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Interview: Janelle James Brings One of TV’s Funniest Characters To Life On ‘Abbott Elementary’

Line for line, Ava on Abbott Elementary is one of, if not the funniest character on television. Played to comedic perfection by Janelle James, she makes me laugh just about every time she is on screen. Her joke to laugh ratio hits nearly 1:1, and the laughs comes from all different comedic directions; sometimes it is as simple as a well-timed facial expression, others it is James squeezing in some physical comedy, and certainly from her flawless line delivery. I cannot always identify what it is about a performance that makes me laugh, but James’ seems to have the secret touch.

(ABC/Gilles Mingasson) JANELLE JAMES

Janelle James recently spoke with Awards Radar about her work on the Emmy-winning ABC series. It was a revealing conversation where we explored her comedy and acting origin story, how she got the role of Ava, and much more. James knows that the magic of Abbott Elementary is in the writing, but during our conversation I wanted to figure out why her portrayal, beyond the writing, makes me endlessly laugh. She too comes from a big family and had to fight for attention – that may be part of it. Whatever it is, she has gained my attention at that of millions of viewers – I look forward to much more in season three.

The strange thing is, as I maybe too honestly declared at the start of our talk, I “liked,” but “I did not love” the first season of Abbott. (I know, not a great first impression.) But, as I stated shortly after, upon rewatch I was please how it better honed in on my comedic wavelength, upgrading that like to love levels. Much of that has to do with Janelle’s work. She alone can keep me in stitches (as she did with the opening of the WGA awards), but combined with her exemplary ensemble something special is formed – a show with plenty of heart, but also lots of laughs inside and out.

Please watch my conversation with Janelle James as, like always, she delivers answers in a way only she can and has me laughing as she does. There is much more of our conversation in the video (below) than you will find in the select excerpts below, but go ahead, you can read those too.


On where she found her comedic talent:

“I come from I have a big family. You know? We’re all loud and trying to hear over each other and get our thoughts. I don’t know if my dad was a jokester a character, but I would say. I got a lot of my personality from him. But as far as comedy and doing stand up itself, I really lust words. I really love words, I love orating. I didn’t know, but I do love public speaking. And I truly, truly, truly like making people laugh. I feel like it’s such a gift for myself and gets me out of my head. That first open mic that I did, I remember getting the first laugh and that feeling and thinking, ‘Oh, this is what I do now.’ I just truly feel like it’s truly a calling for me. (laughing) That’s so corny. I’ve never even said that before.”

(ABC/Gilles Mingasson) JANELLE JAMES,

On how she is similar to Ava:

“Now I realized I am pretty I am pretty close to her. (laughs) I’m a jerk. I’m a jokester. I always have some smart ass shit to say. So there’s definitely parts of my personality coming through. Where we’re different is, I am an introvert, I am not an out there type of person. Her main goal, which a lot of people didn’t pick up until the rewatch is that Ava wants to be famous. She’s the reason that the cameras are in the school. A lot of people miss that when they watched the first season. So that’s something that I would never do. I have never wanted to be famous. It’s been something I’ve been struggling with. So to get on a show and have it become like overnight famous, basically, where my face is everywhere was a difficult transition for me. So that’s where we’re very much different. She’s way more bombastic than me. It’s been fun to put on that type of energy.”


On what she brings to the already amazing writing for Ava:

“What I think makes Ava is so special is, I’m doing a lot of physical comedy. I think that’s something that people missed as well until they do the rewatch. I’m doing a lot. I’m always on the move. I’m always big energy. That’s so different than me. I’m very laid back. I’m mostly laying down all the time. (laughs) But Ava is always on the move. I’ve insisted to wear on wearing the highest heels that I can get. I usually wear like five or six inch heels because I think it’s hilarious how I tower over Quinta (Brunson). I’m basically her bully. And I’m a giant next to her. I think that’s so funny visually. So, I’m thinking about all those things. Even when I’m not speaking, what am I doing with my face in the background, all of those things. That’s where I get to have fun.”

You can find seasons one and two of Abbott Elementary streaming on Hulu.


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Written by Steven Prusakowski

Steven Prusakowski has been a cinephile as far back as he can remember, literally. At the age of ten, while other kids his age were sleeping, he was up into the late hours of the night watching the Oscars. Since then, his passion for film, television, and awards has only grown. For over a decade he has reviewed and written about entertainment through publications including Awards Circuit and Screen Radar. He has conducted interviews with some of the best in the business - learning more about them, their projects and their crafts. He is a graduate of the RIT film program. You can find him on Twitter and Letterboxd as @FilmSnork – we don’t know why the name, but he seems to be sticking to it.

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