After a big night at Monday’s Emmy Awards, the cast and crew of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” went straight back to work on the new season, doing a table read for an upcoming episode.
As the show’s cast explained Wednesday at a Television Critics Association panel, they powered through after the night of festivities. On Monday, the show took home awards for the show’s creator and showrunner Quinta Brunson, as well as Brunson’s co-star Sheryl Lee Ralph, who brought the house down with a legendary acceptance speech befitting her legendary career.
“I feel like we cranked it out. I feel like everybody showed up kind of, like, riding this wave, this tsunami of love. We were all a little tired, but it was the greatest feeling in the world to get back,” actor Chris Perfetti said. “It was honestly the perfect way to come down after that experience. It was amazing. There’s nowhere else I wanted to be. I was, like, dying to come back to work, even though my brain was on fire.”
Actor Tyler James Williams noted that it was especially meaningful to get to celebrate with the show’s crew. “It felt like one really long day where when we walked in, they got a chance to celebrate as well, because this is just as much theirs as it is ours,” he said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chris. I forgot how to act,” actor Lisa Ann Walter quipped. “I got on set and I was like, ‘What do we do? Where do I stand? I don’t know how to do this.’”
The “Abbott Elementary” cast was full of their A+ repartee at the panel, previewing the workplace comedy and mockumentary’s upcoming second season, which is back in session next Wednesday on ABC. When the first season premiered in January, it became a breakout hit, reinvigorating network TV and workplace comedies. Following a group of teachers at an underfunded public school in Philadelphia, the show — inspired by Brunson’s mother, a teacher — has also been celebrated for its loving tribute to teachers.
In building on her experience from making the first season, Brunson told HuffPost she wants to keep capturing what made the first season great, while also juggling the logistical challenges of how big of a phenomenon the show has become.
“What we learned from last season was to trust what we did. I think we did a very good job. We really got to be in this bubble and create this wonderful first season of television,” she said. “And I think the lesson we learned was to do the exact same thing.”
Another new creative challenge is that the second season got a full-season order: 22 episodes, compared to 13 in the first season.
“More episodes has been exciting. But also, I want to make sure that we have things for people to tune into and be excited about each week. That’s just harder to do with 22,” Brunson said. “With 13, I knew I could put something in there that would make people show up in this ever-changing, binge-worthy climate. This is not something people will be able to binge immediately. So I just want to make sure that they’ll be back with us every week that we’re on the air.”
In addition, she said that “the first season was much easier to do because we got to film and edit and write the majority of the season before it even went to air. This year, we’ll be in a different situation where we’ll still be filming, still be writing, when the show starts airing next week.”
With the success of the show, plus juggling her many hats, Brunson said she had to hand over some of her showrunning duties to her fellow executive producers, Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, and executive producer and director Randall Einhorn.
“Showrunning has become harder,” she said. “I really have downgraded to just creative and nothing else because it’s all I can do, because between acting, writing and showrunning and press and stuff, all I can do is just focus on the creative.”
The show has earned lots of praise for its depiction of the inequities facing teachers and public education. Brunson stressed she and the writers don’t approach the storylines with these issues in mind. Instead, their priority is to find comedic stories that fit each character, which then happen to touch on what a school like Abbott Elementary would be dealing with in real life.
“We just seek to mine the reality of the situation,” she said. “I think about an old trick I learned is: If you put a $5 bill on the ground, each character in your show should pick it up differently. So I’m always like, ‘What is the $5 bill, and how does that affect everyone?’”
The cast also discussed the fun energy they get from working with the kids who play the students on the show, and whether they ever think the actors are actually their teachers.
“One of the kids just asked me that today: ‘Are you going to be my teacher?’ I’m like, ‘More or less, sure,’” Williams said. “They add a certain something to this show that you just can’t get anywhere else because they’re not hyper professional, and they’re not trying to chart up their careers immediately. We get a lot of really fun energy. They’re just as responsive in the scenes as we are. And as an actor, that kind of stops it from getting stale.”
“Sometimes, they’ll come out with some crazy stuff,” Walter added. “I had one kid in my class that was talking about interdimensional worlds and conflicted anti-heroes. I’m like, ‘How old are you?’ He’s 10! I said, ‘Everybody’s gonna work for Preston one day.’ Yeah, they’re amazing.”
As ever, Ralph stole the show, including when she described how her phone has not stopped buzzing with messages in response to her Emmy win.
“It’s been so absolutely overwhelming. Since Monday, I’ve been on the verge of tears all day, all night. It has been the most amazing thing. You know, people talk about your phone blowing up. My phone absolutely blew up. It has not stopped going off,” she said. “I’ve heard from mayor, governor, prime minister. I’ve heard from all kinds of people, people that I went to grade school with, that I went to junior high with, that I went to high school with, the president of the university I went to.”
She has also heard from producers on previous projects in her storied career. “I also had to ask them: ‘Why didn’t you hire me again?’ But anyway!”
When asked if the award was worth the wait, Ralph said: “Hell yeah! Yes, absolutely. Yes. Can I say it again? Yes!”
Season 2 of “Abbott Elementary” premieres Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.