Justin Spitzer On Trying To Make The Next Great Network Sitcom With ‘American Auto’

Writer and producer Justin Spitzer has been a creative force within two of this century’s best workplace comedies in The Office and Superstore, but both shows have also shared the distinction of being thought of, by some, as the last great network sitcoms when they took their last bows. Along with, I am sure, New Girl, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Modern Family when they said farewell. Sensing a trend? It’s to the point where we can’t say goodbye to a show without weaving in larger messages about the state of things. Network sitcoms may not be in their golden age, but despite the constant speculation, they also might be unkillable.

For his part, Spitzer is out to create another iconic workplace comedy; one that might accidentally fall into that other tradition of being called the last great one in a few years… until the next one comes along, that is. By the way, I’m as guilty of this kind of snarky thinking as the next critic, but Spitzer makes such a spirited case in the name of broadly focused network comedies in this interview. One that makes you want to root for his new show to upend the notion and bring laughs to the masses.

The NBC show, which stars SNL alum Ana Gasteyer, Superstore alum Jon Barinholtz, and an ensemble cast playing executives trying to keep a car company afloat, debuted for a sneak peek (streaming now on Peacock) before the holiday break and is back on Tuesday, January 4 to begin its climb into a sometimes unfriendly zeitgeist in earnest. Can it do it and become a new favorite for fans of Spitzer’s brand of comedy? We spoke with him about all of the above, why he wanted to focus on a car company and stay on the network, and what he’s taken away from his past successes. Give it a read before deciding whether you want to give American Auto a test drive.

The state of network sitcoms, as it were, is not… This is not the golden era. What would make you want to take this idea to a network?

I mean, I don’t know that network sitcoms are any worse than in any other time. Networks, I think, have a broader audience to reach.

Let me clarify.

Yeah. I’m not offended or anything.

No, no, that’s fine. Just in terms of what drives the zeitgeist right now in TV culture — it’s not network sitcoms. I think that’s an objective thing to say. It’s not like it was with the Cheers era, Seinfeld, Friends. It’s a different era.

I fully understand the point. And come awards time, it doesn’t help for your show to be on a network. And that’s something those of us on a network have come to accept, but that can still change. And I always joke that like in business they always use the buggy whip as the example of like, “Someplace, there’s a buggy whip manufacturer, the best one in the world…” It’s like, someone is still making buggy whips somewhere. And that guy is making a good living making buggy whips. And maybe he’s not winning the buggy-whip awards.

You’re the buggy-whip guy.

Well, I’m the buggy-whip guy. But that is also to say, I think there’s a lot of very good network comedies, and I think a lot of good writers writing on networks. And I feel like if you have a show that can appeal to a broad audience, that doesn’t feel like it’s too niche, why not make it available for as many people as possible? And that’s not to say I would never want to do streaming or cable, I think I absolutely do. But this show feels like it can be on a network. And having grown up in the world of Cheers, and Friends, and eventually The Office and stuff, there’s still something kind of nice about that. About that eight o’clock, same time every week. That, I don’t know, maybe the nostalgic part of me still loves.

So is that a part of the planning? Like when you sit down and find an idea, is it, “I want to make the next… ” The challenge of it, is that part of what drives this as well?

Yeah. I mean, for me, I always feel like if I set too ambitious a goal I’ll get intimidated. You’ll never write a word if every word has to be perfect. You have to set, or at least I have to set the bar a little lower than that. Of course, that’s always the dream in the back of your mind, that you’ll somehow crack it and it’ll be the thing that everyone is drawn to. And that’s probably not going to necessarily happen. But even though maybe network isn’t driving the zeitgeist and the conversation in media, we’re getting a lot of viewers. And even, what, a 0.5 share is millions of people watching my show. And what more can you ask for? I guess an Emmy, but other than that.

Knowing what the goal is for you, has your creative process changed much through The Office and Superstore to now, or is it still pretty much the same?

It’s funny, it hasn’t changed much for me since The Office. But what I think we were doing on The Office, and which was happening even before I got on The Office is they would always talk about those early seasons when they didn’t think that show was going to go long-term, and how they were just making a show that they really liked and they were excited about. And I know that seems so pure and bullshitty, but it’s true. And so that’s what I feel like I was doing on Superstore and what I am doing on American Auto. I’m really doing stuff that I really am excited about and that I would want to see. And even though it seems obvious, it’s easy to fall into the mindset of you’re just feeding the beast. And you’re just following a structure and a formula.

What was the main takeaway from Superstore that you’re taking into American Auto?

I don’t know if this is exactly answering the question, but I think people enjoyed watching the break-room meetings, which were just people sitting around and talking about an issue. And sometimes you can get so obsessed with the story beats, and A leading to B leading to C (which is important), that you can forget to take a breath and let these conversations play out. And I think that’s something that I started to do… I wanted to make sure to have time for that in this show. And I think that comes from maturing a little bit, becoming a more confident writer. Saying like, “Not everything needs to be moving the story forward every single minute. And that’s important, but let things breathe. Have a minute and a half where people are talking about something that isn’t necessarily important to the plot.”

What is it about workplace comedies that really just clicks for you?

It’s very easy. That’s where you get the most disparate group of people that creates the most conflict, the most drama. These are not people that, like an ensemble comedy, that are drawn together because they like each other. Or even in a family comedy, maybe they have to be together, but there’s generally a love there. These are people that can hate each other. And even in these workplaces, it’s not like a TV show, or a magazine, or something where they’re even necessarily people of a certain ilk that come together. In a broad thing, they’re people that can have totally different values and are just forced to spend the majority of their lives, really, together. So I think that’s such… You just get a more interesting disparate group of people, and that’s more fun for me.

What was it about the auto industry that felt like a fit?

Well, it’s funny, the auto industry specifically wasn’t the thing that drew me to the world, it was I wanted to do a corporate workplace show. And early on, I was like, “It should just be widgets, generic widgets, or something as bland as paper from Dunder Mifflin.” Then I felt like, “No, I want something with a little more specificity.” And I wanted just like a big, relatable, down-the-middle American industry. I mean, or it’s multinational, but we associate it a lot with America. And there was just a handful of things that it could’ve been. I didn’t want it to be tech. I don’t particularly have a love for cars. So I thought, “Actually, that’s good. If I was too much of a car person, I might be playing a little too much inside baseball.”

But I wanted to do something about the corporate world. I thought that was certainly interesting when I originally pitched it coming off The Office. And then even more so after Superstore, which was about the working class, or that was blue-collar. Now, those are people that get squeezed, and get fucked over sometimes by decisions being made at the very top. And now what is the world of those decisions? These aren’t people that want to screw people over. These are people that are doing the best that they can with the situation at hand. How do those decisions get made? So that’s what drew me to the corporate world.

‘American Auto’ returns to NBC Tuesday, January 4 at 8PM ET