Scranton meets 'The Office'
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A Dunder Mifflin sign hangs outside City Hall in Scranton. Dunder Mifflin is the name of the fictional paper company whose employees are the subject of NBC's hit show "The Office," which airs at 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays.
SCRANTON, Pa. -- The hit TV show "The Office" skewers corporate life -- and has fun with this hard-scrabble city, the fictional home of the Dunder Mifflin paper company.
Hear excerpts from Scranton Mayor Christopher Doherty's conversation with the PG's Cristina Rouvalis:
The Scranton regional office of the imaginary paper company is a bland land of paperwork, relentless mediocrity and fluorescent-lit absurdity. The office drones are far from the beautiful people who populated "Friends." Michael Scott is the clueless groan-inducing boss, who calls New York City "Scranton on acid."
Instead of getting its collective back up, Scranton is embracing the Emmy-winning NBC show, laughing along with it. Mayor Chris Doherty has a Dunder Mifflin banner flying outside of City Hall, and Farley's restaurant is concocting a Michael Scott burger, slathered in cheese.
After all, residents of the former coal town two hours west of New York City have heard much worse. When George Burns was asked if he was afraid to die, Burns replied, "No, I already died in Scranton."
"The Scrantons, the Pittsburghs, the Clevelands -- it is nice to get notice, but when we do, it is usually the butt of jokes," said Austin J. Burke, president of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.
"There are great people in Scranton," Mr. Burke said. "We don't take ourselves too seriously."NBC Photo, Mitchell Haaseth
From left, John Krasinski as Jim Halpert, Rainn Wilson as Dwight Schrute, Jenna Fischer as Pam Beesly, B.J. Novak as Ryan Howard and Steve Carell as Michael Scott star in "The Office." --
Click photo for larger image.
Like the show's creator, Scranton leaders say the comedy doesn't mock this city of 80,000. Instead they say it jabs dysfunctional office life in Anywhere, America.
"If you walk into an office anywhere, you are going to be able to identify the people on the show: the older ones, the younger ones, the loser," said Mari Potis, the chamber membership director who sends authentic Scranton props that land on the Los Angeles set.
But 21-year-old Teresa LaBelle thinks the show pokes fun at Scranton, which has been declared a distressed city by the state.
In one episode, Michael (played by Steve Carell) makes a homemade video that begins with him saying cloyingly, "Life moves a little slower in Scranton, Pa., and that's the way we like it" before the camera scans on glazed workers. In another episode, he peers out the window and says with forced gusto, "Another beautiful day in Scranton, Pa."
"Of course, it is making fun of Scranton. But come on -- I make fun of Scranton all the time," said Ms. LaBelle, a student at the University of Scranton. "And I love Scranton. It is fun to see it on a larger scale. It is all in good fun."
"It's not us. It's a caricature of us," says her friend, Denzel Morgan.
The two are baristas at The Coffee House at Outrageous, a very Un-Office-like establishment that sells jewelry and joe, with whimsical murals on the walls. You wouldn't catch Michael Scott at a hip place like this. His favorite haunts are Chili's and Hooters, where he makes double entendres to the waitress.
When he visits New York City, he brags that he knows authentic New York pizza -- and then struts into Sbarro.
Greg Daniels, executive producer of the show, says those jokes reflect the character of Michael, not Scranton. Mr. Daniels wanted Dunder Mifflin's regional office set in a real place. "Good fiction has specifics," said Mr. Daniels, considered the creative force behind the Americanized version of the British show.Jason Farmer
Brenda Stanco and her step-father John Xanthis, owners of Niko-Bella restaurant in Scranton, hung a banner outside their restaurant, after one episode had the character of Michael getting a sandwich delivered from the restaurant.
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Scranton was picked because it was two hours from New York, ideal for a regional office of a Manhattan company. He also remembers a child's Valentine card that said, "Made in Scranton."
Paper Magic Group, which makes greeting cards, Valentines and other seasonal products, is often confused for Dunder Mifflin. The office building is shown briefly in the show's opening credits, along with a Mulberry Street sign.
And actor John Krasinksi, who plays Jim, visited Paper Magic when he was scouting possible locations and filmed the opening montage of the city from his car. He is the only cast member actually sighted in Scranton.
But the cast plans to come to Scranton to film an episode about the huge St. Patrick's Day parade. And the mayor wants to fly the cast in through corporate sponsors for "The Office" day, a big lovefest of the show.
"Any other city in the county would be happy to be part of an Emmy-award winning show," Mayor Doherty said. "We feel very lucky that they would use Scranton as their mythical home base."
