Class dismissed! We drank three rounds with the cast of Abbott Elementary
After an Emmy-winning first season, nobody deserves to play hooky more than the cast of Abbott Elementary — and they take to it with the relish of second-semester seniors.
Already in production on season 2 of their hit show, the core ensemble has assembled early on a Sunday morning at Player One Arcade Bar in North Hollywood to answer some questions, enjoy a tipple, and blow off some steam. The series, which premiered in December 2021 on ABC to near instant acclaim, has become that seemingly rare thing in today's television landscape — a hit network show beloved by audiences and critics alike.
The show uses a mockumentary format to follow the teachers and administrators of Philadelphia public school Abbott Elementary as they face challenges ranging from lack of funding to an egomaniac principal to the latest TikTok challenge. Quinta Brunson, who created the show and also stars, became Hollywood's new "It" girl, landing on the 2022 Time list of 100 Most Influential People. The show itself, in addition to garnering buzz and viewership, nabbed seven Emmy nominations (three of which it's now since won for casting, writing for Brunson, and supporting actress for Sheryl Lee Ralph).
But today, the cast is all about putting the teacher's lounge in their rearview mirror for a few hours. After knocking back a couple of rounds, they rush to find their favorite games and indulge in getting to feel like the kids in the room for once.
On screen, Tyler James Williams' Gregory runs the other direction when he sees Janelle James' thirsty Principal Ava, but it's all smiles as they nail a series of dance combos stomping their way through an electronic Janet Jackson cover going head-to-head playing Dance Dance Revolution. In the most Ava of moves, James is dancing rings around Williams, all while sporting bedazzled 5" heels.
Lisa Ann Walter, who portrays the very Italian Melissa Schemmenti, is jamming to Guitar Hero, while Chris Perfetti (Jacob) and Brunson compete in Mario Kart. Meanwhile, just beyond the row of pinball machines with their siren call of clicks and pings, new series regular William Stanford Davis (janitor Mr. Johnson) and Sheryl Lee Ralph (Barbara Howard) are giggling as they beat the snot out of each other's avatars in Street Fighter.
It's early in the day, but the cast of the Emmy-winning hit can't enjoy a night on the town without being mobbed, so they're sipping cocktails and letting loose playing arcade games (Perfetti's already wandered off to find more quarters). But in between all that, we took a look at the syllabus for season 2 — and all the lessons and laughs the team has in store.
ROUND 1: PINKY PALOMA
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It's time for all of you to go back to school. Would you say there's an overarching mission statement or theme for this season?
QUINTA BRUNSON (Creator/Janine Teagues): More fun is the goal. And seeing a little more of the outside lives of the teachers. Getting them out of the school a bit more. We had them in the school for the most part last season, and I was excited to get them out this season.
Quinta, I know that your mom is a kindergarten teacher and that inspired you to write the show, but do all of you have educators in your life who you've either based facets of your character on or wanted to pay tribute to through the show?
CHRIS PERFETTI (Jacob): I have a lot of teachers I pissed off, certainly. [Laughs] None really that I'm basing Jacob off of. But it's been this real karmic full circle. I do have a sympathy for them, and I guess they are influencing me in different ways that I wasn't necessarily expecting, but none in particular.
SHERYL LEE RALPH (Barbara Howard): In my family, we are covered with teachers. For generations, education has been seen as the great equalizer. And because of that, there's so many educators in the family, but my absolute favorite teacher would have to be my father, Dr. Stanley Ralph, who taught me one of the greatest lessons ever. And that was a five-letter word, T-H-I-N-K. Think. And it has served me my whole life. No matter what happens, I'm going to think through it. So, I dedicate Mrs. Howard to my dad, Dr. Ralph. Every year on his birthday, I'll get a note from students. And I'm like, "That's a great teacher right there."
LISA ANN WALTER (Melissa Schemmenti): Mine was my mom. She was a teacher and taught in DC for decades. She started in a one-room schoolhouse in Pennsylvania where she taught everything from kindergarten to high school. And during the harvest, they all left to go back to the farm.
