Ben Feldman On The ‘Superstore’ Will They/Won’t They Question And Why On-Set Pranks Are A Lie

The will they/won’t they question can sit on the chest of a TV show, ultimately transforming it into something it never meant to be — a romantic comedy. NBC’s Superstore (which returns for its third season tonight) knows what it wants to be and it’s not that.

The show, which takes place in a Midwest big box department store called Cloud 9, fits into the mold of a workplace ensemble that mines humor from the absurd turns life can take when a group of disparate people are tossed into a space and tasked with an often thankless and sometimes mindless job. It’s a description that also fits The Office, Parks And Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine — three shows that have deftly pursued those will they/won’t they angles to their inevitable conclusion without derailing the larger mission. Can Superstore do the same thing following that kiss in last season’s finale? We spoke to Ben Feldman, who plays Jonah — one-half of that possibly brewing relationship with Amy (America Fererra) — and asked about how the show will navigate those waters, the Superstore‘s topical nature, seeing more of the Cloud 9 crew outside of the store, free ice cream, unrealistic notions about on-set pranksters, and his Mad Men exit.

We just ran an article that praised Superstore for its ability to be timely since you guys do such a good job of dealing with social issues without holding it over people’s heads. Obviously, things have changed a little bit in the world since you were filming last season… with everything with Trump.

I haven’t noticed. I haven’t been paying attention to the news. Who won the election?

Jill Stein, actually. Everybody was shocked. Can you talk a little bit about what the show’s going to do this year to subtly acknowledge the New World Order that we’re facing here?

Let’s see, we’re about seven or eight episodes in [with production], and I don’t think anybody’s name-checked anyone just yet. And if so, it’s only been very lightly. Nobody’s really going out of their way to call anything out, or to call attention to what’s specifically happening in the world, or in the country right now. If it comes up organically, which I’m certain it will over the course of 22 episodes, then that’ll be cool.

That’s sort of our MO, you know? The writers, they want to make sure everything comes from an organic place and really I think, first and foremost is, Is it funny? Do we have a funny way of talking about something? I think that’s one of the greatest things about this show, is that they’re not trying to cram any sort of ideology down anybody’s throats, and no one wants to be preachy, as you guys covered in the article.

They just talk about the things that people are talking about. So like, we have an entire healthcare episode that we shot a couple weeks ago. But it’s all in the context of the store, and health for those particular employees. And it’s all sort of based in a ridiculous situation that just spirals into more ridiculousness, which one could argue is what’s happened to healthcare in the United States of America, as well.

As an actor, do you relish opportunities to comment on the world?

I like being a part of a national conversation. I think that’s really exciting to me and exciting to, I’m pretty sure everybody in the cast. I think I speak for everybody when I say, it’s fun to be at the table talking with everybody else about what’s going on.

And it feels, I don’t know… At least, I guess this is just now me speaking for me, but after a while, I start to think, “Am I just putting on makeup and being goofy for the day, or am I actually getting anything done?” And when we cover stuff that really matters to people, I feel like I’m doing something more than just being silly. I think I go home with a tiny bit more of a sense of accomplishment at the end of those kinds of days, in those episodes.

The fallout from the storm that we saw in the season finale: What can you tell me about what we’re going to see when the Cloud 9 family comes back together? The physical shape of the store — are you guys still in the same store, did they rebuild?

What’s funny is, in real life the actual set had to be demolished. I believe Universal was making way for more theme park. Because when you share… when you’re on the Universal lot, you, the movie and TV people, share a space with people on rides. And those people bring in a lot of money, so I think they needed some more room for the park.

Why not Superstore: The Experience, Superstore: The Ride?

I think that’s maybe once we’re in syndication.

They took down the entire stage, and the writers were like, “Well, let’s do that in the store,” in the actual show. The whole thing kind of was just destroyed, and this current season picks up I think like two months maybe, after the finale of Season 2. The store’s getting put back together. [And] through a series of ridiculous events we’re suddenly having to rush to have it ready to be open far earlier than anybody ever thought. It’s kind of half-assed put together by the time we return to TV.

Coming off of what the show did in the season finale with Jonah and Amy ramping up the will-they/won’t-they thing a little bit, are there any concerns about that? How important is it to keep the friendship alive?

I think, and this is me personally, but I think I share some views with Justin [Spitzer] and America [Ferrera], and whoever else, I think these relationships are more interesting in those gray areas in between. I think the plan was always to keep some sort of a tension going between those two characters.

One of my favorite things… When I joined this show I was just coming off an NBC show that didn’t make it all the way through a season [A To Z], but it was very much a show about a relationship and a couple. And it was really about these two characters, myself and the woman who was my love interest on that show, and I was really, really excited to be on a show that’s an ensemble. The most important thing to me, when I first read the script was, does this show work? Is this show just as watchable, if not more, if there’s nothing going on between those two characters?

I felt like this particular relationship, and this particular show passed that test. Yeah, I think there’s gonna be tension, but I think the good news is, whether they get together or they completely don’t, the show is just as funny. Thank God the rest of the cast is 80 times funnier than I am. I would watch it. I would watch it if Jonah took off for a couple weeks.

What about Jonah’s ambition beyond Cloud 9? It was touched on in the past, but is that something they’re gonna go back to?

