Goodbye Mr. Flenderson: An Interview With Toby From ‘The Office’

By Emily Hochberg

Last May when we said goodbye to The Office for the summer we also said goodbye to its HR Director, Toby Flenderson, played by Paul Lieberstein who not only acts, but writes and produces the show as well. Toby bid farewell to his Office pals for a life in Costa Rica and welcomed in Oscar Nominee Amy Ryan to replace him. Well, we haven’t seen the last of poor, sad Toby and that’s not all Paul spilled when he chatted up the new season, premiering tomorrow night. Read on for all the deets on what’s to come for couples Jim and Pam, Angela and Andy, and all their other co-workers you know and love.

When you did the season finale, was Amy Ryan’s character already intended to continue into this season?
We did. We didn’t have a deal with her yet so we were really hoping. But no, we knew that she would stay around, or we hoped.

Is Toby going to come back eventually? Is it his love for Pam that brings him back?
I think what brings him back is failure to escape. There was a friend of mine who’s actually one of the writers here that decided to, maybe about ten years ago, collect enough money to live poor in Hawaii and he was going to just do it and surf because he loves to surf. And he had made a big deal of it, had a going away party and he was back in two week because he was lonely. Nobody talked to him. He was robbed on the beach and that was it. So that was our model for the success of Toby.

What TV shows do you love? What are your favorite guilty pleasure TV shows?
Yeah, I don’t know, with the amount of time I have, I had to fade out some of the guilty pleasure shows. But I watch hour longs because I can appreciate some comedies, but its work. I see them like the code in the matrix because I’ve been writing them for so long that I can’t just sit back and enjoy them. But that fades away when I’m watching, you know, Law & Order or The Wire. That was a huge favorite. That’s a good show.

How did it come to be that you got in front of the camera? Is there any other thing that you draw on to make Toby such a sad sack?
Yeah, I must draw on myself because I never even thought I was a sad sack. But I think it got started as a bit of a practical joke or just Greg Daniels wanting the writers to have a little in front of camera experience to kind of inform the writing, see what that’s like. And then Kevin Reilly was President of NBC at the time and he was watching dailies and I think he forgot he knew me as a writer, and said that redheaded guy who is kind of funny – more of him. And that kind of got around town as a joke in itself and all of a sudden I was in most episodes.

Do you think that Toby can find happiness in a job elsewhere outside of this office?
I don’t know if happiness is in Toby’s future. I just don’t know if I see it. It’s just kind of something you bring with you everywhere you go.

Is Dwight going to continue trying to haze Amy Ryan’s character or does that stop?
Yeah, the hazing stopped. Dwight pretty much accepts what Michael accepts, you know. And he hazed her in kind of a miscommunication with Michael when Michael didn’t know her yet and instantly hated her because she came in as an HR rep. And Dwight took that as a directive. And it was just Toby as a woman. And as that changed, Dwight didn’t pick up on it, so that’s where the hazing came from

Toby’s quite lovesick and kind of sad now. Have you ever been in that situation yourself?
Oh never, I never felt those emotions myself. Yeah, sure, of course I’ve pined after people. Luckily, I’m not now but I got married about a month ago.

And you’re also an uncle right? [Co-star Angela Kinsey is Paul’s Sister-In-Law). It’s like an office baby. How is that in the office now? How does that change the dynamic, being related to Angela?
It’s incredible. I was over there this weekend. You know, it’s very much like visiting every mom I know, you know. It’s little glances of conversation in between diaper changing and, you know, swaddling and stuff.

You made the reference earlier that Toby would probably be returning to the branch because he can’t escape it. If you could choose an exciting story for him to tell to Pam to impress her, what would it be?
Maybe the time his camera was stolen by a monkey or the time he was attacked by a monkey in Costa Rica, or the time when a monkey took his wallet. Probably one of those three. Somebody picking on him is the theme.


How did you devise Amy Ryan’s character of Holly Flax?
It was talked about among the writing staff a great deal and I would say it was really crystallized in the episode that you saw on set when we started to see this really silly side that Amy brought to the character, and found almost like a junior Michael in her. And we all saw it and knew what we had.

Are you going to be directing again this season?

I’m probably going to direct a couple this season. It’s not locked in exactly which ones they are, but that’s my goal at least.

As the present and future HR directors, there would seem to eventually maybe a clash between Toby and Holly when Toby got back from parts unknown. How does that resolve itself? Is it peaceful or do they throw down?

Yeah, you know, we’ve been trying not to give away things.

