Comedy comes naturally to sitcom newcomer Chris Perfetti, who plays the lovable and slightly neurotic Mr. Jacob Hill on Abbott Elementary. Alongside Janine (Quinta Brunson) and substitute teacher Gregory (Tyler James Williams), Jacob rounds out the trio of public school teachers dedicated to Abbott despite its nonexistent budget and regular confrontations with the school’s veteran teachers. Unlike the nervous and insecure Jacob, Perfetti transitioned easily from a theater background to this collaborative comedy space filled with pros like Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter. After years of preparing himself for projects “not working out,” Perfetti tells Vulture he’s learning how to navigate the attention that comes with starring on a beloved breakout series.
Calling from Chicago, where he’s performing in the last few King James shows, Perfetti discusses reconnecting with his former teachers, doing his own stunts, and whether or not he’d beat Jacob in a game of poker.
When did you realize how special this show was?
The first time I read it. I have this litmus test when I’m approaching a new project. If it makes me laugh out loud, particularly in a public place, that’s a really good sign — and if it brings up jealousy when I picture somebody else doing the part. Abbott definitely passed both of those tests. I knew the show was brilliant way before I got to meet Quinta and audition with her.
Did you draw inspiration from the teachers in your life?
One of the things I knew about the show from the jump was the universality of it. We all went through school. We all have teachers who changed our lives. Grade school was a very mixed bag for me; I knew very early on that it was going to be something I would have to make work for me. I also knew that regurgitating facts didn’t interest me. There were resources and gold to be mined from certain teachers and mentors. I did have people who literally saved my life, people who reached out and were way too generous with me, who handed me Tennessee Williams plays and held me to very high standards and kicked open doors for me. I’ve been thinking about those two teachers in particular the whole time we’ve been working on Abbott.
Have any former teachers reached out to you since you were cast in the show?
Yes, I’ve been in close communication with one of them, which has been really groovy. Full circle.
Were there moments in the script that surprised you?
I’m continually learning things about Jacob. However many conversations I had with Quinta going into the show, Abbott is something being made in real time. There’s an entire room of writers, led by our brilliant executive producers, whose job it is to fantasize and dream up the thoughts and backstory of this person. As our show goes on, there’s more natural interest in who those people are outside of school. We’re learning that and it gets incorporated into the show.
“Desking” is inspired by local news hysteria over Tik Tok pranks — what was it like filming a stunt-heavy episode?
“Desking” is one of my favorite episodes. It’s just so goofy and so well done. I love that you referred to it as a “stunt heavy” — I guess for network TV, but you’ll be surprised to learn from a backstage perspective, it is not the most stunt-heavy episode we’ve had. And yes, there are a lot of stunts in Abbott.
Did you do the stunts yourself?
Our producers and director were slightly nervous about me attempting the desking and, I don’t know, falling to my death or something. We got many different versions of it, some in which I’m doing the desking, some in which I’m not. Our show is shot with many cameras all at once, so I don’t even know which version of it is going to appear until it airs. They’re trying to capture something that looks like it’s being done in the moment, like a real documentary.
Did you ever pull a prank while you were in school?
That I’m willing to talk to right now? No, no. [Laughs] I was part of a particularly rambunctious and insubordinate class. Props to the class of ‘07 at Webster Schrader. We got in a lot of trouble, but nothing too damning.
How do you navigate filming this show as a documentary? Are your camera angles choreographed or is it improvised?
For the most part, it’s not choreographed. It’s just a strange ballet we’re finding in the moment. We have really incredible camera operators and directors, most of whom have experience in documentary filmmaking, so it’s this beautiful alchemy between what is actually happening in the scene and which pieces of that our cameras want to capture. Usually the experience of watching myself on camera is nothing short of torturous for me, but I’ve actually been interested to watch Abbott because I want to see what they chose and how it came together.
I love the moment Gregory teaches Jacob about roasting. Do any of the kids come up with funny roasts?
There was a whole arsenal of roasts that did not make it. The kids are absolutely hilarious and knockout brilliant, especially my class, but no, we were not going to roll the dice and have them come up with their own roasts.
How do you and the cast maintain your composure during the funnier moments of filming?
It’s really hard, particularly for me. I’m somewhat of a nervous wreck on set. I spend a lot of time preparing and usually the experience of being on set is finding ways to make it more fun for me.
We’re walking into a situation where the kids don’t necessarily know we are actors in a TV show. A lot of them call me Mr. Hill. It’s gobsmackingly hilarious being there, but it’s so distracting because we’ve got the story in our mind, and then there’s a kid coming up to tell you that they were told that they would have a line that day, even though they actually weren’t. They’re so cute and funny.
Janine and Jacob are both eager to make friends with the more experienced teachers, but they still gravitate towards each other. Do you adjust your performance based on who you’re working with?
Quinta has crafted six very different characters and created an arena for comedy that when you put any combination of those people together, it’s an opportunity. The relationship, even just in the first season, between Jacob and each of the other main characters is very clear. He’s afraid of some of them and really reveres others and thinks he’s better than and can’t stand some of them. He behaves totally different depending on who he’s with in the room.
Is there any character you’d like to see Jacob team up with?
I really hope that Jacob and Ava can have some sort of reckoning or celebration or falling out. The two of them together is a recipe for something.
Jacob goes from not wanting to tell Janine about his personal life to bringing his boyfriend Zach as chaperone on the school field trip. How do you approach playing a more vulnerable Jacob?
Jacob was first described to me as the best friend or sibling everybody wishes they had. The qualities we see in him early on are his ferocious loyalty and how well intentioned he is, often to a fault. Jacob does a really good job, as most overachievers and nervous wrecks do, to cover up that vulnerability. Jacob in many ways thinks that he is a star in this documentary. He doesn’t really think he’s being vulnerable; that’s just who he is.
Do you know how to play poker?
I sure do.
If you, as Chris, had to play against Jacob, who do you think would win?
I’m incredibly confident that I would kick Jacob’s ass.