Jon Barinholtz has a few pertinent thoughts about the state of the U.S. automotive industry.
“There definitely is a scramble right now to figure out what is the next thing. It feels like you’re constantly on the brink of what could be the next big innovation,” he says. “It makes for maybe, in reality, a very hectic and anxious workplace.
But as fodder for a sitcom, the corporate side of Motor City carmakers “makes for really entertaining viewing,” according to Barinholtz, who stars on the new NBC series “American Auto.”
Now it’s time to see whether viewers agree. “American Auto,” which aired two episodes in December as a sneak peek, officially premieres in its regular time slot at 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Set — but not filmed — in Detroit, the comedy explores the day-to-day catastrophes of Payne Motors, a fictional 100-year-old car company that’s struggling to stay afloat at a time when the future of the entire industry is evolving and unclear.
The series finds laughs in actual car-related issues. The pilot, for instance, focuses on the launch of a self-driving vehicle with artificial intelligence flaws that make it awful at braking for people of color.
Yet “American Auto” resonates most as a critique of big business — specifically the vast power invested in bosses who issue orders that affect the lives thousands of their employees.
Barinholtz says the series explores “how these decisions are made, and it’s not with as much thought as you would hope it is, if you’re a worker. It’s sometimes kind of just flying by the seat of their pants.”
One example? The new CEO of Payne Motors, Katherine Hastings (played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Ana Gasteyer), is a former drug company executive who’s almost completely unfamiliar with the product she’s now selling.
In one scene, Katherine practices pronouncing a basic car term by repeating “Brassy Shirley Bassey got on her chassis.”
During a briefing before a news media event, Katherine’s communications chief, Sadie (Australian actress Harriet Dyer), advises her to say a few words about why she took this new job.
“Oh, I can do that in two words: the money,” says Katherine. “I mean, obviously, it wasn’t just money. There were stock options.”
“American Auto” is the latest TV show from Justin Spitzer, a former writer for “The Office” and creator of NBC’s underappreciated “Superstore,” one of the best sitcoms ever about working for hourly wages.
Spitzer originally pitched “American Auto” to NBC in 2013. The goal was to do a comedy about corporate life that just happened to be rooted in cars.
“It wasn’t really supposed to be a story about the auto industry or set in Detroit or anything. I just wanted a more specific industry than just, like, generic widgets,” he explains. “And I wanted it to be a big multimillion-billion-dollar company that touches on a lot of areas. And the auto industry sort of fit into that.”
When the network passed on the concept, Spitzer moved on to creating and running “Superstore,” which attracted a loyal following and lasted for six seasons before ending its series run last March. As the years passed, he held on to the idea of a workplace comedy set inside a company headquarters. It would be the flip side of “Superstore,” which depicted clerks and cashiers toiling at a Target-like store called Cloud Nine.
When he stepped down from his duties as showrunner for “Superstore” in 2019, Spitzer returned to “American Auto” and updated it to reflect changing times. This time, NBC gave its OK to the pilot and then the series.
Spitzer admits he isn’t a car person and brought no special knowledge of cars to the project. “I think it’s great when people have that sort of passion for it, but it’s nothing I’ve (ever) been a part of. I’ve done as much research as I can and will continue to do it.”
During his research process, he touched base with Alessandro Uzielli, the head of Ford global brand entertainment and the company’s liaison to Hollywood. Uzielli, who happens to be the great-great grandson of Henry Ford, invited Spitzer to come along on his next trip to the Motor City.
Spitzer, who describes Uzielli as “unbelievably nice, generous,” was able to visit Ford’s corporate offices in Dearborn, and he briefly met former CEO and president James Hackett in an elevator. He also toured Ford’s design labs and the Dearborn Truck Plant where F-150s are made.
“I just got a sense of the world of it. … It really was very impressive and just gave me a sense of how that world looks,” says Spitzer of the trip he took more than two years ago.
Payne Motors in “American Auto” already is drawing comparisons to real-life car companies. (USA Today’s review called it a “a thinly-disguised Ford Motor Company.”) But Spitzer is adamant that “American Auto” isn’t based on any single company — and neither are its storylines.
“It’s not based on anyone. It’s not based on GM, It’s not based on Ford,” he says.
Well, what about the detail that the founder of Payne Motors is described as a bigot, a theme that echoes the real Henry Ford?
“I had the thought of this is a 100-year-old company with a … creator who has issues with racism, anti-Semitism, before I even knew this was going to be the auto industry,” Spitzer says. “If you’re a 100-year-old company, your founder probably wasn’t the most progressive guy.”
And what about the fact that the new CEO of Payne Motors is a woman? Spitzer says the character is “definitely not Mary Barra, ” the groundbreaking head of General Motors who rose through the ranks of that company. Gasteyer’s Katherine doesn’t even know how to drive — hence the laughs.
”If your boss is competent, intelligent, great at their job, it’s a little harder to get comedy,” says Spitzer of the decision to make Katherine a fish out of water.
