How ‘Abbott Elementary’ and ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ Use the Camera to Let Us in on the Joke

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There’s a wonderful variety of comedies on TV. But whenever a show needs to be funny, there’s an opportunity for the camera to get involved in the telling of the joke. Whether it comes down to blocking and composition, movement, or shot scale, the camera can bring out an additional layer of humor and help inform the way we laugh at a series. IndieWire spoke to directors Randall Einhorn and Jody Hill about the ways in which their work,  respectively, helps creates the context for genuinely warm humor on “Abbott Elementary” and the rich ridiculousness of “The Righteous Gemstones.”

Mockumentary, where the camera tries to approximate “finding” joke moments in real time through camera movements, zooms, in-camera adjusts, and interaction with the actors, is one of the more obvious models of visual comedy. But according to Einhorn, it’s really a means to embed the viewer with the characters and draw us in closer to them, even if the camera is emphasizing a weird tic like Greg’s (Tyler James Williams) pizza order or a ridiculous moment like Janine (Quinta Brunson) attempting the ultimate “desking” obstacle course.

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“Mockumentary tools are just another way of augmenting and really honing in on the comedy, seeing somebody feel nervous or feel caught or feel like they shouldn’t have said something,” Einhorn said. “Being able to lean on them with a camera is what makes their uncomfortable feelings even funnier.” The important context the camera adds is the seeing. The viewer feels clever and entertained because we’re catching something through the camera’s eye; and the viewer also feels closer to the characters, since the camera is emphasizing the pure intention or reaction, almost as a another scene partner, to make a moment funny.

“Abbott Elementary” - Credit: ABC
“Abbott Elementary” - Credit: ABC

ABC

But shows achieve wide tonal variation even within mockumentary as a style and part of what makes “Abbott Elementary” distinct — even within the set of mockumentary sitcoms shot by Einhorn, notably “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” — is its camera’s attitude toward the teachers at Abbott. We get a few “Jim stares,” where a character looks incredulous directly into camera, and the show will often catch a character, usually Janine, somehow undercutting whatever they’re trying to convey in in a talking head moment. Einhorn and the show’s team are using the camera to do a lot more than highlight and tear down moments of pretension. The way the camera on “Abbott Elementary” specifically strings together moments of community or breakthrough moments with the students is how the show captures the magic of teaching.

“I wanted this to look more elegant and the characters to look more like heroes than paper salesman, because I believe that the teachers are heroes and I think that I wanted to make them look good, even if these are actors looking like teachers,” Einhorn said. “Somebody should be telling a story about teachers in underfunded inner-city schools. And so therefore I think a documentary is warranted.” And there is something empowering about placing characters in this particular situation, having a camera’s eye turned onto work that is undervalued, important, and, at the same time, the foundation for extreme shenanigans and emergent TikTok memes.

The opposite approach is at work in “The Righteous Gemstones,” whose characters could not be smaller or pettier, placed though they are on the giant stage of a South Carolina megachurch. The tricky line the show walks successfully is keeping its humor focused squarely on the characters’ misplaced grandiosity as opposed to making religious belief the butt of the joke. So for director Jody Hill, comedy comes from the camera emphasizing a sense of scale. “We try to never think of it as we’re shooting a comedy. We try to always shoot it like a serious drama or some movie from the ’70s that we liked,” Hill said.

“The Righteous Gemstones” - Credit: Ryan Green/HBO
“The Righteous Gemstones” - Credit: Ryan Green/HBO

Ryan Green/HBO

The disconnect between how the characters behave and how Hill’s camera treats the world around them is where a lot of the show’s comedy comes from. Jesse (Danny McBride) and Amber (Cassidy Freeman) thinking they’re evangelical Michael Corleones is what makes their venal grasping for status through a financial partnership with the Lissons in Season 2 so ridiculous. The fact that Kelvin (Adam DeVine) cannot see how the look he’s chosen for his “God Squad” panders to both the male gaze and the male gays compromises how seriously he want to be taken.

A huge part of treating the world seriously, for Hill, is getting the services at the Gemstone Salvation Center right. The lights, music, and stagework need to look genuinely entertaining for the Gemstones to believably have the resources and community position they continually fritter away on personal schemes. Having collaborated with McBride on two previous HBO series — “Eastbound & Down” and “Vice Principals” — Hill said “The Righteous Gemstones” marks “one of the first times where we got to really build elaborate sets and have everything color-coordinated between the wardrobe and the background sets and that sort of thing.”

“It really does give everything a cool, distinct look, I think,” he said. “[I’ve learned to take advantage of] the production design and the costumes, how much they really inform the look of the show and just the whole tone.”

