When Quinta Brunson was working at an LA Apple Store 10 years ago, a customer came in complaining that her tablet screen wasn’t working. The swipe function was broken, she said. But when Brunson tried it, it was fine. “No,” the woman, clad head-to-toe in pink, said. “My dog’s paw isn’t working on it.” Apparently, Rover was having some trouble using his favorite app.
The way Brunson tells it, the Apple store scenario is sitcom gold. How could it not be? She’s the Emmy-winning creator and star of massively popular workplace mockumentary Abbott Elementary. And how that show came to be a hit begins with her instinct to go against the grain; to do precisely what others were not.
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Back in 2021, we emerged blinking from our pandemic isolation, with streaming subscriptions up the wazoo, Apple remotes glued to our palms and having ‘finished’ Netflix.
The captive lockdown audience had kickstarted an industry scramble for more streaming sites and more and more content. But with bloated online libraries at our fingertips, we could barely choose what to watch. Our attention spans shrank to such fruit-fly capacity, even Quibi seemed like a good idea. For a minute. On we scrolled.
Enter Quinta Brunson, star of A Black Lady Sketch Show. She had begun her career posting short Instagram videos (when that idea was still new, mind you). She’d also, among other things, worked at Buzzfeed making video content. She was, in theory, primed for this runaway online market.
Instead, she turned around and did something totally unexpected: she made a network comedy.
Abbott Elementary, Brunson’s sitcom about a Philadelphia school and its staff,first appeared on ABC on December 7, 2021. It starred Brunson alongside Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams, Lisa Anne Walter, Chris Perfetti, Janelle James and William Stanford Davis, and by only its second episode, it had the network’s highest ratings since the 2020 series finale of long-running Emmy darling Modern Family.
By March 2022, Abbott had been renewed for a second season. Its first season won three Emmys, and Brunson became the first Black woman to be nominated three times in a comedy category.
Brunson had tapped into something we wanted: the family-centric nostalgia of appointment television coupled with the kind of writing we expected from fresh, young creators.
Brunson has pointed out she is not the only successful network comedy out there. She cites Black-ish and Ghosts among others. But at the same time, she also notes that network showrunners have tended to skew toward an older generation. Fresh blood either simply wasn’t getting in, or they were jumping on the streamer bandwagon, and that affected the tone and audience for network.
“The younger creators went over to streaming,” she said at Deadline’s Contenders event last year. “The shows I just mentioned don’t have millennials, they are created by the generation before us. And I think that millennials were having trouble breaking into the network space, because our stories were a little more nuanced. And people like me, like Issa [Rae]—Issa had a project at ABC that didn’t work there, so she went to HBO and made a monster hit. That allowed networks to see the value in a younger story like Abbott, especially when it has a primarily Black cast but is not about being Black.”
As Brunson described Abbott during her recent Saturday Night Live hosting gig: “It’s a network sitcom, like, say, Friends. Except instead of being about a group of friends, it’s about a group of teachers; instead of being in New York, it’s in Philadelphia, and instead of not having Black people, it does.”
In Abbott Elementary, Brunson plays Janine Teagues, an awkwardly enthusiastic second-grade teacher dealing with a TikTok-crazed principal and a self-absorbed wannabe rapper boyfriend. So far, so funny, but the show also touches on heartfelt truths, like the reality of underpaid teaching life in an underfunded school. Named for Brunson’s own sixth-grade teacher Joyce Abbott, it evokes Brunson’s own childhood in Philadelphia with her schoolteacher mom. And in that same SNL monologue, Brunson said, “Remember how important teachers are, acknowledge the work they do every day, and for the love of god, pay them the money they deserve.”
Network TV was also just the way Brunson envisaged Abbott being seen. It harked back to something wholesome and meaningful. “I didn’t really have TV I could watch with my parents and with my nieces and nephews all at the same time,” she says.
