The comedian talks to EW about playing the hilarious Ava on ABC's breakout sitcom, saying "I'm the villain, and every show needs that or it'd be boring."
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Despite having done a standup show before with Abbott Elementary creator/star Quinta Brunson, comedian Janelle James admits "for some reason I missed her whole internet arc, which she thinks is hilarious. I had no idea that she was so famous." That night, she remembers "the first thing I said to her is my son is a really big fan of hers, which is embarrassing now."

On ABC's new breakout comedy though, it's usually James making others feel embarrassed as Ava Coleman, the turbulent new principal of the Philadelphia elementary school, who hilariously terrorizes her staff, including Brunson's Janine Teagues.

Read on to hear why James was confident the show would be a hit, which one of her lines she surprised made it into the show, and whether or not she thinks Ava deserves love.

Janelle James
Janelle James plays principal Ava on ABC sitcom 'Abbott Elementary.'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has it been like to see Abbott Elementary become an instant hit? Even with the random scheduling, premiering right before Christmas, and then coming back right after New Year's.

JANELLE JAMES: It's fun, it's exciting, but I'm not surprised. [When] I read the script, I was like, "Oh, this s--- is hilarious." I'm really pessimistic, I'm not an optimistic person, but I've never been more optimistic about, or sure of any other project. [Pause] That's not true. I feel like I have good taste [Laughs]. But I don't try for things that I think are bad. So I knew it was a good show, whether I booked it or not. I wanted to be involved so much because it was so funny — one of the best pilots I have, maybe, ever read. So I'm not surprised. I'm grateful that ABC also saw it and they seem to be behind us all the way because that's really what makes a show. We make a good show, and then the network has to believe in you and let people know about it. And they seem to be doing that, so that's great.

You mentioned you were really impressed by the script. Was there another element too of seeing the cast all together because everyone's been saying this is such a strong ensemble with you, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams, etc?

Well, I didn't know who was cast before I got the part. I didn't know until our first table read. And then, of course, Sheryl Lee Ralph is a legend, so I was excited to work with her. And Tyler, I had never met him. I don't think I had met any of them, but on the first table read, I was like, "Oh, I could totally see the show right away. This is amazing." This is such a good mix of people. And the fact that they're already legendary was a plus. But regardless of their stature, I just think they're so well cast. We're all well cast for the part that we're playing. It's like magic.

Well yes, I meant more when you filmed the pilot. Because when we see it, the chemistry is so great. I wonder if you all could feel that on set.

Yeah, everybody's cool. No one's a lunatic [Laughs]. We really clicked, and it's a good thing we did because we filmed under COVID protocol. So we were very close, whether we wanted it to be or not, there's nowhere to go because we all had to really stay together. And we just really clicked right away as a cast.

Janelle James
Janelle James on Netflix's 'The Standups' season 3.
| Credit: Clifton Prescod/Netflix

While there was a demand for Abbott Elementary to come back, you happened to release a special through Netflix's The Standups. Was it nice to provide something to tide people over? Like "I know you guys have been dying for more Abbott Elementary, and we love that, but check this out as well."

Well, I would say that people didn't really even put together that both of those people were me until the second episode. So the standup special reached the fans I already had, who know me as a standup, and then maybe new Standups fans. But I feel like people who saw me on Abbott Elementary did not even put it together until maybe a couple of days ago that it's the same person. Now they're like, "Oh, wait, that's the principal on Abbott Elementary!" Because I'm not promoting my standup as "Watch me, the principal at Abbott Elementary, do stand up!" I'm promoting it as myself. And I'm not a name actress or something. It's cool to watch people figure it out and, and see that I'm funny in different mediums. And it's broadened my fan base, so that's awesome.

Abbott Elementary has obviously been compared to The Office, and your character has been compared to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell's character. Were you aware of those parallels going into playing Ava?

I felt honored. Yeah, obviously the format is like The Office, or Parks and Rec you know, and those were huge shows. So anything that comes after in a mockumentary format is gonna be compared, and then we're also a workplace comedy. So I did know that my archetype is, an incompetent boss, which all of those shows contain. So I knew I'd get compared to Michael Scott, but I feel like I'm a different type of incompetent [Laughs]. I know the comparisons are gonna be there, but I'm really trying to embody a different type of character for this archetype that already exists.

Janelle James
Lisa Ann Walter, Janelle James, and Sheryl Lee Ralph on the ABC sitcom 'Abbott Elementary.'
| Credit: ABC/Prashant Gupta

How would you describe your character, Ava?

