NBC’s ‘American Auto’ Finds Humor in Corporate America’s Flawed Executives

Exploring the inner workings of Corporate America seems to be gaining traction with shows like Succession and Billions. Now, NBC is getting into the business game with their new workplace comedy, American Auto

Created by Superstore’s Justin Spitzer, American Auto explores the day-to-day life of upper management of Payne Motors, a fictional car company that is struggling to stay afloat as the automotive industry is constantly evolving. The company hires former Big Pharma executive Katherine (Ana Gasteyer) as CEO of Payne Motors. Unfortunately, she knows nothing about cars and can’t even drive. With her team of experts — including chief compliance officer Sadie (Harriet Dyer), chief product designer Cyrus (Michael B. Washington), consultant Wesley Payne (Jon Barinholtz), and attorney Eliot (Humphrey Ker), Katherine hopes to ‘fake it until they make it’ with the company. 

“I find CYA [cover your ass] behavior pretty funny,” said Gasteyer during a Zoom interview with The Nerds of Color. “I think we can relate to it. I think there can be competency [to it]. Katherine is not stupid. Justin went out of his way to make that point to me early on. ‘You’re not playing a bitchy boss. You’re not playing a dumb boss. It’s not The Office in that regard. It’s not Michael Scott. She’s educated and she’s got a certain IQ for business. She’s just maybe a little self-serving. She’s a little over-involved and it’s a reflection on many of us.”

In the latest episode of the series, the executives travel to Iowa for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Payne’s new factory, which promises to revive a struggling town. But, hours before the ceremony, Katherine is tempted with a competitive bid to host a factory in a war-torn country that has also violated many human rights, but it would save the company millions of dollars. 

“She’s a little over-involved and it’s a reflection on many of us,” Gasteyer explained. “I mean, when money’s on the line, our morals go away real quick in society. I think it’s fun to play with that idea. I have a really close friend and when we talk about the show, it’s such a great way of capturing it. With all the social issues the show is trying to tackle and having fun in this relevant 2022 way — it’s Americans being bad at being good. They’re trying to be good people. They’re trying to do the right thing, but then all of the sudden, their actual paycheck gets involved and they’re like ‘you know, it’s not really that bad. We’ll just look the other way.’ So, there’s something really fun in that personal moral ambiguity.”

AMERICAN AUTO — “Millbank, IA” Episode 105 — Pictured: (l-r) Ana Gasteyer as Katherine, Jon Barinholtz as Wesley — (Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

Katherine isn’t the only one whose principles get questioned in the series. Wesley is part of the Payne dynasty, but was not asked to lead the company, causing him to have some sort of an identity crisis. Riddled with so much privilege, Wesley is essentially the trust fund baby who seems unfixable, according to Barinholtz.

“For me, no matter what position status wise your characters are in,” said Barinholtz. “They’re all humans, right? So, to me, it’s interesting to put people [who are] more of a high status like [in] this world, and see how we can bring humanity to them. And, usually, it’s through pointing out all the dark spots. It’s through, acknowledging all the warts and then, hopefully, we love these people for who they are.”

Ker was quick to call his character Eliot out for being a “weasel” and definitely trying to “ride out the storm” when it comes to handling the new CEO. Though these characters may be horrible people, Ker pointed out, “People are people and they’re fallible. And, they’re idiots. And, so it’s fun to watch these people in positions of power do that.”

AMERICAN AUTO — “Pilot” Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) X Mayo as Dori, Tye White as Jack, Jon Barinholtz as Wesley — (Photo by: Greg Gayne/NBC)

However, not all the characters seem all that selfish, Jack (Tye White) aka “the Cousin Greg” of the executives, a fish-out-of-water employee who was brought onto the team from the auto assembly line. He serves as the ‘everyday man’ of the group. White, who loved the comparison to Succession (“I’m just going to keep comparing us [to Succession] since you started it.”), said his character may have to change some of his moral compass because he is just trying to survive and not mess up the opportunity given to him [to enter corporate America]. 

“He doesn’t want to lose it,” said White. “So, I think that’s probably Jack’s main focus. Because, she [gave him this] opportunity and he doesn’t want to mess it up. He doesn’t want to go back to the line.” 

Dyer, who plays straitlaced Sadie, says she sometimes feels down playing the moral compass, but remembers she’s trying to keep these “nutjobs” together, including Katherine. 

“I think Sadie’s on Team Girl Power,” said Dyer. “I think she’s just pumped that there’s a changing of the guards in terms of gender, stereotypes, and all of that, but I think she really wants Katherine to thrive because it’s a good thing for her future. She thinks that maybe she could run a huge multi-billion dollar corporation. I don’t know, more money!”

Rounding out the executives is chief product designer Cyrus, who seems like he has his life together, but is really a piping hot mess. Washington, who has been praised by critics for his standout performance in the pilot episode, loves that aspect of the character. Cyrus is also the most intriguing as he has multiple interests outside of the company — including his vast knowledge of serial killers and his various investments.

“I was so impressed with how smart and funny and fallible he is,” said Cyrus. “Somebody always says if you think you’re smart and say it out loud, give somebody in the room 15 minutes to prove you wrong — and every week we get 21 minutes to see why Cyrus might not be the smartest one in the room. So it was a lot of fun to play.”

Of course, every comedy series needs to have that one assistant that knows everything that is going on and doesn’t take crap from anyone. This comes in the form of X Mayo who plays Katherine’s no-nonsense assistant Dori. But, Mayo wants everyone to know that the character isn’t the typical Black woman with an attitude. The character actually has a softer side to her hustler ways. 

You’ll see pockets [of her softer side],” Mayo revealed. “Definitely with her and Katherine because Katherine is struggling. I think you may not see her being emotional in the manner of tears, but coming to someone’s aid and helping them when they’re really in a rut.”

AMERICAN AUTO — “Pilot” Episode 101 — Pictured: (l-r) Tye White as Jack, Harriet Dyer as Sadie, Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, Humphrey Ker as Elliot — (Photo by: Greg Gayne/NBC)

Spitzer wants it to be known that these aren’t bad people, but just people doing their best for the company, that just happens to have a bad effect on the employees. He understands the visuals with the OJ-like scene in an episode and trying to screw over a small town by canceling a deal that could save the community from financial ruin — these seem like horrible people.  

“We’re hoping people watch because they find it funny — first and foremost,” said Spitzer. “You want your characters to be likable, but that can happen over time. Even if you don’t necessarily like a character. I think you can still try to root for them or you can still want to follow what’s gonna happen or how they’re going to deal with the situation. It’s also because these are people that make a ton of money on top of corporate America. It’s like you punch up, not down.”

Many of the cast agree. There is something funny watching the people on top falter. 

“There’s something really, really powerful about seeing people who are in power stumble,” Washington laughed. “We always see the everyday man or woman or person go through their trials and tribulations, but when you get to see the people who are calling the shots [and] who are signing the checks how they get to their decision, that’s where humanity really comes in. Because, we’re all connected and we put our pants on one leg at a time and some people trip while they do it.”