Ana Gasteyer stars in the sitcom, "American Auto." Photo courtesy of NBC
NEW YORK Jan. 25 (UPI) -- Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer says Katherine Hastings, the top executive she portrays on NBC's American Auto, is no typical workplace sitcom supervisor.
"Katherine's not stupid," Gasteyer told reporters in a recent Zoom interview, explaining how the show's creator, Justin Spitzer, emphasized to her early on that Katherine would not be "the bitchy boss" or the "dumb boss."
"It's not The Office in that regard," Gasteyer added. "It's not Michael Scott. She's educated and she's got a certain IQ for business. She's a little self-serving. She is a little over-involved, and it's a reflection on many of us. When money is on the line, our morals go away real quick in this society."
Set in the fictional Detroit-based car company, Payne Motors, American Auto airs Tuesday nights. It follows Katherine -- who has a background in the pharmaceutical industry and no interest in cars -- as she takes over Payne, upsetting the status quo.
Gasteyer said playing confident women like Katherine is her "favorite thing to do."
"She does come from a certain 1990s female executive attitude, which is 'always put your best foot forward.' That's what CEOs do well -- they project confidence," the comedian said.
"They are just making decisions and sticking with it because they know that their team needs them to feel confident and in control."
Gasteyer pointed out that Katherine is a bit like the sure-footed NPR host and middle-school music teacher characters she played on SNL.
"They're pretty good at selective hearing. They live in their own little lane and they're not really aware of what's going on around them," she said. "I find that super-fulfilling because it's relaxing."
Katherine's mindset also can be inspiring to her team. While what she asks members to do may seem unrealistic, it also could push them to think outside the box when solving problems.
"I'm in the show because it is an ensemble comedy," Gasteyer said.
"I come from a background in improvisation and sketch comedy where it's the 'more the merrier.' Teamwork is sort of in my DNA. Katherine invariably knows that. She's in over her head. She actually doesn't know anything about cars, so she really is reliant upon translators."
The American Auto cast also includes X Mayo as Katherine's assistant, Dori; Michael Benjamin Washington as Cyrus, the company's chief product designer; Jon Barinholtz as Wesley, the rich heir to the company, who has no official job or title; Humphrey Ker as corporate lawyer Elliot; and Harriet Dyer as Payne marketing director Sadie.
One aspect that sets the show apart from other workplace comedies is that its quirky co-workers are well-paid and pursuing careers they actually want.
"None of these characters are just there for the paycheck," Spitzer said.
"They are invested in the fate of the company, even if the reasons are different," he added. "Whereas, in Superstore, what happened to Cloud 9 didn't really matter as much to [workers,] unless it affected them personally."
"They are working grads and they went to Michigan State University and University of Michigan, and they did their families well," Gasteyer said of Payne's employees.
"They take what they've done very seriously and they are top of the food chain in Detroit," she added. "They place a huge value on that. Whether or not we as viewers find that shallow is up to us. But that is the space the show plays in, and that is what is fun about it."
By showing the company trying to improve its public image or financial bottom line, the series uses comedy to address some serious issues such as racism, poverty, the environmental impact of industry and what happens when jobs are moved overseas from small U.S. towns.
Early episodes saw the team reinvent its new self-driving car when they realize it doesn't sense people of color in its pathway; attempt to produce a $10,000 vehicle that is "safe-ish;" and persuade a community in Iowa NOT to let them build a factory after they get a better deal from an unstable Eastern European country.
"It's Americans being bad at being good. They are trying to be good people," Gasteyer said.
"They are trying to do the right thing, but then, oh, my God, all of a sudden, their actual paycheck gets involved and they're like: 'It's not really that bad. We will just look the other way."
Despite their morally questionable actions, the characters are intended to be appealing to viewers, Spitzer said, noting he doesn't feel guilty about mocking ambitious, wealthy executives.
"We hope people watch because they find it funny, first and foremost," he noted.
"We want the characters to be likable. That can happen over time. Even if you don't necessarily like a character, I think you can still kind of root for them or still want to follow what's going to happen or how they are going to deal with a situation."