Sometimes people wander into Paper Magic, wanting to take photos of the set of "The Office." Robert F. Cohen, director of human resources, tells them sorry.
"It is not 'The Office,' " Mr. Cohen tells them. "It is an office. And you cannot take photos because it is a business."
Mr. Cohen loves the show, and Michael's so-bad-it-is-hilarious behavior. Scranton's name recognition from "The Office" has helped him recruit graphic artists to the region.
The buzzed-about comedy has also brought Scranton some reverse chic. Mr. Burke of the Chamber of Commerce said his nephew, a comedy writer in Los Angeles, was always teased about being from Scranton. But once "The Office" became a hit, his friends were asking him for Scranton mugs.
So the chamber sends their mugs to West Coast hipsters. Among the Scranton props that Ms. Potis has sent to the show are a blue Chamber plaque, a Froggy 101 bumper sticker plastered on a filing cabinet, and the coats and hats from Niko-Bella restaurant.
An actor wearing the restaurant's blue uniform delivers a bologna, tomato and ketchup hoagie for Michael's birthday. Even though that sandwich is -- thankfully -- not on the menu, the restaurant has hung a banner outside proclaiming, "Eat Where the Office Eats."
Farley's restaurant also got a quick mention on the show.
"I want to be to 'The Office' what Monk's Restaurant was to 'Seinfeld,' " said Bill Young, owner of Farley's. A 10-year-old customer suggested a Michael Scott burger, a cheese-slathered burger Mr. Young is going to add it to the menu this fall.
Residents of Scranton get a kick out of the local landmarks sprinkled through the text -- a booze cruise on Lake Wallenpaupack, the mining tour, Bishop Hannan High School, where Jim graduated.
"I can just see him graduating from Bishop Hannan and getting a job at the local Scranton company," said Ms. LaBelle. "That is what we do here."
And Dwight, the dorkey second-in-command lackey to Michael, dons his volunteer sheriff's uniform when he finds half of a joint in the company parking lot and begins interrogating his co-workers over drug use. He proclaims pompously, "I did not become a Lackawanna County volunteer sheriff's deputy to make friends" as though he were a NYPD captain.
The humor of the show is risky. A never-seen documentary maker interviews office workers between the deadpan action, and there is no laugh track. People either think it is hilarious or about as excruciating as a dull day inside an office. Ms. Potis loves it, but it is not her husband's idea of funny.
Mayor Doherty's six children, who range in age from 9 to 19, all watch. "They get it."
Firefighter Art Franklin doesn't get it and doesn't want to get it.
"It's not funny," said Mr. Franklin. "It's stupid."
Plus he's annoyed that Hollywood got the Scranton firefighter's uniform all wrong; it's tan instead of the black they wear.
If the humor seems edgy, it is positively warm and fuzzy compared to the original British version.
"It is deeply depressing and annihilating and very, very funny," said Maria Johnson, a transplanted Brit who is director of the graduate program of theology at the University of Scranton. The British show is set in Slough, which she describes as the "proverbial armpit" of England.
"Is America trying to say that it feels about Scranton the way the British feel about Slough?" she asked.
But Dr. Johnson thinks Scranton is much nicer than Slough, even though locals are always apologizing about their town, an inferiority complex she thinks is undeserving.
Scranton, named for industrialist brothers George and Selden Scranton, was the anthracite coal capital in the 1930s and the third largest city in Pennsylvania with 140,000. But as alternative sources of energy were tapped in the 1950s, the coal industry suffered and the city lost about half of its population, said Willis Conover, chairman of the history department at the University of Scranton.
In 1992, the state declared it a distressed city, a designation it still holds. But the Downtown has brightened with a new mall, a Hilton, 12 new restaurants and Sanofi Pasteur , a pharmaceutical company. And the town square has been illuminated with a huge "Electric City" sign, a reference to its designation as the first city with an electric trolley car.
The city also scored a coup last month by landing the Yankees Triple-A baseball team.
"Most people describe it as a dirty old coal town with no hope," Dr. Conover said. "It's better than that."
Which is why Paul Nardone, owner of the Outrageous coffee shop, likes "The Office" and doesn't mind Scranton jabs by his "obnoxious" West Chester, N.Y., friends, who mock him for moving back to this city.
"We can laugh at ourselves because we are getting better."
So Mr. Nardone sent out a congratulatory package of coffee and treats to the actors and writers on "The Office" for their recent Emmy win with the note. "Thanks for making us laugh and putting Scranton on the map."
First Published October 18, 2006 12:00 am