Sex Dolls Are Shockingly Expensive and Other Lessons Ben Feldman Has Learned on ‘Superstore’

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Maybe you’re not watching a whole lot of network sitcoms lately, but while cable and streaming platforms dominate the comedy field, there are actually some good shows on old-fashioned TV (that also end up streaming, but anyway…). NBC’s Superstore is one of those shows, an ensemble comedy full of plenty of diverse, quirky characters who open up the conversation about political correctness, oversensitivity, the economy, and so many things that less qualified people try to talk about on Twitter. And Ben Feldman (Silicon Valley, Mad Men) is in the middle of all of it, playing Jonah, a reluctant employee of Cloud 9, the fictional big-box store at the center of Superstore.

We talked about what it’s like to play the straight man, offending people, and sex dolls, because why the heck wouldn’t we just go there right off the bat?

I think for anyone who’s ever found themselves in a situation where they need to take a job that they might have otherwise not have gone for, it’s always interesting. It seemed like Jonah, your character on Superstore, was getting really into the team towards the end and then it kind of ended on everyone getting fired.

What do you think is keeping everyone including Jonah from just getting something better, besides the show having a second season?

Not to be too heady and actor-y about it, but one of the things that makes the show kind of special is in each and every person’s individual way, it’s about them finding the family that they were looking for, or the friend’s circle, or some sort of acceptance. Certainly for Jonah, who was obviously lost and searching right up until he showed up in St. Louis at the store.

I think that’s what keeps everybody there — there’s a sense of community that everybody very much craves on the show. Also, in real life, this cast gets along more than any other cast I’ve ever seen before. We just became instantly family from the pilot on, so there’s truly parallels between what’s keeping us on the show together and what makes the show successful, and what’s keeping these characters together.

It’s a really fun cast to watch because, obviously, you’re a very straight character amongst a bunch of very quirky people aside from America Ferrera’s Amy, who’s also pretty straight. What is it like being the most strait-laced person on this show while also not being totally strait-laced? Because he is kind of a wanderer.

Yeah, in some regard he’s also a bumbling idiot, too, which I think is just the writers writing to my strengths. Yeah, America and I both, I think, have a chance to get a lot goofier this season than we did last season. A lot of times when a show sets up its premises and its characters, you need some grounding characters. You can’t have an entire cast of people that are so out there that there’s no one to fully identify with as a watcher, and I think that’s sort of where America and I helped out in the first season, but we get to be a little more ridiculous this season as well.

That’s how I feel showing up to work. I show up to work every single day and I genuinely feel like the least funny person in a room full of the funniest people that I know. I think that just translates to screen.

You’re definitely still funny to watch, and I think the best part of being the straight person is that your reactions get to be the fun part.

Yeah, yeah, because a lot of times when you’re that character you’re also the audience’s eyes and ears on the inside. You tend to represent the viewers. You’re the one reacting and going, “This particular situation is ridiculous,” or “What is wrong with that person?” or whatever.

A lot of times you’re giving a voice to the outsider who’s just looking in and watching it from their couches in their living room, but to some degree everybody becomes that at some point. Certainly Colton Dunn’s character, Garrett, is that very much as well. He’s just a much funnier version than any of us.

It’s almost like a viewer was pulled out of their living room and thrown into the show, and then given a massive sense of humor is kind of the way I look at the Garrett character on the show.

The physical comedy you mentioned: Is there no un-erotic way to carry a mannequin?

That episode was so not fun for me.

Oh, no!

First of all, because the mannequin itself was heavy and wooden, and kept breaking if I ever dropped it, and was so cumbersome and hard to pick up that I think I almost chipped my tooth twice. One time, it essentially knocked me in the mouth and the crew had to shut down, and everybody ran over to me worried that insurance was going to have to cover a new tooth or something. And then, once all of that was done, we brought in an actual sex doll, which is even more heavy, like human weight heavy, but then with the added benefit of being mushy and weird like a human, but cold like a doll. Everything about that episode was really strange and uncomfortable to shoot.

By the way, we rented that. That sex doll was rented — you can rent sex dolls, in absolutely upsetting, horrifying news. What’s funny is we beat that doll up so much. It was a Real Doll, which are those really expensive [sex dolls]. We beat it up.

You guys went all out.

They were renting it because they’re so expensive, but we beat it up so much that it was basically too damaged to return. So the studio, I know, has to buy that doll. At the end of the day, the doll ended up costing them as much as a top of show guest star would have cost. If they had hired a celebrity to come in and play a full-on part for the week, it costs them about the same as what that sex doll cost them.

I think we should just say that sex doll was a celebrity then.

Yeah, it’s a shame we didn’t give her a name, because she was very much a character on the show for a week, and a really uncomfortable, awkward character that I pretty much had to handle the entire time.

