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7 Quick Questions for Lisa Ann Walter

Actress shines as street-smart ‘Abbott Elementary’ teacher Melissa Schemmenti

spinner image lisa ann walter against green ombre background
Photo Collage: MOA Staff; (Source: Pamela Littky/Disney)

“Life is hard. So to make people laugh, it’s a gift. God gave it to me. I am so happy to be able to share it,” says actress and comedian Lisa Ann Walter, who stars as Philadelphia public school teacher Melissa Schemmenti in the Emmy-winning ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary. Walter, 60, shares how her father inspired her show business career, how she won Celebrity Jeopardy! thanks to her mother, and the middle school teacher who she remembers as “wise and wonderful.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Abbott Elementary highlights the important work teachers do every day. Was there one teacher who inspired you to learn?

The teacher who inspired me was my advanced English teacher in middle school, Mrs. Freddye Davy. And she took education very seriously. She was very much like [Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Abbott character] Barbara Howard. I was at Takoma Park Junior High [in Maryland]. There were times when we were reading Shakespeare, and we were doing all of this very advanced [learning] in seventh grade, and when I would speak out, she would say, “If you know the subject, Miss Walter, come and teach it.” And then she would hand me the [lesson], and I was on my own to discuss dangling participles or whatever it was she was teaching. She was brilliant. She was so wise and wonderful. Every time Sheryl does the character of Barbara [and] goes into the Barbara voice, it reminds me of Miss Davy.

spinner image lisa ann walter as melissa schemmenti in a still from abbott elementary
Walter stars alongside Sheryl Lee Ralph in the hit ABC show “Abbott Elementary.”
Gilles Mingasson/Disney

What kind of student were you in school?

I was a class clown, and I ran my mouth. Here’s the truth: [It’s] because I started reading at [age] 3, and I was so ahead [of my classmates that] by the time I got to kindergarten I was reading at a fourth-grade level. And so what [my classmates] were doing — learning letters — was boring. And I did not like to be bored — I always liked to be doing. My kindergarten teacher used to send me to the upper classes — like first grade — to read to them. My mother didn’t want me to [skip grade levels] because … she was a teacher, so I guess she was thinking kids who skip sometimes are too young emotionally to be in the upper grades. But I probably should have [been placed in a higher grade level], because I did have teachers that did not like [me] trying to help other kids with their work [or] trying to make them laugh. I would get sent out of the classroom or made to face the corner in front of the classroom and stand there.

Speaking of smarts, congratulations on winning last year’s Celebrity Jeopardy! tournament. I read that you and your mom used to watch the show together. Was that good practice?

[My mom] loved reading, learning [and] discovering new things. We would listen to talk radio in the car, and she would start explaining what it was they were talking about and what it referenced in history, and what I should know about that subject. I was paying rapt attention — it all sounded like a story to me — and I think learning to love these little tidbits and trivia, for whatever reason, I just held on to it. We used to watch old movies together. She grew up in New York in the ’50s. She saw all the Broadway shows and went to all the movies. … I learned a lot just listening to her. As she got older, Jeopardy! was the show that was challenging for her. … She was sharp as a tack. She knew most of the answers.

Who inspired your show business pursuits?

My father was a singer. He was training at Carnegie Hall and he was very good. He sang my whole life. That’s what inspired me — he was doing shows. He taught me piano and I learned harmonizing and singing and really humor from my dad. He was the one that let me stay up late to watch [Rowan & Martin’s] Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers [Comedy Hour] and [The] Carol Burnett [Show]. … There weren’t very many female comics on TV back then … so watching Laugh-In made me think, Oh, you could be a funny woman and do this for a living.

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You’re still working as a stand-up comedian. When did you realize you were funny?

Very early. I was a chubby kid when I was little. I got teased mercilessly. And so I learned to make the joke first to be liked and to not be hurt. When I really knew that I could do [comedy] was — I had the George Carlin [comedy] albums, I had the Richard Pryor albums. I don’t think my mother knew what was on those albums, but I knew all of Richard Pryor’s routines. My parents had just divorced. My dad had left [and] my mom was heartbroken. She was in a really bad place. And I told a dirty joke — and my mother’s a Catholic lady, I never heard her curse. She laughed when I told a joke with a curse word in it. And I thought, Oh, I’ve got license. If I can make [people] laugh, I can get away with anything. And that’s what I learned: You can be dirty as long as you’re funny.

Do you ever get anxious about performing?

I always get scared right before I go on stage, and sometimes even before I start a scene on Abbott. [The show] is like being in a repertory company with the same people week after week, and then we have guest stars. So it’s very much like theater, which is what I did first before I ever did stand-up.

How do you keep up your energy level as a comedian as well as during your busy Abbott filming schedule?

I love what I do, so that makes it easy. … But energy wise, I don’t drink. And, at least right now, I am trying to eat correctly. I eat a lot of vegetables and good food. I don’t take a lot of medication. I’m lucky in that way, that I really only take one little blood pressure pill, and that’s it.

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