After getting his start on ‘The Office’ Toronto showrunner Anthony Q. Farrell is creating opportunities for others
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/01/2022 (244 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Anthony Q. Farrell looks forward to the day that it’s so routine for people of colour to occupy senior levels of television production that their presence goes unremarked.
But we’re not there yet, which is why, on the day that a snowstorm ravaged Ontario, we were on Zoom from our respective GTA homes talking about his career as a TV writer and producer — he was recently named Showrunner of the Year by Playback magazine — and what he hopes to do for the careers of others.
If you’ve heard Farrell’s name, there’s a good chance it’s in connection with “The Office.” The Toronto-born Farrell, the son of immigrants from St. Kitts and Nevis, wrote for the beloved, multiple Emmy-winning American comedy for two years.
He got his start in showbiz through theatre: he studied theatre and math at Queen’s University with the idea of becoming a math and drama teacher (his parents are accountants) but also attended the Humber Comedy Program and performed theatre in places like Vermont and Gananoque, Ont.
He ended up in the U.S. after his wife, author Ginette Barton-Sinkia, inherited a green card and had to move to the States to keep it. They went first to Atlanta and then Los Angeles, where Farrell, 44, did standup, performed improv with the storied Groundlings troupe, and wrote, directed and acted for a company called MET Theatre.
A friend’s suggestion that he write for TV led to him getting a manager and acceptance into a diversity program at NBC, which led to the “Office” gig.
Unfortunately, after working on almost 50 episodes of the show, he was let go along with many other writers after the 2008 recession hit. “But the nice thing is I have the credit now, which has helped me all the way throughout my career,” he said.
“Then I got into family comedy somehow,” he added. “Disney came calling. They read a script that I had written about pimps.”
Yes, that’s right, pimps — as in a pimp who learns he has a child and decides to get rid of all his bling to save money for his kid. That show never got made, but its story and characters were strong enough for Disney to start developing ideas with Farrell, which led to Nickelodeon hiring him to write for “The Thundermans.” He then made “Secret Life of Boys” for the BBC, which has won a BAFTA and several other awards in the U.K.
But in 2017, Farrell and his wife, also a Torontonian, decided it was time to come home. Their son was three at the time and their daughter 10, “and raising your kids in America is a different situation,” Farrell said. “I remember (my son) came home with a picture of firemen and police, and we had to have a conversation about why he couldn’t trust the police officers.”
The kids have been thriving here and so has Farrell’s career.
Among his various projects — he’s showrunner for the Super Channel sitcom “The Parker Andersons,” directed a couple of episodes of CBC’s new hit “Son of a Critch,” and is developing shows with American and British companies — is the CBC Gem comedy “Overlord and the Underwoods.” (It also airs on Nickelodeon in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, and BYUtv in the U.S., with more broadcasters to be announced.)
The idea for the comedy — about an alien fugitive in intergalactic witness protection who hides out on Earth with his distant cousin and her family — was hatched about a decade ago by Ryan Wiesbrock, head of development at American company Cloudco Entertainment. Farrell was brought on by Cloudco and Toronto’s marblemedia as showrunner and co-creator. It made its CBC debut in October and 10 more episodes were released Friday.
The fact that the Underwoods are a Black family is a point of pride for Farrell but also a result of serendipity, since the scripts weren’t written with ethnicity in mind.
“I said, ‘Let’s just keep it open. We’ll cast the best family.’”
That turned out to be Patrice Goodman, known for TV sketch comedy “Sunnyside,” as mom Flower and Second City comedian Darryl Hinds as dad Jim, with Ari Resnick and Kamaia Fairburn as son Weaver and daughter Willow. Their arrogant house guest Overlord is played by Troy Feldman, an actor, dancer, choreographer and stuntman who aced the requirement to do all his scenes in a hot costume and helmet since he’d performed as a Toronto Blue Jays mascot.
“Overlord” also has a creative team and crew that reflects the “very eclectic, very diverse” city of Toronto, Farrell said.
One of his aims is to encourage Black, Indigenous and people of colour to get involved at all levels of production.
When he returned to Canada, he found “there were a lot of BIPOC writers, but they weren’t in (writers) rooms … I think there was a better job being done on the drama side of things to incorporate diversity in the writing rooms, but the comedy rooms were still very white.”
It was especially hard to find BIPOC writers to serve as co-executive producers on “Overlord.”
“I was like, I think that’s one of the things I need to start building, is trying to figure out ways to get writers of colour to become producers.”
To that end, he has started a showrunner training boot camp with the industry group BIPOC TV & Film.
The most recent report on equity, diversity and inclusion from the Writers Guild of Canada found some gains — such as modest increases in co-executive producer and consulting producer credits for writers from under-represented communities — but also losses, with a drop in the percentage of Indigenous writers working on Canadian TV.
“Historically speaking, if you have a female showrunner she’ll hire more female writers and that’s how you get more women working. If you have a BIPOC showrunner they’re going to hire more BIPOC writers and that’s how you get more BIPOC writers,” Farrell said. “So I’m mentoring (other writers), but I’m hopefully mentoring mentors … more writers of colour who are in positions of power (who) can make the change quicker.
“Those numbers, they have to start growing soon and, hopefully, over the next four or five years that’ll get sorted. That’s my hope.”
“Overlord and the Underwoods” is on CBC Gem
Debra Yeo is a deputy editor and a contributor to the Star’s Entertainment section. She is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @realityeo