|Joined: 31 Dec 1969|
|Location: Scranton, PA||
|How TV hit The Office turned Scranton — yes, Scranton — into a pop-culture hot spot
By John Marchese
Ain’t no party like a Scranton party.
The hottest ticket in town this week before Christmas isn’t for the Ballet Theatre’s production of The Nutcracker. It’s not for the opening of the latest blockbuster at the Marquee theater, across Lackawanna Avenue from the Mall at Steamtown.
People here in the real-life town that serves as the fictional setting of the highly rated and Emmy-winning NBC prime-time comedy The Office — they want to see Dwight Schrute.
Okay, this whole thing is going to be a swirling confusion of fantasy and reality, so let’s get a little background. The Office is set in the Scranton branch of a paper-supply company called Dunder-Mifflin, where a dunderhead regional manager named Michael Scott (played by surging star Steve Carell) beleaguers his bored, disgruntled employees with a mix of clueless egotism and always-off-the-mark humor. Dwight Schrute is the toadying assistant regional manager (though the title exists only in his mind), and Rainn Wilson is the actor who in over 40 episodes of The Office has brought the intense, obtuse, socially challenged Dwight to vivid life.
Today, after much ballyhoo and buildup, Wilson has arrived in the real hometown of the fictional Office. And though there are just six shopping days until Christmas, the actor is not only bigger than Santa Claus — he’s going to boot him from his chair at the downtown mall.
Enticed by a fee rumored to be $30,000, Wilson flew in from the West Coast, took a cab from the airport last night, and checked quietly into the Radisson hotel, in what was once the city’s grand old train station. This morning, he’s a man besieged.
First, there’s the “press opportunity” just off the hotel lobby, at which the actor is rushed not just by the local media — everybody from wannabe-hip weekly Electric City to WBRE Channel 28 — but by a fair number of the town’s politicians, their small-town values on display in the form of gaggles of their kids (and their kids’ friends) who want autographs. The actor accepts it all with aplomb. After he’s gone, Scrantonians will trip over themselves telling you how nice their TV star was.
“I sat and talked to him just like you and I are talking,” the Radisson’s longtime lobby pianist will tell me. “And he was a really nice guy. Normal.”
In Scranton right now, it’s the natives who have gone a little crazy.
When the interviews are over here at the hotel, Wilson is whisked away in a stretch Hummer limo about the size of a bus and transported all of eight blocks to the headquarters of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, where he’s guest of honor at a VIP brunch that the local weekly reports has “everyone and their temp ... working themselves into a frenzy attempting to gain access.” Among the hundred or so lucky ones who get in is the Lackawanna County sheriff, who promptly swears Wilson in as a local law-enforcement official. Wilson accepts his new status as an official unofficial Scranton cop by handcuffing the mayor. The VIPs love a good bondage joke.
In the midst of all this, a couple whose first date was to watch The Office come to the front of the room and get engaged. Wilson offers to officiate at their wedding. He grabs the prospective bride and pretends to make out with her. He does the same with the groom. After antics like that, the actor has nowhere to go, really. Except to the Mall at Steamtown.
“We took him on a little tour of Scranton on the way over,” reports Scranton mayor Chris Doherty. “He got on his cell phone and called Greg Daniels” — who created The Office for NBC, adapting a 12-episode BBC show — “and I heard him tell Daniels, ‘This is a great town.’”
The big limo turns onto Lackawanna Avenue and approaches the Mall at Steamtown, which was built in 1993 for more than $100 million with the hope it would revive a moldering downtown in a city that even the Pittsburgh newspaper describes as “hardscrabble.”
“I told Rainn to stick his head out the window,” the mayor will later remember. “And when he saw all the people lined up to see him, he just said, ‘Holy crap!’”
Stretching from way down by the Bon-Ton department store, the line runs past the Ground Round and into the mall atrium, does a few loops, and winds up at what would normally be Santa’s perch. The local paper will estimate the queue to contain more than 1,000 people; the mall promoters will claim 4,000.
Rainn Wilson is amazed. “I’m a minor TV celebrity,” he’s told one Scrantonian. But not in this town. Wilson wades into the crowd and gasps, “I’m a rock star.”
He had no idea of the depth of Scranton’s hunger for celebrity, no matter how minor. This town two hours up the Turnpike from Philly has long had a self-effacing, hangdog character, brought on by decades of economic stagnation. But now the big picture is looking good, young people are hanging around, and thanks in part to this unusual prime-time sitcom, Scranton — could it be?! — is suddenly kind of hip.
