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The Untold Truth Of Abbott Elementary

In an era when streaming platforms all but dominate the home entertainment landscape, "Abbott Elementary" is here to remind us not to give up on broadcast television just yet. The ABC sitcom debuted in December 2021 as a workplace mockumentary showing the day-to-day lives of teachers at a school in Philadelphia, and has quickly become a hit.

Abbott is an eclectic community. The principal is more concerned with exploiting students for TikTok trends than investing in their education. Tenured teachers struggle to keep up with new technology mandated from the school board. At the center of it all is the show's creator, Quinta Brunson, as Janine — or Ms. Teagues, as she's known to her students. She's a young educator who's just trying to provide the best classroom experience for her kids with the limited funding she receives.

Witty, relatable, and brimming with heart, "Abbott Elementary" is on track to become a defining sitcom of the 2020s. Sharpen your number-two pencils and make sure you have plenty of wide-ruled notebook paper, because it's time to discover the untold truth of "Abbott Elementary."

Quinta Brunson is a quadruple threat

Quinta Brunson not only stars in "Abbott Elementary" as Janine Teagues, but she also created the show and serves as an executive producer and writer. While Brunson's imprint in the sitcom is irreplaceable, wearing so many different hats in the same project is understandably a lot of work for one person. Any one of those responsibilities carries a lot of weight, so doing all of them together is not something Brunson sees herself repeating in the future.

While Brunson is abundantly grateful for the success of "Abbott," she told Jimmy Kimmel, "I'll never do this again." She enjoys each part of the process, she explained, but "just not together." She continued: "I'm good at the creative parts. I have wonderful co-producers that help me. Writing I love. Acting is fantastic, but, you know, I'm tired. If I didn't have a hair and makeup and wardrobe team, I would just really look decrepit here right now."

Quinta Brunson's mom inspired the show's premise

Inspiration can strike at any moment, and "Abbott Elementary" creator Quinta Brunson found the idea for the show in an unexpected place: A parent-teacher conference. Brunson visited her mother, who worked as an educator before retiring, during an open-house night at her mom's school. The event lasted until 8:00PM.

"No parents came the whole time, and I was there with my mom, waiting with her," Brunson shared with Trevor Noah on "The Daily Show." She continued: "A parent walks in at 7:58 and I was livid. I was just like, 'How could you not get here earlier? There was so much time.' But my mom didn't look at it that way. She was like, 'This was the time that this parent could get here,' and she sat down and had the conference with her. It was in that moment that something was sparked, where I said, 'This is what I want to make a show about.'"

In taking the next steps to build out details of the show, Brunson found more inspiration in her mother's career. She told Jimmy Fallon that her mom once worked as a kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia and that she went to the school where her mother taught. Being a student at her mom's place of work meant that she got to see behind the curtain regularly and that this is what inspired her to go with the mockumentary style for her show.

The pilot broke an ABC record

As the television industry changes over time, networks must adapt their measurements of success. Judging a show in 2022 by the same scorecard as a program from the heyday of primetime is unfair given the completely different landscape of broadcast platforms and audience choices. At the time of this writing, ABC uses a metric called MP35 to track viewership. The name is shorthand for multi-platform over 35 days — it goes beyond the ratings gained during an episode's designated broadcast airing to examine any DVR-like recordings watched later, as well as views gained from any streaming service the episode is added to (in the case of "Abbott Elementary," that's Hulu). This metric lets the episode sit for 35 days before establishing the MP35 number.

According to Deadline, the pilot for "Abbott Elementary" had 2.79 million viewers when it first aired on ABC in December 2021. The episode's MP35 number added 7.1 million more viewers to the tally, the biggest jump between same-day and MP35 data since the network started using the MP35 measurement in 2017. "Abbott" was off to a strong start with an exceptional first episode, which Quinta Brunson ultimately won her first Emmy for as its writer.

The school is named after Brunson's sixth grade teacher

Quinta Brunson didn't just pull the name "Abbott" out of thin air when thinking of a title for her show. The sitcom and its namesake school are in honor of Joyce Abbott, Brunson's sixth-grade teacher. While promoting the show's first season in February 2022, Brunson stopped by "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," where the host surprised her with a virtual reunion with Ms. Abbott. "I'm so proud of you!" the longtime educator beamed through the screen. Kimmel jokingly answered, "Thank you, Ms. Abbott! Oh, I think she meant you."

