If you Google Janelle James, the first thing that comes up is that she got her big break from Chris Rock. Wrong!
Rock did hire her as a comedian on his 2017 “Total Blackout Tour,” but James says that’s as far as it goes. “He’s done a lot,” she says, carefully choosing words to describe someone who is credited too frequently for her rise. “He’s done enough for me. He didn’t make my career or anything.” She adds, “I was never close with Chris Rock. We went on tour together, and then I didn’t speak to him after that.”
And of course, she followed what happened to him at the Oscars, but hasn’t watched his Netflix special. She doesn’t want to be cornered into talking about him or the slap in interviews like this one. “I want to truthfully be like, ‘I ain’t seen it. No opinion!’ I don’t want to be involved.”
James has more important things to talk about on this day. She’s become a hot commodity in the industry with her Emmy-nominated breakout role on “Abbott Elementary,” the hottest sitcom on network TV. Her inept Principal Ava Coleman makes an average of 3.3 million viewers a week laugh on the mockumentary show created by and starring Quinta Brunson. The ABC series, which debuted in December 2021, has landed every award in town — from the Emmys to the Golden Globes — and it’s made the entire cast (from Sheryl Lee Ralph to Lisa Ann Walter to Tyler James Williams) sitcom famous.
In Season 2, James’ story arc has only expanded, making her character a fan favorite, despite being selfish and rude. “It’s not easy to play an unlikable character and still win the audience over,” says Brunson. “In the first season, there were a lot of people who weren’t on board with Ava, but her performance brought people in.”
James’ wit and timing comes from self-taught training as a writer. She’s worked in the writers’ rooms of “The Rundown With Robin Thede” and “Black Monday” and pens her own material for her current tour, “Newly Famous.” She also wrote for Hulu’s “History of the World: Part II,” participating in that gig over Zoom.
It’s been quite the happy adjustment for James, who five years ago was living in the backroom of a bike shop. Now, her face is on the side of buses and on billboards — something that still surprises her. She has executives gushing over her, which also feels like an out-of-body experience.
Warner Bros. TV chairman Channing Dungey says, “She expertly walks the tightrope between hilarity and incompetence, delivering each line with precision and wit.” And Disney TV Group president Craig Erwich enthuses, “She continues to show the world that her talent knows no bounds. It has been incredible to witness her star power rise.”
James prefers her privacy, which is why she’s meeting me for breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. In her words, “Truly wealthy people don’t watch TV.” Plus, she has a new disguise: While on hiatus, she’s been able to take a break from Principal Ava’s many wigs and for the first time has shaved her head.
But there’s something else that goes unsaid. “Abbott Elementary” is a Black show created by a Black showrunner that’s penetrated the cultural discourse. Remarkably, this is still a rare thing in 2023. Looking ahead to the Emmys, many are predicting that “Abbott” will sweep the comedy categories. But it probably won’t be competing against too many other Black shows. “Atlanta” is ending, and the other comedy front-runners are expected to be “Ted Lasso” and “Only Murders in the Building” — shows that don’t feature prominent roles for Black actors. Not only is the cast of “Abbott” diverse, but the 10-person writers’ room is too — something that’s crucial to the show’s success.
“It makes things more natural to have people who get how a Black woman would speak,” says James. “You have to know a person like Ava to be able to write for her. And if they don’t know someone like her — because we do have white writers — it’s good to have a Black person in charge, so when I say, ‘Ava would never say this,’ I’m listened to.” She adds, “There’s some places where it will be a white person telling you that they can write for Black people better than you can. That’s wild! But the diversity of our writers’ room gives the show its authenticity, and we come off as real people.”
James, who declines to disclose her age, isn’t first-name famous like Oprah or Denzel. But she also doesn’t seem to be seeking that out. She’s spent her whole life putting her craft and her skills ahead of her affable, contagiously warm personality. The few biographical details that she volunteers are, indeed, things you can find on Google about her. She lives in Los Angeles and grew up on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Starting at age 7, she worked on her dad’s food truck, running up and down the beach to sell Coronas to the fancy tourists on vacation. She has two sons — one who is 20, the other whose age she’s not revealing. She doesn’t see the point of sharing that.
“I’m grown. I have a 20-year-old son. I’m not ashamed of my age or anything like that. But for women — and everybody knows it and acts like they don’t — it gives an idea of what you are in people’s heads,” she says.