And there was something familiar and accessible about network. “I just appreciate the access of network comedy,” Brunson says. “I’m even starting to get a little confused with how many streaming services are available, and I’m young and of this era, but there’s so much. I enjoy all those different streaming platforms, but it felt like ABC was a very safe place to go where people knew how to get to ABC, how to watch ABC.”
Network’s scheduled appointment television creates a kind of agreement between a creator and their audience: we have to show up, at the same time, together. “It’s kind of like when you go to the theater, you’re making a commitment to sit in that seat until intermission and watch that,” she says. “I’m entering a deal with you as an audience member that you’re going to watch this and respect it. That’s what’s hard on the internet. That relationship isn’t there. I have a deal with the audience members, and I don’t want to make something without that deal anymore.”
And long-form, involved storytelling tends to inspire more of a commitment to watch. “I didn’t feel I could tell a cohesive story on the internet. I didn’t feel like I could really target an audience. I wanted to tell long-form stories, like Abbott, and, as we know, that’s just not what the internet is built for anymore. As a storyteller, I just had to honor the fact that that was not my ministry anymore. The internet was not my preferred platform.”
As a child, Brunson never imagined that the job ‘TV writer’ even existed, until her father’s boss mentioned his daughter was one.
The daughter, Elisa Zuritsky, was then a writer on Sex and the City, and when Brunson was in her early teens, Zuritsky gifted her a Nickelodeon magazine subscription. “I was like, ‘Wait, if someone I know can be a TV writer, then maybe I can be a TV writer.’ That Nickelodeon magazine was very important to me, because it was the next level. It was beyond just watching TV. The magazine went behind the scenes of these TV shows.”
In college, Brunson studied improv, and by 2014 she had created her own comedy Instagram series, The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date, which went viral. She sold two web series in partnership with Buzzfeed Motion Pictures and wrote, produced and acted in shows like iZombie and Lazor Wulf, then A Black Lady Sketch Show. She sold Harrity Elementary, named for her own childhood school, to ABC as Abbott Elementary in May 2021.
Working with ABC was a collaborative experience, Brunson says. Still, even as a first-time network showrunner, she never caved to casting only big-name actors. Case in point: Janelle James as Principal Ava Coleman.
“I had such a specific character in mind when I was writing her, and I had this fear that I wouldn’t be able to find that exact person. And then Janelle auditioned, and it was, ‘We would be doing so much work to get somebody where Janelle is, let’s do less work and hire this person.’ And I kind of had to frame it like that to the network and studio. This is only Janelle’s second acting role, and I actually appreciated that about her, because the freshness helped. It aided the character.”
The network and studio loved James but wondered if they should go with someone “a little bit more tenured,” Brunson says. “And I’m like, ‘No, let’s not go against the oh wow factor. That’s what I think is going to make this show special.’ And I knew I had veteran actors who could help pull her up. I remember telling her from the beginning, ‘Girl, you’re an actress. You’re not just a standup who’s here by some whim. No. You are good at this.’ So, I think it was about asking the studio and network to really trust me with these unconventional choices.” It paid off: James was Emmy-nominated, Sheryl Lee Ralph and casting director Wendy O’Brien won, and the ensemble cast claimed a SAG award.
Brunson unapologetically knows she’s good at what she does. “It’s not something that men have to really deal with often, the doubt of it. So, I just don’t waste my time with that. I’m here. The proof is in the pudding. I have no reason to think that I’m not good at what I do, or that I don’t deserve to be in the position that I’m in. I’ll listen to interviews of people who I think are incredible, and they’ll do the thing of, ‘Oh man, I don’t deserve to be here…’ And I get that, but I do feel like so many women have come before me and done such amazing things that allow me to be here, and pretending that I shouldn’t be here is a disservice to all that has been done already. I don’t want to keep pushing the same narrative that, ‘Oh, I’m not able to do this, or I’m not able to do that, or this has been hard.’ I’m very fortunate in that I think a lot of the groundwork that has been laid by so many people—and women—has allowed me to have a much easier time in this industry than I would have, say, 10 years ago.”
