If you only rely on news headlines, there doesn’t seem to be anything fun, let alone funny, about the state of America’s school system. From shootings and shelter-in-place drills, to cheating on admissions applications and lack of funding, it can be hard not to get discouraged by a broken system. But only focusing on the system and salacious or scandalous moments ignores the humanity behind it all, including the very special teachers who go above and beyond to set young students up for success from their earliest ages. Those individuals get the spotlight in Quinta Brunson’s new mockumentary-style comedy “Abbott Elementary.”
“Abbott Elementary” follows a group of teachers — some veterans, some new and some hoping to be only temporary — at a Philadelphia public school. Brunson is at the center of that ensemble, playing the optimistic young teacher Janine Teagues, a woman whose heart is always in the right place but often does things very differently from those who have been there longer, such as Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph). The relationships between the teachers is central to the show, which Brunson calls a workplace comedy at its heart.
Although Brunson tells Variety that she understands many things about the educational system have been politicized in the news in recent years, she didn’t want the tone of the show to be polarizing. While the first season tells stories about how far teachers have to go to get basic classroom items, for example, it is shying away from harder topics such as school shootings, which are “just not funny,” she points out.
“Our task was always to say, ‘What is really happening in the day-to-day lives of these characters?’ From talking to friends, from talking to my mother [who was a teacher], it’s still the mundane. It’s how funding affects whether or not they can have a music class and what that means for them, like, ‘Oh my god, I won’t get a free period’ or, ‘I was going to get my nails done during their time and now I can’t.’ I have no interest in trying to get dig humor out of places where it isn’t,” Brunson says. “These teachers are still people who have lives, who have relationships, who have fun, who laugh. They deserve to be seen in that light without being bogged down by our stratosphere of otherworldly issues.”
Here, Brunson previews the first season of “Abbott Elementary,” including how she developed her mockumentary style, finding her own character’s voice and how hard she’s leaning into a will-they-or-won’t-they romance between characters.
What led you to set the show in an elementary school instead of older grades such as high school?
High school comes with older kids who are more aware of the day-to-day issues because they’re becoming adults themselves. Elementary school, to me, felt like this untapped playground where, for the sake of this show, if we needed the kids to fall to the background and just get stories about the staff, we could. The kids are there, but they don’t have to overtake the plot. They’re there because that’s the job, that’s the school we’re working in. It also mines different issues I felt we haven’t seen. We have one episode where one teacher just wants the parent to drop the kid off on time. In high school, it’s the kid’s responsibility to get to school at that point [but] this is dire: If this child doesn’t get to school — [and] the parent has to make sure that happens — that affects the rest of their life. And I thought those are the unique stories present in an elementary school — the way that everyone has to be a village to make things work out for these kind of helpless human beings still at this point. I thought I also could get away with murder, so to speak, with my teachers because they’re doing anything they can for these little cute children. That was a fun cheat code.
In creating the show, you probably could have written any character as your own to portray. What was it about Janine that made you want to pick her?
I definitely find this character very grounded yet optimistic. And I haven’t really gotten to do that on TV yet. “A Black Lady Sketch Show” is a sketch show, and I just did “Miracle Workers: Oregon Trail” where I was playing a cowgirl. But this is a slice-of-life person, and I feel like that’s what I do best. It was also fun to play a character who doesn’t have my name and has different idealism. She’s very optimistic, and I don’t think I’m as optimistic as her in any way, shape or form. A lot of the things she believes are absurd, but I believe you need people like her to make things happen. I feel like I’m much more of a Barbara.
What are the challenges of writing her as an optimistic character when the world around her is so challenging, and how long can she hold onto that optimism?
I think she will forever stay optimistic, but we’re going to continue to throw stuff at her. One of my most optimistic friends had something very traumatic happen to her recently and that challenged her optimism — it’s still challenging her optimism. But that’s OK; it almost builds how optimistic she can be. When the worst things happen to you and you overcome them, it almost makes you superhuman, which is annoying for Barbara. [Laughs] In the writers’ room we talked a lot about how morally sometimes there are rights and wrongs. I think Barbara is right a lot of the time, and I think Janine is right a lot of the time. It’s about finding what that solution is. Everyone can be right, but what’s the solution to the problem? It’s people who try, people who have tried and people who can give knowledge to those coming in.