As soon as people in the industry learn that James is a mother of two, they assume she’s a “mom comic.” “That’s not my jam,” she says. “People have this idea of motherhood, the same way they have an idea of women as we reach a certain age. Each age group, people have an idea in your head of what it is. I don’t want that to prevent me from doing anything, because I can do everything.”
James has always had that mentality. During high school, she moved to Maryland with her mom, then headed to New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology — she’d watched “Project Runway” and thought it looked fun. But it wasn’t so fabulous. “Everyone who seemed to be going on to better things was already in the business, their parents were in the business, or they already had money. I was broke as hell.”
She kept taking odd jobs. She started a company called the Joy of Not Cooking, delivering food to startups; she worked as a humidor, carrying a case of cigars at Scores strip club; she helped organize parties for designers at a fashion PR firm. “I was just making money,” she shrugs. “That’s what New York was about.”
But she wasn’t making much. In fact, she lied to her mom and said she had an apartment when she went to college. “I was crashing with this dude and then other people I met. It was very dangerous,” James says. The people she stayed with included a couple she met in high school while standing in line for 12 hours for MTV’s “Wanna Be a VJ.” “It was freezing out, but in that line, I made so many friends,” she says. “I’m still friends with some of them now.”
Eventually, James left FIT. She fell in love, got married and started a family. Her then-husband — a teacher — got into school in the Midwest, so the family moved to Champaign, Ill. While there, she put all her focus on raising her sons. “I was kind of floating in space, not knowing what I was doing with myself. I had left all my friends,” she says. “My relationship fell apart there.”
While grocery shopping one day, she was handed a flyer for an open mic night. Out of boredom, she went and sat in the audience. “It was all these white boys doing their 10 minutes, and I was having a good time,” she says.
They loved her laugh and energy, so they invited her back. “The Midwest was new for me,” she says. “White people were new for me. Seeing white boys and talking to them like that, it was a new experience for me. And I love new experiences.”
She didn’t know what these men meant when they eventually offered her “time.” When they explained she could have four minutes on the mic with her own material, she got right to work on writing. “I remember the first laugh I got. In my head, I was like, ‘Oh, this is it. This is what I’m doing now,’” James recalls. “I was in it then.”
With that, she started meeting comedians, spending every weekend at her home base, Jukebox Comedy Club in Peoria, Ill., where she was “a big fish in a small pond.” Famous comedians passed through, and eventually she met Todd Barry, which led to getting to know comedians in the alt scene, including Eugene Mirman, Jenny Slate and Kumail Nanjiani.
But she wasn’t making a consistent enough salary to move full time to New York, so she went back and forth for three years. Luckily, those interpersonal skills paid off — she had a friend who owned that bike shop, where she slept four nights a week. “There was an air mattress and a rat. I would wake up and get out before the store opened. I’d just walk around all day with my stuff until I did shows and then I’d go back to sleep,” James says.
Then she received the call from Rock. That (and her first real paycheck) led to her first writing job on “The Rundown With Robin Thede.” After one season, she landed a staff writer job on Showtime’s 2019 comedy series “Black Monday,” which starred Don Cheadle as an ’80s stockbroker. Then, in 2020, she was sent a script for a new sitcom.
“Abbott Elementary” made her laugh out loud. It also made her feel. Brunson’s pilot, which focused on teachers at a Philadelphia public school, was good. Despite the fact that James wasn’t looking for acting work and didn’t like auditioning, her agents convinced her to send in a self-tape. It was one of two she sent that entire year.
Afterward, she went on Twitter to DM Brunson, whom she’d met once. Brunson knew her as a comedian but not an actor, and was excited to see the tape. In less than a minute, Brunson knew she’d found her Ava. “It was just perfect. It was just exactly what I was looking for,” Brunson recalls. “You couldn’t get me off the Janelle train. Once I saw her, it was case closed.”
The lack of acting experience didn’t matter, Brunson says, because James understood how both terrible and loving Ava could be. And James could see herself as Ava — especially because the character description didn’t include a specific word she was continuously seeing in scripts: “sexy.”
“If I see it, I’m like, ‘Fuck, I have to diet for this? I don’t want to do that.’ That turns me off. And I don’t want to maintain that,” she says.
During our conversation, we order breakfast — and we don’t hesitate to pile up our table with carbs. “I’ll only diet for a Marvel movie,” James declares. ”I will give up bacon and waffles to be Storm.”
