office,” he and his high school buddies pulled a prank for the ages at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“I love pranks,” Novak told a sold out audience at a fundraiser Tuesday night at his alma mater Newton South High School. “I don’t think I have spoken publicly about this before.”
It was 1997 and the big exhibit at the MFA that summer was “Tales From the Land of Dragons.” Like most big shows at the museum, the exhibit featured a self-guided audio tour. Well, that got Novak and his friends thinking.“We thought, ‘Let’s take a tape, transcribe it with everything on the tour, then make our own tape. And put that tape at the museum.’ So we stole a tape,” Novak said.
They recruited a friend from school to help, since he had a deep Romanian accent, and had Novak’s brother, Jesse, record some Asian music to make the tape sound more authentic.
“The first three minutes of the tape were completely accurate … but about 3 minutes in, the tour started getting a little weird. The guy started injecting his personal opinions. He’d say, ‘Personally I think this painting is a piece of crap,’” Novak recalled, using a heavy, vaguely Eastern European accent and laughing along with the audience.
“Quietly remove the glass and inhale the rich aroma of the paint,'' the faux narrator said. "Ah, that is good stuff!”
By the end of the tour, Novak said, the narrator instructs visitors to “turn to your left, now turn to your right, now put your right foot in, now put your right foot out,” and insists the visitor do the hokey-pokey.
“Here’s where his language gets a bit abusive and I assume it is where people stop the tour,” Novak said.
“My friends and I made 15 copies of the cassette tape, and like the most angelic group of children on summer vacation ever, we went to Museum of Fine Arts and all paid $15 to go on this tour of Chinese art on our own time – during which time we took out the existing tape and inserted the new cassette tape and returned the apparatus. We felt bad about stealing the tapes so we left them in a locker at the museum and left a note saying where they are. We dropped off a tape at the Boston Globe with a letter explaining what happened.”
When he returned home to Newton Center, Novak removed his museum tag and said nothing of the prank.
He had been so keen to pull off the stunt that he had told his mother beforehand. Linda Novak had feared the tomfoolery would jeopardize Novak’s entry into college and even threatened to warn the museum if he persisted.
So he said nothing.
The next morning, Novak came down to breakfast and found a clipping from the newspaper left for him. The headline read: "Wild ride through ‘Dragons.’ " It didn't mention Novak's name, though the audio has since surfaced on iTunes.
“And they didn’t say they were mad,” said Novak, “so maybe they thought that was a good one.”
Novak has since apologized to his mother and there is no word on the status of the investigation at the MFA. The museum declined to comment today.