Mike Schur and Greg Daniels are now working on the untitled Amy Poehler non-spin-off show. To a certain extent, has that changed the dynamic in the writing room at all? Are you missing them?
We miss Mike a lot. Greg’s around still. He’s somehow finding a way to, for the most part, run both shows. But we definitely miss Mike’s voice and he has to walk through the room to get to snacks, so we’re always happy when he’s hungry.

How did last year’s writer’s strike affect the last season?
I think it affected it really positively. It let us do a reasonable group in the fall and then kind of take a break, see how those episodes came out, you know, edit them and really respond. And I think in the spring came a group of our strongest episodes. So, you know, I think they’re like kind of the model of how HBO and The Wire will do 12 or 13 in a row and then they’ll come out so strong. I think it let us do like two groups of 12 instead of this giant block where we have to kind of guess how things are going to come out. Creatively, I was very happy with it.

Jenna Fischer just posted a blog saying that you’re filming a Halloween episode this week and it’s being directed by Stephen Merchant. Can you share any details or describe what it’s been like having him on the set?

Well his episode hasn’t started shooting yet. But he was in the writer’s room with us rewriting it over the last several days and so it was really exciting having him there. He brings a bit that initial integrity of the documentary that the British had. And so he calls us out every once in – he’s like how are they going to do that with a little documentary? You know, when we seem to go a little too far or get too personal with them. We’ll set a scene in the bathroom and he’s like really, I don’t think they follow them in there. But he’s extremely funny. And it’s been great working with him.

So we have some great new costumes to look forward to?

Great new costumes? Yes.

Are there any other high profile directors that will direct episodes this season?

Jason Reitman. We have that, yeah, very excited.

How dangerous is Toby, really? We haven’t seen him really angry, but he seems a little unhinged.

I don’t think Toby is a danger to anybody. You know, in my mind, which is really kind of not what everybody is seeing, I think Toby kind of likes Michael a little bit. You know, for the most part he’s happy, you know, more or less. But he’s never going to be like a really happy guy. But I think a lot doesn’t get to him, you know. I think he doesn’t hear a lot of the things. He might be spaced out in the meeting. And I think I space out while I’m acting and if all of a sudden everybody is looking at me, I know it’s time to say my line.

You wear a lot of different hats on the show with acting, directing, producing, and writing. Do you enjoy any certain one more than the others?

I think I kind of do. I think we have such incredible actors on the show that when I write a line or a joke and I see them do it awesomely, I think that’s my greatest joy on the show – just kind of nailing that. We have such a talented cast that I think we can really reach kind of great heights.

Did the writers and producers have to change Darryl’s storylines a lot based on what happened with Craig Robinson’s (who plays him) arrest?

No, not at all. He’s been completely available to us and completely professional when he’s here. So it was a surprise to us. But we saw no evidence of it and it’s never impacted a single day of work or a moment of work.

Does it break your heart when so many great scenes wind up on the cutting room floor?

Yeah, it’s awful. They’re often our favorite scenes because they’re maybe pure comedy scenes and they’re not quite on story. And that’s why they got in there, and we’ve just played with them. And then we forget what’s in and not. And we’re disappointed.

In the season finale it looked like there may be some problems in Jim and Pam’s relationship. Can you tell us about where they’re headed as we go into the next season?
And, as far as Toby goes, is it possible that he could actually be a real spoil in their relationship or does he just stay as sort of a comic aside?
Pam’s going to take an internship in New York and they’re going to try long distance dating. And that’s going to be the source of obstacles for them. And I think, you know, Toby is less of a threat than the price of gas for Pam.

You mentioned that you liked writing dialogue and scenes for the other actors. How do you tackle when you have to write for Toby?
You know, I almost never do it. I give him like one or two lines in my episodes. I feel like, the best and certainly the most Toby talk comes from the other writers. I tell them to make me a star.

Is there ever any concern that maybe you guys are spending too much time on relationships? How do you kind of keep it from becoming too soapy?

It’s a great question and we talk about it a lot. We always need a balance. We’ll never go into an episode saying this is the episode about a relationship. There’s always something else happening. One of our episodes is a robbery in the office and there is ethics training. I guess the way we answer it is that the relationships are always the B stories.

Where is Ryan going to turn up this year? He definitely went down a bad path the last time we saw him.

He went down a bad path, yeah. So he’ll spring back up in a way that I think is typical for people who can spin anything.

Are we going to see Angela and Andy actually make it to the alter?
That is such a good question. I want to answer right. They will make it to an alter of sorts. But probably not what you’re thinking or in the way you’re thinking. There’s a lot of fun coming up in that relationship.

What are we going to see go on in the arc of Jan’s pregnancy? Are we going to find out who the father is?
We’re taking it bit by bit. You will see a baby shower that the office throws for her. There is some talk about who the father might be.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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