‘Abbott Elementary’ Writer Brittani Nichols On Bringing Community Care To Television
The screenwriter gives a preview into the upcoming episode “The Principal’s Office” and reveals how the writers room reacted to the show’s Emmy wins.
Despite her love for series such as “Community,” “30 Rock,” “Happy Endings” and “Parks and Recreation,” Chicago native Brittani Nichols never anticipated moving out to Los Angeles to work in television, let alone setting foot in a writers room.
“I will say that I didn’t think that working on a network comedy was going to be possible,” said Nichols. “When I first moved to LA, my goal was to work for a network comedy. When I first moved here, I was very aware, like: ‘Oh, right. There are not a lot of people like me in those rooms.’”
Only after finding “Abbott Elementary” did Nichols think that network television had space for her. As a Black genderqueer lesbian, the throughline in her work is an attempt to create more depictions of people like herself in media for “different Black women, all sorts of different Black people, all sorts of different queer people,” she said.
A resident of Los Angeles since 2011 and a community organizer, Nichols has been careful and deliberate when choosing projects. Her resume is vast and extensive, starting out as a production assistant on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” for a season; dabbling in standup, sketch comedy and improvisation; collaborating with “Insecure” creator Issa Rae on the web series “Words With Girls”; and writing on scripted and variety shows such as Robin Thede’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”
Now, the “Abbott Elementary” writer is finding her voice in the ABC series’ second season, which premiered Sept. 21. Ahead of the season’s fourth episode, set to air Wednesday, Nichols talked to HuffPost about her journey through the industry and how she incorporates the tenets she learned from community organizing into her storytelling.
Since the show won multiple Emmys last month, has the writers room felt a sense of pressure to deliver a strong second season? What were the reactions following the wins?
We talked about the pressure of season two more before the Emmys ceremony, because we have been working since the end of April. We’ve been in the room for quite some time and I think have had the time to digest and reckon with the level of success the first season had.
I think it just made us a better room. Honestly it just made us want to do an even better job, because I think in season one we all realized early on — even before the show came out — that this is good. We were like: “We like this. This is funny.” But we’re still getting our feet under us, figuring out how we mesh as a room, figuring out people’s strengths and the overarching sort of vibe of the show.
Now that we have sort of that baseline set, it’s about just drilling down on different aspects to make it even better. That is what we walked away from the nominations with: We want to keep getting better. It’s not about like a sophomore slump; it’s also about a junior slump, a senior slump. We’ve set the bar at a place where it is high, and we want to keep raising it. It’s not about outside pressures. I think it’s about the competitive spirit that a lot of the writers have.
Our reaction to the Emmys is just happy. We just were having just a blast. We were so excited leading up to it. It was the first Emmys for just almost everyone that went.
Tell me about how you met series creator Quinta Brunson.
We were in a web series called “You Do You,” and I played the love interest of another character [played by] Ashly Perez, who is now also a television writer and creator. We met on the set of that, and we just continued to bump into each other around town.
I think the last time I’d seen her before we started working on “A Black Lady Sketch Show” together was in [TV personality] Larry Wilmore’s office. They had that really big moment where Quinta shouted him out at the Emmys.
What was your journey to entertainment like?
In college, I went to Yale [University] and I played basketball and rugby. I had been recruited to play basketball, and part of why I went there was that they sold me on the idea that I would be able to pursue other interests and do other things. I got there and that was not case at all; my full-time job was playing basketball. But I still managed to try some things out.
So I saw this play called “The Colored Museum” in my second semester of my freshman year, and that really changed things. It just blew my mind. It was an all-Black production of the seniors who were graduating, and they had restarted this group called the Heritage Theater Ensemble, which was a group that did plays by Black playwrights. It was sort of their goodbye gift to undergrads, like, “We’re going to reinvigorate this thing that really hasn’t been at Yale for like 15 years.”
