Jon Barinholtz talks American Auto

Pictured: Jon Barinholtz as Wesley in AMERICAN AUTO -- "Going Green" Episode 204 (Greg Gayne/NBC).

Jon Barinholtz spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone last week to discuss the recent return of American Auto on NBC.

Barinholtz stars as Wesley Payne in the sophomore comedy series set in the automobile industry. Created by Justin Spitzer, the Detroit-set workplace comedy also stars  Ana Gasteyer, Harriet Dyer, Humphrey Ker, Michael B. Washington, Tye White and X Mayo.

American Auto is produced by Universal Television, a division of Universal Studio Group, in association with Spitzer Holding Company and Kapital Entertainment. New episodes air weekly on Tuesday nights at 8:30-9 PM ET on NBC.

Jon Barinholtz as Wesley Payne in American Auto.
Pictured: Jon Barinholtz as Wesley in AMERICAN AUTO — Season: 2 (Chris Haston/NBC).

It’s so nice to talk with you again.

Jon Barinholtz: How are you, Solzy? It’s good to hear your voice.

I am doing well. I just saw one of your co-creators of Chicago Party Aunt in a TV commercial the other day.

Jon Barinholtz: Oh, nice. Nice. Fantastic.

American Auto just returned for its second season at the end of January. How does it feel to make the jump from the warehouse all the way to the executive offices?

Jon Barinholtz: (Laughs) It’s really great. I love the show so much. I think I said this last year when Justin first mentioned this show to me, I totally got what he was doing right away. He was showing the same dynamics that take place in the executive suites exist in the warehouse. It’s just showing human behavior at different levels, which doesn’t change that much, even though the paychecks go up. I was so happy to be a part of the show from the start. This season, I just feel like we kicked it into overdrive. It’s so funny. It’s such a funny show and it’s dealing with really great things that people deal with in their day-to-day life. Whether you work from home or an office or you’re not employed, it’s such a great show that deals with these bigger issues and I love it. I love it.

I would hope that no one’s having to deal with that scandal from home.

Jon Barinholtz: Oh, yes! The Payne scandal-it’s a big one but the show’s really found its groove and that formula of, these are people in high power positions dealing with big problems that they’re maybe not as equipped as outsiders think they are to deal with them. It’s that sweet spot of finding the solution—it gets us through the next week and it makes for an exciting show to watch. When I read the opening script of the season, I thought, again, I just see where Justin’s going with the show and it’s so great and so cool to put these characters in these high level, high tension situations and see them work their way out of it.

What’s it been like getting to work with Justin Spitzer again on this series?

Jon Barinholtz: It’s truly been a dream. I’ve known you since back in Chicago days. I’m dating myself but I’ve been doing comedy for 23 years now. I’m in my Michael Jordan year of comedy. But no, I don’t think I’ve worked on a project that is as consistently funny and just sharp and poignant as this series. Superstore, I loved—it was an amazing experience, getting pulled in on that one. This feels like, by the nature of it being in the C suites, that the stakes are raised. It’s such a joy to work with Spitzer on the show.

What do you typically look for in a character when you’re reading a script?

Jon Barinholtz: People will ask me that question and I think I should have a canned answer for it. The honest answer is I don’t look for much in a character. I look for, is the script captivating? That’s kind of my number one go-to and if the answer is yes, I will find a way to make the character work if it’s not something I find in my zone exactly. Luckily, for this one, I read the script. I was like, Oh, I get the script. I totally get this character. So yeah, in a general sense, I think I’m first looking at where can the script go? If it’s a TV show, where can the series go beyond this pilot? Is it funny and is it good? Within two pages of reading the pilot last season, I was like, Oh, yes, yes, and yes. The bonus was, oh, this is also very much a character in my wheelhouse, meaning false status with desperation is always something that I love playing and this was very much that.

What would Wesley think of Chicago Party Aunt?

Jon Barinholtz: Good question. Wesley is down to have a good time, always. I think the nature of Diane’s character in Chicago Party Aunt is just wanting to lead with love and bring everyone in. I think Wesley can be very well served with just an afternoon of drinking with Diane, because I think Diane would tell him some hard truths that people in his life don’t tell them. Wesley’s a little protected and he probably needs to hear some things. Diane’s able to speak to people directly and honestly, but in a way that is back with love. She can be critical, but it’s with a hug and a smile and a nice beer. I think he would at first think that Diane’s maybe below him and after three beers, they would be best friends forever.

How much fun was it to reunite in a recent episode this season with Ben Feldman?