"Quinta was an awesome student, very driven at that time," Ms. Abbott shared. "She grew out of her shell. She was really our class spokesperson." Ms. Abbott has an inspiring vision for her students that clearly influenced Brunson decades later. "I build their confidence that whatever you want in life, you can do it. You have to work hard. We did projects where we worked hard to go to fabulous places, just instilling that in them, instilling their confidence." The purpose that Ms. Abbott brings to her career is evident in the characters at the school named after her, continuing her legacy in a special way.

Sheryl Lee Ralph initially had another character in mind

Part of what makes "Abbott Elementary" gel is its phenomenal cast. Sheryl Lee Ralph plays Barbara Howard, a no-nonsense but brilliant kindergarten teacher who commands her classroom with the ferocity of an orchestra conductor. Barbara's established career inspires Janine as she begins her teaching journey. Ralph — whose extensive filmography includes films like "The Flintstones" and "Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit," as well as TV shows like "Moesha" and "Ray Donovan" — won an Emmy in 2022 for her performance in the first season of "Abbott Elementary."

Ralph seems to have such a handle on her character that it's hard to picture her playing anyone else, but that's not the way the actor saw it at first. In a "Good Morning America" interview, Ralph shared that she initially thought she might be more suited to play Ava Coleman, the unqualified principal with her head in the clouds, a role that ultimately went to Janelle James. Upon reading the script, Ralph told Quinta Brunson, "Just give me a shot as the show's principal." She explained her reasoning: "It would be wonderful in my mind to take something that was so unexpected, but I was shocked when people found me as Mrs. Howard so unexpected."

It's safe to say that Ava and Barbara are complete opposites of each other, with Ava wanting to be anywhere but work and Barbara taking her job very seriously. The role might not be what Ralph had in mind, but no one could have brought Mrs. Howard to life quite like her.

The show often gives money away to schools

In depicting an underfunded public school, "Abbott Elementary" is intentional about not only inspiring its viewers by showing the goodwill of its empathetic characters who give their all for their students, but also in putting its money where its mouth is. Trevor Noah remarked on "The Daily Show" how some of the sitcom's marketing money went to purchasing supplies for real schools. And it didn't stop there.

At the 2022 Emmy Awards, host Kenan Thompson shouted out the cast, noting that the show took the entirety of the money that would have been spent on its campaign to voters and gave it to public school teachers to spend on supplies instead. "That's what it's all about," Thompson remarked. In a testament to the power of the show, "Abbott" didn't even need to remind voters of its brilliance — it still went home with three Emmys. Quinta Brunson won for outstanding writing for a comedy series; Sheryl Lee Ralph won for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series; and Wendy O'Brien won for outstanding casting for a comedy series.

Philadelphia is an important part of the show's heartbeat

In building the world that "Abbott Elementary" exists in — which is, more or less, reality as we know it today with few alterations — Quinta Brunson had an important decision to make: Where would the show take place? Would the school be located in a town that actually exists? Would it be in a fictional city, or would the specific setting not be mentioned at all? Speaking with Jimmy Kimmel, Brunson emphasized how important the city of Philadelphia became to the show's identity, almost being a character in and of itself.

"I just felt the more specific you go with a city, the better," Brunson said. "I think the inclination is you want to go maybe broader on network TV, but what I've learned from comedies is that the more specific you go, the more universal you go." She added: "I feel like anyone can relate it to their own hometown." This approach adds a certain sense of realism to the show. As "Abbott" teachers talk smack about the Eagles or mention local dining spots that actually exist in Philly, the audience feels that authenticity and translates it to whatever connection they have to their own town or city.

The writers found Jacob's sexuality organically

Any writer will tell you that the first draft rarely resembles the final one. Whether by necessity or via creative breakthrough, the finished product is always a revision of the first pass. In rare cases, something that gets cut in editing might find its way back into the piece later in a new form. It's almost as if the art tells the artist what it is as the artist gets deeper into discovering the art's identity. Such was the case as Quinta Brunson mapped out the characters of "Abbott Elementary" and realized before cameras started rolling that the main cast was just too full.

