Ava Coleman ’11 on writing for Abbott Elementary, learning from Tina Fey, and putting aside her boy-band dreams.
On the spring episode of Lives That Speak, the Sidwell Friends podcast, head of school Bryan Garman sat down with Ava Coleman ’11, the former executive story editor and current writer for Abbott Elementary. The wildly popular ABC sitcom about an underfunded, predominantly Black Philadelphia school has won a slew of awards, including three Golden Globes, two Emmy Awards, and four Television Critics Association Awards. The show’s blend of empathy and humor have struck a chord with viewers and struck a blow for public education. During the podcast, Coleman discussed her quick rise in the entertainment industry, why she loves coming-of-age stories, and why the principal on Abbott is also named Ava Coleman.*
BRYAN GARMAN: What makes your work meaningful to you?
AVA COLEMAN: I am trying to figure out life through the stories that I tell. That’s what we do as writers. If you have a good outlook on life and just even a tiny bit of hope, that’s usually pretty contagious. Everything I write about is something that I’m confused about and I need help parsing. So, I’m taking all the things that happened to me at Sidwell, things in college, things in the workforce, and I’m plugging that into everything I work on. As a writer, you have so much time to empathize and to imagine how people feel, and that helps you in the real world under- stand why things shake out the way they do.
BG: What did you do at USC that prepared you for what you’re doing now?
AC: It’s interesting, I was on a totally different path. A big part of my personality at Sidwell was that I wanted to manage boy bands. That was my very narrow dream, very specific. It came from being a fangirl. I was a massive fan of these pop-punk bands like Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers. I wanted to create bands like that and bring them to girls like me. I became obsessed with [noted music executive] Scooter Braun in high school. I found him through being a Bieber fan and being a fan of the rapper Asher Roth. I ended up meeting Scooter while I was still in high school at Sidwell, and he told me, “You’re a kid, but if you ever grow up and move to LA, you should apply for an internship.” So that’s what got me to apply to USC. That’s what got me to LA. And by the end of my freshman year, I started working for him basically full-time throughout school while majoring in communications. So, screenwriting was not on the radar at all. And I went through a whole seven-year career that actually started at Sidwell with my senior project at 9:30 Club.
BG: How did you make the transition to writing?
AC: I spent about seven years working on Scooter Braun projects and did all the different roles at that company. While I was an executive assistant and still a senior at USC, I came up with the idea for the Bieber Comedy Central Roast, which was a way for the world to be reintroduced to Justin Bieber, but also to show him being able to poke fun at his past and take responsibility. Through that process, my boss let me be involved on all the calls, listen in, and help pick the people who would roast and be roasted. That was my first inkling, in 2015, that I might prefer the comedy, the writing, and the television aspect of this industry. But I was already starting to get my own clients as a manager. I wasn’t quite sure how to detangle myself from the music industry. So, I just kept going for four more years. Then, in 2019, my cousin Cara turned 30 and threw herself a birthday roast. She asked me to write and perform a five-minute set. I wrote it and had the most fun I’d had in years. I performed—and I killed! I quit my music job the next month to focus on writing full-time.
BG: What does the process of writing for television look like?
AC: We’re led by Quinta Brunson, and we have two showrunners. They will guide us on all the planning and logistics and what we need to get done. We can come in with just the creative ideas, just the spit-balling. We call it “blue-skying” at the beginning of the season, when we just are throwing ideas out there. And if it sticks, then we double down on that idea, see if we can put it into beats, into a three-act structure. Is there enough in this idea or problem to fill out an episode? But we also talk about it from the angle of: What does this character know? What do we want them to learn? Where do we think they should go?
We treat these characters like real people, and they feel very real to us. Each episode and each topic comes about a little bit differently, but we always start from that very human place of what’s real—and then, how can we make it a little silly? My personal favorite part of the process is thinking about voice and character development. That’s the part that comes naturally to me.
BG: What is it that you like about the character Barbara?
AC: I love Barbara because she’s lived a lot of life. She’s very comfortable with who she is, but she’s pushed by the young people around her to re-examine that. She’s very stubborn in a lot of ways. But she’s actually a lot more open than it seems at first glance. And she does learn a lot. She does admit to her mistakes, though it takes some time. It’s very interesting for me to write for someone of her generation, because that’s my parents’ generation. So, there are a lot of things that I work out through the character of Barbara. There’s so many differences between them and my generation—how we handle emotional issues. It’s been really fun to step into those shoes, because in some ways I feel like a very old soul. In other ways I feel like I haven’t changed at all since I was at Sidwell.
BG : The relationship between Barbara and Janine is very sweet. How did you conceive the arc of that relationship?
AC: It’s a very real thing that a lot of us have felt; that is, you have these members of your family who are not related to you by blood. You meet them in many different ways and places. Oftentimes, it’s not a perfect relationship. That’s what pulls me in toward Janine and Barbara so much: They do butt heads a lot, but they care about each other. You don’t really butt heads with people like that when you don’t care about them; that’s part of the bond. You can only get annoyed with someone that much when you love them, and you really want to see them do better. So that relationship has taken a lot of different turns, but the truth of it is that they are there for each other and they need each other.
BG: An interesting episode on Abbott Elementary is when Jacob teaches Black history. How did that come about?
