From the start, ABC’s hit series “Abbott Elementary,” about teachers at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia, has been adept at surreptitiously slipping in pointed social commentary between the laughs and at the same time turning its female cast members into breakout favorites. That the second season only added to the richness by solidifying the bonds between Abbott's two male teachers, Gregory (Tyler James Williams) and Jacob (Chris Perfetti), and giving us more of conspiracy-minded school janitor Mr. Johnson (William Stanford “Stan” Davis), was an unexpected bonus for “Abbott” fans and, as it turns out, for the actors who play them.
In the first season, the female teachers were center stage. What’s it been like getting to know Gregory, Jacob and Mr. Johnson better?
Williams: The relationships have been built out more. We see these softer moments that Gregory is able to have in relationship to Jacob, in his style of teaching, and in his relationship to Janine. Mr. Johnson was one of the first to notice anything about Gregory and Janine. These two characters specifically seem to be a stabilizing force on Gregory. I don't think I really anticipated going into the show that there’d be as much of a relationship between the men and their personal lives.
Davis: Season 1, I was a guest star. And [series creator and star] Quinta [Brunson], as beautiful and talented as she is, never talked about Mr. Johnson being a regular until probably the seventh or eighth episode. I came home and told my wife, and she started screaming, then I started screaming, then the dog started screaming. [Laughs] Here, lots of promises are made and it doesn’t happen. But she put it out there, and it happened.
And Jacob? He’s not the butt of every joke this year.
Perfetti: Because of Quinta’s knowledge of TV in general and in particularly this genre, she knows that suddenly making these characters get what they want is going to kill the show. But she's smart. She understands if we're going to do 22 episodes, we can't just do the same joke over and over again. I love seeing the different colors of Jacob and him not always falling on his face. I don’t know if I can articulate this, but part of our success is that Quinta is trying to do something different: building off of what mockumentaries are and what network sitcoms have been. Taking the good [parts] and pushing it.
Perfetti: There's a great deal of pathos in our little sitcom. Full episodes can have very few punch lines. Quinta knows that in order for you to care about the message, we first have to make you laugh. There's humor in the characters behaving in the quirky ways that humans do, but there are pretty serious episodes that tackle the deeper, not so sunny aspects of their lives. I'm really impressed with that. It's easier to just move at the speed of fun like “30 Rock” did and just crank out the jokes.
Tyler, it’s been speculated that Gregory is on the autism spectrum. Your thoughts?
Williams: From what Quinta said, that's something she’d want to be really intentional about from the beginning, not something we just sprinkle onto a character after the fact. I don't think it was the intent of, or at least it's never been said to me that that was the intent of the writers or Quinta. But if people see him and feel like he’s a representation of that or find commonality within that, I think that's a win that we can take home that we didn't necessarily anticipate.
What’s an episode where you read the script and thought, “Cannot wait to shoot this one!”
Williams: The Halloween episode when the teachers are outnumbered. What makes this dynamic funny is how you have five, six, seven adults trying to maintain order, and the reality of the situation is if the kids organize, they can't really do anything to stop it. We get a chance to play with our backs against the wall, and it's really fun. You have these human beings half your size that you can't stop from doing anything. Whether it be a teacher, politician or old royalty, their worst nightmare is the masses you're in control of realizing there's more of them than you.
Davis: I was going to say the Halloween episode too and the one that Leslie [Odom Jr.] was in.
The one focusing on the trend of privatizing public schools.
Davis: Yes. That was a great episode. It was, once again, about the parents being there, us being outnumbered, and still coming out victorious.
Perfetti: The highlight for me are the scenes where we're all together. Anytime we’re in the library or the cafeteria, we're able to bite off a big ambitious chunk, just cinematically and theatrically. It's usually a longer scene, and we really get to play off each other.
Stan, what's the biggest difference for you off the set, now that you're a regular?
Davis: For last almost 15, 20 years I've been able to work. My insurance is paid, my car payment is made on time. [But] there's not as much ramen in my cabinet as there used to be. I'll see someone in the Coffee Bean or dry cleaner and they want to talk and tell me how much they love the show. I’m enjoying the ride.
Let’s end with a question still unanswered. What’s Mr. Johnson’s first name?
Davis: I get that question often. I always say it’s “Mister.” [Laughs]
Perfetti: [Smugly] Oh, I know his name.
Williams: Uh-oh. See, Quinta likes to parcel out little bits of information to each of us. But no one ever gets the full story. I don’t know — and honestly I don’t want to know. I dread the episode where we get his concrete backstory and name. I love characters where I don’t get the full picture. It keeps everything limitless.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.