For 'Abbott Elementary's' Chris Perfetti, 'tragic circumstances' are comedy gold

Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — "I'm so excited for this!" Chris Perfetti says as he approaches the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Our greeting is drowned out by a cacophony of nearby construction and clusters of energetic children on field trips shuffling down the pathway — in the distance, a row of yellow school buses that snake the perimeter stand guard.

Perfetti, in monochromatic black sweats, T-shirt and baseball cap, is just four steps into the rotunda, under the shadow of the museum's famous Three Graces statue by Julia Bracken Wendt, when he is recognized.

"Excuse me, are you Chris Perfetti ... from 'Abbott Elementary'?" a student from Lawndale High School asks bashfully.

"Yeah," Perfetti says with a smile.

"Oh, wow! I love that show," the teenager says, sharing an enthusiastic look with his classmate. "Our AP bio class is here on a field trip. We're seniors in high school. I'm sorry to bother you. This is just so cool."

"I was in AP bio for about a month," Perfetti says. "Congratulations. You're so close to graduating. Just a couple of months to go. Stay motivated."


The scenario playing out in real life is something Perfetti's "Abbott Elementary" character, the lovably corny, socially awkward history teacher Jacob Hill, would definitely freak out over. Teenagers thinking he's cool? He'd run to the teacher's lounge to broadcast the news.

Created by Quinta Brunson, the mockumentary comedy follows a group of teachers trying to give their students the education they deserve at an underfunded primary school in West Philadelphia. The series features an ensemble cast — Brunson, Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, Lisa Ann Walter, William Stanford Davis and Sheryl Lee Ralph — in which every member delivers scene-stealing laughs. But Perfetti, who had performed mostly onstage in New York and in small roles on TV before being cast on the sitcom, has held his own — making Jacob, "Abbott's" equally sincere and absurd white liberal do-gooder, a fan favorite and meme king. During the show's post-Oscars episode last month, for example, which looked at whether the school's namesake was racist, Perfetti delivers a master class in instant GIF-ication, passionately shouting at one of Abbott's descendants, "Where were you on Jan. 6?!"

But it doesn't stop there. The casual disclosure of Jacob's idiosyncrasies across three seasons has brought hilarious depth to what could easily be a mere caricature of a well-intentioned ally. He's not the biggest fan of Chris Pratt. He admits to having applied to Morehouse, a historically Black college. He suspects his gluten intolerance is internalized white guilt. He listens to podcasts at triple speed when he isn't hosting his own, "The Abbott Life." He's an avid viewer of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." He is awkward and overeager to please, but also a phenomenal friend with a heart of gold. And a good teacher.

"It was easy to make Jacob annoying without any heart or ground to stand on, but in his audition, Chris really brought more heart to the character and warmth and honesty, which, to me, was more important than being funny and nailing the jokes," Brunson says.


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