A great example of the ways in which Hill can use costume, lighting, and staging to thread the needle between the Gemstones’ ministry and the Gemstones as a shambolic family is a small sequence where BJ (Tim Baltz), who’s now joined the church, gets invited up on stage with a number of other “new believers.” Hill captures a number of perspectives in the scene: Eli (John Goodman), who’s leading the proceedings; Judy (Edi Patterson), whose stage persona breaks a little bit into her immature self so she can get close to BJ; Junior (Eric Roberts) who’s enthusiastically entertained; Gideon (Skyler Gisondo) who’s helping control the technical side of the show with calm wholesomeness. But when the camera is on BJ’s perspective, Hill slows time down slightly, keeping Baltz bathed in a spotlight that makes the silver-gray of his suit shimmer and his skin almost glow. There’s an undeniable power to that moment we experience alongside one of the show’s silliest characters.

“There were so many times where I would read something and I would be sort of overwhelmed by how big it is,” Hill said. “It’s very easy to get caught up in that and go, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to shoot this from a thousand different angles.’ Anytime I did that, it wasn’t good. But whenever I was focused on whose story is whose, whose eyes the scene is being told through, then I was able to make things that were so massive make sense.”

“The Righteous Gemstones” - Credit: Ryan Green / HBO
“The Righteous Gemstones” - Credit: Ryan Green / HBO

Ryan Green / HBO

Hill said that the key to the show’s look and tone is always influenced by “The Godfather.” The show is simply a version of the Corleone family saga that continually undermines its heroes’ attempts at maintaining power, keeping their enemies close, and their dinner rolls closer. In the same episode that contain’s BJ’s big on-stage moment, the three Gemstone children arrive at the Airbnb of New York reporter Thaniel Block (Jason Schwartzman) — a set full of wood-paneling and dark green accents that would make Gordon Willis proud — and encounter a corpse, shot right through the head. Hill’s camera covers the shadowy sections of the cabin with the smooth, unsettling precision of a thriller, and doesn’t chance his approach when the kids panic, trip ass over tea kettle, and accidentally find themselves covered in blood.

“We never think like, ‘Oh, this needs to look funny’ or ‘These things need to look funny,'” Hill said. ” We always just try to get the accuracy of the character, like what their take on it is.”

“Abbott Elementary” also uses its camera to get at the accuracy — often the intimacy shared just with the camera — of a character. But for Einhorn, it’s also a more unifying force, powering the show’s admiration for teachers, however ridiculous they and their circumstances sometimes are. “There is that fluidity to our show that I think is makes it [have a] beautiful feel,” Einhorn said. “Sheryl Lee [Ralph, who plays Barbara], when we were shooting the pilot, [she] was like, ‘This is like jazz! We’re just doing it, you know?’ And it was. It feels like jazz.”

“Abbott Elementary” - Credit: ABC
“Abbott Elementary” - Credit: ABC

ABC

Einhorn cited one of his favorite examples of how the camera treats the show like jazz, from an episode directed by his longtime assistant director, Shahrzad Davani. In the climactic performance of “Step Class,” the camera doesn’t stop on just one character’s reaction — it works to unite characters within the same shot, or plays off reactions in sequence. When the camera finds Gregory, he’s looking at something out of frame; it then zooms out to indicate Janine as the object of his gaze, then returns to Gregory. And even though he’d have no way of actually knowing what was in the viewfinder, this feels like a line of dialogue that puts Gregory on the spot for his feelings about Janine.

“How the camera hands-off to this and hands-off to that and hands-off to here and, boom, over here, it just felt fluid and it was just so beautifully done,” Einhorn said.

The more complex choreography is actually part of what helps the teachers of Abbott seem more heroic than their counterparts at Dunder-Mifflin. Einhorn and his collaborators finds ways to create complex compositions for a show that mostly takes place in classrooms, break rooms, and hallways, making Abbott come alive as a setting. Different rooms get different levels of privacy, as the camera always feels fully inside the faculty lounge but often chooses to peer around doors and through windows across halls, almost like a student catching the teachers in a moment of privacy.

The show delivers payoff with camera positioning, too. The ending of “Step Class,” for instance, is wonderfully balanced between principal Ava (Janelle James) and Janine, who do a little step-off with each other in a stray down moment, and then come together in the same shot — just as they’ve pulled together as a team over the course of the episode. Einhorn found that to be another example of how “Abbott Elementary” makes jazz inside the mockumentary structure. “We actually improv’d the tag. It was a scripted tag. And [we went] like, ‘Let me try something, let me try a different thing.’ And it was just the two of them. They came in together and they just dance together [into that] final frame and then they leave? That was really rewarding.”

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