Brittani Nichols on Writing “Abbott Elementary,” Making Oprah a Shipper

Feature images by Brittani Nichols + Frazer Harrison/Getty Image

One of the best thing about watching Abbott Elementary take over the world and rack up a wheelbarrow full of prestigious TV awards is knowing Brittani Nichols is right in the middle of all of it. We’ve been knowing and loving Brittani’s work forever, from her Outfest- and Newfest-winning feature film, Suicide Kale; to her highly relatable stand-up comedy; to her writing and acting on shows like A Black Lady Sketch Show, Take My Wife, and Transparent. Now, as one of Abbott‘s head writers/producers, the whole world gets to experience her genius and hilarity on the regular. This week, Brittani’s first season two episode, “The Principal’s Office,” lands — and so she took some time to chat with me about the series’ success, which of her values she hopes are reflected in her sitcom writing, and what it’s like when your show’s biggest shipper is Oprah.

Heather Hogan: Brittani, congratulations on your huge success. Nobody deserves it more than you truly. It’s so cool to now see the whole world invested in your writing. I’m like Buddy the Elf over here. I KNOW HER! I KNOW HER! 

Brittani Nichols: Thank you! Now that I’m doing it again, I’m like, “Oh man, I really missed this.”

HH:  Can you talk a little bit about the last year and a half? I mean, it’s been a whirlwind of success, just success upon success.

BN: The last year and a half has been busy, but it’s been fun. We’ve been in the writers’ room this season since the last week of April, and we’re going until probably around January, and we’re really in the middle of it now. And it is exhausting, but not miserable.

HH: That’s rare and amazing.

BN: I think this is the first time where I’ve really been able to make that distinction of “I’m really tired, but I’m not in a horrible mood all the time. I’m just doing a job that takes a lot out of me, but I enjoy doing it.” So it just feels different than a lot of the other jobs that I’ve had in this industry, which really run you ragged and make you crabby.

HH: Why do you think that is?

BN: It’s everything. It’s from the show that we get to make, to the people that I get to work with, to my own connection to the material. The showrunners, like Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker and Quinta Brunson, are all just nice people. And that’s part of why I took this job: because I trusted who they are as human beings. I trusted that they would run a room that treated everyone like a human. And that valued us as writers because — well, a lot of people don’t like writers very much. A lot of people are not very nice to us. And they just create an environment where we get respect and get treated with just basic humanity, which unfortunately is just not a foregone conclusion for work anywhere.

HH: Absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about your connection to the material and how you see that coming through? How it came through in the first season, how you’re seeing it develop in the second season?

BN: I hope that as people become more familiar with the episodes that I personally write, they’ll notice sort of this undercurrent of community care. And I think that’s something that is coming across in the series overall. The point at which we’re catching up, or learning about and living with some of these characters — specifically like Jacob, Janine and Gregory — is their mid-twenties when they are learning about the inherent trauma of labor and also figuring out who they are as people. And I think that combination can be very combustible, and it could create a lot of different extremes and personalities. It’s why now you see all these people that are all about hustle culture and you see people who are just like, “It’s very stupid that we as humanity decided we should all work. Why did we do that?”

Writing these characters and watching them figure out who they are within a system that they are, every day, learning has failed them in new and surprising ways is really interesting. And I think getting people to investigate that tension that they have in their own lives, in their own industries, I hope is something that people are walking away from these episodes with.

HH: I see a lot of that conversation on Twitter, especially with teachers. Teachers in Philly for sure, but also lots of other teachers around the country. Just talking about that tension that you’re mentioning, and talking about their love of the job, the love of the kids, the lack of institutional support, the way you reflect the challenges and the triumphs in such a real way. What sort of community care themes are we going to see in this upcoming episode you wrote?

BN: So this episode is about Gregory having a student that is paying attention, but isn’t necessarily paying attention to the things that Gregory wants him to be paying attention to. Now that Gregory has accepted that he is a teacher and wants to be a teacher, he has to figure out what kind of teacher he wants to be. We’ve seen this arc from Gregory where he is really reckoning with his own masculinity, and the ways that was instilled in him as a child, and how that is now informing the sort of educator that he is. And often the moments that really test who you think you are, are moments of adversity. And he’s early enough in his career that he’s coming across a lot of situations for the first time.