Has Janine evolved in any surprising way post-pilot when working with a writers’ room?
The writers’ room really helped me to be able to write for myself because they had strong add-ons to Janine. When I created the pilot, I was really into fleshing out the other characters a little bit more than the character I was playing. Of course, I fleshed her out and gave her life, but it’s hard to write for yourself — I find the other characters more exciting. This was a show where I didn’t even envision Janine, at first, as a major character. It developed into that. And the writers really helped build out what my strong suits are as an actor as the show was being filmed — things I may have never written to come out of my own mouth but then I was like, “Wow, that is Janine.”
Is that also why we don’t see Janine’s romantic life in the pilot?
I wanted to not bring the boyfriend in the beginning, in the pilot, because I feel as though we as audiences still see “boyfriend” and we take away some of the agency of the character, and I wanted Janine to shine on her own. And so, then it was where and how to introduce the boyfriend. I wanted to do it in the second or third episode, and as the show goes on, he’s really hilarious and has redeeming qualities. We wanted to differentiate him from a Roy [on “The Office”] who, outrightly, is mean. He’s comic relief on the series, but you still know as a viewer that they won’t be together forever and maybe they need to outgrow each other. He’s a bit of a doof and she’s been with him since she was a child — and Janine is very childlike, much like children in elementary school, and she has to grow up. That’s her journey this season: learning to grow up a little bit. She’s got a lot of repressed stuff with her mom, some trauma, but we don’t dress it as such in the show; it is just there. She has to grow and still learn how to keep her optimism.
Yet from the jump, there seems to be a spark with the new substitute, played by Tyler James Williams. What are your plans for that relationship?
We are not going to go there too soon with their relationship. You’ll see glimpses of something there, but who wants to see people get together right away? I think these characters have a lot of growing to do on their own. Tyler’s character, Gregory, is learning to be a teacher. He is a sub that came in and he’s learning that it’s OK to be a teacher; he wants to be a principal because he feels [that] authoritative place is better. I like to say they’re meeting in the middle: She’s learning to grow up, he’s learning to grown down, and they have to meet in a sweet spot. They’re going to be doing that on their own and with each other throughout the series. To me, it felt like a fun way to deviate from what we’ve seen before. On “The Office,” for a while Jim was Pam’s lap dog, and that’s not any shade at all — loved it, loved that will they/won’t they. But in this, Gregory is a rare character. Black, male teachers are rare in America. I want him to have a full life on this show, and I want Janine to have the same thing, and if they meet in the middle, they meet in the middle.
Since you are such a fan of the mockumentary format, how did you develop how much was the right amount of talking heads or fourth-wall breaks with simple looks to cameras for your show?
It changes from the moment you write the first story document to the moment you finish filming the episode. We’d break a talking-head moment in the story document to lay that out for the people who would be reading the story document, and then in the outline you might see some more, and in the script you might see more, or you may find that only the story doesn’t need it that much — that whatever these people are saying to camera they can actually say in the scene, which I think is an important distinction. Can they say this to their coworker or is it something they have to say to the documentary crew? Sometimes a joke is just funnier in the scene than it is to camera and sometimes it’s the other way around. I feel like the key is to not rely on it. I learned, through writing the pilot, that relying on the talking head can mess you up. If you have too many of them, now you don’t have a show, you just have people talking to a camera. But often we would shoot additional talking heads that weren’t necessarily scripted and then those would make it into the cut because they just happened to give us more information or a look that we didn’t capture — or a certain vulnerability from one of the characters. And sometimes we shoot extra and not use them at all because they bogged down the moments that we’re having here. What’s fun and also a hinderance about this format is there hasn’t been many, and you need to redefine it when you do it. We really feel like we built our own mockumentary feeling.
“Abbott Elementary” premieres Dec. 7 at 9:30 p.m. on ABC before moving to its usual 9 p.m. time slot on Jan. 4.