Creator Quinta Brunson is revitalizing the broadcast sitcom with her teacher-centric story, “Abbott Elementary,” on ABC. It’s a ratings hit, and also dominates social media Tuesday evenings since its January premiere, a rarity for a traditional sitcom these days. This past Tuesday’s episode saw Abbott’s newest educator, Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), learn about loosening up to help his students find the fun in learning. It was a moment that came complete with Williams having to do a dance in front of the entire school.
“I have to give credit on that scene to Quinta Brunson and [writer] Justin Tan, specifically,” Williams said to IndieWire during a recent phone interview. “This was the scene that we talked about quite a bit, that I was actually nervous about pulling off because there are so many turns in a 30-minute episode. Gregory has been very reserved, and how do we have this expression of self that happens in 22 minutes? They trusted me with it even when I didn’t trust myself.”
Williams talked more about the most recent episode and when he knew the show was something different than what was out there. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
IndieWire: When you were first considering this series, what jumped out at you about the show and your character?
Tyler James Williams: When I’m looking at a comedy script, as I’m reading I look to see do I actually laugh out loud while reading it? Because then it just makes it easier to perform. That was the first thing that happened: I laughed out loud within the first 10 pages. But then I saw this really interesting opportunity with Gregory to show a male educator, these characters who aren’t completely stable and where they are just yet. They’re figuring stuff out. I feel like that’s where a lot of people are, usually they’re in transition. So I like this ability for him to be in transition and figuring out who he is, and what he wants to do, and what position he wants to have as an overlying long arc.
You’ve said you eschewed sitcoms after “Everybody Hates Chris.” Why make that decision, especially in a landscape where everyone seems to be chasing the next hit?
Stop chasing! Stop chasing! [laughs] Why are you still chasing that? It’s almost like chasing a high. But the reason why I think I’ve stayed away from sitcoms is because we were in a phase in network sitcoms — sitcoms in general — where everything was really broad. You saw people trying to create jokes where there were none, and it’s why a lot of people weren’t watching network comedies as much. That’s one of the things, in coming back to [“Abbott Elementary”], I trusted Quinta; we have the same brand of funny. We stack jokes on each other. We love comedy that really makes you authentically belly laugh.
You’re such a master of the reaction shot, with much of the humor coming from how Gregory reacts to things. How do you look at the unsung art of the reaction shot?
That’s reading between the lines. There are the jokes that are there on the page, but if, as a comedic actor, you’re not breaking down that script [and] thinking about how does my character feel about every other character’s mind in every scene, then you’re not doing the work thoroughly. You can be sitting down with six friends [and] they each say something different [so] you feel a certain way about each one of those things. To me, it’s finding the minutiae in that, and that’s why I love doing this kind of work. It’s the same way I approach dramas as well, prep it all the same. How do I feel about all of this? But getting really specific about that is the key. I’m not looking in the camera with a stock face that I have. Like I’m gonna pull out number 79. I’m getting super specific about how Gregory Eddie feels about each line and each scene.
How do you look at being the series’ comedic straight man?
I love it! My last series I wasn’t the straight man. I was having to clown so everybody else can respond to it. I’ve done all different sides of it, but I like this side of it as well because it allowed me to appreciate the work of everybody else. I’m a fan of acting first before I’m an actor. I love watching people do what they do but it’s a hard position to play. One of the greatest straight men of all time is Jason Bateman with “Arrested Development.” The work that he does as all of these actors are doing this brilliant job. He’s finding a way to respond, and be present and grounded, while speaking for the audience as well. When I look at characters, particularly in sitcoms that can resonate for years, it’s the person who can see the world the same way the audience can. That’s the reward.
Does that feel restraining or freeing?
To me, it’s freeing in the minutiae. There is this restraint that comes with it, but then there’s something about that [which] allows you to pick your shots better. I love [that] very specific shot selection where I’m not jacking up 42 jokes at a time, I’m placing them very specifically, and there’s something really freeing in not having to keep the energy high. That’s what Janelle James [who plays Abbott’s school principle, Ava] is doing right now for us. She’s driving these scenes and at the end of the day she’s exhausted and I get it. That’s a job in itself. It’s keeping the energy going.
Can you talk about pulling off the dance sequence in this episode?
It was a lot to talk about, and grapple with, and understand. How does he express himself naturally? There was no choreographer. We hadn’t heard the song itself until we got on-set. It was finding how does he move in this? How does he do this for these kids in a way that isn’t not only fun for them, but makes them laugh as well. Part of this is that he’s choosing to be a part of their good time. So that was a lot to find physically, on the day. I was concerned that this is one of those [moments] that either hits or doesn’t, but Quinta and Justin, I tell them all the time, “You guys know me better than I know myself.” We did need this moment here when he was able to show us a piece of himself that he had been restraining. Part of that goes into his choice to stay or not to stay at Abbott.
You talked about showing a new side to male educators, who tend to be seen on-screen as insightful and almost magical. How did you want to upend those concepts?
It’s weird when one of your character notes is “I want to make this person as normal as possible.” I wanted to get away from that trope of [being a] mystical teacher that no one has, or it’s a once in a lifetime thing. I wanted to show that people who don’t necessarily resonate with that point of view can still be an active part in the rebuilding of the next generation’s minds. There’s a lot of things that we’re working now to normalize, but I think normalizing the average Black male experience within the educational system. Not trying to make it super bright. We’re not walking around as teachers in Dior, but we are trying to make it something that you can feel for and romanticize. So, hopefully, the next generation of educators coming up will be motivated to do the work that we need them to continue to do.
People forget that teaching is a job and you have to choose [it] as your vocation. If people stop choosing it then what do we do? We take [teachers] for granted that this is a choice or something that you do to make a bunch of money. It’s not something you do because it’s popular. That’s what we’re attempting to do. We need this in people. Let’s show them they’re appreciated. You don’t have to be this magical wizard-like person singing and dancing to educate these kids.
Is there a moment you realized the show was successful?
There was one moment when we were shooting the pilot. It was something about the scene that we were doing. It was the scene where we go to get the rugs. I look up at Sheryl Lee Ralph, and she looks at me and I was like, “Do you feel that? I know you’ve felt it before because so have I” and she like, “Yeah, I can feel it. This one’s different.” We knew that we had something good. We knew we had something good that most people had not been used to seeing on network TV, but you still don’t know if it’s gonna resonate with people who can actually watch it. It wasn’t until the official airing in January. The pilot had jumped off and people liked it, but January 4th we had seen Twitter was talking about it constantly but then it trended straight into the very next week. That was when I knew we may have something bigger than we thought when it was trending for seven days until the very next episode aired.
Quinta has talked about the desire for the show to spur more support for the educational system. What do you hope audiences take away from “Abbott”?
[Teachers] choose this vocation knowing what comes with it, knowing how hard it is, and choosing to help raise your kids. Your children, not theirs. This show lives in a perfect space. If I can make you laugh on Tuesday night with your family and then Wednesday morning, when you drop your kids off to school, if you’re just that much nicer or have that much more compassion [for] the people that you’re dropping your kids off to then I did my job.
“Abbott Elementary” airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.