And it’s, “Am I going to be a disciplinarian?” or, “Am I going to have to manage my own emotions and figure out what it is that’s going on for this kid and what it is that’s going on for me? Because both of those things are interacting in this moment to produce the situation. It’s not just about the student, it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us. It’s about this environment and it’s about what have I learned from all these other teachers and the way that Abbott functions, how am I going to be additive to that equation?” Rather than veering off away from hopefully the lessons that he’s been learning from his coworkers.

HH: I’ve especially loved his relationship with Barbara as it’s developed more this season. I think they have such a good dynamic. Are we going to see any of that sort of mentorship coming up in your episode?

BN: Yes, we are. And I think we’ve seen so much of Janine sort of begging Barbara for mentorship. And it’s interesting to see the Gregory and Barbara dynamic because it isn’t this sort of neediness, it’s genuinely Barbara stepping in when she feels like she needs to and saying the things that need to be said. What Barbara says when she’s not being directly prompted, when she is just offering up knowledge from a place of graciousness and empathy.

HH: I’ve enjoyed all the different styles of your writing over the years, from your sketch comedy to your personal comedy, obviously a feature-length film. What’s it like writing these characters that are growing every week, every year? These characters who are evolving as people, and in their relationships with each other, and — as you said — with their careers? 

BN: Writing for a sitcom and developing characters is a very unique challenge because you’ve built the foundation of a sitcom on the archetypes that you’ve created in the characters. You’ve said, “Hey, these are these people and this is why this is funny, because these people are going to sort of act in very predictable ways.” And so it’s maintaining enough of the core of the person while also figuring out the ways in which they can grow. The thing that doesn’t change is the system. I think in a lot of sitcoms what you have to depend on are characters remaining the same. And for us what remains the same are the challenges.

So we have a little bit more freedom of changing the way that people interact with those challenges and who they are as people, because it really doesn’t matter how many ways you attack this problem, it’s not going to change. It’s a problem that is entrenched and unfortunately not going anywhere anytime soon, it seems, from my assessment of our country. And so it’s fun to play with how they’ll grow and how they’ll retract and in what ways they’ll remain stagnant. I think that’s really human. It’s really close to how people actually are. That’s the undercurrent of everything that I do in comedy. I always want it to feel really real. I always want it to be a step too close to the reality that people are used to.

HH: Are there characters or relationships on Abbott that are easier for you to write, that you’re more drawn to? 

BN: In season one, I really loved writing for Tariq. I think that people would be surprised to learn that, as he is perhaps my exact opposite. But it was really fun because it was reaching into part of my brain for things that I would never say and just pulling it out saying, “It’s your time to shine, little buddy!” And also Tariq is a rapper. And I not so secretly enjoy rap. I mean I wrote for a celebrity rap battle show and I came out with that EP when I got bored that one time.

HH: I loved that EP.

BN: Thank you! It was fun getting to just write a comedy rap song for someone who didn’t think it was comedy and thought he was doing a good job. It’s such a fine line to walk with Tariq’s lyrics, because I think if you look at the lyrics, I mean this might be just a compliment to myself, but I think he’s pretty clever. I think a lot of the wordplay in that song is pretty good. It’s just that it’s the wrong time for that song, Tariq. That song is not for children. So I loved writing for him first season, and we’re not fully done breaking this second season yet. He’s popped up a little bit and I’m hoping we get to see some more of Tariq in season two.

HH: I hope so too. He just kept surprising. I loved him driving away with the air mattress inflated on top of the car.

BN: That was added, we didn’t know that was going to happen, which is a thing that is so incredible and fun about working on the show. We’ll see stuff like that that wasn’t in the script, that someone added on the day, or Quinta went and told them during one of the pre-production meetings that only the writer of that episode will be on. So the rest of the writers will see the cut, we’re like, “Why does he have a fully blown up air mattress on the car?” [Laughs] And it’s nice to be surprised in the same way that I think the audience is surprised.

HH: That’s amazing. It’s so rare these days to be nicely surprised in any way. So do you have characters or relationships that you like to write jokes for the most? Or jokes about the most? It’s a tricky balance, right?

BN: I like finding new areas of jokes. Because I think, from the first season, we like to make short jokes about Janine. We know that Gregory is going to serve as the straight man for that world, and oftentimes has the perspective of the audience. I think so many people think Gregory is really weird and when you really look at it, you’re like, “Gregory might be the most normal person in the school and everyone else is just so strange that he sticks out,” which is a fun reversal.

