‘Abbott Elementary’ Finds the Funny in Philly Schools

Abbott Elementary on ABC
(Image credit: ABC)

Teacher comedy Abbott Elementary premieres on ABC Tuesday, December 7. Quinta Brunson is behind the series, about a group of passionate teachers, a tone-deaf principal, and the underfunded Philadelphia school they work out of. The comedy moves into its regular slot Tuesday, January 4. 

Brunson was asked, at an ABC press event December 2, about finding comedy in schools in 2021. “With the state of our schools, not only do we have things like shootings, COVID, the gun crisis--there's so many to name,” she said. “And the root of it being underfunding and lack of care for our teachers and students. It means that we have to be special about the kind of stories that we want to tell, and I think we did that in this show. Are we laughing at these problems? Are we laughing with the people who do the job regardless? I think there's a huge difference.”

“What we want to do is say, look at these people who do the job anyway,” she added. “How can we support them further? How can we take a look at our school system and say it shouldn't be this way anymore?”

Brunson, formerly of A Black Lady Sketch Show on HBO, is creator and executive producer. The cast includes Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Chris Perfetti, Lisa Ann Walter and Sheryl Lee Ralph. 

Abbott Elementary has a “mockumentary” format, according to Brunson, similar to The Office and Parks and Recreation. It also has a diverse cast. “Black people have been dying for a mockumentary show with Black people in the front seats,” she said. “We love those shows. I was like, what if we, for the first time in my knowledge, see some characters of color at the forefront of those shows?”  

Brunson’s mother was a schoolteacher. “These people are going to do the job,” she said. “Nothing can stop them. They know all the systemic issues that are there but, at the end of the day, they have to teach your kid how to read.”

Lisa Ann Walter’s mother was a teacher too. “There is nothing that these teachers do that you don't support,” she said, “because everything they do is for the kids.”

Parents may have developed a new respect for teachers when they were forced to instruct their children remotely after schools were shut during COVID, posited Tyler James Williams. “We hand the lives and the minds of our kids over to these people in the hopes that they can help be the village that makes them functional adults,” he said. “And I think we oftentimes forget that, so our show successfully brings that to the forefront in a way that we can laugh at, but it helps us evaluate our entire relationship with the teaching spectrum.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph hopes Abbott Elementary gets people to think a little more about the school in their neighborhood. “We want people to laugh.  We want people to enjoy the fact that, wow, maybe we really do need to pay attention to what's taking place in our schools, because if we did, maybe some of these things wouldn't be happening,” she said. 

Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker and Randall Einhorn exec produce alongside Brunson.  Abbott Elementary reviews are pretty good. Variety said the show “makes a smart first impression.”

“Centering a show on teachers isn’t exactly a new concept, even as those shows have rarely lived up to their narrative potential,” it reads. “Where Abbott Elementary succeeds, then, is by making itself a true workplace comedy in the vein of The Office or Superstore.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.