The dead-end drudgery of retail might not sound like an easy scenario to mine for comedy, but NBC's new sitcom Superstore, about the employees and goings-on at a Walmart-esque big-box store called Cloud 9, has found a way. Led by America Ferrera as store manager Amy and Ben Feldman as eager-to-please new employee Jonah, the employees of Cloud 9 are alternately bored, restless, and determined.
They're also very, very funny.
In preparation for Superstore's season one finale (airing February 22 at 8 pm on NBC), I recently caught up with series creator Justin Spitzer, a veteran producer of The Office, to talk about his hopes for a second season of Superstore, how delirious actors inspired the show's best episode, and why "will they or won't they" is a misleading concept.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Framke: It seems like casting was crucial for this show, since all the characters are stuck together under one roof. What was that process like?
Justin Spitzer: Casting always seems incredibly difficult and impossible when you’re doing it. I mean, casting is always everything for a show. With [Superstore] … if casting were ever of more importance, I would say this is the one. They’re all with each other all the time.
America and Ben didn’t [read for their parts]. Every year, America is someone people want. When her name came up, I didn’t even think it was possible she’d want to do it. I figured, "Please, she hasn’t agreed to do a show in four years. She’s not going to want to do a sitcom." So we kind of took a flier and went out, and were very, very pleasantly surprised when she agreed to do it.
Ben [Feldman] had been on A to Z, a show that didn’t come back on NBC the previous year. He was a little nervous about coming back and doing another sitcom on the same network. Not that he has anything against NBC, but just repeating that experience. But he liked the script. I just had to have a big conversation with him where I begged him to do it, and explained what the show was.
A to Z was very heavily a romantic comedy, and the pilot of Superstore felt more like a romantic comedy than I think I ever meant the show to be. So one thing I had to tell him was, "No, this is not a show about whether Jonah and Amy are going to get together and what beautiful, sweet thing is Jonah going to do." Basically, that the show would allow him to be a more rounded, comedic character than that.
CF: There's still somewhat of a "will they/won’t they" thing with Amy and Jonah, though I also thought it was a really interesting choice to have Amy married right off the bat. What was behind the choice to pivot from more romance to a more work-wife, work-husband situation?
JS: I think any time you have a true will they/won’t they — not just following how two people are going to get together — you really want to create some question around whether you will get them together. And what you need is a big obstacle for them to have.
There seem to be two obstacles to stop people from getting together. One is that they don’t seem to like each other too much, like Sam and Diane [on Cheers]. They like each other, but they hate each other. The other one is that at least one of them is in a relationship, like Jim and Pam [on The Office] or Niles and Daphne [on Frasier]. And I just decided to do both of them for Jonah and Amy, to create as big an obstacle as possible so that "will they/won’t they" could be as slow a burn as possible.
What I also say to people is that a lot of times, "will they/won’t theys" are more "when will theys." You know Ross and Rachel [on Friends] or Jim and Pam are going to get together at some point. But I don’t know what’s going to happen with Jonah and Amy! They may [get together], or they may just be two people who come into each other’s lives and change each other’s lives, and had certain things been different they might have gotten together, but they don’t.
I just don’t know yet. Hopefully that’s an exciting thing for people to watch, and not a bummer.
CF: They had some good moments in "All-Nighter" [an episode that locked all the Cloud 9 employees in the store for the night], which I really loved.
JS: We were very excited about that one as well. All season we’d been waiting for that one. We knew we couldn’t do it too early on, because it took some level of investment and familiarity with the characters. But we knew from when we shot the pilot that that was what we were going to do.
["All-Nighter"] came from the actors. We did a couple all-nighter shoots for the pilot, and people just get wonky at 4:30 in the morning. The actors, in that Kmart where we were shooting, just started putting on clothes and doing fashion shows for each other. They were so close to each other right away. Just watching it was surreal. It was like, "This is the show right here! We have to get a series order, because this is an episode we have to write."
You’re so nervous doing a pilot, because our pilot episode is so difficult in its own right. And you’re thinking in the back of your head, "Okay, what’s the series going to be?" You have to figure that out, if it goes well. But watching [the actors interact], I felt immediately comforted. Like, "Oh, okay. There are a million stories we can tell. If this can happen organically right here, this is the tip of the iceberg."
CF: Now that you've made it past the pilot and to the end of season one, how are you feeling about getting a second season?
JS: I’m feeling very optimistic. I hear nothing but positive thoughts from the network and studio, and I think our numbers are pretty good, at least for a comedy on NBC. But no one’s told me anything. I know as much as you do about our chances.
I believe in the show. I like the show! But there have been other good shows that haven’t found audiences, so I feel lucky that people have found this one.
CF: Few shows — comedies or dramas — tend to get into what it means to be earning minimum wage and struggling. How have you approached Superstore from that perspective? And what are some of the challenges and opportunities you've faced?
JS: The opportunity is that, like you said, not a lot of shows have explored it. So many shows — comedies and dramas — have been about escapism. Others … I don’t know if the word "romanticizing" is exactly right, but just this idea that people want to watch shows about white-collar lawyers, even though the friends they have who are lawyers are miserable. [laughs]
So, yeah, on Superstore, we didn’t want to do that. When I first met with America to talk about the show, we talked about how we both loved Roseanne in the day, and why aren’t there more shows on network [television] set in that world.
