Abbott Elementary is the smash hit of the season, and more people are finding it every week. We love how the characters resemble educators we know, but the show sneakily gives us hope for the ones teaching our children. Behind this incredible ensemble is showrunner and director Randall Einhorn, and he knows how to make this cast of characters soar.
We have had a lot of television shows about being in school–Welcome Back, Kotter, A.P. Bio, Mr. Corman, Teachers, just to name a few–but Abbott Elementary is tapping into something different. We constantly see things on social media about how we need to respect our teachers more and give them more money, and I wondered if it’s harder to do an honest show about being in school than we think.
“I’m not sure if it’s difficult exactly, but I think the story we are trying to tell–how it can be a thankless job–you need comedy to look at the system critically. With these inner city, underfunded schools, it’s not funny, but you need a way in to begin a conversation. A lot of the things we are talking about isn’t necessarily funny, but it can open up your mind without being preachy. As soon as you do that, people think it’s not their problem. Their minds turn off.”
Since its debut in December, Quinta Brunson’s comedy has been the little engine that could. Week after week, more people were talking about and tuning into ABC to watch the latest episode, and now you can’t scroll through Twitter without seeing meme after meme of the characters. Einhorn knew it was a quality show before the episodes even began airing.
“From my standpoint, doing the pilot felt like we had been doing it for a long time. It felt like we were speaking the same language very early in the process. It felt right very early. Comedy is found on the page, and I always felt like it was working. That’s my litmus test. Does it feel real and authentic, and from day one, I always felt that way. It’s impossible for me–or maybe unhealthy–to ascertain what people will respond to. I don’t know that I was even cognizant of whether it was going to be a hit. I try not to gauge what people think.”
The mockumentary style has been a fan favorite for the last two decades, and it’s a specialty of Einhorn’s having worked on The Office, Parks and Recreation, The Muppets., and Modern Family. To create an atmosphere where the characters can trust the camera, Einhorn believes that the operator role needs to be integrated into the story as well. If there is gossip going on at the school, perhaps the person following the teachers wants in on the story.
“I was the DP on The Office, and I think I directed more than anyone on that show. I like to infuse the personality of the documentarian into the scene. He or she has their own point of view or agenda. Keeping that agenda alive does absolutely take another layer of directing. It’s much easier to put people on their marks and shoot a wide, medium, and a tight. With directing a mockumentary, you are trying to tell what the camera operator is thinking, and I give the operator similar direction that I would give an actor. I would say, ‘you know this detail and that detail and you know that she knows this,’ and that gives the camera operator some autonomy to go look for something. I will talk to the actors and then speak to the camera crew to have conversations to give that point of view. What do you want to do is tell them to zoom in on a certain line, because you want them to find that for themselves. Maintaining that constant veneer of just catching something is a tricky thing to do. On this show, we are being a little voyeuristic.”
In my interview with Sheryl Lee Ralph, she mentioned that Barbara Howard doesn’t pay much attention to the camera since she doesn’t believe they should be there in the first place. Einhorn revealed that the cast has a lot of discussions about how much they acknowledge the extra presence in the room.
“We talk about that a lot. In the pilot, Barbara says that they are trying to do their jobs, and the cameras are going to make things more difficult. Her attitude, especially at the beginning of the series, was harder. I would hope we can see the relationship grows. The way Gregory is caught on camera is a very different thing. Each of the characters have their own relationship in the same way that they have with each other. It’s a really cool extra layer.”
One of the biggest breakouts is Janelle James as Ava, the principal who got her job by blackmailing the superintendent. James brings a fun-loving energy to Abbott even when her teachers thinks she lacks the qualifications and empathy to be in charge. Sometimes when you have such a crowd-pleasing character, you want them to always be center stage, but Einhorn tells us that her function in the ensemble is more emotional than we may assume.
“Ava has that self-promotion, flippant, unaware of her surroundings quality that makes the redemption all the more compelling. Towards the end of the season, she has to prove herself in front of the superintendent or with the step class. The tricky thing with balancing a character like that is seeing through what they are putting on and then seeing who they actually are. When we see who they truly are, it’s a bit questionable. If you take a step back though, you can see she really cares for those kids and those teachers. If she’s you seeing the real her, she covers it up, and she doesn’t want you to see it. The style of comedy lends to showing the audience who they are deep inside. It feels more honest and earnest, because it doesn’t feel like a scene.”
As someone who has worked with many successful ensembles over the years, the producer and director reveals what he believes to be the key to a strong troupe of actors.
“For me, as a director, when I don’t see a character’s title above a line but can tell who says it. I can tell what is a Barbara line or a Janine line or an Ava line. The points of view aren’t interchangeable, and that’s what it was like on The Office. Jim was never going to share Dwight’s point of view or say the things he would say. It is such a skillfully drawn show in that way. All the characters of Abbott are so unique, and that makes your job so unique. What’s not on the page is beautifully brought by the actors. In that case, I can sit back and let the actors make me look good. It’s tricky, though, because I did the pilot for The Kids Are Alright, and there are nine characters who you have to care about in order to give a shit to come back for episode two. In ensemble comedy, it’s like casting a reality show. You’re going to have someone with strong views and then you need someone with strong, opposite views. That’s what we have on Abbott. All of those teachers have such different points of view.”
The first season of Abbott Elementary is streaming on Hulu.