Yeah, I think one of the cool things about a Season 3 is, we sort of… Season 1 is always introducing you over and over again to characters, and hammering in who they are and what it is they want, or whatever. Season 2, you get to be a little goofy and expand on that. By Season 3, it’s time to look a little deeper into their lives, and we’re gonna be doing that a lot more this season. I think you’re gonna get to know these people outside of the store. We’re already getting introduced to all these new sets. I’ve seen some new houses. We get to leave the store every once in a while, which is kind of crazy for all of us, because we’re essentially a bottle episode for an entire season usually. So we get to see a lot of that, and yeah Jonah’s ambitions and needs and all of that’s gonna become a little clearer, along with everybody else, as well.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times but I didn’t find an answer when I was looking — have you ever worked in a retail environment?

No. People do ask that. You know what question people ask all the time, that I never understand? “Who’s the biggest prankster on your set?” I don’t know if that was like an interview school question, like 101.

Yeah, that’s the third thing they teach us.

I’ve been on a few sets now and I think this is George Clooney’s doing. That that’s now like a question that everybody asks, like those Ocean’s 11 guys. But anyway, no. I worked at Baskin-Robbins for a second when I was 14. That’s the closest I think I ever came to being under the umbrella of a major corporation and working anything close to retail. I was 14, I gave away a bunch of ice cream and then I got fired.

I did four years in retail, and I watch and it is spooky accurate with some of this stuff.

It’s so funny, because we hear that a lot from people who work in these stores. Everybody’s like, “Wow, you totally get this.” And it’s so funny, because the writers are just incredible, the fact that they’re able to come up with these ideas. But they’re like a group of Hollywood indoor cats, who are sitting in an office just coming up with this stuff out of the blue, and just hugely resonating with everybody who works in these situations.

It’s spot on.

That’s all on them, they’re incredible.

In the finale, there was the guy [Matt Oberg], when you guys were behind the pharmacy counter, asking about razors and I’ve had people in the middle of a two-foot blizzard come into a store to return like 31 cents worth of nuts and bolts. It’s silly.

I think that’s why I wanted to be on this show. I feel like I answer every question with, “That’s why I wanted to be on the show,” but that is one of the main things to me was that you utilize a universe of a big box store, in the middle of America. You’re just every kind of person from really cool, funny, awesome people, to just the biggest lunatics on earth. It really makes for good TV.

Silicon Valley, any chance you’re coming back to that?

I have a table read the day after tomorrow for some more Silicon Valley, yeah. I love that show, I love those people, I think they’re some of the funniest people on earth, and I could not be luckier. There was a moment — I’m sure it was Mad Men — there was a moment where I was like, “Am I gonna be on one of these, am I ever gonna get a chance to be on one of those sort of important Monday morning kind of water cooler shows?” And I was worried that it was just never gonna happen again. And I got real lucky that I found a small island on Silicon Valley to vacation to every once in a while.

Speaking of Mad Men, you had such an interesting exit, I’m curious how much prep time you had for that, what was the reaction when you found out exactly how your character was going to leave that show?

That was funny. It was the final season, or the first half of the final season as AMC is sometimes wont to do, and I was the first to go. And I remember Matt Weiner wanted me to come sit with him in his office, which for me is always terrifying because it’s like getting called into the principal’s office. I didn’t know if I’d something wrong.

He just wanted to explain to me what was gonna happen in a few weeks, exactly how it was gonna go down. It was actually the longest conversation I’d had with Matt about any sort of, about anything Mad Men related as far as the story goes. They keep their cards pretty tight on that show, usually you get your lines and then you do them. But this, he kind of laid out everything that was gonna happen, and why, and scenes and everything like that. And I think, and I could be wrong, he might have been a little worried that I was gonna be bummed out, that I was going so early. But when he told me how it was gonna happen, I could not… I think I hugged him. I was so excited.

I guess you want to go with a little bit of a bang.

If you want to go, you want to be run over by a lawnmower on that show, or you want to be hung in your office, or something. One of those big exits. And I was thrilled to get arguably the strangest of the big exits. People remember that and I get a lot of nipple jokes, but what’s really funny is, a lot of times people bring up my ear. They’ll say, “Oh yeah, you lost your ear.” And it kind of gives me a little faith in the culture of our society, because whether people understand it or not, they’re mixing me up with Van Gogh. It was a nipple, but people ask me about my ear, and I’m always like, “No, but you’re a great art student because that’s Van Gogh you’re thinking of.”

Last question: who was the biggest prankster on Mad Men?

[Laughs.] The reason I think that question is so crazy to me, is because, and again I could be wrong, I haven’t been on a billion shows, but at least of all the comedy groups I’ve been a part of, if everybody’s really funny enough, you don’t need a prankster. It’s almost like the prankster would just be annoying, in my opinion. That’s not to say that those Ocean’s 11 guys aren’t all hilarious. But I can’t imagine any of us really being a prankster, everybody’s already laughing hard enough as it is.

I’ve literally done two set visits in my life, and it looks so busy and there are so many people standing around, I think it would just be super annoying.

It would slow everybody down. It would have to be an incredibly funny prank that’s worth shutting down production for however long it takes. We’ve got to make our days, we’ve got an AD and a visiting director who are terrified they’re gonna send everybody into overtime. There’s no time to pull pranks.

Exactly, who wants to take that risk? You might get written off the show. They’d cut your nipple off.

Or my ear.