Jon Barinholtz On Kicking Workplace Comedy Up A Gear With ‘American Auto’


Styled by Alix Hester and groomed by James Dunham, Jon Barinholtz is all smiles.

JSquared Photography

Don’t sleep on American Auto. The workplace comedy is the brainchild of Justin Spitzer, who most recently gave us the hit NBC sitcom Superstore, which ran for six seasons. 

American Auto focuses on the employees of a fictional Detroit-based car company, Payne Motors, and their questionably qualified CEO.

The ensemble cast is led by Ana Gasteyer and also boasts Superstore alum, Jon Barinholtz. I caught up with him to talk about the show, how the pandemic almost nixed it, and Spitzer’s unique ability to find humor in the humdrum.

Simon Thompson: American Auto is another win for Justin Spitzer after Superstore and The Office. At what point did you know this was a good choice?

Jon Barinholtz: For me, when we started shooting, it clicked right away. I knew the show was going to work when I read the pilot. It was so impressive. You wouldn’t expect anything less reading a script of Justin Spitzer’s, but I was like, ‘I want to jump all in on this.’ American Auto is an excellent take on the workplace at a different level and swings for some big comedic moments that you don’t get a chance to take every day and rarely in comedy.

Thompson: When did it come your way? Superstore ended last year. Was this something that you guys were talking about long before that, or was this something that came up after that show ended?

Barinholtz: I think it was during the fifth season of Superstore that Justin told me there was this pilot he was taking out called American Auto and mentioned that he thought there was a role that would be great for me. That was around the end of 2019. I got cast in it, and in pilot season, right before we started filming, the pandemic hit, so the pilot got pushed. Honestly, I didn’t know if we would get a chance to make up. We started season six of Superstore, and right when that ended, we were able to shoot this pilot. It just worked out so amazingly.

Thompson: For me, Superstore remains one of the most underappreciated TV comedies of the last 10 or 15 years. So many people dismissed it but then found it on streaming and asked why they didn’t get on it sooner.

Barinholtz: I totally agree. It had this huge second life when Superstore landed on Netflix in the UK, Canada, and Australia. It took everyone over there saying that it was great to get people here giving it a first or second look. It’s too bad it didn’t get over there earlier and have that excitement while it was still on TV here. It might have had a little bit longer life if that had happened. At the same time, getting six seasons is so impressive in today’s TV world. That was amazing. I will always remember that as one of my favorite shows.

(Left to right) Jon Barinholtz as Wesley, Humphrey Ker as Elliot, Ana Gasteyer as Katherine in … [+] ‘American Auto.’

Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Thompson: What is it about playing really likable assholes that appeals to you? Wesley is another one where he’s such a disaster, but you cannot help but like him.

Barinholtz: (Laughs) For me, I think there’s something really fun when you can see a character who comes across on the page as the opposite of the type of person you would want to hang out with. It’s fun to approach a character saying, ‘Let’s see if I can make him someone that I might want to hang out with. I wouldn’t want to see him every day, but I might get a beer with this person occasionally.’ With Marcus on Superstore and with Wesley in American Auto, I think they both have that deep want for acceptance that makes them vulnerable in a way. Marcus was more of an outsider, but Wesley has the status and is undercut by the fact that no one really wants him. I think him showing the world that he does want to be wanted is a challenge. It is also fun to do.

Thompson: What is it about Justin’s work that is so unique. Workplace comedies are not uncommon, but he can capture something that others don’t.

Barinholtz: I think it has to do with his honesty and approach to building out the world of the workplace with real characters. That’s the base with him. He finds a really entertaining world that he knows he can explore and go down many different avenues with it. It doesn’t just have the framework, he puts these real characters in that world, and he’s so good at writing them.

Thompson: I also want to ask about the audience’s reaction to American Auto because we’re a couple of episodes deep in the season already. Talent usually only get to talk to people like me before the audience has seen it.

Barinholtz: It’s pretty interesting to see people’s reaction to the show in real-time, period. We know what we did with the season; I think the season truly finds itself early on, and then it rockets off. Every episode gets better and better, and it’s fun to see people go along for that ride. It’s great to be able to talk about experiencing that. Back in the day, sitcoms would have a couple of seasons to find their legs, but now you have a couple of episodes. If you don’t get people hooked, you’re in trouble. Luckily, I think we’re getting people hooked, and they’re going to be with us on that ride where the show keeps going on this upward trajectory.

Thompson: Are the reactions you see the ones you expected?

Barinholtz: We’ve talked as a cast about being able to see the reaction. People say you should never look at the comments, but you always do anyway, and they’ve been amazing. It’s been so great to see the fan support on this, see what they see in it, and how people are jumping in.

American Auto airs on NBC on Tuesdays at 8 pm.

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