Why ‘The Office’ writer based his new workplace comedy on a real-life Toronto library

Anthony Q. Farrell’s TV writing career started out with a bang — writing on one of the most popular shows of all time, the U.S. version of The Office. Now, 10 years after the show went off the air, Farrell is bringing the workplace comedy back with CTV’s Shelved, with a distinctly Toronto twist. 

When he moved back to Canada from L.A., he spent a lot of time in Parkdale. There, the idea for Shelved was born. 

“I feel like it’s a very Toronto show, very specific to this place, and I think that separates it from other shows,” he says. Based on the real life Parkdale Library, the show follows an eclectic cast of librarians and patrons, where everything from the set to the hyperlocal references is recognizable to a Toronto audience.

“When I moved back to Canada, I’ve been travelling quite a bit, but Toronto is still a very diverse city. I loved growing up here, and Parkdale just felt like a really concentrated version of Toronto,” he says. “It’s a very, very diverse part of the city and I love making sure that my shows are really keen on authenticity and diversity, and it felt like a place I could set a show and not have to force it.”

Despite the strong Toronto connection, Farrell also sees the show as a pretty universal reflection of libraries and librarians. “Librarians are kind of service workers; they’re trying to make their community as strong as possible,” Farrell says.

“I’ve developed a few workplace comedies in my day, and one of the things I was looking for is a place where the characters who work there are interesting and the characters who move through the space are interesting,” Farrell says. “It’s like Cheers, where there’s always people coming through the door to this space, into the world with new stories and new points of view. And this is the library is exactly that. Everyone who walks into the library bring their own stories to the space. So, to me, there are limitless opportunities when it comes to storytelling in a space like that.”

While The Office certainly wasn’t the first workplace comedy or even the first mockumentary, it’s often pointed to as the blueprint for shows following a similar style today, including the recent Abbott Elementary. “I’ve learned that I can’t please everybody. There is no universal joke, but if it makes you laugh, it’ll make someone else laugh,” he shares. 

Making people laugh was the genesis of Farrell’s career. He realized in elementary school during speeches that he loved standing in front of his class and making them laugh. That transformed into a love of theatre at Brebuef College School, where he had roles in the school-wide Dracula and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat performances. But it was another high school experience that the showrunner says has helped him along in his career.

“When you become a showrunner, it’s not just about the writing, it’s about managing people. And so a lot of those skills I learned from being the president of my student council.” 

Farrell has been flexing his showrunning muscles well before Shelved, with a resume that includes Secret Life of Boys, Overload & The Underwoods and the second season of Run the Burbs most recently. 

Having been in writing rooms before where he was the only person of colour, Farrell has made a point of telling the writers in his rooms that they don’t have to represent everyone. “When I run a room, I try to remove as much fear as possible,” he says. “You don’t have to have all the answers. And having as many voices as possible makes the show more authentic, and also funnier — what’s funny to you might not be funny to someone else.”

Although Shelved is just on season one, Farrell sees a long future for the show. “Why not go Simpsons with it? You’re never going to run out of stories in a library. It really is limitless.”