WALTER: My dad was going to get his PhD, and she was teaching to make a living for the family. She was very much like Melissa Schemmenti — she was tough; she was loving. She didn't take any mess, but she would kill for her kids.
WILLIAM STANFORD DAVIS (Mr. Johnson): Mine was my Aunt Helen, my mother's older sister. Quinta's character reminds me of her. She was my third-grade teacher, and the first day I got there, she took a paddle to me to let me know that I didn't have any favoritism.
BRUNSON: Janine will not be doing that.
DAVIS: It was a different time.
WALTER: This was back in the day, kids.
RALPH: They used to beat children.
DAVIS: With the parents' permission.
WALTER: Sometimes with the parents' encouragement.
RALPH: Here, let's all have a sip.
Are we drinking to corporal punishment?
RALPH: No, not at all! We're drinking to the end of corporal punishment, and to the end of Janelle's drink. Janelle, are you almost finished?
JANELLE JAMES (Principal Ava): I guess I'm thirsty. My bad.
At Comic-Con, you all teased we're going to see more of the teacher's home lives this season. Can all of you elaborate at all on that and what insight we might get into the characters' lives from that? Tyler?
TYLER JAMES WILLIAMS (Gregory Eddie): I mean, what can we say?
BRUNSON: I don't mind you guys talking about some of this stuff. No, yes I do, sorry.
BRUNSON: We'll be going home and out with them more. In the first season, I really wanted people to fall in love with Abbott the school and the staff. We wanted people to feel like they wanted to work at or went to Abbott. This season, they know us well. They know the teachers well. They know the school well. Now, we can go out to events and parties, into our characters' houses and be outside more. But I still believe a workplace comedy should take place in the workplace. So, it's not like we'll be turned into a whole other show.
JAMES: I heard party!
I want to know what Mr. Johnson's home life looks like. Are we going to see that?
DAVIS: He's got a fly crib.
BRUNSON: 100 percent. We drop hints about Mr. Johnson's life all throughout the season. The writers have a fun time adding new tidbits to his life. Whereas everyone else is more specific, we can throw wild stuff in Mr. Johnson's life that he's done. And to us, the character's ageless. We don't know what time period he's existed in.
RALPH: I see lots of black velvet pictures. I see neon white light, and it's in the dining room. I see something like that.
DAVIS: Black light posters in the dining room?
DAVIS: I'm going to have to have another drink.
Speaking of parties, you guys premiered in December last year and mostly ran through the spring. So, you missed some of the sitcom hallmarks here — the Halloween episode, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. Are those things we might see the teachers celebrate?
BRUNSON: Yes, and I'm really, really excited about them.
WILLIAMS: We're in the middle of one right now.
BRUNSON: I cannot give anything away, but the costumes these people are in — I'm excited about the episode. It's going to be really fun. We get to do a couple of different holidays. Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, our version of Black History Month.
How many HR violations would Ava make at a teacher holiday party?
JAMES: Ooh, she's doing it during school hours. I don't think the setting makes a difference.
WILLIAMS: We've never seen Ava drunk, have we?
BRUNSON: No, not to our knowledge…
JAMES: She's just absolutely inappropriate at every time in every space, and she's so proud of it. We love that about Ava.
Another thing that I think of, when I think of school, is the school play. Is that something that you've talked about bringing into the action?
WILLIAMS: We have a lot of episodes we can do is what I'm realizing from these questions. We can run for awhile.
RALPH: I don't even know if we'd do just a play. We'd have to do a musical… with maybe some help from the teachers.
WALTER: Everybody here sings. The whole cast sings.
WILLIAMS: We've got options.
BRUNSON: We really like to go toward the unconventional for the show. One of the things that people really were drawn to was the parts about teachers' lives that are very much not seen. School plays are fun, and we definitely will get to those, but there's so much that people haven't seen about teachers' lives. And I find those to be a little bit more interesting right now.
