Midway through The Office’s run, the “Scranton Welcomes You” sign made iconic by the show’s opening credits was moved to the local mall because too many people kept stopping traffic to take their pictures with it.
10 years after the series premiere, the sign is still there—and the relationship between Scranton and The Office is still something of a TV anomaly. The sort of affinity that the city and the show share is uncommon even among series that film on location, which The Office did not. Los Angeles might not have matched the landscape of northeastern Pennsylvania, but Scranton was always more of a character than an environment—and like The Office‘s other background players, it took on a life of its own as the show went on.
When series creator Greg Daniels decided to adapt Ricky Gervais’ cult comedy for an American audience, he picked Scranton for its proximity to New York City. Later, Daniels stopped by the city’s local newspaper distributor, where he met with Regional Director of Marketing and Events Tim Holmes. Years later, Holmes would introduce Steve Carell to a stadium full of fans at The Office’s Scranton wrap party. Daniels took a kinder approach to Scranton than Gervais took to the town of Slough, where the UK original was set, and the production team stayed in touch with the Pennsylvania city throughout the show’s run to ensure authenticity. File cabinets were marked with stickers from local radio stations. When newspapers were needed on set, the Scranton Times-Tribune worked up fake front pages and sent them to the L.A. Times for printing.
It’s hard to say if the city took ownership of the show or if the show handed itself over to the city. But in any case, Scranton embraced the series. “The show made us look backward to a degree,” Holmes tells EW. “But there was always something kind of endearing about that … We are who we are.”
Enthusiasm reached its height in 2007, when the city hosted an Office fan convention. Local Michele Dempsey, who worked with Holmes to plan the event, remembers a phone call with actor Brian Baumgartner (who played slow-witted accountant Kevin). Baumgartner apologized for only being able to secure 13 actors—a huge get by any convention’s standards.
As the city experienced a new kind of national attention—Al Roker broadcast a Today Show segment live from the convention—so did The Office‘s cast and crew. Dempsey recalls watching Phyllis Smith, who played Phyllis Vance on the show, “well up when she saw the crowd of fans at the University of Scranton go crazy to see her.” Like Scranton itself, most of the cast had never expected to be so adored. The actors and the city were both surprise success stories. They understood each other.
From then until the series’ end in 2013, Holmes and students from the University of Scranton would host monthly bus tours around the city, which usually involved calling actor Andy Buckley (i.e. Dunder Mifflin exec David Wallace) on speakerphone. There is still a self-guided walking tour to local spots that played a role in the series, like Cooper’s and Poor Richard’s Pub. National perception of the city could once be summed up by politicians trying to, as Holmes put it, “out-Scranton one another on who had the tougher childhood.” (Hello, Joe Biden.) Now, a younger, educated fanbase can associate Scranton with something cool.
Before he’d officially picked Scranton to host The Office, Daniels sent John Krasinski to visit the city. In addition to filming the opening credits that would eventually stop traffic, Krasinski stopped by a local paper company. There was a bar across the street that would only be open for a few months in total, but it was open then—and it was called The Office. Clearly, Scranton was ready for the show, however unintentionally.
The Office needed to ground itself in a real city: It found its story in the mundane details of everyday life. Scranton stood for other unglamorous cities as they really were. Parks and Recreation, created by Daniels and Office writer Mike Schur, kept the mockumentary format but used it to opposite ends: Pawnee was a fictional place that spoke for other cities as they could be. Schur’s latest series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, returns to a real setting but takes the action to a big city, while most network comedies set in small towns (The Middle,The Simpsons) keep those towns fictional.
We don’t seem to be looking for localized relatability right now. But when we were,The Office did it best.