Oh, she's nuts [Laughs]. She is a narcissist, and self-absorbed, and we find out that she got her job through nefarious means — and she's really there for herself, you know? And so I'm the villain, and every show needs that or it'd be boring. Hopefully, as we go along — because no one is all good or all bad — you hopefully find out there's more to her, or maybe not dislike her as much as the show goes on. I'm the character you hate to love. I believe Michael Scott started like that as well. You're like, "What is this guy's deal?" And then by the end you're like, "Oh my God, he's getting married!" So Ava will show different sides, but right now she's just absolute chaos. She's chaotic. That's how I would describe her. She's chaotic. And she's the clown, which is what I am. She comes in, gets a laugh, and then she's outta there.

In addition to the acting work that you've done, you've also written for funny shows like Black Monday. Coming onto this project, was there room for you to improvise?

There actually is. It's been great. This is a really great, supportive, fun environment. And this is also the first acting role that I didn't write for myself. So when I appeared on Black Monday, I kind of wrote myself onto the show. For the first five or six weeks [on Abbott Elementary], I was really like, "Let me just get these lines out." I was so nervous that I didn't [improvise], even though they would say, "Hey, do you have anything?" It's like my mind was blank. I was like, "All I have is the lines." And then once I relaxed, I did have stuff. In the second episode, there were two off the cuff lines that I thought weren't going to even fly, and they left them in. So that made me really happy.

Janelle James
Tyler James Williams and Janelle James on 'Abbott Elementary' on ABC.
| Credit: ABC/Gilles Mingasson

Do you have a favorite line that Ava has said so far? I remember the line about zombies eating hot people first.

That was improv! So Quinta falls, and because I am a doomsday prepper, who is ready for any of those types of situations, I say "She's pale like a zombie. You know, they eat the hottest ones first. Let me back my tasty ass up."

Oh my God, that killed me.

And I couldn't believe they kept it. And they did. And it was hilarious, so I'm so happy.

Definitely already saw it as a GIF on Twitter.

Oh my goodness. I was shocked when I saw it. I was like, "Oh, wait, they kept it!"

Have you seen any other lines strike a chord with people?

Oh I mean, I'm obviously not being appropriate with the sub, Gregory. So any one of the lines that I threw out to him, that I thought he was a stripper. Does he wanna get in a sticky situation with me? There's so much. Coming up, I tell Quinta she should go to a doctor and get herself checked out because she breathes hard when she's excited, and I just don't wanna hear her breathing. Yeah, I have many lines. I'm the lines person on the show. I mean, we all are. We're all hilarious. That's the other thing — we're all funny, I am ridiculous — is how I would describe it.

A lot of viewers are already shipping Quinta and Tyler's characters together, but do you see any hope for Ava and Gregory? Is she the dark horse in this race towards love?

Hey, look, there's still time to write in and vote for Ava. No, I'm joking. Is she the dark horse? Well, I'll tell you what, I've never had to pursue anyone like this in real life. So we hope. I mean, he's in a tough situation. I'm the boss is what I'll say.

But you never know.

You never know. Ava deserves love … or does she? That's for you guys to decide.

Janelle James
Quinta Brunson, Janelle James, and Chris Perfetti on the ABC comedy 'Abbott Elementary.'
| Credit: ABC/Gilles Mingasson

In the newest episode, we discover that Ava is a pro at TikTok. Do you consider yourself super adept at social media, or was Quinta helping you out in capturing that aspect of the character, being that she memes well?

No, I'm always behind. I wait till everyone leaves a social media site before I go on. I wait till everyone says it's over and then I'm like, "I'll start an account now." So I wouldn't say that I'm current with what's happening on the internet, but it's almost kind of by choice [Laughs]. But Ava's amazing at TikTok, yes, because she's a narcissist, and she wants the attention. And we might find out that that's really her main goal. She obviously doesn't want to do a principal job.

Would you ever enlist Ava's help in maybe making your own TikTok account?

Sure, why not. I mean, she seems to be effective.

To wrap, what has been the best part of being on this show? And is there anything that you're excited for people to see as more episodes come out?

The most exciting part of being on the show has really been working with everyone. I mean, in an ensemble cast, as in any work environment, you hope you get along with your coworkers, and we really all do. It's so fun. Black Monday was also fun. I've been lucky to have two concurrent, super fun jobs back to back, working with amazing people, and what I'm excited for people to find out is just how the story develops. For people to watch our character arcs; the will-they-won't-they with Janine and Gregory, the will-she-won't-she with me doing my job. Yeah, and find out the motivation behind why we're all behaving the way we are. And we'll laugh. It's, on its face, a hilarious show. And that's what I'm most into, as a professional clown.

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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