Abbott Elementary is in the shadow of the Eagles Stadium. Might we go to a game this season or play more with that proximity?
BRUNSON: Absolutely. The Eagles are crucial to the Abbott culture from being close to it to characters being dedicated, like Melissa's a die-hard Eagles fan. Ava, Mr. Johnson. The Eagles play a big part in our world. So, keep being good, Eagles. I really don't want to have to write you out.
RALPH: It looks like a great date night place, right?
BRUNSON: The Eagles games?
WILLIAMS: That's a very Philadelphia date night. That would be a very, very Philly date night.
Wouldn't that be a rough date night? I feel like Eagles fans are notoriously intense.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it wouldn't be a great time to have a conversation.
BRUNSON: You get to see who somebody really is at an Eagles game. That's actually not bad.
ROUND 2: MEGA MAN MEZCAL
Something I love is the attention to detail in this show and the way each classroom is decorated. For all of you in bringing these teachers' unseen lives to life, have you put personal touches in your classrooms or Ava's office?
WALTER: The set decorators have done an amazing job. The classrooms reflect the different teachers' personalities. They'll do a scene in my classroom, and somebody has written something on the board where the math has to do with gambling, which is very Melissa Schemmenti. They're creating a world that goes along with what the creators are doing.
BRUNSON: The writers work hand-in-hand with set dec. They get the small details that are mundane and may not be super easy to pick up on camera, but little things matter. We have a bottle of vitamins on their desks or whatever. There's pictures in the background of Janine from college that you won't even see, but it's specific to the classroom.
WALTER: And teachers notice that stuff. Sometimes on social media they'll say, "That looks like my desk." They love the touches that feel like them.
BRUNSON: And it's not even just the teachers either. In Ava's office, there's a bunch of stuff that we haven't talked about, but that really make her personality stand out.
JAMES: I also have selfies in my office of me outside of character, which always freaks me out. My own selfies are in my office.
WILLIAMS: [I love] Ava being the person to frame a selfie and put it in her office.
Did you pick them out Janelle?
JAMES: No, I just walked in, and then I was everywhere.
BRUNSON: Oh my god! I'm sorry.
JAMES: It's all right.
PERFETTI: I remember the first time I walked into my room. It's like when you get your costume for the first time, and it's like, "Oh, some other genius has been dreaming up what that is before you." I felt very at home. I was like, "Oh yes, here's my room."
BRUNSON: My mom, her room is an extension of her. And I took that really seriously with the classrooms. They're all an extension of the specific teacher. Even Mr. Johnson's closet —
DAVIS: I have a closet.
RALPH: But it's fancy.
DAVIS: And in my closet, I have toilet paper, mops and buckets, and I have a breaker box dedicated to Boyz II Men.
WALTER: And you have lights and stuff in there, like hanging lights?
DAVIS: I have one light.
WILLIAMS: I'll be looking at my sides, and I'll walk into the wrong classroom, and it doesn't feel right.
BRUNSON: We know from these little specific things. Barbara's classroom is more homey, Janine's is a bit more ambitious, Jacob's is covered in Black history. [Laughs]
What does a single Janine look like for both her and her co-workers?
BRUNSON: Single Janine is very new. She already, in the relationship, was ambitious and optimistic, but now there's a different version of what that looks like. She had a break-up, so it's sadness mixed with ambition and optimism. It's a different version of growing up for her. She was in a relationship with somebody for 10 years, and now, she has to start her life over again. For the rest of these teachers, I'm really excited with how they each support her. But in that support is also, "Grow up, girl. We've grown up a long time ago and we want you to join us."
Gregory has made the decision to stay as a teacher, even though that wasn't his original plan. So what does that mean for him? Does he need to do some professional development because he wanted to be a principal and not a teacher?
WILLIAMS: He definitely does. There's a lot of things that he just can't anticipate that we're going get a chance to explore because he's never seen himself as a full-time teacher. He's never had to prep a year. He's never had to run that classroom for an extended period of time. So, that's what I really liked about season 2. I like seeing challenges in front of me. And he's going to have a bunch of those as he tries to adjust.
