Abbott Elementary

Abbott Elementary stars (clockwise from front, center) Quinta Brunson as Janine, Tyler James Williams as Gregory, Janelle James as Ava, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara, Lisa Ann Walter as Melissa and Chris Perfetti as Jacob.

ABC/Pamela Littky
June 14, 2022

Abbott Elementary Makes the Grade

The ABC comedy gives props to public school teachers, while Quinta Brunson and staff convey the lessons and the laughs.

When members of the diverse ensemble on ABC's breakout comedy Abbott Elementary describe why they're so good together, it sounds like a science lesson. Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph calls it "alchemy." Her costar, Chris Perfetti, imagines the team as a unified "six-headed gorgeous amoeba."

Whatever they call it, this faculty is on fire. So it's no surprise the show is already slated to return for season two. Created, executive-produced and fronted by Quinta Brunson (who's also written some episodes), the critically heralded series follows the daily lives of the devoted teachers at an underfunded, predominantly Black public school in Philadelphia, as captured by a documentary film crew.

In its first season, Abbott's well-calibrated staff of fresh faces and industry favorites proved a worthy successor to workplace mockumentaries like Parks and Recreation. The show respectfully mines humor from an undervalued profession. Luckily, this amoeba has taken on the challenge with heart — one lesson plan at a time.

Photographs by Andrew Eccles

Quinta Brunson


Brunson's favorite subject: English
Janine's favorite subject: "Janine's favorite subject was probably English, too. I just think she was probably really annoying about it."

Brunson has spent so much time at the front of her on-set classroom, the young actors playing students call her "Miss Teagues." That's just a taste of her mother's forty-year career as a Philadelphia public school teacher, on which she based the show. Brunson stars as eternally optimistic Janine Teagues, a younger teacher who refuses to be beaten by a broken educational system — even if unrelenting initiative isn't always rewarded. "Janine, in typical I Love Lucy form, is going to fail by the end of these episodes," Brunson says. "But the school is just a little bit better because she tried." While comedy is the universal language of Abbott, Brunson understands that for real teachers, the show is also an antidote. "My mom and her fellow teachers still laugh together, they are still joyful.... I think there is this part of our brains that asks, 'How dare you find funny in that?' But that's what people do every day. That's how people survive and get to the next day."


Chris Perfetti


Perfetti's favorite subject: Science
Jacob's favorite subject: "For all of his faults and tripping over his tongue, I think he has this bigger vision and master plan — that's why he likes history and teaches it."

If it means connecting with his students, history teacher Jacob Hill is always ready to be ridiculed. And for Perfetti, Abbott's resident "Shakespearean clown" is a delightful change of pace. "I'm often cast as darker, brooding, troubled and tragic characters," he explains. "Jacob is a real rocket launch in another direction, and that is a dream for me." Despite clocking his character as "an overachiever and a nervous wreck," Perfetti has nothing but praise for Jacob's commitment to being a better teacher today than he was yesterday. It's not easy to maintain such resilience in front of the class, but he says that's what teachers like Jacob do every day: "The stakes of each episode feel like we are knocked back to square one in the best possible way. Each one is hopefully tackling a monumental task, and as much as they achieve by the end of an episode, by the next they have to climb up that mountain again."


Sheryl Lee Ralph


Ralph's favorite subject: Art
Barbara's favorite subject: "Overcoming... I think Mrs. Howard spent a lot of time overcoming to be the woman that you see now."

Reassuring and maternal as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard, Ralph plays the steady hand of Abbott. Initially, the actress — Tony-nominated for Dreamgirls and known for TV's Moesha, Instant Mom and other series and films — wanted to defy expectations and play egotistical principal Ava. Brunson politely steered her in another direction. "When I broached the subject with Quinta, she said, 'Absolutely not, Mrs. Ralph.' That was when she still called me 'Mrs. Ralph.' 'We need a queen for Mrs. Howard, and you are that queen.'" After tearing up at her new boss' confidence, Ralph signed on to join a cast she calls "absolute magic." In Mrs. Howard, she carries the torch of representation for a generation of women who, after educational work was made available to them, turned it into a lifetime of service to children. Now, this real-life daughter of a life-long educator says, "All across this country, I hear from women saying, 'I am Mrs. Howard.' It is wonderful. God, it just feels good."


Tyler James Williams


Williams's favorite subject: History
Gregory's favorite subject: "Something cut and dried, like math. He's looking for the right answer. That's why he thinks he needs to be a principal."

When Brunson pitched this role, the unsure substitute, to her former A Black Lady Sketch Show scene partner, Williams realized he'd never encountered someone like Gregory Eddie — real or fictional. For the Everybody Hates Chris actor, this story is a validation of the uncertainty Black male teachers face. "He's trying to create a lane that he has not seen before," Williams says. As the outsider, Gregory is a conduit for the audience. But as he becomes more entrenched in Abbott, his love of the classroom upends his plan to become a principal (previously, the only path he saw for a Black man in education). "He loves shaping the minds of these kids in a positive way and giving them the confidence to move forward," Williams enthuses. "That's a great part of his journey, because he's letting go of what he thinks he wants and what he thinks will make him successful."


Lisa Ann Walter


Walter's favorite subject: History
Melissa's favorite subject: "I think she would like economics because she's probably got a bunch of number-runners in her family."

As too-cool-for-school Melissa Schemmenti, Walter embodies a Philly native whose no-bull demeanor intimidates her younger coworkers. But behind the armor is a heart that beats for her students. "I might be tough on you and demand from you, but it is because I believe in you and love you," Walter says of her character's teaching philosophy. In Melissa, she recognized her late mother, who was a Washington, D.C., public school teacher. She didn't always share her work with her mother, something she attributes to their Sicilian superstition about jinxing things. But when her mom's health took a turn after filming the pilot, Walter asked Brunson if she could share the episode during what proved to be her mother's final days. "I wanted her to know that I had been part of this magic that was created with students who looked like the kids that were in her class, kids you never get to see on television. This part was an homage and it meant everything."


Janelle James


James's favorite subject: English
Ava's favorite subject: "I don't know if she had a favorite subject, but I think she excelled in everything. She was definitely making school work for her."

The role of narcissistic principal Ava Coleman was James's as soon as she auditioned, Brunson relates. "Already, people are seeing the glory of her," Brunson says, but she wasn't alone in instantly recognizing who Ava could be. "When I read the lines, I knew exactly who she was, or at least who I wanted to portray her as," offers James, a standup comedian who's been featured on Netflix's The Standups. "She is every bad manager you've ever had." Happy to step over anyone — teacher or student — for even a glimmer of attention, Ava was already inspiring memes before the pilot finished airing. James embraces playing the bad boss, a role she said previously belonged to the "daffy white dude." But she's adamant she doesn't want Ava to receive any kind of redemption. "My hope is that she doesn't get fired, number one. And number two, I hope she stays as diabolical and hilarious as she is." 

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #7, 2022, under the title, "Going Public."

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