Through the afternoon, the actor graciously grips and grins, signs everything thrust at him, laughs when some women throw panties onstage. A mall hair salon is offering a Dwight Schrute styling for only $6. Business is brisk at the coffee shop, which has been mentioned on The Office. It has a name any comedy writer would love to invent — Jitterz.
At one point, Wilson is handed a microphone and begins an impromptu Q&A session. A knot of young people starts shouting at him: “Can we have that giant poster above you, or can you take my friend to our senior formal at the University of Scranton?”
The actor won’t commit on the prom date, but he looks around at the mall officials nearby for approval on the poster. Then he shouts into the microphone, “I have just been informed that they say it is okay for these four morons to have that giant poster. All right! You are not worthy. This is the best day of your life.”
Later, the loudest of the four morons tells me it was a good day indeed. Even being labeled a moron isn’t so bad if it’s one of your favorite TV characters doing it. Of course, the morons have captured the entire exchange on a video phone and can’t wait to post it on YouTube.
A FEW YEARS AGO, when word started to spread that NBC was planning a comedy featuring Scranton as its putative location, the immediate worry around town was that the show might be called something like The 74,000 Morons. For some reason, Scranton has never fared well in the pop-culture consciousness. Natives have collected perceived slights that have accumulated over the years and present them as evidence.
George Burns, who knew the coal town from when it was a thriving stop on the vaudeville circuit, was asked later in his life if he feared death. “No,” he said, “I already died in Scranton.”
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, also vaudeville veterans, snuck snide Scranton references into the “Road” movies.
Those were almost tender. Television was more pointed. On All in the Family, Edith Bunker had a cousin in Scranton, and when she wanted to visit, Archie told her, “The only way I’m going to Scranton is if some screwball hijacks the airplane.”
On an episode of The Simpsons, newscaster Kent Brockman reported that one of David Crosby’s livers was still alive and residing in Scranton. On Friends, when Ross is forced to give his pet monkey to a zoo, he is turned down repeatedly — even by the Scranton Zoo. “That was my safety zoo,” he moans.
So when Mari Potis, the membership director of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, agreed to help the L.A. people producing the first season of The Office and started calling local businesses to ask for authentic Scranton stuff that could appear on the set, her members balked. “They’re going to make fun of us,” they told her.
“Initially, I was a little nervous,” says the energetic Scranton mayor, Chris Doherty. “In my second year in office, I saw an article in the paper — umhh, ‘BBC show is coming to the networks and they’ve decided on Scranton as their fictional home site.’ I was thinking, ‘Oooh, what’s this? It’s something I can’t control as a mayor. Oh boy, I hope this works out.’”
Even the guy who wrote that article the mayor read in the Scranton Times-Tribune was skeptical. Greg Daniels, the executive producer who runs the American version of The Office (others have been created in Quebec, Germany and France), remembers reporter Josh McAuliffe pointedly quizzing him about the tone the show would take. “I assured him this was not going to be a slam on the city,” Daniels says. “It’s just that it’s better for writing to be specific. I’m not going to make fun of Scranton.” The reporter was unconvinced: “He was like, ‘Well, we shall see, Mr. Daniels.’”
Daniels had grown up in New York, the son of a television executive. Though he has vivid memories of newspaper ads for Mount Airy Lodge in the Poconos, he doesn’t recall ever setting foot in Scranton. He does remember seeing Valentine’s Day cards marked “Made in Scranton” on the back.
“Scranton just seems like a real place to me,” he says. The very sound of the name appealed to him, with its hard consonants. As a native son of the city, I could report to Mr. Daniels that there has long been a cynical twisting of those hard consonants by disgruntled residents who call their town “Scrotum.” That authentic detail hasn’t made it onto the show.
Now that The Office is well into its third season, there’s plenty of evidence that Daniels didn’t lie to the Times-Tribune reporter. The depiction of the city has been gently teasing at its worst, as when the clueless boss played by Steve Carell wants to treat his staff to a rail-car plunge into the damp recesses of an actual coal mine (something you can do at the nearby Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour), thinking it will be like an amusement-park ride. The Office writers sometimes send up the small-town parochialism of Carell’s Michael Scott. Embarking on a trip to Dunder-Mifflin headquarters in New York, he packs a passport and, though claiming to be an old New York hand, gets lost constantly. Bragging to the always unseen documentary crew that gives a frame to the show’s narrative structure, Michael Scott assures them he knows where to go for great, authentic New York pizza. Then he strides into Sbarro.
