Abbott Elementary is quickly becoming head of the class of this year’s sitcom slate. ABC’s new comedy quadrupled its premiere ratings since its debut. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, the show is somewhat of an anomaly in how quickly it achieved its well-deserved success. Abbott Elementary follows eager public school teacher Janine Teagues (Brunson) and her colleagues at Philadelphia’s underfunded Abbott Elementary, as a documentary crew films their day-to-day lives.
The show is rightly being hailed as one of the few to help revive primetime comedies this year. Abbott also recalls the popular mockumentary format that found fame on broadcast TV with The Office, Parks And Recreation, and Modern Family (What We Do In The Shadows airs on cable network FX). But Abbott adds a fresh perspective to the genre with a mostly Black cast, which is still a rarity on broadcast sitcoms.
The A.V. Club spoke to Brunson about helming the show, subverting comedy tropes, bringing in mockumentary experts from The Office to work on Abbott Elementary, and the overwhelming response from fans and teachers.
The A.V. Club: Abbott Elementary has quadrupled its premiere ratings, a first for ABC. How does that feel? It’s not very common for broadcast sitcoms to experience such growth so fast.
Quinta Brunson: It’s the dream. Yeah, the typical thing for most sitcoms—except for maybe in the ’80s, which was the golden years for sitcoms—a show usually airs for a couple of seasons, and then people get on the train. Then there’s a super fandom that comes in during seasons three or four. It’s happened for lots of shows recently, like with Schitt’s Creek. Even Ted Lasso wasn’t as popular until it totally finished airing its first season. But now, with Abbott Elementary, it’s been crazy that in our first three episodes we got this response. I’m overwhelmed and grateful, but I didn’t expect it.
It was smart of ABC to let the show go to Hulu the next day. It was smart to put the pilot out a month earlier, which gave people the opportunity to watch it over the holiday break. People were probably missing the feeling we get with sitcoms like Parks And Recreation, The Office, or even Superstore, which recently finished its strong run. Abbott plays in that similar space, and it came at the right time.
AVC: Was it always meant as a broadcast network comedy? And why did you opt for that over streaming or other cable networks?
QB: Yes, Abbott Elementary was always developed for network TV. WB and ABC were a good team who trusted me. I wasn’t trying to fit streaming into the network mold. I’ve tried that before; it just doesn’t work. I went through the failures to know how to do it the right way now. It just helps to have supportive studios and audiences.
AVC: Did you always envision it as a mockumentary? What’s compelling to you about the format?
QB: I always wanted to make a mockumentary. I’m a fan of the style. It’s such a good vehicle for jokes. It’s also a good vehicle for going behind the veil. You have this world that is presented to the public as one thing; it’s what was cool about The Office, most people are like “I know what goes on behind an office.” But those are the most exciting veils to go behind: What does their day-to-day look like? What do they talk about?
I thought an elementary public school was the perfect setting to go behind. We all think we know what goes on there because we were a student once, but there’s so much going on in the lives of these teachers. It’s fun to have two cameras go behind it. I did originally think of doing it as a mockumentary-style cartoon because I’ve never seen that before. But it was cool we got to do it live-action. We set the goal of making it live somewhere between Parks and The Office.
AVC: It’s vital for each character in a mockumentary-style show to have a distinct relationship with the camera. What was it like to craft that? It’s already paying off in terms of how Gregory looks at the camera, or how Ava takes control of it.
QB: That was one of the most fun parts that I wasn’t even bargaining for. Once I got in the writers’ room and on set, it was so interesting to figure out what each of their relationships will be with the camera. We were like obviously Barbara [Sheryl Lee Ralph] is older and will be a bit more stand-offish. She might not want to talk to the camera as much. This isn’t like The Office where she doesn’t necessarily have much to do. She has a classroom full of kids to teach.
Janine wants to overcompensate to make it look like it’s the best job in the world. She’s super happy to talk. Clearly, principal Ava [Janelle James] is, too. You can pull [substitute teacher] Gregory [Tyler James Williams] away to talk, but with him, we realized it’s about being caught. He’s being seen a lot in ways he doesn’t want to be. That was the aim, whether that’s with Janine or if he’s enjoying teaching for the first time. Some of my favorite moments in episodes to come are when the camera catches Gregory liking the job.
