It’s impossible to overstate how much of breakout success Abbott Elementary has been since its premiere in December 2021. Over the weeks that followed, the show steadily built a natural and mightily impressive following, almost solely based on word-of-mouth that vouched for the sterling quality of comedian Quinta Brunson’s comedy series. Its success is even more impressive when you consider how difficult it is these days for any network show to compete with the deluge of content offered by streaming, especially in the comedy space, such as Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, HBO’s Barry and Hacks, and Amazon Prime Video’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Last year, ABC’s black-ish was the lone representation for network comedies in the Emmy’s Outstanding Comedy Series line-up, amongst eight nominees.
Though the writing in Abbott is wonderfully warm and witty, the commendable cast also elevates each episode thanks to their tremendous comedic timing and consummate charm, and it’s safe to say that one of the main standouts has been Janelle James’ Ava Coleman, Abbott’s problematic principal who does little to alleviate the problems her teachers face, but always knows how to make us laugh anyway all the same. James, a long working stand-up comic, has had recurring roles on shows like Black Monday and Central Park in the past, but Ava is undeniably her biggest part to date, and a part that has instantly made her a fan favorite.
As buzz swirls about her possible Emmy nom this summer (and potential win?) we were able to talk with the star about all things Abbott, including how she came to be involved with the project, and what advice she has for aspiring comics looking to emulate her success.
Zoe Rose Bryant: So first, I wanted to ask how you came to be involved with the project in the first place and what your relationship with Quinta was like at the start.
Janelle James: I became involved in the project in the least glamorous way – I auditioned. I did not know Quinta before this. I knew her as a comedian, but we weren’t friends or close or anything. I had met her once before years ago and now, that’s really it. I know people want a more glamorous story, but I auditioned, I got a call back, I did three more auditions, and then I got it.
ZRB: That’s so inspiring actually, to get it right off your own talent.
JJ: Yeah. I know. I know it’s a question people want to ask, and I guess it’s because I’m killing it.
ZRB: It is.
JJ: Cause people ask me if it was written for me and all of these things, but Quinta didn’t know me that well to write anything for me. So yeah. I just auditioned. My agent actually had to stay on me because I’m lazy. And because I told her I wanted to do it after I read it. And then she had to press me for another three weeks to actually send it in.
ZRB: I get it. I have a lot of friends and roommates who are actors too who are always pushing it off till the very end. They’re like, “We’ll get around to it eventually.”
JJ Yeah, like when is it due? I’ll do it two minutes after that, and not a second sooner. (laughs) Because this is all so pie in the sky. You’re just like, “I’m not going to get that.” You know what I mean? That kind of vibe that we tell ourselves to prepare for disappointment. And you know, my focus has always been stand up. I rarely audition for acting stuff. But I knew I was excited for this. I was just like, “Oh, this is really funny.” And I did write Quinta after I read it: “Hey Janelle here, this is hilarious. And I think I’m going to audition.” She was like, “Oh, okay. I didn’t know you could… That you act.” And I was like, “I didn’t know either, but I’m going to try it.” (laughs)
ZRB: Yeah. That was another one of my questions too – when did you want to break into film and television? Was that something you’d been always aspiring to? Because I know you’re from stand-up, and I wasn’t sure if this was a long term goal too.
JJ: It is. I mean, I want to get everything. You see everybody else doing it. The good thing about standup is when you start, at least for me when I started, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My goals changed as you go along and you find out more things are possible. So when I first started stand-up, my first goal was to eventually headline the Chuckle Hut and wherever. And then you get deeper in and you see other comedians acting and stuff and you’re like, “Oh, okay, I’ll do that.” But you’re also a stand-up. So you don’t really try. We don’t really try hard for stuff. Usually a lot of stand-ups get their first acting things from friends. A “oh, I wrote a movie, I’ll put you in it.” type of thing. So I think I was waiting around for that. But then when I read this, I was just like, “Well, I should try because this is hilarious.” I don’t know if you ever try to write or have read pilots. They’re usually very hard to write. I’ve tried multiple times and usually they suck. But this didn’t suck. I was like, “I should try.” So yeah, it wasn’t a goal. It was just, this came to me and again, my agent was like, “I think this is something you could do.”