AC: It’s about the intention behind what you’re doing. Jacob’s intentions are very good. So, to the naked eye, it’s interesting to see a white teacher teach a room full of Black students about their history, but that’s the reality of the situation. He’s their teacher. That’s what they need to learn. It was really interesting to show his self-awareness about it. He knows who he is. He knows that it’s kind of funny that he’s the one teaching them this, but he also takes that responsibility very seriously and is a good teacher. We’re also able to show he’s a very funny character, and he takes a lot of jokes at his expense. But what we do know about him and what that episode was able to remind our audience of is that he’s really good at this and that the school’s very lucky to have him. So, the parents can have some misconceptions, but the truth is he’s making a difference.
BG: How does the principal end up being named “Ava Coleman”?
AC: It’s a coincidence! I knew Quinta socially before the show, but not super well. Well enough that the name “Ava Coleman” sounded like a good name to her. Then when I ended up going out for the job, I’m reading the script at 6 a.m. and almost spit my coffee out, because I’m like, Okay, that’s not just my first or just my last name. That’s the whole thing. It ended up being very silly and funny, especially when I joined.
BG: What do you make of Ava?
AC: She’s very real. I love writing for her because I get to share these parts of myself that I would maybe keep a little quieter. I get to put those words in her mouth. And I love how Janelle James plays her. She’s definitely a complicated figure. She brings a lot of chaos but also joy to the school through her antics. I tend to root for her. She’s a really important presence.
BG: Why do you think this show is resonating so deeply with people right now?
AC: I joined in the second season, so I watched it as a fan. I felt how grounded it was. That’s part of what attracted me to it: It’s silly, but it’s real. It’s heartwarming, but it’s not spoon-fed to you. Lessons are learned. I love lessons. I love people hopefully being able to walk away having learned something or felt a new feeling or put the pieces to some puzzle together. But it’s always a fine line. You never want to be too heavy-handed with that. But Abbott is also funny, and people want to laugh. It’s a wide-ranging level of comedy and humor and different types of jokes. There are jokes in there for my mom, there are jokes in there for me, and there are jokes in there hopefully for Sidwell students.
BG: What are the lessons you want to convey through the show?
AC: The main thing that we’ve done, and that Quinta’s done so well, is show how important teachers are. That’s been really amazing for me to be a part of. Some of the writers have parents who were teachers or still are teachers, but where I’m coming from is: I was a student. So, it’s realizing, in retrospect, how important those figures are and how much they deserve. Obviously, they deserve to be paid and to live comfortably, but also that these are not your parents, but they do a lot of parenting. They’re incredibly important figures with rich inner lives. They bring a lot of stuff to school with them and still do their jobs. That’s the big lesson that we carry through every episode, and that’s part of the show’s DNA.
BG: Do you see dark humor as different from the type of humor you’re providing at Abbott Elementary, which is a kind of feel-good humor.
AC: We actually can veer into that lane on Abbott as well. The way that we talk about certain teachers who aren’t good, or the teachers who aren’t put- ting their best foot forward. We can do a bit of satire as well. But yes, there’s comedy that’s supposed to make you feel good, and there’s comedy that’s supposed to make you think. I don’t ever try to figure out what kind of comedy I’m writing when I’m writing it. If it’s the right fit for what we’re working on, then we keep it in. If not, we take it out.
BG: You’ve also done some work with Tina Fey.
AC: I learned so much from her. I worked on Girls5eva for the first two seasons. That was my first job in a writer’s room. I learned everything there. I learned how to be in a room. I learned how to contribute. I learned when to speak up, when to listen. But the main thing I learned was how to write jokes from some of the best in the business. And the way that team writes jokes is fast and furious. Every line is funny on their shows. I had to learn how to write as funny as possible. I got the crash course in comedy writing at a very, very high level. It was like I was thrown into the deep end, but with very supportive people. I just learned how to really, really write precisely and write funny. I’ve taken those lessons with me over to Abbott.
BG: What other projects might be on the horizon for you? What are you thinking about?
AC: I’m really interested in movies. I like the fact that they have endings, unlike shows, which you kind of have to think about very far into the future. I’ve written a project that’s based on my time at Sidwell— not necessarily about the academic part of Sidwell, but very much based on how I felt as a teenager. I’m really interested in investigating those adolescent feelings, and anything coming-of-age is very interesting to me. There are characters from my time at Sidwell that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here, but are still very relevant to my life because of what we experienced together and what they taught me. I’m very interested in those teen comedies that make funny situations out of growing pains. I enjoyed high school a lot. I like going back. I like thinking about it. I also love romantic comedies. I’m working on some stuff in that arena that tries to answer a lot of questions about what it’s like being an almost 30-year-old woman at this time in the world.
BG : What would you tell your 18-year-old self?
AC: I would remind my 18-year-old self that life is not a race. I would say, “Definitely take time to be a kid.” I started working at the end of my fresh- man year of college and spending a lot more time there than at school. Especially coming out of a place like Sidwell where success is a given, that’s just what you’re supposed to aim for. You try to rush toward that. I would tell myself: “It’ll come. It’ll happen on its own time. Don’t force it. You don’t have to compete with other people. It’s really your life and you’re in control.” That would’ve been a really good lesson.
BG: Do you have any dreams you plan to pursue other than screenwriting?
AC: I guess my dream would be to be open to anything and go whatever ways life takes me. I like being flexible. Switching careers in my mid-20s taught me that you can change your life whenever you want.
*The podcast was recorded on April 17, before the start of the Hollywood writers’ strike.
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