And how much does he still need to pick apart how much his choice was motivated from something pure and how much it was motivated by how he feels about Janine?
WALTER: Cover your ears, Janine.
WILLIAMS: They go hand in hand for him, in a way. And at times, they can lean on one another. That's what I like about that relationship and that choice for him, is that it gives me a reason to push him through obstacles. But yeah, he's going to have to really grapple with the dream deferred at some point. This is not what he intended to see for his life. At some point, he's going to have to either settle into this or continue to drive toward that.
RALPH: Now I'm listening to Tyler talk and I'm wondering if Gregory is Janine's... you know how when you find a good best friend, and you wouldn't want to mess it up by having a relationship with them? It keeps you together for life, but you never really cross that line? Now I'm wondering, are they life partners or are they life friends?
BRUNSON: Tune in to find out.
Stan, you're a series regular now. What does that mean for Mr. Johnson? He is the surprising enigma of Abbott Elementary.
DAVIS: It's great. I mean, look who I get to work with every day. And I'm doing my grandmother. She was filter-less. And I say what's on my mind. I say it like I see it.
I loved The Breakfast Club tribute in the season finale. Will we get more pop culture moments like that from Mr. Johnson or others?
BRUNSON: That one felt really organic. I'm not that dependent on pop culture to tell stories, but if it feels right. The writers were super into that one. The writers convinced me, because spoiler alert, I've never seen The Breakfast Club.
WILLIAMS: You should have never said that on the internet.
Did you not fix that after the episode?
BRUNSON: No. I saw the story, the outline and the script, and I was like, "You know what? This is good. Whether you know The Breakfast Club or not." That's what made it really work is that you didn't have to know the movie to enjoy the story of that episode.
DAVIS: I've learned so much from them. Pop culture things. I didn't know who Jojo Seabass —
DAVIS: Siwa, yeah. I had to go and call my nephews and ask, "Who is this?"
WALTER: I do the same thing. I was in a scene with Janelle and said, "What does Dipset mean?" She very obligingly told me.
We also saw Barbara is starting to ponder retirement. What does that mean for her this season? Please tell us she's not going anywhere anytime soon.
RALPH: I love that whole trajectory because, before the pandemic, so many teachers nearing retirement age were having to rethink, do they stay in education or do they actually retire? And more and more we're seeing them re-up their time, which is perfect timing, because we're now in a time when so many people are leaving education. We need educators that know how to educate to stay in the game. So, she will not be retired like an old, crepe-y lizard. She will stay in the game and remain Mrs. Howard.
WALTER: And age like fine wine. Transitioning out of education is real for teachers. I see so many responses saying, "This show reminds me of why what we do is important." But we need, as a nation, to give them more money, more respect, and more reason to do this for a living.
DAVIS: Teachers should make as much money as doctors. Their job is just as important, and they should make that type of money.
WALTER: Two more drinks, and we'll have the tax situation figured out.
Lisa Ann, Melissa is wounded by her divorce, but she started exploring a romance in season 1. Are we going to see more of that from her?
WALTER: I certainly hope so because Lisa Ann was wounded by divorce way too many years ago, and it's time for fun.
RALPH: Who's talking? Is it Melissa or Lisa Ann?
WALTER: Both. I can't answer for Melissa Ann because I'll get in trouble, so I'll just answer for me.
Jacob is so well meaning, often too much so. But we probably spent the least amount of time in his classroom of all the teachers. Are we going to get to know more about him as a teacher this year?
PERFETTI: That is primarily, probably just a function of my kids are very well behaved and the other classes are just a recipe for disaster and humor. My kids are not boring, but —
WILLIAMS: They're also older.
RALPH: But they do come for you.
BRUNSON: What's weird is, in the making of the school, Jacob's room is on the second floor, and I don't know why for us we're like, "Ah man, Jacob's on the second floor. We can't go there." It's weird — the geography of the school in our heads. But I'm excited to say we'll be on the second floor a lot more this year.