Jon Barinholtz: Yes, I think that episode comes out this week. It was such a dream. We read this script at the table read and while we were reading the script, I was like, Oh, G-d, Ben would be perfect for this character. We finished the read and Spitzer and Eric Legend, who is also an EP on the show, said to me, Hey, we’re gonna get Ben for this tech part. I was so overjoyed and immediately called him—so much fun to reunite with him. He’s so playful. He’s a good actor and great comedy actor. He hits all the notes. In this episode, it’s so teed up for him. There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make it to the episode because I think we were breaking laughing a lot in some of these scenes. They probably had to edit around a lot of our laps. He destroyed it and it was so much fun working with them again.

American Auto Key Art
Pictured: “American Auto” Key Art (NBC).

How much room is there for improv on a series like this?

Jon Barinholtz: We move fast. The answer is there’s room and it exists—we do move fast. In the ideal world, we’re ahead of the schedule and after we get the coverage we need, we can open it up for a few fun runs where you can add stuff. But honestly, the writers are so tight on the show, where in other shows I’ve worked on, there’s a little space here and they’re like, oh, a joke can be added in here and it’ll elevate what’s going on. Because that’s always the goal when you’re playing around is how can I improvise for my character and also elevate the scene and not just make some weird random joke. Because the writing so tight in the show, there are spots where we will find somebody to tag a scene or a joke that we can sneak in here and there and there is room for that, meaning we’re allowed to do that. It’s less than I think you might find on other shows just because of how tight the writing is. I find when we do try to play around and add stuff, there is definitely stuff that makes it in—that’s great. Fun works. I would say for the most part, it doesn’t beat what’s on the page because these writers—last season and in this season, I just feel like it’s jumped to a new level where it’s tough to beat what’s on the page because the scripts are so tight and so good.

Was Ryan Reynolds on set or was that just through a video screen that was added during post or something?

Jon Barinholtz: That was through a video screen. It was amazing that he did it. It was so cool. I think that’s the biggest guest star that I think I’ve worked with on a show before. And yeah, he was remote. He’s a very talented guy, so funny, and great being remote and recording that in his house. He was great.

When I watched the episode, I had to rewind it because I’m like, is that Ryan Reynolds?!?

Jon Barinholtz: Yeah, yeah. It was so great to get him. Again, pulling him in, I think shows how we’re elevating the show this season. Just the way we’re like, I think this is an important show. I know that may be silly to say for a comedy but this is a show that I think people are finding more and more and gravitating towards. It’s dealing with really great issues in a not preachy way, in a very everyman way, in a way that I would deal with in my normal life. I think viewers would deal with them in normal lives. I think we’ve been lucky to attract some really cool guest stars because of that, because of where the show is going, and what the writers are doing with the writing.

Jon Barinholtz and Andy Richter in American Auto.
Pictured: (l-r) Jon Barinholtz as Wesley, Andy Richter as himself in AMERICAN AUTO — “Celebrity” Episode 203 (Greg Gayne/NBC).

Having come up through Chicago improv, is there an improv teacher that had a meaningful impact on your career?

Jon Barinholtz: Oh my gosh. It’s so hard to pick just one. They were all so great. If I had to pick one, I would say Mick Napier and Jen Estlin, even though Jen wasn’t one of my teachers. Mick and Jen ran The Annoyance and that was a safe space of a building that I felt to be in, to be able to fail over and over again, and not feel like a loser that would make me want to quit. Their space literally exists so you can get up on stage, and you can get up in front of people and fail and not be judged. I think that was the most important thing in my muscle memory of like, Hey, it’s okay to try things on stage and have them not go well because that’s also exactly what life is. It doesn’t always go well and you learn from your mistakes much more than you learn from your successes. The Annoyance Theatre was a place where I think they created an environment of being able to try whatever you want so you can really find your voice. I think that’s where I really found what I love to do in comedy and what I was, I think, better at. I’m very grateful that that place exists and existed when I was there.

It was so great getting to catch up.

Jon Barinholtz: Yes, it was so good to hear your voice. Hope you’re doing well and thanks for talking.

Yeah, I’m doing well as I can given the news of late.

Jon Barinholtz: Yes, yes. We live in a crazy world right now. It doesn’t feel like it’s leveling out, which is difficult. But not to bring it back to the show but truly, I do think that we—meaning the cast—are so lucky to be in a show that is really holding up a mirror to the world around us and examining these bigger important issues in a way that I think we’re all looking at. We’re all existing in this chaos, just like these characters on the show are and we’re trying to make sense of things and just get to the next day and just get to the next week, without hurting people and making everything okay. I feel very good Tuesday nights when I’m able to watch an episode and be like, G-d, another thing was tackled on that and it made me laugh, and I was able to just have a good time watching the show.


Jon Barinholtz: Well, thanks so much. So great to talk to you, Danielle. I hope brighter days ahead, hopefully. We’ll see. The news headlines don’t make it feel like that but hopefully things will change.

Yeah, let’s hope.

Jon Barinholtz: Okay, take care.

NBC airs American Auto weekly on Tuesday nights at 8:30-9 PM ET.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.