First semester of my sophomore year, I auditioned for a play and got it — and I was doing preseason [training] for basketball and this play at the same time. I had the last week of basketball conditioning at the same week as I had tech week for the play. I literally didn’t sleep for like a week.
But that just sort of started me on this journey of realizing that there were just so many things out there that I wasn’t aware of. I found out what Upright Citizens Brigade was because I watched “Parks and Rec.” And I was like: “Well, how did all these people end up on ‘Parks and Rec’? Oh, they all seem to be doing this thing called UCB.” When I got to LA, one of my first goals was “I need to figure out how to perform at this theater.”
Growing up in Chicago, what was the impetus for getting into entertainment? Is there something you saw growing up that inspired you to be in this industry?
There was not anything growing up that made me say, “I want to be a television writer,” even though I watched so much TV. I used to watch “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” without any understanding of the fact that it was its own art form. I was just like: “Oh, this is just a TV show. They created this whole thing for TV!” I really wasn’t connecting the dots. I wasn’t seeing live comedy or plays or really anything. Even though I was in Chicago, it just wasn’t part of how I grew up.
I think that there’s this very real separation in Chicago and in LA, too; the people that live in those towns, are from those towns, are very separate from the comedy scenes and the entertainment scenes that exist. I didn’t grow up realizing, you know, [the comedy theater] Second City was up the street, that there was the [improv-focused] iO Theater in Chicago. I had no idea.
It wasn’t until after I graduated college and had been exposed to some of this stuff in college that it occurred to me that it was a job. I literally remember I was on Tumblr, and one of the “Community” writers was saying something like, “I didn’t realize that loving TV and being nerdy could be a job.” And I was like, “I guess I didn’t really realize that either — and now that I fully understand that, I think I’m going to try to do it.” It was months after that, that I picked up and moved to LA. I was 22.
So, you wrote this forthcoming episode, “The Principal’s Office.” What can we expect from it?
The premise of this episode is that Gregory Eddie has a student who’s a little difficult. It’s not that the kid isn’t paying attention; he’s just not paying attention to what Gregory would like him to be paying attention to.
So, we’ve seen Gregory go on this journey of accepting that he wants to be a teacher and he wants to be a good teacher. A lot of what goes into being a good teacher is knowing what kind of teacher you are and what kind of teacher you want to be.
He comes to this crossroads where he has to decide: “Am I going to fall into this somewhat stereotypical image of Black male leadership, leaning into discipline and protecting this image of masculinity? Or am I going to try something else? Am I going to do something different than the way that I was raised?”
He’s coming to terms with the fact that maybe that wasn’t the best thing for him. Maybe the man he is isn’t directly because of that, and maybe he became this person that he’s proud of in spite of having to overcome a lot of discipline and strictness.
There’s also the storyline between [teachers] Janine and Melissa, which is a lot about how even when you’re not directly discussing family and how you were raised, it informs the person that you are and informs the way that you work with people. There’s a lot of discussion of “work family” and what that means at [Willard R. Abbott Public School]. So many people balk at that term, as many of the teachers do, because it’s something that’s coming down from corporations sort of as a means to maximize labor.
But what does it mean when you do have community care? What does that look like? What are the limits of it? They’re going to be exploring that just through the lens of [how] Janine’s mother never taught her how to cook and how that’s impacted her as an adult.
In what ways is this episode informed by your own lived experience?
Growing up, I was very much a rule follower. I stayed in line. It had something to do with the way that I was raised, and also has something to do with the situation in which I was raised in and outside entities telling me, “Hey, if you want to rise to the next socioeconomic level, you have to behave a certain way.” I think a lot of me becoming an adult was realizing that I should be the only one who sets rules for myself.
A lot of those times, those fall in line with sort of the prescribed social mores, but I trust myself enough to know what is right and what is wrong — and be able to determine that outside of someone telling me what that is. Now, I’m 34 and Gregory is 26. Doing that is part of growing up. It’s part of your 20s. I think 27, specifically, is such an age where I look at people and I go, “OK, either you’re figuring out that you have some work to do and you’ve started doing it, or you might be locked into being sort of a gross person.”
