When season four of Superstore returns this month, creator Justin Spitzer will be saying, “I told you so.”
Well, not really. Spitzer is too nice of a guy to shove his success in the faces of critics who took a while to warm to his big-box store comedy. But we’ll be saying it because, over the course of just a handful of seasons, Superstore has become one of the most relevant, insightful shows on TV. With a cast of comedic talents like America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Lauren Ash, and Mark McKinney, and a talent for weaving potentially divisive issues into plotlines filled with absurdist comedy, Superstore has managed to make politics funny again.
Spitzer, who worked on another little-known show called The Office, has always been a fan of work-place comedies and he’s used his latest to confront stereotypes, tackle taboo topics, and prove that yes, working retail is a comedy goldmine. We chatted with him about how the show’s changed since the presidential election, what’s in store for Amy and Jonah this season, and just what the hell is going on with that Office reboot.
Considering how critics reacted to the show’s first season, does it feel like a win to be able to get to season four and continue to build the show’s fan base?
It definitely feels satisfying to get to season four. I don’t think I’m saying, like, “I told you so,” to anyone.
[Laughs] No. Thank you, but no. Not a lot of shows make it to season four, so it’s crazy when we’re sitting around thinking, “Oh, have we done this, or done that?,” and it actually takes some time to think back on all the episodes we’ve done. It’s like if you start jogging and you look back and you’re like, “Oh man, where am I? I’ve gotten really far.”
I don’t believe in running voluntarily so I wouldn’t know anything about that. But you guys have covered a ton of issues on the show, including problems that have been made worse by our current administration. Have the topics and how you approach them changed because of the “Trump Effect?” Or, are you guys following the Broad City rule?
What rule does Broad City have? They don’t mention Trump?
In season four, they refused to say his name, so they’d just bleep it out.
It’s certainly not a rule for us but we tend not to have an episode where we say like, “Oh, here’s an issue,” and then like, “Everyone’s going to talk about it,” and we’re going to try to bring in different politics and stuff. Sometimes we’ll use a social issue as a jumping off point, or we’re open to it if the story suggests that. But because we’re not thinking that way, it’s just never really come up to deal with the national politics of an issue, you know? They talk about the ways that their lives are affected by an issue and sometimes they’ll go off onto weird random tangents that are suggested by it, but we’ve never done something where they’re talking about the national landscape in [that way].
How do the writers strike that balance then, between humor and political relevancy?
It’s more like we’re starting with the story, and then, is there a way that it ends up aligning with that issue? Early on we did this episode, “Guns, Pills, and Birds.” Jonah feels uncomfortable selling guns in the store, and then Glenn [had to sell] a couple a birth control pill. That didn’t come out of talking about guns or birth control or any of that. It came out of, “Oh, what would happen if Amy assigned Jonah to something, and Jonah didn’t want to do it for whatever reason?” It was like, “Jonah might have a moral issue or a just a fear of it.” And, “Oh, what if it was guns? And what if Glenn was dealing with a similar crisis of feeling unsure about his morality versus store policy?” So, it was like one thing led to another.
Talking about Jonah and Amy, the show decided to address the will-they-won’t-they this season. They’re officially a couple. On The Office, Pam and Jim officially became a couple in season four. Will Amy and Jonah be the next Pam and Jim or are they going to face new hurdles when the show returns?
They’ll have issues. I know that we’re planning on having a little tension come out this season. I think with Jim and Pam, [executive producer] Greg Daniels had decided right from the start, we are never going to do the thing where we break them up. Like, they can have little marital issues, and that can just be funny, but we’re not doing that move. We haven’t said that on this show but we don’t have any plans to break them up either. So, in terms of the general idea, I think we are hoping to emulate The Office, have them get together, but have us still like them. You know, you’re not praying for them to kiss, because they kissed, because they’re already together, but you’re still excited to see them together, and you’re still interested in following their relationship.
Before the show went on break, plenty of characters were facing some big life changes. Dina was questioning her role in the store, Glenn became a dad (again), Amy had a baby and was considering a managerial position, Jonah came clean to his parents. Those set up big changes, so how do you follow through with them, without losing the essence of the show?