The challenges are that … well, for one thing, I grew up certainly upper-middle-class. Not all the writers did, which is good. But I always want to make sure that when we do anything dealing with [financial hardship], that we’re a) not being condescending in any way, and b) being truthful to it, but acknowledging that this is a comedy and we can take creative liberties, as long as we know that we’re taking liberties and know why we’re doing it. That we’re not just making mistakes based on assumptions from things we’ve seen on TV.
So we want to approach the topic with sensitivity, and we want to have fun with it. We don’t want to ever feel like we’re trying to teach anything, or give a sermon about class differences. I mean, we’re a comedy; we want to be entertaining. But I think people enjoy seeing themselves on TV, so we need more shows dealing with other classes, other economic levels.
CF: Especially in a way that’s not just a sporadic Very Special Episode, but more woven into the fabric of the show.
JS: Yeah, exactly. It’s just always there. [Cloud 9's employees] are people who need to work. They’re not making a ton of money there. But I think no matter what, people don’t want to watch a show where every single episode is, "Oh, god, how am I going to make rent?" But we don’t want to stick it all in one Very Special Episode, either.
CF: As far as a second season goes, when you have a bunch of characters who are working at Cloud 9 because they have to, not because they want to, have you thought about how long they can still be working there?
JS: That’s definitely one of the challenges. You know, how many people actually work there long-term? We want this show to go for as long as possible, and be real, but we need to keep them there, too.
One opportunity with a show like this is that there are so many employees it’s very easy to bring in guest stars. I want there to be a lot of recurring characters we get to know. We’ll just have to keep finding reasons to keep our people there, because I love our cast and don’t want anyone to leave anytime soon.
CF: Is that where the idea to get Amy into night school came from? That gave her something fulfilling to do, while still having to work at Cloud 9.
JS: Yeah. You know, with a series you have to give your characters minuscule amounts of growth. Too much growth, and you lose the concept of the show. Too little, and it feels like you’re going nowhere. So night school gives Amy a thimbleful of growth, and gives her something to pursue outside of [Cloud 9]. But, you know, it’s night school. It can take years and years to get a degree. So I don’t think she’s going to be leaving to go to law school anytime soon.
CF: When you were mixing up the actors and characters together over the first season, were there any combinations you hit on that made you go, "Oh, okay, this is something"?
JS: We loved Amy and Dina (Lauren Ash) together. We did two big episodes about the two of them, the one where they’re working on the shoplifter [episode 5], and the wedding day sale [episode 8]. We loved Jonah and Garrett (Colton Dunn) together, Dina and Glenn (Mark McKinney). All our actors are such good improvisers, but [McKinney and Ash] ... maybe it's because they’re Canadian improvisers, but they’re just really funny together.
We didn’t do much with them, but Mateo (Nico Santos) and Cheyenne (Nichole Bloom) have a fun relationship with each other. The two of them are very friendly in real life, too, so I think there may be more of them.
It was always a fun exercise we’d do on The Office — and we had god knows how many characters, 13? — where we’d say, "Everyone go off and think of two characters we haven’t seen interact very much. What does that communication look like?" That’s something I’d want to do more of in season two. What other characters haven’t we seen together? We haven’t done a big Glenn and Mateo story yet. What does that look like? So I think that’ll be fun.
CF: Some of my favorite parts of the show are the interstitials that show customers wreaking havoc in the store, which you use almost as transitional shots between scenes. How did those come about?
JS: Originally I started thinking about, what are just fun interactions, just fun things we could see in the store? I was just brainstorming about them, thinking about what could happen in the pilot episode — not knowing I was going to do these cutaways yet, just thinking that one brainstorming activity would be making a list, and from there maybe that would be a jumping-off point.
Then as I started to write it, I had all these funny things that were occurring to me that I wasn’t using that would be great little things to happen in between the scenes.
It also occurred to me that we were going to be in this one space all the time, and if we want to show the passage of time, I’m going to have to go to an exterior shot. How many times do you want to see the outside of the same store again and again and again? It’s going to feel like Golden Girls. So I thought that was a great way to suggest the passage of time, and I can use it for freebie jokes, and I can kind of pepper them throughout the show.
CF: What are the elements required to make one of those interstitials successful?
JS: Certain things I’m learning are that the ones that are wider, which almost feel like security cam footage, kind of work. Something where you’re away from it. The trick is they work best when it feels like you get a quick glimpse of something you weren’t meant to see, as opposed to too much camera movement, or too much that feels like you’re in the middle of storytelling. Generally, the camera tends to work better when it’s stationary. It’s finding the right mix of natural while believable, but still funny.
On The Office early on, there were these glimpses of reality, like a water cooler bubbling or a copier copying. And we cut them in time because they weren’t really interesting, and they were kind of short, and do you really want to spend five seconds watching a photocopier?
So [the Superstore interstitials were] a way to give that reality to the world but also make it entertaining. We shot so many of them, a lot of them ended up on the cutting room floor. It took us a while to figure out what makes them work and what doesn’t. We’re still learning. You know, you have one shot to tell a little mini story, and if you don’t get it quite right, or if it’s not really funny, you’re just kind of confused by it.
We have a few great ones that we didn’t get to air this year that I’m planning on including if we get a season two. As for some of my favorites that made it in … well, my favorite is the girl on the [display only] potty in the pilot, mostly because it’s my daughter. I figured I could at least get some good home videos out of that.
Superstore airs its season one finale February 22 at 8 pm on NBC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.