ABBOTT ELEMENTARY - ÒEducator of the YearÓ - Gregory is named Educator of the Year. Later, Janine deals with a difficult student, and itÕs revealed that Barbara hasnÕt completed her teaching requirements. WEDNESDAY, APRIL. 5 (9:00-9:31 p.m. EDT), on ABC. (ABC/Gilles Mingasson) WILLIAM STANFORD DAVIS, CHRIS PERFETTI, LISA ANN WALTER, QUINTA BRUNSON, SHERYL LEE RALPH
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Interview: Co-Showrunners Justin Halpern And Patrick Schumacker Discuss The Runaway Hit ‘Abbott Elementary’

Workplace comedies like Abbott Elementary, in particular, take a season to find their rhythm, but Abbott clicked right away for viewers and the creatives behind the show. Co-showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker knew they had something exceptional early in the process. They point to creator & fellow showrunner Quinta Brunson and her perspective on the world-building of Abbott Elementary and the characters that inhabit it as essential building blocks. Brunson developed the show by drawing inspiration from her mother’s life as a teacher to flesh out characters that weren’t just funny but vulnerable as they dealt with the daily challenges teachers endure and the small wins they experience in the public school system. 

While no one would blame the writers for making a comedic show painting teachers as heroes, what the writers here built is much more enjoyable. They show characters who are just as hardworking as they are imperfect. Teachers who strive for success but fail, and often feel unseen. “We really have always wanted to make a show that was positive and made people feel good but didn’t ignore reality,” said Halpern.

The write what you know adage adds to its success, but it’s all elevated by the ensemble cast of dynamic, talented actors. All these ingredients have made the Emmy award-winning show a frontrunner in every sense of the word. It brought back weekly appointment television, nearly a thing of the past, with fans discussing the storylines, fan casting of the character’s parents, and using moment-to-moment reaction gifs. It’s an awards darling, earning three Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actress, Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series. Abbott isn’t having a moment in our pop culture; it is the moment.

Awards Radar sat down with co-showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker to discuss the magic of Abbott Elementary and much more.

Niki Cruz: Congratulations on your success, especially with Abbott Elementary, which has become an awards juggernaut. It must feel so nice to be embraced.

Patrick Schumacker: Thank you! It’s been pretty crazy. We’ve done a lot of shows. This is the first time that’s happened.

NC: When did you decide to start your production company Delicious Non-Sequitur? 

Justin Halpern: We’ve been writing our own projects almost exclusively. We never did a project that we didn’t write. As we got older in the business, we thought there were a lot of really funny, talented people that we came to know. We knew how to navigate the trickier sides of the business and thought we could help other people that we really love, make their projects and get their stuff on the air. 

PS: It was an opportunity to have a symbiotic relationship with our friends. Abbott Elementary is a good example because we met Quinta five years ago. We immediately took a liking to Quinta and loved everything she brought to the table. She came to us with the Abbott project, which was originally going to be animated. One thing led to another, and it was like what Justin said: we had the experience of being producers and showrunners, and Quinta had a really unique, touching, and hilarious story that we wanted to help bring to fruition. 

(ABC/Gilles Mingasson) QUINTA BRUNSON

NC: I didn’t realize you guys had known Quinta five years prior. How long was it between Quinta coming to you guys with Abbott and ABC saying yes?

JH: When she came to us with the animated version, it was 2018 or 2019. She pitched this awesome story about her experience watching her mother, who had been an educator in the Philly School District for 40 years. Quinta was in Philly visiting her mom, and it happened to be the night of her parent-teacher conference. The story is Quinta wanted to hang out with her mom and see a movie, and her mom was like, “I gotta stay until the bitter end at 9 o’clock at night.” She was waiting on one parent because their shift was ending late. She used it as an example of the dedication of unsung heroes, her mom being one of them. 

She was writing another pilot at the time for CBS. So we’re like, let’s do it, but then things didn’t work out, the pandemic happened, and then I ran into her in the lot six months later. I talked about maybe turning Abbott into a live-action broadcast comedy, and she said, “I was actually thinking the exact same thing earlier today.” Two weeks later, we were pitching it to Warner Brothers. And then a month we sold it to ABC.

