Tyler James Williams Talks Abbott Elementary
Tyler James Williams Always Knew "Abbott Elementary" Would Be a Success
Image Source: ABC
Tyler James Williams has come a long way from playing the titular character on "Everybody Hates Chris." The 29-year-old actor took a break from sitcoms for years, starring in dramas like "The Walking Dead" and "Dear White People" — but his good friend, Quinta Brunson, pitched him a workplace mockumentary series he just couldn't say no to.
ABC's "Abbott Elementary" made its splashy debut on Dec. 7, introducing viewers to its all-star ensemble cast — including Williams, Brunson, Janelle James, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, and Chris Perfetti — who play teachers in a fictional Philadelphia public school. Brunson previously revealed to POPSUGAR that Williams was the first person to be cast on the show, partly due to their already-established friendship. "I love working with friends," Williams tells POPSUGAR. "Very rarely does that work out, where you work with your friends and it's actually good. So when she brought the idea up to me, I was already pretty much in."
"[Yes], the ratings are great, the numbers are great, and all of the success is great, but if they can feel seen, then I'm really doing my job."
Williams was adamant about starring in "Abbott Elementary" regardless of any other projects he already had in the works. He was most intrigued by his character, Gregory Eddie — a substitute teacher trying to climb the ranks and become a principal. According to him, Brunson's goal was to "show Black male teachers in a great light." So far, she's done just that: through Gregory, Williams dismantles the hypermasculine tropes Black men are often saddled with on TV.
The actor says a number of teachers have reached out and told him how much his character resonates with them. To Williams, that's one of the best parts about his role: "[Yes], the ratings are great, the numbers are great, and all of the success is great, but if they can feel seen, then I'm really doing my job."
"Abbott Elementary" became an instant hit after its winter premiere last year. Trending week over week on social media, the series maintains a perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It even set a record as the first ABC comedy in history to see its premiere ratings quadruple from its original air date. While Brunson herself didn't anticipate that people would gravitate so quickly to the show, Williams always knew "Abbott Elementary" was destined for greatness.
"After that first night, it was like, 'Yeah, I think we better strap in. We may have a ride ahead of us.'"
"I had an inkling. I did," he says. "When we shot the pilot, Sheryl Lee Ralph and I had done quite a few of those. So while shooting it, we looked at each other at one point and we both had that moment when we realized that this is something really special. We knew we liked it, and we knew it was something that we were passionate about, but there was just something about the way it was flowing just too well. I looked at her [one day] — I was like, 'Do you feel what I feel?' And she was like, 'Yeah.' I said, 'I think we have one here.' . . . This is the first time I've been able to really see [a show's buzz] in real time and watch people respond. After that first night, it was like, 'Yeah, I think we better strap in. We may have a ride ahead of us.'"
A sitcom succeeding in the way "Abbott Elementary" has speaks volumes about what's transpired in the last two years. "We had a lot of dark content that led up to the pandemic," Williams says. "We went through an election cycle, we went through an insurrection, we went through all types of things. We just need to sit here and laugh." Week after week, "Abbott Elementary" delivers hilarious jokes and hearty laughs. Williams says of the show's humor, "If you need to go grab your inhaler, that's the perfect place for me."
Image Source: ABC
Seeing Williams in a sitcom again is a real treat for those who have followed his career since 2005. Starring in Chris Rock's true-life-inspired series turned the actor into a breakout star, and thanks to his fans, Williams has been able to establish longevity for himself. "I mean, it's incredible. This is the kind of career that you hope for," he says. "Starting as a child actor, the hope is that the audience will grow along with you and not grow past you. There's something interesting about watching people who are my age, who watch the show, realizing that, yeah, we're all old now. . . . They watched ["Everybody Hates Chris"] while they were in school, and now they're watching ["Abbott Elementary"] as they drop their kids off — and now I'm playing this teacher at school. It's nice to have that journey with them, and hopefully I can continue to tell stories of our time as we all grow old together."
"If I can make you laugh really hard on Tuesday night, and then Wednesday morning when you drop your kids off you're a little bit warmer to the teacher that you dropped them off to, then I did my job."
The charm of "Abbott Elementary" lies in its humor and compassion for both teachers and students. It aims to create a new kind of workplace comedy people — one that spotlights unsung heroes. "I hope we can shift some of the conversation with the way people interact with teachers," Williams says. "It's one of those things where we know that they're underfunded and we know that their jobs are hard, but because we've gotten so used to that reality, we're kind of desensitized to it. For me, I've always said if I can make you laugh really hard on Tuesday night, and then Wednesday morning when you drop your kids off you're a little bit warmer to the teacher that you dropped them off to, then I did my job. So hopefully that'll be the thing. We can change some of the response culture and interactions with teachers, and they can feel valued for what they do, as well as make people laugh."
Just like viewers, Williams sees endless possibilities for "Abbott Elementary" in the future — including hopefully another season. "Right now, the future is really wide for us," he says. "There's a lot of things we can explore, but what I think ultimately we want to consistently drive home is people falling in love with this school . . . we want you to dive deeper into this world. We want you to feel like you go to this school, and doing it week by week, year by year, hopefully it does that."
"Abbott Elementary" airs on ABC on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET.