Why do we love "Abbott Elementary" star Janelle James for being bad? It's simple: "I'm hilarious"

On "Salon Talks," the actor discusses her stand-up comedy, playing principal Ava Coleman and toxic positivity

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 14, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Janelle James (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Janelle James (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Janelle James is not Ava Coleman.

As the "Abbott Elementary" star and Screen Actors Guild nominee prepares to resume doing stand-up on a limited basis, she's hoping that more people will realize that.

To be clear, she absolutely loves playing Ava, diehard Philadelphia Eagles fan and Willard R. Abbott Elementary School outrageously self-absorbed principal. Most public school educators and administrators can't afford Prada, but that doesn't stop the impeccably-dressed Ava from playing the devil with a grandiose, "me-first" egocentrism.

That also means James gets some of the best lines in the show. Typing "Abbott Elementary" and Ava quotes into any search engine yields a trove of one-liners and comebacks no other current TV show can match. But the real magic is in the way James delivers those lines, along with physicalizing a kind of confidence learned from music videos and punctuating her sentences with careless laughter.

James makes Ava a heightened version of the worst manager you've ever had, which only adds to her performance's realism. And it's a show that earned her nominations for a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy (which was won by her co-star Sheryl Lee Ralph) along with nods for a Golden Globe Award, an Independent Spirit Award, and others.

So she understands why the public is inclined to view her as her character. Having said, "I'm interested to see everyone's reaction to Janelle James, not Ava Coleman," James said in our recent "Salon Talks" episode. "And as you know… some of Ava is in me, so they get a little bit of each."

James may be new to primetime broadcast audiences, but her stand-up career extends back to 2009 when she had her first gigs in Champaign, Ill. A few years later she opened for Chris Rock's live tour in 2017 along with joining the writing staffs of BET's "The Rundown with Robin Thede" and Showtime's "Black Monday."

However, now that production on "Abbott" has ended for the season, James plans to return to stand-up on a limited basis. "I'm going to do 10 or 12 dates, maybe get something new on wax too," she said. "I don't put out a lot of material because I like it to be good. I see people demanding, tweeting at HBO and Netflix …It's not a matter of them giving me [a special], it's about me not being ready yet, for myself, because I like to do quality material and I like to mark different stages of my life with standup."

For now, James was happy to chat about the public's embrace of Ava, the reasons she's such an appealing figure despite her awful behavior, and the chemistry she shares with the rest of the "Abbott Elementary" cast.

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode here or read a transcript of our conversation below:

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, congratulations on your SAG nomination. You have had a very busy award season with the Emmys and the Globes. I watched your most recent stand-up on Netflix that you recorded in 2021 and you were talking about just how different it is to go out in the world. …Has all that changed drastically since "Abbott" has begun?

It's changed things for me professionally in that I don't really do stand-up anymore. I don't have the energy or the time. Now that we're wrapped, I'll start again. I hadn't really done much while we were taping and that just ended three days ago. I did pop out and do one date that I owed to the club that was booked before this show took off. That was my first time selling out a full weekend, which is five shows, so that was cool. 

The way that changed is most people are there to see Ava. A lot of people didn't know that I was a standup before this, and then they saw and maybe thought I was doing a character performance, a character appearance as Ava. So it's been different and also cool to see people realize that I am a real person that's not this character and that she is also funny. That's a challenge and I like that.

Yeah, your comedy has a kind of brilliant darkness to it. Since I'd seen you before seeing Abbott and seeing you as Ava, I kind of recognize a little bit of that. But if you're not familiar with it, did you surprise a lot of people?

I'm not a shock comic, so I'm hoping that I'm not shocking people, but I know they probably are expecting me to talk about the show more and being Ava more or teachers or kids. And my stand-up doesn't cover the show or this character at all, so that's probably surprising. But I just try to be as funny as possible and I think after 10 minutes, I get them. 

"I'm interested to see everyone's reaction to Janelle James, not Ava Coleman."

I'm not for everybody, so maybe I don't get everybody and I wouldn't have gotten them before the show either. But most people, yeah, once they figure out what's happening and they're laughing, it's fine. So I like seeing people confused at first and then coming around. But that was before the show, because I am pretty dark.

I don't mean to make you sound like Wednesday Addams or something, but you know what I mean.

Yeah, I talk about real stuff. Like you said, I did that special right after quarantine. It actually wasn't even. We were open for two weeks and then we went back in. So I hadn't even had a chance to practice. I hadn't done sets in over eight months. I hadn't been around people much less a whole production. I was pretty manic and feeling everything and so, I mean, I'm glad to have it on wax, that period of my life, but that was definitely a singular experience to have to do a special in those circumstances.

Let's take it the other way around: What parts of your stand-up do you think that you bring to playing Ava?

I am a confident person. This isn't something that I've always been, it's something I've worked on. It's something I'm proud to be finally, and so I bring that to this character. She is supremely confident, but for different reasons. She's confident because she's oblivious to everything and I'm confident because I feel like I've earned it. She also feels like she earned it, but she hasn't really, that's the difference.

So I bring my confidence, I bring commanding, like when you do stand-up, you have to command attention because you're just one person standing with a microphone, and that's like the oldest form of entertainment I can think of. Just a person and words. Same thing with Ava. So I'm trying to, when she speaks, everybody's listening. When she enters the room, it's a force of power. I'm trying to convey a power and a confidence in her that is the same that I bring to my stand-up.

Have you gotten any feedback from teachers, from parents, or maybe even some principals who are like, "I feel seen"?

Oh definitely. I mean, when people come up and forcibly hug me, they tell me very close in my ear that they're a teacher or their daughter's a teacher or they're a principal. Mostly for my character, it's less, "Hey, I feel seen." More, "You're so funny. I know an administrator just like you. You've made what could have been a super broad character feel like someone that I know and feel like a real person." All those things, all those comments like that, is what I enjoy. 'Cause Ava could have been super silly, you know what I mean? 

Through the writing of Quinta and other writers and what I'm hopefully bringing to the performance, I'm trying to make her a real person. This is a person that does exist. This is a person that exists in the world and in school settings. It's not made up so no matter how people might try to say that she is, this person exists. I get that reinforced all the time when people tell me, I know who this person is and I knew who she was when I read it as well. I was like, "Oh, I've met this person before." Not in a school setting, but in an administrative setting. As a boss, as a manager, and you're just like, "How did you get this job?" Those people exist a lot, unfortunately.

Besides the fact that you are talented and make her hilarious, one of the reasons that people love Ava so much is that she reminds them in the best way possible of some of the worst managers they've ever had. There is a term that you've used that applies now in this age of quiet quitting, which is "toxic positivity." Can you talk about how you define that in terms of how you imbue that feeling into Ava?

Well, I feel like the best example of toxic positivity on our show is Janine. She's doing an optimistic version of it and I'm doing a negative version of toxic positivity. My version is, I'm saying very awful things with a smile on my face. And that's just the cues and how we read each other. It makes you confused because you're just like, "Well, she's smiling. Why do I feel like this?" It's a form of abuse, actually. So that's what she's doing. And making it feel as if it's your fault, why you feel aggrieved or upset by what she's saying. And I'm hilarious. So why would you feel upset? And when I leave, just get on to whatever I told you to do, whatever awful thing or fix whatever I messed up. And so that's how a lot of bad bosses are, actually.

Why'd you think that bad bosses think that this is a good way to manage people? 

Probably a couple sociopaths in there, I mean, I'm just guessing, who don't know how to read social cues. A couple of manipulators, a couple of social climbers. These are just characters and personalities that exist in the world and these people find their way into high up positions in a lot of different fields.

Let's talk about actual positivity. One of the reasons that this show works so well is that the cast seems to be very bonded both behind the scenes, but also that chemistry comes across in each episode as you're working together. Did you all immediately find a bond or is it something that developed over time?

What is even more than this mythical bond is we're all very well cast for our roles, and the show is written so well that we have to mesh together. Every interaction is written so well that it comes across real. All these characters are so well fleshed out that you really believe that they would be in this situation together. They would be saying these things together and then everybody's bringing their A game to their acting. So I think that's what people are feeling. 

"It's been different and also cool to see people realize that I am a real person ... That's a challenge and I like that."