When “American Auto” does intend to draw real-life parallels, it won’t hide them, according to Spitzer. He points to the second episode story about a serial killer who’s on the loose in a white van made by Payne Motors.
“Of course we were thinking O.J. (Simpson) and the Ford Bronco, but that one we call out,” he says.
With an expertise honed by his experience with “The Office” and “Superstore,” Spitzer assembles a group of characters that includes:
- Barinholtz as Wesley, the heir to Payne Motors who is incapable of filtering inappropriate comments and who leaves a vehicle launch feeling hurt that nobody mentioned his jacket.
- Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, the head designer, who rarely finds anyone who’ll listen to his technical briefings without interrupting and who has a penchant for brutal honesty.
- Humphrey Ker, as Elliott, the expert on law who is less interested in whether something is absurd than whether it is legal.
- X Mayo as Dori, the assistant to the CEO, whose idea for innovation is a polite horn that provides a gentle, high-pitched beep for occasions when you don’t want a blaring sound.
- And Tye White as Jack, an assembly line worker who had a brief fling with Sadie and whose commonsense thinking earns him a promotion to the white-collar ranks.
White, a Brother Rice High School and University of Michigan alum originally from Detroit, describes himself as a huge sitcom fan. When his agent told him about a new comedy from Justin Spitzer, he immediately was eager to pursue the project.
After four or five auditions, White landed the role. “I got lucky enough to work in the space that I’ve been a fan of basically since I was a little kid,” he says.
White grew up with family members who worked for auto companies. “To this day, I still have uncles who work in the auto industry or extensions of it. … When I purchase a car, I still get family discounts,” he says.
He says he feels a kinship with his character because Jack is interested in more than just money and has a moral code that reflects the hardworking attitude of Detroiters.
“Me being an everyman, me being the blue collar worker when there’s a whole bunch of white collar workers in (the show), me representing them is a big honor, and it really is fun. I embody some of my uncles with this role.”
For Barinholtz, who grew up in the Midwest (he says his grandfather was one of the first used car salesmen in Chicago), the opportunity to be in “American Auto” was a no-brainer.
“I was interested right away, knowing it was a Justin Spitzer project,” says Barinholtz, who took the initially small role of warehouse supervisor Marcus on “Superstore” and turned it into a breakout performance.
He praises Spitzer for having “such a great mind for how to show the American workplace.” And, he adds, when it comes to workplaces, “nothing feels more American than a car company in Detroit.”
Barinholtz also admires Spitzer’s ability to deepen the humanity of his characters over time. “I don’t want to give anything away, but throughout the season, you get to know these people more. It goes from that thing of ‘I don’t know if I’d want to be in a room with that person’ to ‘I’d only want to be in a room with that person.’”
There also is a subversive side to Spitzer’s shows that stands out in the often safe world of broadcast network comedies. “Superstore” tackled serious matters like an effort by Cloud Nine workers to organize a union and the plight of an undocumented employee who is afraid of being deported.
“American Auto” is bound to take the same edgier path. Says Barinholtz: “The comedy is in the foreground, but then they sneak in these really real-world issues that everyone is dealing with in their daily lives, but … (not) in a way that’s preachy or off-putting.”
Spitzer wants to incorporate more Detroit-inspired material into the show. He sounds impressed at what he’s learned so far about the region and its residents.
“People love Detroit if they’re from Detroit,” he says. “I don’t think I even realized that going in to this. It’s like, man, I have the pressure of trying to get the auto industry right, and the whole city that I’ve only visited once in doing research for this show. So I’m doing my best.”
Told that the pilot nails a bit about the pronunciation of Westland, a Wayne County suburb, Spitzer says, “Are we getting some things right, I hope?”
White jokes that he personally will intervene if there are any inaccuracies in the Detroit details. “They will not say ‘soda’ on this show! I’m like, ‘Do not say “soda.” … It’s “pop.”‘ If it’s written in the script, I’m going to be, like, ‘No, don’t say it!’”
According to Spitzer, every episode of “American Auto” won’t necessarily revolve around cars or the car industry. But expect constant awareness of the hierarchy of corporate dynamics. He points out that the white-collar staff has to answer to Katherine, while Katherine has to answer to a board of directors, who in turn have to answer to shareholders.
“I guess if you’re Elon Musk, maybe you just do whatever the hell you want and you’re accountable to no one,” he says.
There also is potential for exploring the relationship between Sadie and Jack, who right now are unsuccessfully trying to hide their romantic hookup. Their awkward flirting is reminiscent of the rocky “Superstore” love story between Amy (America Ferrera) and Jonah (Ben Feldman), one of that show’s most appealing threads.
Says Spitzer: “It’s certainly there in the DNA if we want to go after it.”
If the ratings performance of “American Auto” makes NBC happy, there will be plenty of time for more story lines, or even more research trips.
“I want to try both of those hot dogs,” says Spitzer, referring to Detroit’s famous rivalry between Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island. He’s still learning things about the Motor City. But like a vintage car that needs to warm up a bit, he’s getting there.
Contact Detroit Free Press pop culture critic Julie Hinds at [email protected]
8 p.m. Tuesday