American Auto is keeping the workplace comedy alive in its second season, and it even had a mini-reunion this week for creator Justin Spitzer’s previous show, Superstore. Ben Feldman dropped by for tonight’s episode, “Going Green,” playing Wesley’s (fellow Superstore alum Jon Barinholtz) obnoxious tech bro friend. When Katherine (Ana Gasteyer) and the team at Payne Motors find themselves with their backs against the wall thanks to public opinion, they look to Chase (Feldman) to make a quick investment in his supposed Green initiative.
While American Auto season 2 continues to build on last season finale’s recall, the NBC series is simultaneously delving into difficult issues that real-life corporations must deal with in their daily life. Having also worked on The Office, Spitzer is a master at balancing morally compromised characters who maintain their charm despite the portions of their soul they’ve sold to the corporate world. As Katherine continues trying to save her skin and her team, fans will almost certainly see the characters dig their way into even more complicated and comedic situations.
Screen Rant spoke to Spitzer about how the American Auto team landed on environmentalism for “Going Green,” what led to Ben Feldman’s casting, and why he thinks of his shows as class commentaries rather than traditional workplace comedies.
Justin Spitzer on American Auto Season 2
Screen Rant: Did you want this character of Chase specifically for Ben, or did it just work out scheduling-wise?
Justin Spitzer: I love Ben, and I did want to put him in the show at some point. My secret fantasy was always to bring him in if we ever did an episode about unionization and they needed a union buster to come in. After what he did in Superstore, I wanted him to be the dick that came in and was just heartless about firing these guys.
But I didn’t know if or when that episode would ever come, so when we had this part, it was actually our DP Jay Hunter’s idea. He was my DP on both Superstore and American Auto, and he was directing this one. He said, “What about Ben?” and I knew this would be a part he was great for. And I decided to go with it, since it’s a good part for now, and you never know about future seasons. I’m glad we did it.
When we hit the recall episode last season, I never would have imagined that you could build so much story out of just that. But now Tesla doing a recall and that being big news, it’s easy to see where inspiration comes from. Do you feel vindication when you see the real world play out in similar ways to your writing?
Justin Spitzer: We try to make all our episodes fairly feasible. Auto companies deal with recalls all the time, and the decision about whether to pay the expense and do it now versus rolling the dice a little bit. I feel like we’re doing things that are grounded enough that, when they happen, it just feels more like affirmation that we’re doing the right thing.
We see that Wesley and Chase go way back, or at least back to college. Is that something you would expand upon in flashbacks, or can we otherwise hope to see more of their friendship in the present day?
Justin Spitzer: I don’t think we’ve ever really even done flashbacks on Superstore or American Auto. I’m not totally opposed to them, but I think it probably wouldn’t be there.
I would definitely be interested in bringing Ben’s character back, though. We talked about it for this season and couldn’t quite fit it in, but I’d love to see him again. I think I’d rather see evidence of their friendship now than putting them both in wigs and asking them to act like they’re in a dorm together. [Laughs]
Now that we’ve gotten Ben, what would it take to get America Ferrera for a Superstore reunion?
Justin Spitzer: I had asked America to play a part early on, and I think she was off doing a movie somewhere. I’d work with America again in a second. We couldn’t fit her in this season, but in the future if she’s ever game? I certainly would be.
“Going Green” obviously centers on the age-old trick of announcing a plan you don’t necessarily intend to follow through on, and every episode of American Auto exposes the nihilism of corporate America. How do you walk that fine line in the comedy of being problematic but likable?
Justin Spitzer: It’s a subtle distinction, but I think that it’s more cynical than nihilistic, necessarily. They have a job they are doing, and their efforts have to be toward that job. The decision to invest in a green company is nothing that’s going to hurt the environment, it’s just cynically putting a spin on something that’s not necessarily going to help the environment as much as they pretend it will. If it was a decision about dumping a whole bunch of stuff on some land, that would be a bigger conversation. I’m not even saying they never would, but it’s easy for me to get behind the cynical spinning of everything that you can.
Also, for an episode like this, we didn’t even start with the environmental aspects. That kind of came later. We started with them getting conned by tech in general, and we were thinking of Theranos and other stories like that. Then the green part came later. We liked the idea of them talking themselves into something and rushing in because everyone else is; that seemed like a fun thing to explore.
Speaking of which, I loved the Theranos shout-out in the episode. But I noticed that “Cost Cutting” and “Going Green” had different production numbers. Were they originally switched?
Justin Spitzer: We’re trying to serialize things, and so what’s happened so much throughout the season is that we’ve ended up changing the order of shooting. We’ll write something else that fits in between there, so every episode has three different episode numbers. There’s the order we wrote it in, the order we shot it in, and the order we’re going to air it in. Those just get all messed up sometimes.
But I’m kind of realizing that might be the secret of network television, or of any order where you have more than 10 episodes. It’s hard to picture everything in advance, or to plan out that serialization so much; you sometimes have to go on the fly. I think part of the solution is that you do episodes, and then you realize you need to set something up a little bit, so you write something to go between those two episodes. I’ll just say that the secret of serialization is shooting out of order.
