Abbott Elementary debuted on ABC on December 7, 2021. A workplace mockumentary in the vein of The Office and Parks and Rec, Abbott focuses on an underfunded, predominately Black school based in Philadelphia. Though the show is an uplifting comedy, episodes are laced with social commentary about how underpaid and overworked teachers are, and how the school system can fail both children and educators.
Quinta Brunson not only created the show, but also plays Janine Teagues, a peppy second-grade teacher. She stars alongside Sheryl Lee Ralph (Barbara Howard), Lisa Ann Walter (Melissa Schemmenti), Janelle James (Ava Coleman), Tyler James Williams (Gregory Eddie), Chris Perfetti (Jacob Hill), and a cameo from Gritty. Since its debut, the show has accrued millions of viewers and won three Emmys. Here are 12 facts about the hilarious show.
1. Quinta Brunson based the series on her mom, a teacher.
Brunson’s mom, Norma Jean Brunson, taught kindergarten for 40 years, and Brunson would observe her mom in the classroom. “When I got the idea for it, I was watching my mom and I was sitting at her desk,” she told The Wrap. “What gave me the idea for the mockumentary style, as a fan of it, was I felt I was in the room with her in that moment watching a very beautiful thing happen. But I’m not watching it as a full outsider. I’m in here. It’s personal. I wanted the audience to feel like they were at Abbott, like they worked there, too, and that automatically changes how you look at a teacher show. We would be laughing with our teachers instead of at them. And when they hurt, you hurt, because you’re with them.”
2. Brunson named Abbot Elementary after her favorite teacher.
If not for a legal issue, Abbott Elementary might’ve been called Harrity Elementary. Brunson wanted to name it after the elementary school she attended in Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Harrity Elementary. But legally, she couldn’t name it after a real school. Brunson pivoted and decided to name it after her sixth-grade teacher, Joyce Abbott. “Her name cleared,” Brunson told Good Morning America. “So not only was it legally great, it was great that I got to honor her in that way.”
3. Brunson almost didn’t star in the show.
When Brunson pitched the show, Janine was a supporting character, not a main character. Barbara Howard was a bigger character, and Brunson didn’t pitch herself acting in the show. “There was no me in the project. I just saw it as a pure show idea that I wanted to be made,” she told Insider. “And then WB said, ‘You're crazy if you think we are buying the show without you in it,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, okay. That’s fair.’ So, I had to put myself in it.”
4. Janelle James thinks Ava is “controlled chaos.”
James plays Ava, an incompetent and distracted school principal. (Fun fact: Ava blackmailed the school district’s superintendant to get the job.) In an interview with The New York Times, James said she would describe Ava as “controlled chaos.” “She is an opportunist. She lives in a moment. This sounds like my dating profile or something. But she is funny; she’s unaware; she’s dedicated to Ava. She’s someone for all the other characters to play opposite against. Everyone else has the kids and the school’s best interests at heart, and I do not. So I create the problems. Janine also creates problems—basically by caring too much. I create problems by not caring enough.”
5. Several people inspired Ava.
James was a stand-up comedian and not much of a professional actor before joining the cast. “I was specifically thinking about a previous boss that I had who would do what I call ’toxic positivity,’ where she’s saying things with a smile on her face that are horrible,” James told The New York Times of the inspiration for her performance. “And then after that, I’m basically doing a combination of a couple of my aunts and some of myself, of course.”
6. Brunson based Janine on an annoyingly optimistic friend.
A friend who was a bit too optimistic inspired Janine's sunny disposition. “When I first met her, I couldn’t stand it,” Brunson told The Wrap. “And over time, she became one of my favorite people in the world. Her ability to have optimism when no one else has it—people like her keep the world moving. People like her are who make tomorrow possible, because if everyone was a pessimist, we’d be in the ground already. There’s a difference between being a realist and a pessimist and an optimist. I think I’m way more of a realist.”
7. Brunson wanted to show a more human side to teachers.
Real-life teachers have given Abbott positive reviews because of how the show eschews stereotypes. Brunson told The New York Times that when creating the show, she wanted to demonstrate that teachers are more complex than they’re often portrayed. “I knew the audience would understand that these teachers’ job is to keep these kids alive and to teach them. They get that. So now you’re more invested in, How are they going to do this? Who are they? What kind of person takes this job? It was important for me to show that in a grounded way. What if we took the approach that teachers are real people instead of heightened stereotypes?”
Mary Dalton, a professor at Wake Forest University who studies the representation of educators in popular culture, told CNN, “This is the first female teacher character in a comedy who has been portrayed in a positive light, and who is realistic, like a well-rounded person, in a very long time.”
8. Sheryl Lee Ralph made history when she won an Emmy for Abbott Elementary.
In winning the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series Emmy in September 2022, Ralph became only the second Black woman to win in that category—35 years after Jackée Harry won for 227. Ironically, NBC wanted Ralph for Harry’s part.
The attention came as a bit of a surprise for Ralph: In an interview with The Guardian, she mentioned that she didn’t think her role as Barbara would be significant. “I honestly thought I was going to be invisible,” she said.
9. James thinks people like Ava because she is “a real person.”
In an interview with USA Today, James responded to a question as to why viewers love Ava so much. “No. 1, she's hilarious,” she said. “No. 2, she represents a real person. Everyone has worked with a boss like this at some point. And No. 3, I think people all secretly want to be a narcissistic layabout, you know what I mean? Like, ‘Oh, that person says what she’s thinking all the time.’ Don’t we all wish we could say and do that? Especially in the workplace, I could just tell everybody what I think about them. She fulfills that hidden desire in people.”
10. An episode of Abbott Elementary pays homage to The Parent Trap.
Before Lisa Ann Walter, who plays tough teacher Melissa Schemmenti, hit it big starring in Abbott Elementary, she was best known for playing Chessy in 1998’s The Parent Trap. In the movie, Chessy dons a big denim shirt. Walter wore a similar shirt in the fourth episode of season 2. She confessed to Elle that the costume decision was her idea. “I went to Susan [Michalek], our costume designer, and I don’t think she’s seen The Parent Trap,” she said. “I said, ‘Here’s the picture,’ and she went and got a whole bunch of them, and it just had to be big and comfy. She knows I don’t normally like to wear giant shirts for the same reason I was worried about it in The Parent Trap—that was just my own body image issues. A lot of the shirts were nicely fitted, and I was like, ‘No, no, no, it’s gotta be big.’ So then we got that one, and it was perfect.”
11. Tyler James Williams wants Gregory to be a good role model.
In an interview with Teen Vogue, Williams said he wants young Black people to look up to Gregory. “That’s my goal, is to push him to the forefront so that when you see somebody who’s not making a lot of money but they’re doing work that fulfills them and is changing the conversation, that’s inherently attractive,” he said. “It doesn’t have to look like private jets and matte-wrapped $250,000 cars and sh*t to be attractive. My level of success is not how many Birkins somebody bought me; it’s how many people I connect with and love on a daily basis.”
12. Surprisingly, Janine is agnostic.
The show hasn’t commented on Janine’s religious beliefs—unlike Barbara, who’s deeply Christian—but in an interview with The New York Times, Brunson revealed part of Janine’s backstory. “We had talked about her being atheist, which I thought would be hilarious. It would give Barbara heart attack if she found out. But as of now she’s agnostic. I honestly don’t know if we would be able to present that on ABC. It may not seem a big deal, but for a Black girl in Philadelphia—there are very few agnostic people. There’s a lot tied into why a person becomes agnostic. What is the relationship with the family? How are you treating holidays? So I think it’ll become something that we get to do some great storytelling with.”