It’s nice to be with all these characters, right in that sweet spot, of identifying all of these things that made them who they are and having them make the decision in real time: “Do I want to be that person or do I not?”
What do you hope people glean from the episode, and are you writing anything else this upcoming season?
I hope what people are starting to glean from the series in general and I think, hopefully, specifically in the episodes that I write is that underlying principle of community care, looking at how people react to a failed system — all of the different ranges of the ways that people react to trauma being enacted by the systems in which they’re forced to operate in.
I think it also, hopefully, is making people think of its limits. It’s one thing to say, “We have each other’s back,” but it’s another thing to really reckon with how far can that get us before we have to change the thing that has created these conditions. Hopefully, that is what inspires people on an individual level.
I think that the show is really good at having people walk away with even small details about what it’s like to currently be a teacher — even things like the turnover and the amount of people that are leaving the profession. We talked about how the school doesn’t have a library; that’s a very real thing that’s happening in Philadelphia and across the nation.
It’s just little facts like that — once they add up, once you accumulate enough information, that’s sort of what springs people into action. Education and just knowing how bad things are, I think, is what is necessary throughout our entire country at the moment. What does it say about our values as a society when our systems look like this? We’re the richest country in the world, so it’s not an issue of money. It’s an issue of priorities.
Considering your involvement in local activism, was there ever a point at which you were nervous about whether you’d be able to get a job? Were you ever worried about being looked at as a troublemaker or blackballed in Hollywood?
More than anything, it informs how I think we as writers should be treated. People hate writers; people do not care about us at all. A lot of that comes across in the way that people will run writers rooms, but I think that we’re in such a unique position.
I have to say, I think initially I was nervous about speaking out about all the things that I speak about — from the way that I’ve been treated in the industry to Los Angeles and our sort of responsibility to the city as an industry that is comprised of a lot of people who had to move here. I think that means that we are more responsible to the city than even the people who grew up here, because we came here, we weren’t born here and we made a specific choice to come. It is 100% on us and our industry to ensure that the city is as safe as possible for everyone that is here and that we are contributing to the economy, the policies and the community in a way that makes it an OK place to be, especially with the amount of wealth that people in entertainment often have.
The fact that most of the people that work in entertainment are not rich — it’s the situation where the people that are put to the forefront, and the people that you hear about the most, are the richest people or the wealthiest people. But that is not the reality of most people that work in our industry. Most people are just middle class. If you look at our assistant wages, this is not even a living wage in Los Angeles.
I just try to be as loud as possible with the platform that I have about this stuff, because people just don’t know. Doing as much education as I can about every aspect of it is what I want to do, and I would be happy to be known as a troublemaker.
Following the Emmys, did y’all have an “Abbott Elementary” after-party — or a little school dance?
We went to the Disney after-party. [Disney owns ABC, which airs “Abbott Elementary” on Wednesday nights.] And credit to Quinta, and Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, because they made sure that everyone in the writers room and the support staff got to go, which is just simply not something that a lot of shows do. Our writers’ production assistant got to go to both the ceremony and the after-party.
We really worked it out so that we could enjoy it as a group and that everyone that participated in our department got to celebrate. We went to the Disney after-party. We kept talking about how we wanted people to dance because there was like a small dance floor and no one was ever dancing. Then, towards the end of the party, someone finally got the DJ to play a Beyoncé song. And then we all rushed to the dance floor.
So, what’s next for you after “Abbott Elementary,” and where do you see yourself going?
I am very happy with “Abbott,” so I don’t have any plans to leave at the moment. I enjoy having a job with good hours with a good message with good co-workers. I am just not in a rush. I’m not someone who wants to have 50 million projects in development at the same time. I have a TV show in development at Netflix, and I have a feature in development as well.