Why the women of ‘Abbott Elementary’ could teach chemistry

From left: Quinta Brunson, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph of "Abbott Elementary."
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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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, in the hit ABC series, stars as Janine Teagues, an upbeat 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 everyday people, the ones who maybe get to watch two hours of TV while they eat dinner and then go to sleep. Or, like my mom, who has never been on Twitter. My mom is the kind of person who brings in ratings and who watches TV.”

Brunson’s strategy worked. Not only has “Abbott” been credited with revitalizing the network sitcom and been renewed for a second season, but the actors who portray the female faculty at “Abbott” — Lisa Ann Walter as swaggering Melissa Schemmenti, Sheryl Lee Ralph as buttoned-up Barbara Howard and Janelle James as gleefully incompetent Principal Ava Coleman — have charmed the public, generating that kind of warm, funny 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 we have to get up in the morning and tell ourselves that this is going to be great. Usually I’m wrong. But in this case, I was really right. I think we were afraid to say it at first, that there was this chemistry. But we felt it when we shot the pilot.”

A woman in a colorful dress poses in a photo studio
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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Two people walk down a school hallway in a scene from "Abbott Elementary."
Brunson plays Janine Teagues.
(Christopher Willard / ABC)

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

Quinta Brunson: More correct was that I didn’t technically have any of these women in mind at the beginning. We just did casting. We were looking for an essence. And what was incredible about these women is when they auditioned it was clear it could be nobody else.

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

Janelle James: I thought she was funny. I was like, “Oh, she’s the clown.” I think Ava — outside of scamming the school — is a perfect person. Her personality is fine.

Janelle, you come from stand-up and had never been a series regular before. What’s this experience been like for you?

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James: My favorite is the fact that people are so into these characters. They treat me like Michael Jackson when they see me. It’s a new thing for me. But, hey, ticket sales have been cool. [Laughs] There’s more Black people at my shows. I started in the Midwest, in a white place, doing stand-up, but I always knew that Black people someday would like me. I just wasn’t ever in front of them.

Janelle James.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
James plays Ava Coleman
(Ser Baffo / ABC)

The flashy wardrobe, the insanely inappropriate behavior. Ava’s in a league 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 shot at Ava.” And she was like, [emphatically] “No!” [Group laughter]. Am I exaggerating?

Brunson: No, you’re not. [Group laughter] I remember talking about your wardrobe, and I was like, “Sheryl, you can look like the best bitch in all the land outside of school. But [here] you have to look like a teacher.” [Laughs]

Let’s talk about wrangling a roomful of tiny student co-stars.

Brunson: I can talk about each of their individual methods. As soon as Sheryl walks into the classroom, respect is immediately demanded. Lisa, I feel like with you it’s exactly why I cast you. The kids are like, “Oh! That’s the cool white teacher! She’s kind of funny.”

And Janelle … ?

Brunson: Janelle riles them up. [To Janelle] You know you do.

[Group laughter]

James: I like playing with kids. I’m a kid. I don’t want to be an authority figure.

But I feel like all the kids are well-behaved.

Brunson: They are.

Lisa Ann Walter.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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Walter plays Melissa Schemmenti.
(Scott Everett White / ABC)

Quinta, do you have a theory about why that is?

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

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

Teaching takes devotion. Do you ever get feedback from those on education’s front lines?

Ralph: I hear from a teachers union every week. I never knew that there were so many teachers unions. They want to say thank you. They want to be heard. It’s amazing.

Walter: Quinta made a show where teachers are human. It’s not “Stand and Deliver,” where everything is wrapped in a bow. They’re just people with problems and teachers are 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?

Brunson: 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)
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Ralph plays Barbara Howard.
(Temma Hankin/ A BC)

Quinta, you’re the wearer of so many hats. What’s that like?

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

Brunson: It’s a joy to do, and for the first season [it was necessary]. And I’m aware that it’s once in a lifetime. In the future when I create something else, I’m not going to be in the show.

Walter: [Gasps] What? Wait.

Brunson: I’m never going to be in another one of my shows again. It’s a lot.

Ralph: I love that comment, that you’re never going to be in another show again. Because, honey, you can’t. This one’s running for the next 10 years. [Group laughter]