ZRB: That’s so cool – just the right project at the right time.
JJ: Yeah. That’s all I was waiting on. I wasn’t really like, “Where’s my role?” It wasn’t a thought in my head that I should be acting or I was just waiting for something that I’d be excited about.
ZRB: Are there any comedians turned actors in particular whose careers you wish to emulate? Or that inspire you?
JJ: Emulate? I mean Richard Pryor. He’s the GOAT. People forget about his whole movie career. I feel like people forget about him period in a disrespectful way, but he’s the prototype. Excellent standup and then an equally good and hilarious film career. I really like him. And then there’s a lot of comedians now that are acting, Bill Burr is like a freaking thespian now. So that’s inspiring to see him like, “Whoa, you really doing it.” That kind of thing. But that’s the cool thing about stand-up – you can go in so many directions.
ZRB: Yeah, Burr even just popped up on Star Wars.
JJ: Yeah. That’s amazing.
ZRB: So how much improv is allowed on set? Do you follow the script pretty closely, or does Quinta give you guys room to experiment with things?
JJ: No, we followed the script pretty closely. It’s also a network show. So you know how that goes. I can’t just be popping off saying whatever I want. The script itself goes through a lot of hands before it gets to us. And then it needs to go back through more hands before it gets to TV. So we do it pretty much on script, and then depending on the director, they might say, “Do you have anything?” And then we’ll get the freestyle, but we don’t know until we see it what makes it to the screen.
ZRB: I think another big element of the show’s success is the cast’s camaraderie and chemistry. Was that created before the start of the show? Did you guys get together and hash that out? Or was it just something that happened naturally?
JJ: Nope, this all happened during quarantine. Right when things were just kind of opening back up, but still on lockdown. So no, we didn’t meet up or anything. We basically showed up, did the pilot, killed it, and we got picked up. So it just so happened that we got the right mix of people and it all worked out. So, I mean, I’d love to give a better answer, but that’s really what it is.
ZRB: That’s so impressive though, because it really does feel like you guys are the characters and you’ve known each other for years.
JJ: Nope, never met any of these people before. (laughs) But personally, especially as a stand-up, I don’t like working in group settings, office environments. That’s why you become a stand-up, it’s a solitary biz. And you’re your own boss. So I know for myself, I showed up like, “I’m going to make this the most fun experience that I can.” I think we all did. We all were grateful to be there and happy to be out of the house. That might have been a little bit of that too. You know what I mean? I know I was definitely post quarantine, get giddy. We’re all nice people. So it just all worked out.
ZRB: So when it comes to creating your character specifically, I’ve always been curious, because I’ve had my fair share of good and bad teachers and principals, and I was wondering if you were drawing on any inspirations of poor principals in the past in particular?
JJ: No. I don’t remember any of my principals. I’m like, “Well, maybe that’s the point.” It is my character and that she’s not in the mix that much. I’m like, “I don’t even know what they do really.” So, not that they’re not important, I’m sure they’re doing whatever they do, but I don’t remember them. And that’s also a good thing, because that means I probably never got sent there to the principal’s office or whatever. (laughs) I have no idea, but what I am drawing on is bad bosses. It’s not necessarily a principle. It’s just that bad bosses that I’ve had and the different traits that they’ve had. If anything, if I’m drawing from anything, it would be that.
ZRB: Yeah, I think that definitely comes across as well.
JJ: Yeah. I think in the pilot that was an almost spot on experience that I’ve had before working in an office environment, where the boss gathers everyone to dress one person down, and that kind of psychotic behavior is what I was trying to emulate with this character.
ZRB: And you did so successfully.
JJ: And then the cluelessness about it when people are upset. They’re like, “What? What do you mean? I was just doing a team building exercise.” Those kind of games.