We saw Ava's leverage dry up at the end of last season. Is she going to be better at her job? Or is that not in her DNA?
JAMES: I thought that we established that she's pretty good, the first season. Am I going to be better at my job? I'll be sufficient. That's Ava's mode. She's sufficient. And what was the rest of the question?
She knows a little bit more what's on the line now. So, how will she rise to that challenge?
JAMES: What's on the line, her being fired? It's not on the line anymore. She thinks she hooked it up. I feel like there's going to be more of the same, which was just enough.
WILLIAMS: I love sufficient.
JAMES: She's not afraid of being fired at this point.
How much is she going to ratchet up her attempts to seduce Gregory?
JAMES: Oh. Ratchet up?
WILLIAMS: Can we even answer that? I will say, we have a lot of really good stuff. You don't want to know, trust me. You want the ride.
JAMES: Ava's still Ava, I'll put it that way.
WILLIAMS: Yes, very much, that's a great way to put it.
JAMES: People should ask themselves, "Do they want her to be better at her job? Is that good TV?"
ROUND 3: KOOL AID MAN
You shoot in a very guerilla-style fashion with cameras running all the time. Have you ever watched the show and been like, "Oh god, I didn't know I was making that face?"
WALTER: All the time.
PERFETTI: That's our entire experience of watching the show.
WALTER: Or, "I didn't know that he was making a face behind me."
WILLIAMS: Or, "I didn't know they saw that." There's a lot of that, or "I didn't know they caught that." As an actor, to be able to fully drop in and live in the world, it raises the stakes a bit. You want to be completely present in the scene because you never know what they're going to catch. It feels like when I used to do theater.
PERFETTI: I usually find the experience of watching myself on camera mildly torturous. But I was so interested to see how it was all going to come together. There's all of these things, like you said, that are not in the script, that was just a real moment happening for somebody and one of the cameras caught it.
WALTER: Now when we come together for a story, I don't know exactly what they're going to do, but I know their character. And I respond as my character and our interactions are just getting more fleshed out and more authentic and better. It continues to grow every show. And then you see that when it airs, you're like, "Oh, I had no idea they were doing that, but that's perfect." Sometimes we text each other and say, "That was great what you did."
People love this show for its mix of humor and earnest heart. But has there been a joke you wanted to include that was too risqué for the tone? Or standards and practices was like, "Nope?"
BRUNSON: There's so much stuff we shoot that doesn't make it. It gets cut out. We shoot a lot. I can think of a few that I feel like I still shouldn't even say on here.
JAMES: I surprisingly can't think of any. I mean sometimes I'm like, "That's not going to fly," and then it's in there. I feel like we get away with a lot. They do a good job of making risqué things clever.
BRUNSON: My ethos is you can get away with anything as long as it's funny and framed correctly and right for the character.
Janelle, you've mentioned you've done some improvising. What is the wildest thing you've said on the show?
JAMES: I mean, "Back my tasty ass up." Yeah.
WILLIAMS: It's iconic though, truly iconic.
JAMES: I didn't think that would fly, and it's in there. So, now anything goes in my head.
BRUNSON: We always can shoot it.
JAMES: As I always say, the script comes to us funny. I don't ever feel the need to punch-up or anything like that. If anything, I'm honored when, after we've got it how it's written, if they say, "Hey, do you have any ideas?" Then, I'll say what I think. But the jokes are already in there.
Melissa has this extreme Italian-ness to her. How much are you going to continue to riff on that or even make it sillier?
WALTER: We're in a sweet spot with it. It's very much the people that I know that are my Sicilian people in the Northeast. They are so immersed in it. They revel in it. They talk about their culture and their food and they've got their own words they sprinkle in. The writers have done a great job at doing the right balance there. It's a part of who she is. The names that I use sometimes when I say, "My cousin this," I'll make it specific and pick members of my family. It'll be like, "My aunt Yola. My cousin Annette," and these are real people. That means I'll get really good pastries when I go home.