To hone the show’s mockumentary-style direction, Brunson recruited an alum from The Office—Randall Einhorn. She told Abbott EPs Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker it needed a director with a lot of specific experience.
“My own stipulations kind of pigeonholed us into a world of white men, because I very much said, ‘I need whoever does the pilot to have done mockumentary before and have done a lot of it,’ and that immediately made our pool so small. We came in being like, ‘Oh man, we’d love a woman of color to direct.’ We were so gung-ho about that. And then I was like, ‘Yeah. Also, they need to have done mockumentary, and a ton of it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, you know what? I’m not willing to sacrifice this. This is important. We need someone who has done it.’ I had never done it. Pat hadn’t. Justin hadn’t. ABC hadn’t since Modern Family.”
Einhorn clicked with the show right away. In fact, he liked Abbott so much he became an EP. “Randall just got it,” Brunson says. “He saw the pilot so clearly, and then he saw the rest of the show so clearly.”
He also had no intention of recreating The Office with Brunson’s material. “In his interview, he talked a lot about tone. He was like, ‘This show feels warm. It feels warmer than The Office.’ He was like, ‘I’m seeing warm colors.’ It was little things too. In The Office they would do their talking heads sitting down in one of the conference rooms. But the first time he did the talking heads in Abbott, he had it set up in the hallway with people passing by. That was to help show that these people don’t really have that much time to rest. They’re not bored like they were at The Office, they’re on their feet. And it’s little things like that that make such a big difference. It’s such a small thing, but it helped set our show in motion and helped give what makes it special.”
At the time of writing, Brunson has not yet begun shooting Season 3, but she’s ready to go. And she has always known what she wants the show’s final end point to be.
“I have planned out Season 3,” she says. “I really think of writing Abbott, or writing maybe any good TV show, like you’re writing a book. And I think a lot of people, a lot of authors, they know what the end of the book is, but the journey on the way is just about getting there and finding exciting turns. It’s different with 22 episodes of network television because while I have specific points I want to hit, we have so many episodes, and we have to make sure that we’re protecting our plot points, but still having a great time with the audience. And some of our best episodes are when the characters just get to f*ck around, and we’re not really talking about anything or doing anything. But I know what I want the ending of Abbott to be, which helps me. We’re just going toward that point. And I don’t know how many seasons we’ll have, so as long as I keep that ending in mind, we can always move toward it.”
Last year, Brunson signed a muti-year overall deal with Warner Bros. Television, and she’s thinking about her mission for the future.
“The other day a friend’s son was reading me this Dr. Seuss book, and I know he’s a controversial figure, so it’s not about him, but I was just listening to that book, like, ‘Man, this is a good story.’ I mean that in the most basic way. I think that’s what we need to go back to. I know that Abbott gets a lot of praise for its diversity, for the topics we talk about, the things we touch on. But at its root, I believe that Abbott is just full of good stories. The show alone is a good story, and then the stories we can tell with Abbott are good. And that is what’s important to me, and I think it’s important to any piece of work. All the talent, all of that can only compliment a good story.”
Of course, the burning question is, will she be making that Apple store mockumentary anytime soon? “It’s too massive for me,” she says. “I hope someone does. Some things are so massive, it feels so hard to get them into a show. But Apple was such an experience, it would make an excellent workplace comedy.”
Recently, at a party, Tracee Ellis Ross reminded Brunson of those Apple store days. “She came up to me and was like, ‘Quinta! You used to help my mom.’ Her mom would come into that store, and it was amazing to me, because she wanted to know how to work her own Apple products. A lot of people in her position would send their assistants or whatever, but she would come in that store for her appointment every week, and so it would just be the Diana Ross sitting at a table at the back.”
Pure sitcom gold, indeed.
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