Anthony Q. Farrell On Diverse Family Comedies, '90s Nostalgia and Why The Office Will Never Die
The multi-talented former Office writer talks to Fatherly about family sitcoms, ‘90s nostalgia, and why people will never get over Jim and Pam.
Families can often bond over TV shows, and if those shows are funny, all the better. As a longtime comedy writer, Anthony Q. Farrell knows how to make things funny. A former writer for The Office, Farrell’s latest project is the sci-fi family sitcom Overlord and the Underwoods. Imagine if your family was related to an interdimensional criminal, and suddenly that Boba Fett-on-the-run was crashing on your couch. That’s the basic set-up of Overlord and the Underwoods.
As the series finds a bigger audience on Hulu, Fatherly caught up with Farrell — a father of two — to chat about why this kind of set-up is so great, whether or not his kids find his stuff funny, how he navigates nostalgia, and whether or not The Office will ever feel retro.
There aren’t actually a lot of alien family sitcoms. How do you make Overlord and the Underwoods original?
People love fish-out-of-water stories. It's a trope that just works. Because people want to see someone in an uncomfortable position, trying to make themselves comfortable.
With Overlord we’re obviously thinking about elements of things we’ve grown up with and loved. So, Harry and the Hendersons and Mork & Mindy, and Alf. So, you’ve got that, and then we say, how do we create a classic show for this generation that speaks to the whole family? We tried to make Overlord as outlandish as possible. The idea of a pompous character who is so insecure and dealing with so many different things opens up a lot of funny moments.
A pompous clueless character who thinks they’re in charge? Shades of The Office?
Right. Michael Scott feels very much like that. But, another character who Overlord feels like is Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. I didn’t realize this until we started watching the cuts. But sometimes it feels like something Larry would have done.
I think there are a few characters out there who are very reminiscent of Overlord. Thankfully, I don’t have many of those people in my real life. The inspiration from the look of the suit helped. Once we got Roger Christian involved, we started looking at the design of the suit, we started thinking about Darth Vader and of course Dark Helmet from Spaceballs. And then once, of course, we cast Troy Feldman in the part, he got into the suit, and the pomposity became visceral. And so, it made it much easier to just write ridiculous things for this person to say.
Has writing comedy changed since your kids have gotten older?
I have a 15-year-old daughter, Avery. They go by they/them. And I have an eight-year-old son, London. But, yes, they're my first audience. I feel like a lot of times, I try not to show them stuff until it's done, otherwise, you'll get weird criticisms. But, Overlord is a family show, and my wife and I are in our forties, and I’ve got my kids, that’s a good range of people in the house to see if something works for all those ages. They're definitely Guinea pigs. They're definitely in my lab all the time, unbeknownst to them I'm always using their reactions to things to decide if something's going to work for a wider audience.
What shows can an 8-year-old and a 15-year-old even watch together?
Well, they watch Overlord together, which is great. And they watch Steven Universe together and they watch Voltron together. The newer Voltron. I’m really into Star Wars but my 8-year-old isn’t into Star Wars yet.
Do your kids actually think that you're funny?
Sometimes they do think I'm funny and they'll laugh at the things I do. And then, obviously, other times is just like, "Dad jokes. You're corny. What's going on here? Don't say that again. This is why I keep you away from my friends."
When they were really little, they thought I was very funny, because I would do all the stupid noises and make all those things. And then, they get to an age where it's like, "I got to up my game here." It’s funny because they'll watch older stuff now that I've written. They're like, "Oh." The 15-year-old now is in a place where they'll come to set and they'll see me show running and they're like, "People respect you and think you're good at this." That feels good.
Do you think The Office is timeless? Or has COVID suddenly made it a show from another era? It is an old show now?
Well, first of all, as a dad, I can say that Avery was on the office. We were both on The Office together. There was an episode, “Baby Shower” and we were told if you have a baby, bring in your baby. And then, Steve Carell was just holding babies all morning in different shots of all the different babies that belonged to the cast, the crew, and the writers. That was a cool moment for me being a dad.
In terms of the legacy of the series, I think the reason why it hit so hard, especially for me even before I started writing on the show, was that I worked in so many offices like that, so there's an immediate connection to these characters. Everyone had someone they’re like: "I'm a Meredith, I'm a Michael, I'm a Jim." Everyone had someone that they could connect to. And then there are the obvious reasons the Jim-Pam story, Michael Scott, all the actors, and the writing and all that stuff was excellent and had to be on point for it to work. But, I think at a base level, that relatability is what drew people to the show.
In terms of the post-COVID thing? I mean, COVID led to another resurgence of The Office. People were like “I’m just going to watch The Office six more times all the way through because I’m home now and this is comfort. I think it definitely will eventually get to a place where people are like, "Offices aren't like that anymore.” But the comedy, the storytelling, all that stuff will still be strong. So I think people will still be into it, but it just will feel a little more antiquated, I think. Which is okay, because I still watch a lot of old shows where I'm like, "That's antiquated, but it's nice to go back there and be in that world again."
Both Overlord and your series The Parker Andersons are very diverse sitcoms. Is this less difficult than it used to be? Are things getting better? Why is this important?
I think, to me the why, it's important is just for kids. Black kids grew up watching Back to the Future or whatever and wishing they were these white actors. They didn’t see themselves on the screens. As a Black creator, I need to keep that top of mind, because it's not really top of mind for white creators because they don't live in the same world that I do.
I think in terms of whether or not it's getting easier, I think, obviously, I feel like there are more opportunities than there were even ten or twenty years ago. I don't think we're where we need to be yet, personally. There are still a lot of weird roadblocks.
As a parent, what’s you're relationship with ‘90s nostalgia? I feel like dads in their forties are struggling with this hard right now.
Obviously, because my wife and I are both mid-forties, we bring out that stuff. We watch a lot of Golden Girls. Avery was into Seinfeld for a little bit. But, because we watch, sometimes they’ll just sit with us and watch certain things. And sometimes, they look at things and say “This is dumb.” And I’ll say, “That’s my childhood.” And they’ll say, “Well, your childhood was dumb.”
It just becomes a reality check sometimes, because kids don't pull punches, they'll just let you know what's what.
Overlord and the Underwoods streams on Hulu in the US.