It’s even fun in how far away some people are shot from the camera. Janine is always up close because she is very insecure. Some people are far back, like Melissa Schementti [Lisa Ann Walter]. She doesn’t want to be close because she has mafia connections. She doesn’t need a crew up in her face.
AVC: You’ve got the expert crew for Abbott with directors like Randall Einhorn, Matt Sohn, and Jennifer Celotta. They’ve all extensively worked on The Office and Parks And Recreation. Was that a conscious decision?
QB: Oh, wow, you have your factsheet ready. Yes, Randall was a conscious decision. I wasn’t expecting him to come aboard. To me, he was the Randall Einhorn. He got on a Zoom call with me, he said he loved the pilot and he wants to direct it. I really went like, “What?” I could not believe it. He was inspired by the show. When he came to direct, it was incredible. But we realized just how vital he was to the process. He wound up directing the next four episodes to establish the show as an engine. It’s a special skill, and people don’t get that. Matt and Jen are fantastic at it too. It takes a different eye. The camera is part of the comedy now. It’s a character. So it does take a little more legwork than a single camera, which usually sits there.
They not only have to work those cameras, but they also have to direct the camera people to do that, like “I need you to quickly zoom here,” or “I need you to join in this character on this line.” Everyone needs to know the script in and out. It’s important to have people who care about documentaries. One of Jenn’s episodes just blows me away. I think you can only achieve that after years of experience as a writer, producer, and director on The Office. Her eye and what she sees, it’s unreal. She took it to a whole new level.
AVC: Janine and Gregory seem to be going the “will-they/won’t-they” route, which is a familiar path in sitcoms. Do you feel the need to subvert the trope in any way or add something new to it?
QB: I think tropes are important to TV. I know there’s a crowd that goes, “Oh my god, we’ve seen this already.” That’s TV. You’ve seen all this shit already. It’s all Shakespeare, it’s all Macbeth over and over again. You just change the wheels a little bit. That’s what we’re trying to do here. Janine and Greg’s journey will be different than what we’ve seen before. That’s what we planned out.
It’s naturally different too because they’re Black characters. Their will-they-won’t-they world just looks different than for, say, The Office’s Jim and Pam. I always say when Jim is hitting on an engaged Pam, I say that would never happen on a Black show. His ass would’ve been beaten asap. I sometimes felt like punching Jim and asking “Who do you think you are?” It lasted far too long. Our show won’t look the same. Even taking it back to Cheers, Sam and Diane are fully formed adults who went through the will they/won’t they. Janine and Greg are 25. They have a lot to learn about themselves still. They have a will they/won’t they with their jobs right now.
AVC: Janelle James is being touted as a standout in this talented ensemble. What’s it like to write all of her quirky dialogue? Do you work together to tailor it to her comedic style?
QB: Janelle is not a writer. She might improvise sometimes, but she didn’t do it as much here. This is her first acting job, and she was excited to just say all the lines. But she is so fun to write for. The writers have fun knowing she can carry it and get away with saying things no one else can. Not Ava the character, but Janelle the person. What she says is usually horrible, but you just love her because of the way she presents it. It’s fun to write for everyone.
AVC: Janine is one of the most endearing sitcom protagonists in recent years and it’s also your first lead role on network TV. What’s the response to her been like, especially from teachers?
QB: Characters like Janine represent the best of teachers. Even for teachers who have been doing this for 20 years and are tired of this role, I hope they go “Oh man, this show makes me want to be a teacher again, I remember when I was a Janine,” like the way she is making Barbara believe again. I also see people say “She’s annoying,” She is. I think that’s great because she annoys Barbara and Ava. It’s fun to see their interactions because of it.
Janine is 25. She’s got some growing up to do. That’s another fun part about having the documentary crew. In another capacity, she might not be as endearing, but because of the mockumentary format, now you’re part of the family. You’re seeing the behind-the-scenes and the humanity in Ava, Melissa, Janine, and everyone else. I personally have been overwhelmed with responses from teachers. I hoped it would be that way. It’s incredible if they feel we’re showing things that haven’t been shown before.