Why ‘Abbott Elementary’ Women Could Teach Chemistry

Quinta Brunson had a very specific demographic in mind when she created the mockumentary-style comedy “Abbott Elementary.” “I grew up on Twitter,” says Brunson, who on the hit ABC series plays Janine Teagues, an optimistic second-grade teacher at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia. “But I didn’t want that to be the target. I wanted to hit families and ordinary people, those who can watch TV for two hours while they have dinner and then fall asleep. Or, like my mother, who has never been on Twitter. My mother is the type of person who reports ratings and watches television.

Brunson’s strategy worked. Not only was “Abbott” credited with revitalizing the network sitcom and renewed for a second season, but the actors who portray “Abbott’s” female faculty – Lisa Ann Walter as Melissa Schemmenti, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Buttoned Up Barbara. Howard and Janelle James as gleefully incompetent principal Ava Coleman – charmed audiences, generating that kind of warm, fun vibe that can’t be manufactured.

“As actors, we have to be optimistic,” says Walter. “It’s easy for me to be negative. I’m Sicilian and it’s in my mother’s milk. But you have to get up in the morning and tell yourself that it’s going to be great. Usually I’m wrong. But in this case, I was absolutely right. I think we were afraid to say it at the beginning, that there was this chemistry. But we felt it when we shot the pilot.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Two people walk down a school hallway in a scene from

Brunson plays Janine Teagues.

(Christophe Willard/ABC)

Quinta, the story goes that you had these actors in mind from the start. True?

Quinta Brunson: Fairer, I technically didn’t have any of these women in mind at first. We just did some casting. We were looking for an essence. And what was amazing with these women was that when they auditioned, it was clear that it couldn’t be anyone else.

Lisa Ann Walter: I remember saying to [Janelle] on, like, Day 2, “The joy you have with [Ava] — personal interest, self-glorification. It was just a nice way to do this part. I was like, “Oh, my God. This is going to explode.”

Janelle James: I thought she was funny. I was like, “Oh, that’s the clown.” I think Ava – outside of the school scam – is a perfect person. His personality is good.

Janelle, you come from stand-up and have never been a series regular before. How was this experience for you?

James: My favorite thing is the fact that people love these characters so much. They treat me like Michael Jackson when they see me. It’s new for me. But hey, ticket sales were cool. [Laughs] There are more black people at my concerts. I started out in the Midwest, in a white place, doing stand-up, but I always knew black people would like me one day. I was just never in front of them.

Janelle James.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

James plays Ava Coleman

James plays Ava Coleman

(Ser Baffo/ABC)

The flashy wardrobe, the incredibly inappropriate behavior. Ava is in a class of her own.

Sheryl Lee Ralph: I remember saying to Quinta, “I know you’d like me to do Mrs. Howard, but give me a chance at Ava.” And she was like, [emphatically] “Nope!” [Group laughter]. Am I exaggerating?

Bruno: No, you are not. [Group laughter] I remember talking about your wardrobe and thinking, “Sheryl, you can look like the best bitch in the whole country outside of school. But [here] you have to look like a teacher. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about arguing over a room full of tiny college co-stars.

Bruno: I can talk about each of their individual methods. As soon as Sheryl enters the classroom, respect is immediately demanded. Lisa, I feel like with you, that’s exactly why I chose you. The children say to themselves: “Oh! He’s the cool white professor! She is rather funny.

And Janelle…?

Bruno: Janelle annoys them. [To Janelle] You know it.

[Group laughter]

James: I like to play with children. I am a child. I don’t want to be an authority figure.

But I have the impression that all the children behave well.

Bruno: They are.

Lisa Anne Walter.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Walter plays Melissa Schemmenti.

Walter plays Melissa Schemmenti.

(Scott Everett White/ABC)

Quinta, do you have a theory on why?

Bruno: They’re on set doing their little paperwork and see someone dressed as a teacher in front of them, and some of them think they’re in school. They treat us like teachers and directors. They ask questions. They ask me to look at their paper when it is finished and is that correct.

Ralph: [Gestures to Quinta] They love it. They hold her hand. They look at her [makes adoring face].

Teaching requires devotion. Have you ever received feedback from those on the front lines of education?

Ralph: I hear from a teachers’ union every week. I didn’t know there were so many teachers’ unions. They want to say thank you. They want to be heard. It’s incredible.

Walter: Quinta did a show where the teachers are human. It’s not “Stand and Deliver”, where everything is wrapped in a bow. It’s just people having issues and the teachers feeling seen, which is one of the best things about the show.

James: I think it’s cool that we’re teaching young people what a sitcom is, like it’s a new format.

Meaning?

Bruno: My niece said to me, “I like ‘Abbott’. It’s like a long TikTok. That’s how she articulated it.

Sheryl Lee Ralph.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Ralph plays Barbara Howard.

Ralph plays Barbara Howard.

(Temma Hankin/ A BC)

Quinta, you wear so many hats. How is?

James: I saw her like this [pretends to be sleeping]and then it’s action [opens eyes, sits back up]and she goes right back to it.

Bruno: It’s a joy to do, and for the first season [it was necessary]. And I realize it’s once in a lifetime. In the future, when I create something else, I won’t be on the show.

Walter: [Gasps] What? Expect.

Bruno: I will never be on another one of my shows again. It’s a lot.

Ralph: I love that comment, that you’ll never be on another show again. Because, honey, you can’t. This one is running for the next 10 years. [Group laughter]

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