As far as us meshing well when we first got together, when we first started taping, it was during quarantine. We couldn't go anywhere else. These were the only people that I was interacting with besides my family at home. And so that's definitely a sped-up get to know each other situation.

Then beyond that, everybody's mad cool. There's no monsters or sociopaths like I mentioned earlier, and we're all just very invested in making a good show. I know I am. So that kind of cuts through any b******t that you might find in a production. I couldn't ask for a better work environment. I've had **t jobs as we all have. 

I think that's what people are feeling. The show is just very well cast. And anytime I hear Chris Perfetti who plays Jacob do his lines or I watch the show, even if we aren't in the scene together and I watch the show and he has a scene, I'm like, he is perfect. I know this person. Same with Barbara, same with... Everybody's just doing their job so well. 

Yes, and each of you has had more opportunities to work together in different capacities. For instance, one of my favorite episodes was this recent one where Ava and Barbara were selling candy and something that might be seen as more Ava hijinks and scamming turned out to be her teaching the kids how to make money for themselves.

I thought that was an ingenious way to show more of Ava's character, give her a little backstory and also peel away some of Barbara, Sheryl Lee Ralph's, perfectness as well. So again, credit to the writing that it wasn't done in a very special episode and no one cried. It was still passionate, comedic, she learned a lesson, but nobody was really right. It showed how to view circumstances from different angles. We both can be right. You never know where people come from or what they've been through, and you meet them in the middle. So it's just all these things that you still learn as adults. Then to be in a school setting, it's like, oh, we're also learning too. So I thought that was great. And then to have to act against Sheryl Lee Ralph and hopefully a hold my own was amazing as well.

Yeah, that was an amazing scene. I want to go back a few scenes before when you were with the boy that you were helping. He's outgrown his pants and you were just cracking jokes, getting punchlines out, slinging it. Are those moments pre-written or do you have a chance to improvise?

I don't remember. The writers, as we've gone along and especially for season two, I've noticed, are definitely writing more to us as individuals as well as our characters now. I am that person. I will crack on a kid. I will crack jokes in that way. And so they've been writing me more like myself, which is a mind F-word. And so why I say I don't remember is because it's like, even when I'm saying the lines, I'm speaking as me in some ways and I don't, in the midst of it, try to remember what I said and what was written. I don't remember. So I don't know how to honestly answer to that. 

"We're all very well cast for our roles and the show is written so well that we have to mesh together."

Sometimes things are written and we'll say it how it's written and it doesn't hit, and me and Quinta will come up with it on the spot. What would you say differently? What really happened? And then we'll say it at that time, but by the time the show comes out, I don't remember what was on the script and what we came up with, and nor am I trying to get credit for it. So not like, "That was me!" So I never remember exactly what was [improvised] or not. But we do have the opportunity and option to do that. And we do, especially now as we go along. First season I was less likely to give my input, but now I'm like, okay, I get in and I'm more comfortable remixing things in my own way. 

Part of the reason I think that Ava has become so beloved and people already liked her immediately… 

Not everyone, but that's great.

I don't know a single person who doesn't, and I will put up my dukes for Ava.

Appreciate that.

In the second season we've gotten to see more of her, and like you said, she means well. She may be incompetent and she may still do things like try and sell face masks to make an extra buck on the side … but she also wants to use her talents for good within the school, especially when it helps out the kids. And I'm wondering…whether there is any kind of limit with her, where the writers are saying, "Okay, we can only have her go so far." 

The sweetness is always still wrapped in the self-centeredness and the wittiness and the jerk face stuff that I say. Because that would be boring, and also Ava's grown. Nobody really changes after a certain age. I truly believe that, that people don't change.

I do too. They do evolve. 

Evolve, right. But personality, their main motivation, which Ava's is herself, will never change. So like you said, if she happens to help someone along the way of helping herself, then that all works out. But I don't think she's ever going to just become Barbara. That wouldn't track. The writers are making it very realistic. Yeah, the writing for this character is very realistic to me. So I like that.

I don't think that people would want her to change, honestly. 

Most of the conflict comes from even Janine trying to fix something and messing up, or Ava just breaking things at the start. So I don't know what the show is if she all of a sudden becomes this nice selfless person.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Abbott Elementary Janelle James Salon Talks