ZRB: Yeah. The gaslighting part of it all.
ZRB: So you guys got renewed, which is incredible. Congratulations.
JJ: Thank you so much.
ZRB: What do you want to see for both the show and Ava specifically going forward into season two?
JJ: I feel like I’m the worst interview, because I have no thoughts. This show is something nobody could have predicted would’ve hit like this. I knew it was going hit, because it’s a good show, but not like this and that my character would hit like this. And so I would expect it to progress. Just like any other show. We’re in the second season, maybe you find out more about my background. Maybe there’s a side character in my life or stuff like that. But as far as what I hope to see Ava do? I have no thoughts on it, because I feel like the writers killed it season one. What do I have to say anything about anymore? I show up saying the words. It is such a great gig and I’m not trying to make it hard for myself. So I feel like when actors are like “What’s my motivation?” and all that, I’m like, “I’m just here to be funny, to have a good time and get out of there.” Like I do with any job.
ZRB: There you go.
JJ: I don’t plan on changing anything that I did in season one or putting these aspirations on my character at all. I’m sure whatever it is they bring is going to be amazing, because they killed it the first round.
ZRB: The writing team is just so consistent.
JJ: Yeah. When people say, “oh, do you improv? And dah, dah, dah, you’re a comedian. Do you do the jokes? And dah dah.” I’m like, “I don’t have to. It’s already funny.” That’s true. It’s already funny. Quinta’s good at saying, “Hey, this is how it’s written, but say it how you would say it.” If I were to say that I’m improvising in any way, it would be that, but I’m still getting the same ideas across. It’s just saying it in a Janelle way or how I think Ava would say it, but no, the writers are, are crushing it and I don’t want any part of that part of the gig. I don’t even want to concern myself with that.
ZRB: I like how you mentioned expanding our view of Ava’s family. It showed that there was more to your character beyond being the funny or bad boss. There’s like more layers.
JJ: People have to know I’m not totally a monster. I get it.
ZRB: (laughs) Not the word we would use.
JJ: People have to feel okay with liking me. I mean that’s true to my real life. So I got it.
ZRB: And kudos on the writers for…
JJ: On the writers. Exactly. Cause you know, I saw it and I was like “A grandma?” But it was perfect. I’m like, “What’s funny about that?” But it was perfect.
ZRB: So going forward with season two and beyond, and after the success of all things Abbott, what are some of your broader career goals following the show?
JJ: Well, this has allowed me to tour in a way, stand-up wise, in a way that I hadn’t before, as more people are coming to see me. So, that’s great. So that’s my ultimate goal is to be able to tour as a stand-up and have people know that I am not Ava Coleman. I want people to come and see ME do stand-up. So that’s been one of my focuses. As far as acting, I’m still in the same vibe. If things come to me and it seems like fun, I’ll read it and try. That’s all I can do, but I don’t do goal setting and stuff like that. I’m really like, what’s for me is for me. And then I just let it happen. I know that’s weird, but it is what it is.
ZRB: No, that’s good. Just kind of take it as it comes and go with the flow. And building off that, what advice do you have to aspiring comics trying to really break into this industry and emulate the same success that you’ve had so far?
JJ: When it comes to being a comedian, “Just do it.” Just do it. Find an open mic and do it. It’s a solitary, self-propelled profession. Nobody is forcing you to do stand-up and nobody’s going to beg you to do it if you stop. If that’s what you want, you just got to do it. Nobody wants to hear that, but that is what it is. I got here to this role after doing 10 years of stand-up, and that has helped me in that I know how to land a joke. It’s not that I was unprepared for acting, I prepared in a different way. If you want to be a stand-up, you just got to do it.
ZRB: That’s awesome. And that was my last question too, so what a way to go out. I think it’s really inspiring how far you’ve come and all the work you put in. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
JJ: Thank you so much for being interested in me.
Abbott Elementary is available on demand and currently streaming on Hulu. Janelle James is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.