Writer Joya McCrory Talks Her Work on ‘Abbott Elementary’

Meet Detroit native Joya McCrory, a member of the award-winning writing team at ’Abbott Elementary.’
McCrory — who grew up on Detroit’s west side and attended the University of Michigan — achieved Hollywood success through a lot of hard work, talent, and resourcefulness, including checking out books from the library. // Portrait by Emanuel Hahn

Tales of would-be starlets heading to Los Angeles in droves in the hopes of making it big on the screen have been the narrative since the Hollywood era of moviemaking began. But in recent years, that narrative has expanded to include the many writers who also pack up and head west with the same moxie — albeit off the screen.

Count Detroit native Joya McCrory among the masses. McCrory is in the writers’ room (that’s Hollywood-speak for being a staff writer on a television series) of Abbott Elementary, the hit ABC sitcom that just wrapped its second season.

When exactly viewers will see a third season of the Quinta Brunson-led mockumentary that follows the ups and downs of Philadelphia teachers’ lives is unknown; you may have noticed that, as of press time, both writers — McCrory included — and actors are on strike, and no one can talk much about existing or future projects until the picketing comes to a halt.

What McCrory can talk about is how she got there. Reared on Detroit’s west side, she originally pursued a career in entertainment journalism but was matriculating at the University of Michigan while the economy slumped in the early 2010s.

“There weren’t a lot of journalism jobs,” she says. “And I interned at the Metro Times. But then I realized I didn’t want to be a journalist at all.”

So she checked out books from the library on screenwriting and soaked up the process. She browsed how-to’s on the internet and eventually wrote her first short screenplay. That short earned her a spot in a graduate certificate program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

She packed up and left Detroit for the coast; she hadn’t been since high school.
McCrory is part of a class of millennial writers from the area who got their start locally, including Saturday Night Live writer Alex English (“He’s someone I know from online, when we all had blogs back in the day,” McCrory notes) and Chris “Comedian CP” Powell, who parlayed skits about the city into a job writing and appearing on Comedy Central’s beloved Detroiters, among other projects.

Making it in Hollywood rarely happens without grunt work. “When I first moved out here, I did unpaid internships at production companies … just to kind of get my foot in the door. I did not want to take the assistant route because I just heard how awful the hours were and how low the pay was.”

McCrory ended up giving tours of the Paramount Pictures studios, which was a pipeline to other jobs within the company. She landed one in human resources and only planned for a short tenure, but seven years passed without a writing gig.

“I didn’t move to LA to work in HR,” she says. So, she applied for a Disney fellowship, making it to the semifinals. It was enough of a confidence boost to lead her to apply for a Warner Bros. writing workshop, into which she was accepted. Following the workshop, writers there are given opportunities to write for a show produced at the Warner Bros. studio. McCrory landed at Abbott, which had just entered development at the time.

Already making buzz,the show instantly became notable as a milestone series developed and written by a Black woman. Behind the scenes, Brunson made sure other Black women were included in the process.

“One of the things I really value with [Insecure creator] Issa Rae and Quinta is that I think they have really made it a point to make projects where Black people are just existing and they don’t have to be superheroes or anything above and beyond,” McCrory says. “I think my writing really falls in that lane.”

That McCrory’s skills have been a perfect match for Brunson’s show is evident. Last fall, the Abbott writers took home the Emmy for outstanding writing for a comedy series, and this year, they were nominated for Writers Guild Awards for comedy series and new series.

McCrory has eyes on one day creating her own show and getting more on the production side. And her job is tough — “I love writing, but writing kind of sucks sometimes,” she says with a laugh. (Any writer will tell you the same.) But although it’s almost mandatory to wear many hats in Hollywood, McCrory does not want to be a multihyphenate.

“I’m happy writing and producing. That’s kind of my dream,” she says.

This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.