NC: I love how each character has a rich, diverse background and specific voice. Each stand on their own, which only sometimes happens on an ensemble comedy. Even the look of each character, whether it’s Melissa in leopard or a leather jacket or Barbara in her cardigans and pearls. When it comes to actors making these characters their own, how long did that take to come together? It’s all there from the pilot.

PS: There was a lot of serendipity with this show, and casting was certainly one of those things. The cliche is that you can have an extremely well written show and kind of mediocre cast, and the show will fail, but if you have an amazing cast and a mediocre written show, the show can still be a success. Fortunately, I think we have great writing and a great cast.

With Abbott, we were often bringing one person to the network, and that person got the job. And there was no real pushback. One of the great examples is Janelle James. She came in and read for Ava, and we fully expected the network and the studio to say, “We want to almost stunt cast this role.” She walked in, and it was like, “Oh my God, that’s Ava.” We all agreed. The studio and network unanimously agreed. It was a real gift.


NC: The show has moments of laugh-out-loud comedy and other moments that are tender. Did that tone come naturally in writing the scripts, or was it really something that you guys worked on together as you were developing these episodes or seeing like dailies?

PS: With the pilot, like you said, it almost came out fully baked — it was weird! [Laughs]

JH: This is the first time we shot a pilot that got picked up, and we didn’t have to reshoot parts of the pilot. We watched the pilot, and we were like, “It looks like it’s all here.” It was important for Quinta that Janine was a second-year teacher. She wasn’t brand new and in stark contrast to someone like Barbara, but it really ended up being a gift that the pilot ended up not being a premise pilot. We could almost just plug it in anywhere. 

It feels like an every week kind of storyline, and I think that allows you to jump right in vs having to do a ton of setup. Quinta wrote an incredible draft, and we barely changed anything. I think she’s just had this in her head for such a long period of time that it just came out. All the actors were just so on board, and it was so rich and vivid. 

NC: These characters have been through an exciting trajectory, and it’s only the second season. The first season, you had to scope out the politics and relationships of the teachers and develop the foundation, and then in the second season, you get to explore who these characters are inside and outside of the classroom. Any favorite moments?

JH: Yeah, there are a couple of scenes that jump out for me. I love the Egg Drop episode, where they’re all debating and devolving into conspiracy theories. We work really hard so teachers don’t seem like superheroes. We like to give them their own faults and idiosyncrasies. So, that’s all something I really love. 

I also liked the episode we did called Educator of The Year. A lot of the times, with our show, people will be like, “We need to praise teachers. We need to make teachers feel seen,” and that’s all true, but the reality of it is that they’re in there every single day, and the days where they feel seen is few and far between, and I think that’s a tough thing. 

NC: That’s one of my favorite episodes, too. Janine is going through it and trying to figure out what the metric of success is. Her scenes with Barbara are so touching. I have friends who are teachers who had a really strong reaction to the episode. Have you guys received feedback from teachers? 

PS: Oh yeah, we’ve gotten a ton of amazing feedback, both on social media and in screenings. We screened the premiere on the Disney lot but invited a theater full of teachers, and it played like gangbusters. We also hear stories through the grapevine.

JH: I really liked that you brought up that idea of what the metric for success is because I think it’s the foundational piece of the show. Even going back to the pilot, Janine got a new rug for her class, and that has to be the big victory even though the reason she got the new rug is it’s because it was the only place one of her students could get a decent amount of sleep because of the situation at home. 

NC: Before I let you guys go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Taraji P. Henson. She just kills it as Janine’s mom. It’s such a large role because you’ve been building up this backstory of this woman and how she affected Janine. So much of her personality hinges on the relationship she had with her mother. So, what was it like to even come to that moment of casting Taraji?  

PS: It was pretty awesome. Those two have been fan cast for a while on social media. Quinta is extremely online. It’s kind of impacted other castings we’ve done in the past like Orlando Jones as Gregory’s father. We had a couple of actors in mind for [Janine’s mom], but once Quinta said Taraji, it was like, “What?” Because at that point, I would have said, “I highly doubt we could get her.” But I do have to say at this point in the life of the show; we’ve been blessed with many talented actors who are banging on the door to work on our show. So I thought, “Okay, there’s a chance,” and then Quinta texted, or DM’d her, and within a day, she was like, “Yeah, she’s in.” I was floored by the brevity! [Laughs]

Abbott Elementary is available to stream on Hulu and ABC.

[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]


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Written by Niki Cruz

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