She’s not kidding: She’d love to play the “X-Men” character, so much so that the “Abbott” writers dressed Ava up as Storm for the Halloween episode. She’s determined to manifest landing that role — and until then, she won’t be dieting. She lost about 15 pounds between seasons 1 and 2 of “Abbott,” simply because the first season was filmed right after quarantine, when she’d been “eating Cheez-Its for the whole year.”
“Now I’m seeing all these people like, ‘Oh, Janelle is hot!’ So now I’ve gotta maintain that! I really do. I was like, I should have never lost this weight. Now that’s what people expect from me,” she says. “I just want to be funny and do things! Being hot is work — that’s another job.”
She’s found a healthy way to stay in shape now. In the middle of the night, she runs on a treadmill and screams — yes, she really does. She doesn’t want to ever starve herself. “That’s not fun. My body would be like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Not because I’m against being hot; I just know myself, and that won’t make me happy.”
Confidence radiates off James in any environment — and that didn’t just come with the fame of “Abbott.” It’s been there for decades. She can’t pinpoint where it comes from but knows its importance.
“There’re so many men walking around with confidence that’s unearned. If women do the same, they’re monsters,” she says. “I’m confident in my abilities, confident that I’m funnier than most people. That’s not even my ego, that’s years in the game. I did the work, have the respect of others. And not only others, but men. Once a man says you’re funny, that’s all it takes — which sucks. But you need the respect of men because they are who’re at the top of this profession. You need that co-sign. So nobody can take that away from me. All I have in this shit is respect and admiration for people who’ve done it already.”
She’s dealt with sexual harassment and verbal insults throughout her stand-up career but has always taken it in stride — and she won’t get into specifics. “I just keep moving, like most women.”
Plus, comedians have been looked at more closely in the past few years as the world continues to change. Dave Chappelle, whom she admired when growing up, recently made headlines for offensive jokes about transgender people. But that’s not the only reason she prefers old Chappelle to new.
“The last thing I watched of his was when he came out with all the specials at once. Regardless of what he said, I thought it was boring. I like silly Chappelle. He’s in his wisdom bag now,” she says. “We’re clowns! Once we forget that we’re clowns, then it becomes bad. Your objective is to make people laugh and then sneak your thoughts in underneath the jokes. If your thoughts are on top, that’s not funny or entertaining to me.”
This year, James added “host” to her résumé. She took a gig emceeing the WGA Awards solely to schmooze with Mike White. Like many, she’d love to be a part of “The White Lotus” in the future. “I want people to see me outside of the character of Ava. I am not Ava; I am acting. I’m not ashamed to be Ava, but when people say, ‘You’re just like your character,’ that’s an insult,” she says. “I’m doing a lot of work to bring this bitch to life.”
She’s doing so much work, that she’s turned down some big offers (none of which she’ll reveal in case she wants to circle back). “I turn down so much shit. I could be so much richer than I am right now,” she says. “I only do what I want.”
Now, two seasons into “Abbott Elementary,” she still doesn’t consider herself wealthy. But, she proudly notes, she has a great credit score and is debt-free. “I bought my mom an expensive blender, not a house,” she says of her success. “A plus of coming into money later in life outside my 20s is I’m not a dumbass with it.”
When “Abbott” was picked up for a second season and James had to move to Los Angeles permanently, she realized she needed to buy a new car. She planned on a top-of-the-line Mazda until co-star Tyler James Williams chimed in. “Tyler was like, ‘No, bitch. You cannot pull up Season 2 in a Mazda,’” she says. He took her to a few high-end dealerships, and she settled on a BMW. It’s the vehicle she arrives in — not flashy at all, but flashier than a Mazda.
Other than that, she spends her money on comfort — nice sheets, a cozy bathrobe and a good massage. Mostly, she enjoys the only free entertainment in life: laughing and sex. “What else do you have that don’t cost nothing?”
James knows that in this industry, things could change in a minute. She also knows ”Abbott Elementary” won’t last for an eternity — and shouldn’t. “Quinta has mad shit to do. She’s not gonna want this to go forever. That’s what I’m hoping,” she says. “I don’t know what ABC wants, but I’m confident that she is smart enough and prolific enough that she’s going to want to do other projects.”
If the network did want “Abbott” to continue for many more seasons, James could see a scenario where the staff of the school would change. Maybe Ava gets fired? “I think that’d be better than a redemption arc where she becomes a good person all of a sudden,” she says. “That’s when I quit.”
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