But even a wary Scrantonian can overlook that stuff. “It’s worked out tremendous,” says Mayor Doherty. “They’re very respectful of the city. We’re just the backdrop for this goofy sitcom where everybody’s a little weird, and that’s what makes it so funny.”
The Office premiered in the early spring of 2005 and ran for only six episodes that season. Scranton references were few and brief. But when it returned the next season for a full 22-episode run, there were so many nods to its location that it became a great game with fans to spot the Scrantonisms. Most were tiny: real coffee mugs and plaques on the show’s set; a Froggy 101 radio station bumper sticker pasted near Dwight’s desk; an Abe’s Deli menu stuck to the lunchroom refrigerator. Names of actual Scranton restaurants were constantly dropped into the scripts. After a local hoagie shop was featured delivering to Dunder-Mifflin, the owners hung a huge banner on their store: EAT WHERE THE OFFICE EATS.
During that second season, which would win the show an Emmy for best comedy and see the ratings climb to a solid nine million viewers per episode, Mari Potis practically had a second full-time job wrangling props for the show. She found herself photographing sheriff’s deputies’ uniforms to help properly outfit Dwight, who’s a volunteer sheriff. Potis snapped shots of local firemen for a scene in which Dunder-Mifflin goes through a smoky evacuation. She packed off cases of locally produced Crystal Club soda to fill the vending machine on the set.
Emboldened by their new notoriety, and assured that the jokes aren’t being made at their town’s expense, Scrantonians have become a city of fact-checkers for Office scenes. No one in Scranton would drive all the way to Carbondale for a hot dog! The boat pictured in the classic “Booze Cruise” episode was way too big for Lake Wallenpaupack! And the offense mentioned most: Nowhere near Scranton is there a branch of Michael’s favorite restaurant, Hooters.
To which the mayor responds: “We’ll get one!”
The apotheosis of Scranton references on prime time occurred earlier this season, when Dunder-Mifflin did some cost-cutting and the Scranton branch absorbed workers from the shuttered Stamford, Connecticut, branch. To welcome the new transplants, Michael Scott and his erstwhile sidekick Dwight made an amateurish and incredibly white-bread rap video called “Lazy Scranton.”
Reality and make-believe chase their tails again. The “Lazy Scranton” video is a parody of another parody rap video, one from Saturday Night Live, with cast members Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg. Called “Lazy Sunday,” it features two pathetically tame white wannabe gangstas who rap tough about a typical weekend day for them — seeing a movie (Chronicles of Narnia) and eating cupcakes. In this era of YouTube, “Lazy Sunday” became a video hit.
Greg Daniels knew that there were already numerous homemade variants of “Lazy Sunday” on the web. “Just about every town had its version,” he told me. “We knew of one about Muncie, Indiana. And it would be just like Michael’s character to come upon something so late.”
In “Lazy Scranton,” Michael and Dwight, garbed in woolen rap-wear watch caps (Dwight’s is hunter’s orange), gesticulate with head-pumping ‘hood attitude to explain to the Stamford émigrés such mundane details as parking-lot rules and health plans. The one riff that gets repeated is something for which Scranton could not have paid as a product placement. Playing on the city’s recently revived nickname of “The Electric City” — which goes back to Scranton’s claim that it had the nation’s first electric streetcar line — the writers created the repeated tag:
They call it Scranton.
The Electric City!
The Electric City!
Mayor Doherty, sitting in a conference room near his office in City Hall one morning, could do nothing but laugh at the thought of the “Lazy Scranton” rap. He’d spearheaded a drive to raise $250,000 to relight a huge 40,000-light-bulb “Electric City” sign that had been dark for two decades atop of one of the town’s tallest buildings. Electric City references are everywhere in Scranton these days, from murals on highway tunnel walls to small-business names. Somehow, this TV show is helping to make Scranton a brand name. There’s been talk of building a duplicate of the Office set to attract tourists. For the first time in a while, many things seem possible in Scranton.
“We were a depressed community,” says the mayor, “and there was no development. Now we have a lot of development, and things are going really well for us. You figure, we have this TV show, and this year we’re getting the Yankees’ Triple A farm team. It’s just one thing after another.”