What's the best response you've received from a real teacher who watches the show?
JAMES: I did a convention for teachers, like 5,000 teachers, and it was a bunch of people screaming at me, like I'm a rock star or something.
PERFETTI: The most meaningful thing I've heard people say is, "That's what it's like." Like, "It's really that bad." Or, "it's really that ridiculous or funny."
RALPH: We got a message from one of the union presidents talking about how uplifting the show is for educators on the whole. Not just teachers, but educators, right down to the janitor, the principal. Everybody felt as if they were being seen and people were understanding their journey. And then they added, "Thank God that you all are actually dressing, with the exception of Ava, like real teachers."
BRUNSON: For me, the craziest response has been people saying they wanted to become teachers now. That I was not anticipating. That was totally out of left field. We did not start writing the show going, "We want to make teachers feel seen." We knew we had these real stories and they made for humor. So, the first exciting thing was people being like, "Whoa, I really feel really, really, really seen." Especially my mom. I was kind of shocked. She was very like, "Holy sh--!" But the people being like, "I think I'm going to become a teacher now." I was like, "After watching this?"
If you were going to be a teacher, what subject and grade would you be best at?
JAMES: English? I love to read. I was the Spelling Bee champion. I'm a nerd. English.
PERFETTI: Spell "Onomatopoeia."
JAMES: O-N-E-M-P — I'm drunk. [Laughs]
PERFETTI: I would be a science teacher. Science was my thing.
WILLIAMS: History. And when they get to high school, they're over it, so, middle school.
BRUNSON: Mixed media, for middle school.
RALPH: Arts. It's sorely lacking. I would be out there fighting for all of those grants to bring back arts, writing, drama, music, choir, all of that.
DAVIS: A combination of Quinta and Sheryl — theater, arts.
WALTER: U.S. History and politics. High school. I live for the arguments.
At the height of the Norman Lear era, sitcoms used to do crossover episodes. If you could pick any sitcom — it doesn't have to be on the air right now — what would you want to do a crossover with?
JAMES: One of my favorite sitcoms growing up was Roseanne, the original. That's the same kind of tone maybe. That'd be cute. I'll go with that only because I'm on the spot.
RALPH: I'd probably go back to Moesha, as an older Dee. Dee was an assistant principal.
BRUNSON: I was about to say, that makes total sense.
PERFETTI: It'd be funny if there was some interaction with those characters from Parks and Rec, just in an administrative way.
JAMES: Janine and Leslie Knope get together, and get on everybody's nerves.
BRUNSON: Mine is so weird, but I love the show King of Queens, and I get a lot of my humor cues from King of Queens.
JAMES: Same tone too, same class.
WALTER: Leah Remini is Melissa's sister.
BRUNSON: I can see it. I can see Doug in the school for no reason getting on Ava's nerves. Arthur's in the mix.
JAMES: Doug is our delivery guy. That would be amazing.
WILLIAMS: I have a pitch. It's The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but before he leaves Philly.
BRUNSON: That's great! I yell at Tyler once a week, "Please become a producer later."
DAVIS: I'd probably say Good Times because of where it takes place, and the father was a janitor. It took place in the projects, and a lot of our show's students come from lower-income areas.
BRUNSON: A show that's on the air now that I don't have the reason for, but What We Do In the Shadows.
RALPH: Oh, I'm going with P-Valley then.
JAMES: Barbara after dark!
To bring us home, Sheryl will you say it?
RALPH: Oh my god. "Sweet baby Jesus and the grown one too!"
BRUNSON: You have to start charging people for that.
Abbott Elementary returns Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
- Tulsa King boss says Sylvester Stallone gets to flex his comedic muscles in new mob drama
- The Big Brother season 24 jury speaks!
- Tim Allen talks working with his real-life daughter on The Santa Clauses
- Fleishman Is in Trouble stars Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes in a new kind of relationship drama