Is there any character arc that you’re most excited by or that you think fans will be most surprised by this season?
Justin Spitzer: I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that Wesley has a pretty significant arc for his character in regard to his involvement in the company. I think they’ll be excited by that. We’ll keep following Jack and Sadie and what happens with them, and the larger arc of what happens with the company and the stock price with Katherine’s job on the line.
Catherine manages to get by while also often being spectacularly bad at her job. How do you come up with new ways for her to do that, and for Ana to have us on the floor while she does it?
Justin Spitzer: Well, the second one, that’s easy. She’s amazing and hilarious. You don’t have to write much to make her funny.
As for the first one, it’s challenging. I’ve always maintained that Katherine is not a stupid person. She’s a smart person, and isn’t even really bad at her job, although maybe that’s debatable when it comes to certain aspects of her job. We want the comedy to come from real places, but then you also want to have character comedy, and that’s a challenge.
We often find ourselves asking, “Are we repeating something we’ve done again? Iis that consistent character comedy, or are we just repeating a story that we shouldn’t be in two seasons?” The challenge is trying to find new twists on things and new ways they can get themselves into trouble.
You also wrote for The Office way back in the day, so you have at this point perfected workplace comedy. What other industries do you think you could still tap for comedy?
Justin Spitzer: I have one in the back of my mind that I won’t say yet, because I’m hoping to do it. But it’s not really about industries as much as it is the way I think about class. I mean, Superstore was retail, but for me, it was really about blue-collar working class people. American Auto is about the auto industry, but to me, it’s really about the white-collar corporate executives. That’s how I approach things.
We’re about to shoot a pilot that I wrote with Eric Ledgin, who I’ve worked with both on Superstore and American Auto, and that’s set inside a hospital. I guess that’s the medical industry, and that one probably is a little bit more industry-related. It’s not about class as much as it is what happens there.
Looking back on your previous shows, are there any crossovers that you could imagine with American Auto? Is there any character from Superstore or The Office that you’d like to see on your show?
Justin Spitzer: With Superstore and American Auto, the weirdest thing is we’ve got Jon Barinholtz in both. I don’t know what universe they’re each from, but there’s a version that would be very funny to do. With Ben there too, the more we have the same actor playing different characters, the harder it is to say they exist in the same universe.
And given that The Office is not my show, there’s something that feels rude to Greg Daniels if all of a sudden I bring in characters from Dunder Mifflin. There was a Mindy Project episode where they used Cloud 9 in the show, and I always thought, “Oh, now we’re canon. I can reinterpret your show as much as I want.” But I don’t think it’s too likely that we’ll see people from those shows playing themselves.
You just wrapped production on season 2. What are you proudest of in terms of how far the show has come or the work that has been put into it?
Justin Spitzer: I’m proud of the episodes. I think we’ve continued to find stories and take on stories and topics that I really I haven’t seen much of. I’m proud of the fact that I think we made the characters likable and relatable — at least I hope — even if they’re doing things that aren’t necessarily likable and relatable. We have a handful of stories that we’re really excited about, and it seems like people who are watching the show are really excited about them too.
Is one of those things Jack and Sadie, whom I love? Where would you say they land on the OTP scale?
Justin Spitzer: Will-they-won’t-they plots are so hard because you’re always trying not to repeat stuff you’ve seen. Jim and Pam were so great, and of course, you think of Sam and Diane. But it’s always a challenge finding the right obstacle.
First and foremost, I’d say that compared to Superstore, Jonah and Amy was more of a priority. And yet, I’m very excited about Jack and Sadie. But I think we generally view them as, “What is their ongoing relationship? Is it an obstacle to Sadie in her career and Jack moving up?” It’s the wrinkles that their relationship brings into thing, and I think that’s probably clear from watching it too.
We don’t start from a place of, “What is going to happen with Jack and Sadie?” We hope people are excited for them. But I don’t know that they wind up together in season 3 or 4. I never knew that Jonah and Amy would wind up together either, I kind of just take it as it comes. We’re not first and foremost a romantic comedy, but that’s a fun element to play with.
About American Auto
From the creator of “Superstore” comes a new workplace comedy that takes the wheels off the automobile industry. Set in Detroit, the corporate executives of Payne Motors are at a crossroads: adapt to the changing times or be sent to the junkyard. Shaking things up is the new CEO, whose leadership, experience and savvy is only slightly offset by her complete lack of knowledge about cars. Luckily, her team has some of the best minds in the business – when they aren’t fighting or trying to outwit each other. From the corporate office to the factory floor, the crew of Payne Motors is driving home the laughs.
Check out our interviews for American Auto season 1 here:
Next: Superstore: The Cast’s Latest Projects (& How They Compare To Cloud 9)
American Auto airs Tuesdays at 8:30/7:30c on NBC.