I think, then, you should get the honor of giving her a name. What’s a really good name for a beat up sex doll?

You know, it’s tough. I’m married and my wife is sitting next to me in the car right now so I don’t know. There’s no name that’s going to not get me a look right now.

Does your wife want to name the doll?

[To Michelle] Yeah, Michelle? Michelle says she’s got a couple of names for that doll.

Oh, okay. We’ll keep those a secret between you and your beloved.

When I get off the phone with you, Michelle and I will brainstorm names for that doll.

The internet demands it! Speaking of celebrity guest stars, there’s a theory or maybe it’s not so much a secret theory, but that The Mindy Project is in the same universe as Superstore, and you appeared on The Mindy Project.

Yeah, yeah, well, they visited the store. It would be very [unlikely] if The Mindy Project ever came to our St. Louis superstore. Somebody just asked me that earlier, if that would ever happen, and I think we’d be breaking some kind of a fourth wall, or violating sort of a rule.

Of course, the character I played on Mindy was elitist and out of touch as well, so I think it all really started with their show. I’d love to go back onto her show. I actually just told her that a couple of nights ago and she told me that was a terrible idea.

If there was another NBC or Hulu show that could cross over with Superstore — because anybody can walk into a store, really — what might be a cool show for a crossover?

Well, it would have to be a Universal show, so there would have to be some sort of synergistic thing, and if I’m picking Universal shows that I want to walk into our show I wouldn’t mind Rami Malek walking into Superstore, and just have Mr. Robot suddenly shopping, or thinking that he’s shopping. Either as Christian Slater or as Rami in our store. That would be a dream.

A couple of more questions about the show. On a scale from Walmart to Target, where does Cloud 9 fall?

Walmart. I didn’t really realize it until we went to a Walmart recently. I actually took my wife to Beyonce in North Carolina, and it was pouring rain and it was an outdoor concert. We had to stop and get rubber boots and we went into a Walmart. It was the first time I had been in one in a long time and it occurred to me how much of our set was modeled after them, down to the shade of blue that they used. I think Walmart’s pretty close, but there are elements of Target and K-Mart, and everybody else in there, because we sell everything in Cloud 9 from cheap diapers to drones so it’s kind of any big box store. I went into a Best Buy the other day and it felt like I was home, I was at work.

That’s got to be a little jarring.

It’s hard for me. It is very surreal to walk into one of those stores now, because I spend all day long in one and our set is so realistic. It creeps people out when they come to visit because you really, genuinely feel like you’re walking into one of those stores. As a consequence, it’s very strange to walk into those stores in real life.

The products sold in Cloud 9 are actual products, like name brand, not some made up TV brand. Can you buy any of the stuff?

No, we’ve been told if we walk out of there with anything we’re fired and never working for NBCU again. They made that very clear to us. It’s like we work in a big box store, but we not only don’t get the discount, we don’t even get to shop there. We basically spend all day staring at products that we are absolutely not allowed to touch.

It’s really good in that sort of synergistic, corporate kind of way. It’s a really cool show because companies want their products to be in scenes so they send them stuff. We’re really surrounded by a bunch of really, really cool stuff all the time.

There’s a lot of political correctness and sensitivity on the show, and it’s a very sensitive subject in comedy right now. Do you think that political correctness is stifling comedy at all, and do you think that the show throws that whole idea in its face about being sensitive and how that whole sensitivity thing is comedic within itself?

I mean, they definitely take chances, and we cover subjects that a lot of people, I think, are often afraid to cover on their shows or standup routines, or whatever. I think it takes a lot of courage from our writers, but also it speaks a lot to NBC. They’ve thrown out the concern that they’re not pandering to a larger audience and they’re more interested in taking risks and telling cooler, more interesting, more truthful stories, and I think that comes across on our show.

As far as political correctness goes I don’t particularly think it’s stifling comedy. I think it’s made a bunch of people obnoxious. People with Twitter accounts have gone a little bananas — and I’ll probably be proved wrong in a terrible way at some point — but in my opinion, if your true, actual beliefs are in sync with what is right and good, I don’t think you’re going to accidentally be politically insensitive.

I think if you’re coming from a place where you’re playing for the right team and you’re on the right side of history, you’re not going to mess up and be politically incorrect and offend a bunch of people for the most part. There are definitely ways. You’ll word something the wrong way, or whatever, you’ll get stuck in some kind of sticky situation, but I think our writers are all good people and our actors, too. The people that we’re offending are often the people we’re happy to offend.

The second season of Superstore premieres Thursday, September 22 at 8/7 PM Central on NBC.

A recent reluctant refugee from an actual job in television, Jamie Frevele has written about film and TV for Blastr, Uproxx, Mental Floss, Boing Boing, and The Mary Sue. You can follow her on Twitter and/or Instagram to scope out her dog Peggy Olson.

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