IT’S THURSDAY NIGHT — Office night — and the rabid fans Rainn Wilson dubbed “The Four Morons” have rounded up a few dozen of their closest friends to watch the show. They’re crowded into the living room of a second-floor apartment in the part of town descriptively called “The Hill Section,” home to the campus of the University of Scranton.
A 22-year-old University senior named Philip Loscombe seems to be the ringleader of the Morons. Loscombe grew up about 20 miles from Scranton and is finishing a degree in neuroscience. He was supposed to go to New York this afternoon to interview about grad study at Sloan-Kettering.
I climb over the students studding the floor in front of the TV and grab a sofa seat. After a brief opening scene, the familiar piano notes of the Office theme sound, and the screen is filled with a montage of real Scranton places. The montage was shot by Office co-star John Krasinski, who plays the hunky salesman, Jim, whose mostly unrequited love for receptionist Pam is one of the crucial story lines of the show. Of all the characters on The Office, Jim and Pam seem most like they could really be from Scranton.
Mayor Doherty optimistically reported that plans are afoot to lure Krasinski and Jenna Fischer (who plays Pam) to town for a gathering of Office fans that might take the form of a mock Dunder-Mifflin shareholders’ meeting. Details are still sketchy, but one Scrantonian compared it to a Star Trek convention.
A visit from the big star, Steve Carell, doesn’t look likely. Before signing Rainn Wilson, the people from the Mall at Steamtown approached Carell’s people, and according to mall executive James Walsh, “We were told to make them an offer somewhere north of $250,000. It seemed to be all about ego.”
But hope is spawning more hope in Scranton. The other big new dream of this reminted prime-time town is that the entire Office cast will arrive for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, the biggest event of the year in Scranton. Greg Daniels says he’d love to give it a try. He already sent an inquiry to Scranton asking whether the parade could be moved a few weeks from its usual spot on the Saturday before the Irish-American holiday. When the mayor’s secretary was called to relay the request, she thought, “Are you kidding? In this town? With the Irish? Not for the President or the pope would they move the parade. Never!”
Mayor Doherty, the president of the town’s Friendly Sons of St. Patrick society, said no. But he’s accommodating. Doherty told Daniels he could easily arrange a mock parade for the cameras: “If people knew The Office was coming to town to shoot an episode, I’d have no problem getting 25,000 people to show up. I’ll just be serving beer.”
Daniels was skeptical.
“Trust me,” the mayor told the producer. “People will show up and start drinking. You don’t know. Free beer in downtown? They’ll be here. It’s not a hard thing.”
Tonight, in the off-campus apartment, I’m surprised that nobody is drinking anything but Crystal Club soda. All the students I meet are seniors and over 21, and the University has a reputation as a serious party school. But the kids eat pizza and drink soft drinks and watch The Office, and they laugh together in great loud gasps at the episode, in which Rainn Wilson’s character, Dwight, is provoked into resigning from Dunder-Mifflin.
When the show is over, there’s some half-hearted concern expressed that Dwight will disappear from the show. But everybody here grew up on TV and knows that a major character’s departure goes against all series logic. I soon end up with the Four Morons in front of the computer in the bedroom of the apartment’s tenant, Kristin Peterman, an English major who wants to be a screenwriter.
We survey the various video clips from Rainn Wilson’s Mall at Steamtown visit that they’ve posted on YouTube. I ask about an episode I remember in which Michael and Dwight travel to Philadelphia for a sales convention. Isn’t there an impromptu rap by Steve Carell’s Michael and Rainn Wilson’s Dwight in a scene where Michael is hosting what he thinks will be the coolest party, in his hotel room? (Of course, almost nobody shows up.)
“Oh,” says lead Moron Phil Loscombe. “That’s the best. I have it as a ringtone.” So do Moron Joe Butash (biomathematics and philosophy) and Moron Andrew Ametrano (media studies) and Kristin. Within seconds, the four of them have whipped out their cell phones and are racing one another to find it first, like some new-communications-era version of rock-paper-scissors.
They all find the audio clip at the same time, and start it playing slightly off-synch with one another. The result is a small cacophony. But I can make out the lines of the rap.
“Ain’t no party like a Scranton party,” intones Michael Scott.
“‘Cause a Scranton party don’t stop.”
John Marchese last wrote for Philadelphia on Penn professor Bob Giegengack.
Originally published in Philadelphia Magazine, March 2007.