You might recognize comedian Quinta Brunson, 32, from the videos she used to produce and star in for BuzzFeed, or from her appearances on the first season of HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” The extremely online might recall her self-produced Instagram videos.
If you don’t know Brunson at all, that will probably change soon, as her latest project marks a foray into network television. The Philadelphia native created and produces the new ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” in which she stars as earnest second grade teacher Janine Teagues, working at an underfunded public school alongside actors Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams and Lisa Ann Walter. The mockumentary airs its fourth episode Tuesday night.
Brunson chatted with The Washington Post about her career in comedy, her personal connection to Janine’s story and more.
Tell me about the origin of this story.
My mom is a teacher. I went to visit her about three or four years ago, before she retired, and I was at school with her at night. It was an open house night and they had her staying until 8 o’clock. I was just like, “You should not be here.” My mom’s school isn’t in a great neighborhood. It was 7:58 and one parent walks in, and I’m actually upset. Like, “How dare you? You had all day.” My mom did not care. She sat down and had the parent-teacher conference with that woman while her son played with blocks in the corner. I was just sitting at my mom’s desk watching it, and I was like, “This is what I would like to spend my energy on.”
My mom has had so many funny stories and so many funny characters who — you know, she doesn’t even find this stuff funny. But she told me stuff and I was like, “Mom, this is hilarious.”
The show is quite uplifting, even though the characters are dealing with heavy things. How did you navigate the kind of comedy you wanted to do here?
I wanted to make the audience fall in love with the workplace, and I wanted the comedy to feel like you were working at Abbott, too. That informed the mockumentary style — a style I’m already obsessed with, but I think the reason I love it so much is because it makes you feel as if you’re there.
Especially with subject matter like this, I think it’s important for the audience to feel like they’re in on an inside joke. If I say to you right now, “No soup for you,” that only means something to you because you’ve seen “Seinfeld,” too. To me, the best jokes are inside. They can only live in the world and the soul of that show.
Your character’s relationship with Sheryl Lee Ralph’s is compelling. What was it like to work with her?
Sheryl came from a lot of multicams. Also, she’d never seen “The Office.” She’d never even seen a mockumentary show. Her finding a balance between what makes her fantastic and now tweaking that for the more subtle reality of a mockumentary style show, she found something that I honestly find brilliant.
She’s got to stretch muscles on this show she hasn’t gotten to stretch in years. Sometimes what happens with older actors — especially older Black actors — is people just start hiring you to come be yourself. They’re not giving you compelling work, especially in comedy. They’re hiring you to come be yourself and “do that thing you do.” Sheryl is pushing into new zones, and she told me that it feels so good to do at her age.
Do you feel your background of creating your own videos online has influenced how you approach the show?
I’ve always really loved network comedies. I love 22-minute sitcoms. I even love the commercials. And I love the idea of a television show that is for everyone. My favorite shows are shows that were for everyone: “Martin,” “King of Queens,” “The Office.” You would think that maybe because of my digital background and just being a millennial, maybe I would have veered toward streaming or cable, and I kind of did at first. I was playing around in those worlds and was like, “You know, what I really want to do is make a sitcom for network television.”
Network television is clearly not dead. It’s still sitting there. Watching people kind of revitalize the genre in recent times — like with “The Good Place,” it was really inspiring to me to see that take place on network television. “Ted Lasso” is not the same, but it’s almost in the vein of a network show. I was just like, “This can be done.”
BuzzFeed was very for everyone, and the stuff I made was made so that anyone could relate to it and share — [that] definitely informed a lot of my love of creating in that way.
BuzzFeed [where Brunson was a creator between 2014 and 2018] felt like it was part of a media landscape where people were throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. What was it like to transition from that to making your own name for yourself?
It was like leaving one wild, Wild West to go to another one. For me, it was a very positive experience. I went to school for advertising. For me, [BuzzFeed] was my college, my on-the-job training. You just said it: “Throwing [stuff] at the wall, does it stick?” If it doesn’t, I’ll tweak it, I can delete it, we can learn and try again. That’s so valuable.
“Abbott” showcases teachers at a time when there have been conversations over whether school should be remote or not. Something I’ve felt is lacking from the punditry is the consideration of teachers as people. Does it feel any more significant for the show to be coming out right now?
It’s crazy, “Abbott” was developed before the pandemic, and I feel like so many people gained a new appreciation for teachers during the pandemic — especially parents who had their one kid at home and were like, “You are crazy.” The teacher is dealing with that kid and 20 others at the same time. Imagine. It’s insane. A small part of my goal with this show, other than to make people laugh, was to elaborate that, look, these people have lives. As the show goes on, we bring more of their lives into the school. Not only are they doing this job, they’re dealing with divorce or dealing with a crap boyfriend like Janine.
That’s what I would see, too, with my mom. She’s doing her job, meanwhile she’s getting a call on her phone about something happening in her family life. But she still has to do this job. They’re just fully fleshed-out people, and I hope and think that’s what the show is doing already.