One character had to go, so Brunson chose to cut a teacher named Blaire, who happened to be queer. Even though Blaire might not have fit, queer representation was important to Brunson. "I always thought that Jacob as a character would be next in line for that," the creator shared with Entertainment Weekly. "All of our writers agreed. Then it was a conversation with our actor, Chris Perfetti, because that wasn't there when he auditioned, so I wanted to make sure that was something he was okay with, and he was absolutely down. It's something that we kind of knew from the moment we started the writers' room."

Mockumentary veterans bring Abbott to life

If "Abbott Elementary" feels like "The Office," the similarities go beyond the simple fact that both shows are workplace mockumentaries. Of the 13 episodes in Season 1 of "Abbott," six were directed by Randall Einhorn, who also serves as an executive producer for the show. Two others were directed by Jennifer Celotta and one was directed by Matt Sohn. All three are alumni of "The Office." Einhorn directed 15 episodes, while Celotta directed three episodes. Celotta also wrote 11 episodes, and produced a whopping 99 episodes in total. Sohn never directed "The Office," but was a camera operator on the show for an astounding 176 episodes. Randall Einhorn's subsequent mockumentary experience also includes "Parks and Recreation" and "Modern Family."

Needless to say, "Abbott Elementary" was in good hands. However, the cast of "Abbott" is quick to point out that while they appreciate being mentioned in the same breath as such iconic shows as "The Office," they'd rather encourage viewers to think of "Abbott" as something new. Speaking with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, actor Lisa Ann Walter said, "What [the crew] put together in terms of style is fresh. I mean, yes, it's indicative of those other shows, but it seems fresh somehow." Quinta Brunson agreed, saying, "There are so few mockumentaries, so I understand the comparisons, but... once again, I think 'Abbott' is helping people realize that this is a genre in and of itself."

Quinta Brunson hired Tyler James Williams through Twitter

A traditional path to landing a role in a movie or TV show includes auditioning, waiting for a callback, auditioning again, waiting some more, auditioning with different combinations of actors being considered for other roles, and finally earning the part. While auditions were held for some characters in "Abbott Elementary," the show found its Gregory by way of Quinta Brunson sliding into the DMs of Tyler James Williams, best known for playing the part of Chris Rock in the sitcom "Everybody Hates Chris."

The two actors had previously worked together on "A Black Lady Sketch Show." As Quinta put together the "Abbott" cast, she sent Williams a direct message on Twitter. "The deal went down in the DMs, the entire thing," Williams shared on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" "She was like, 'Hey, I've got this pilot, I threw your name in the pitch package, hope you don't mind.' I'm like, 'Yeah, why not? I'm not doing anything.' And here we are."

Abbott shares an uncommon connection to Shakespeare

The mockumentary genre allows quick cut-aways from primary scenes into "talking head" interviews, in which characters share personal thoughts with the established camera crew. Actor Lisa Ann Walter, who plays Melissa Schemmenti on "Abbott Elementary," feels that this unique quality of the mockumentary format gives it a special connection to another era of art that no other filmmaking genre can boast.

"I feel like theater, when it was Shakespeare and the Greeks and it was stoic, you could have a monologue, which gave a character's internal thoughts to the audience," Walter said in an interview with the SAG-AFTRA Foundation. "What they were showing to the world was not necessarily what they were feeling. They had a monologue to discuss it, and we have that in our talking heads." Some of Walter's favorite moments in "Abbott" come from this contrast, in particular the tough exterior her character tends to project juxtaposed with her sometimes more sentimental feelings she shares with the cameras.

Tyler James Williams found his dad voice for the show

With "Abbott Elementary" taking place in a school, many scenes include the main characters teaching a classroom full of children. Filmmaking can be a slow process, and the scenes in "Abbott" often involve the child actors pretending to complete schoolwork. This means that, on the set, the line between reality and the fiction of the show sometimes becomes blurred. If the kids start to get a little rowdy between takes, the adult actors find themselves needing just as much control over the room as their characters.

Tyler James Williams told Jimmy Kimmel that he learned to put on his "dad voice" whenever he had to corral the kids. "Everyone's dad has a voice that he uses. It's never full sentences. It's one word and a period." Williams continued, "I have to pull that out. It's wild because I have no kids, so I'm developing this for them. Mainly eyebrows is my thing now. You can't just yell over and over again." So the next time you watch the show and see a teacher attempting to settle down a group of kids, they might not actually be in character yet — it could simply be the actor trying to get the room ready for the scene.