I like writing the scenes between Gregory and Janine. I think all the writers do, honestly, because we know that everyone’s going to love them. So it’s just like, “Oh yeah, this will be an easy way for me to feel great about myself, is writing some sweet interaction between them and finding those down beats.” Because a lot of the moments between them, it’s not the thrust of the scene, it’s just finding little flirty moments for them to have. In my episode there is what I describe as a “sexy fight” between the two of them.

HH: Ooh!

BN: We got a little bit of pushback as we moved through from outline stage to script stage of this episode, with people being slightly concerned, “Is this too much tension between them? Are they being sort of snippy?”

And I just was like, “Listen, Quinta and Tyler [James Williams] are going to make this work. They are going to find a level in this scene that none of us imagined was possible.” And they did. We talked so much about it, because I also was like, “Well as a writer I need to listen to what people are saying. And so I want to make sure that we also just have a version that isn’t tense and that is just funny. But also, let’s see what happens.”

I was sitting at Video Village with Patrick Schumacker, one of Abbott’s showrunners, and he just looks at me, he goes like, “Was that a little sexy?” And I was like, “It was. That’s a little sexy fight. They found the level of a sexy little fight.”

HH: I always think maybe one of the hardest things about being a TV writer is shippers — and you’ve got Oprah on you!

BN: Yeah, Oprah’s a big shipper. Who knew? Oprah’s somewhere writing fanfic right now.

HH: Is writing TV’s it couple a lot of pressure?

BN: It’s not so much a pressure as it is a challenge. And Quinta has a very precise vision for them.

This writers’ room has the most amount of people that love television of any room that I’ve been in. We just, between all of us, can recall pretty much any episode of comedy in the last 15 years. And even going further back for some stuff like King of Queens, like Family Matters. We just know our stuff and it’s because we know our stuff that hopefully we’re going to be able to chart something that feels familiar but is also unique. And that’s really the only thing that we’re focused on is being able to say, “Yeah, Janine and Gregory are connected to the history of these beloved ‘Will they? Won’t they?’ duos that exist.” We like finding new waters with our little ship.

HH: I love that. Speaking of a room that’s just so familiar with TV, I felt like the cold open with Barbara thinking that these famous Black actors are white actors, that mix up, was so funny. You can tell from that kind of stuff that the room is just full of people who have all of this deep, deep industry knowledge.

BN: That cold open was from Brian Rubenstein’s episode — and he and I, and I believe Quinta, all just brainstormed a bunch of those names that could work. So we just have this master list somewhere of a bunch of Black actors’ names and white actors’ names that seem sort of similar. And that came from something that Sheryl Lee Ralph does in real life. She sometimes will say — there was one specific one. What is his name? Orlando Bloom?

HH: Ha!

BN: Yeah, I want to say, Orlando Bloom is who she initially thought was Black. And Quinta heard her do it and was like, “We got to make something out of this.” And it’s really fun, honestly, to have that sort of relationship with our actors because that’s not a foregone conclusion on shows, that the talent cares about the writers, or has a relationship, or says hello to us. And we’ve been able to spend time with them and sort find some of the quirkiness and specifics of them as people that we’re able to weave into the characters. And we have this really cool thing that happens where their performance of the characters and the way that we write the characters is meeting in the middle and creating what people are seeing. We try to be receptive and listen to the things that they want to be pulled out of the characters and the things that they care about and weaving them in with what we know.

Because they’re not in the room with us. So there’s so many things that we as writers talk about for the backstories of the characters and where they’re going in the future that the actors don’t always get to know. And they’re also writing this backstory and doing all this digging on the characters internally. And finding the places where we’re missing each other a little bit and finding the places where we overlap and using that to create the depth that we hope is coming across.

HH: I could listen to you talk about TV and the craft of writing all day. Alas, you have an Emmy Award-winning show to make! I’m so proud for you and so happy for you, B, and I hope your success just continues to *makes skyrocketing motion with hand*

BN: Thank you always, Heather. I really appreciate it. I love talking to Autostraddle. It was such a huge part of my history and how I got here and it’s fun to still be able to check in.


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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1488 articles for us.

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