Well, I think, as in the real world, people make big decisions and then move very slowly on them. And I think that’s kind of always been a theme of the show: very, very gradual change. So, I think, if anything, more is happening this season than ever before. Like you said, Amy’s making a decision to pursue things. People are making slight changes in their lives, but we’re not talking about tossing the hand grenade and changing up the whole world of the show.
Will those changes, specifically with Amy, cause conflict in her relationship with Jonah?
I think that that’s going to be either the cause of tension, or you could say their opposite viewpoints come out of their character and [create] tension. I think they’re both people that were passing through life, and kind of found each other in a certain time, and really like each other, but that’s not to say that their journeys are going to stop here. So, I think that there’s going to be tension as Amy wants to keep pursuing this goal, and her values may change. What are Jonah’s fundamental values?
Because the show has tackled some divisive topics like immigration, #MeToo, the healthcare crisis, I’m wondering if you ever have to go to someone, not in the writers’ room, someone who’s not in the bubble, and ask, “Hey, is this funny? Or is this just offensive?”
[Laughs] We probably do. I mean we have enough writers in the room too that there are disagreements in the room about what’s funny and what’s offensive. And I think we’re a pretty open room, where everyone at all levels can occasionally just stand up and say, “Hey, this feels too far. This marginalizes a group. This objectifies a group.” I think we have a fairly good feel of where the line is, where it’s fun to push it a little bit.
Fans are pretty pleased that Dina’s birds will finally make it on the show this season. Does that mean we’re heading away from Cloud 9?
We don’t go away from the store that much. In that episode, we do a little, but she brings her birds into the store, for most of that episode. Although we do see her apartment at some point. It’s a workplace show that largely exists in the workplace. We have so many characters, the store just lends itself to most of the stories.
Speaking of the store, where do you guys come up with ideas for these scene transitions? There’ve been people eating candles, coming out of dressing rooms sans pants. I’ve no doubt that happens, but have the writers witnessed these things first-hand?
Some of them, yeah. Early on there were more relatable ones. Now we’ve been through a lot of those, we end up just trying to use our imaginations. I think a couple of people have done a little bit of retail. There’s nobody on staff that has worked at Target, Walmart, or Kmart. I always wish we had someone that did.
If you run out of ideas, there are some retail threads on Reddit that may interest you. Or just visit a Walmart, I guess.
We do a lot of that. It’s hard to figure out a way to expense anytime we go to Target.
You guys are on NBC and the network loves crossovers. Any chance we’ll get one with a show like Good Girls or Brooklyn Nine-Nine?
You know the creator of [Good Girls] is my wife, right? We’ve joked about it a bunch, that show takes place in Detroit, and we’re in St. Louis, so we’d have to find some reason to come over here. Last year we talked vaguely about doing something where the fact that they were counterfeiting in a Cloud 9 somehow affected people’s lives in our store. And we didn’t know exactly when they’d be airing, so we were like, “Oh, this is too hard to plan.” But maybe someday?
Okay, I’m going to hit you with a rapid-fire round on what we can expect for the rest of this season. Are we getting any more time with Garrett and Dina as a couple?
Yes, there are some interesting developments that happen between them.
What about Glenn and Dina? Does the baby change their relationship moving forward?
Glenn is going to make some big decisions based on now being the parent of a very young child. I think, for Dina, her life will change in other ways. But sort of as it should be, I mean, she should be able to move on.
Will Mateo become a citizen?
That’s one where we try to have a light touch. We don’t want to move it too much, we want that to be one part of his character, without feeling like that’s all of it but yes, it does come up again.
This question is not Superstore-related but I’m pretty sure you are legally required to answer: Where are we with The Office reunion?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Nobody tells me anything. It’s the weirdest thing. Every now and then I’ll run into one of the actors, and I’ll ask them, and they’ll say they don’t know anything. And I don’t know if they’re being totally honest. So I don’t know. I mean, I guess Jenna’s got a show, John’s got a show, Steve’s doing a million movies, and this thing with Greg, I don’t know when they’re going to find the time, but maybe they’ve been filming something underground. I need to get to the bottom of this. I would be as surprised and as thrilled as you would be.
‘Superstore’ returns for the remainder of its fourth season on Thursday, March 7th.