Quinta Brunson, the comic genius behind Abbott Elementary

Questions and answers

The West Philly-born and raised comedian is a particularly hot topic right now thanks to her hit ABC sitcom. What is the secret of its success?

Quinta Brunson, the creator and star of Abbott Elementary (Photography by Rozette Rago) / Photography by Rozette Rago

Quinta Brunson, 32, went to public schools in Philadelphia and her mother taught kindergarten for decades. All this experience is condensed in Abbott Elementary Schoolthe ABC sitcom that critics have compared with for Office. (Not too shabby!) Here, she talks about the real Phillys who inspired Abbott’s characters, her dislike of Peloton, and why she’s so shocked that her mother is proud of her.

Hello Quinta. You seem tired. I hope I didn’t wake you up too early.
It’s not even early. It’s nine o’clock here. But I’ve been sleeping a lot lately because I can, that is, I don’t have kids yet. Last week I had to wake up at 3 a.m. for a hello america maintenance.

Well, everyone wants to talk to you, that’s what happens when you have a massive hit on your hands. Some major television critics have even compared From Elementary Abbott to the Office. Do you read reviews?
I do. I try not to put too a lot of weight in them, but I read them, and I was so happy when I saw that they were all positive. But more important to me was what the audience at home and the teachers think of the show.

In my house, it’s one of the few shows that we—“we” include my daughter and my son, who are both teenagers, and my wife, who is a teacher—all watch together and enjoy.
I’ve heard that a lot, and it really makes me feel good. Families watch it together – I felt like that kind of TV was missing. That’s how I grew up: sitting with my parents, watching comedies on TV.

So who is not it like this show?
For the most part, it has been overwhelmingly positive. But I have seen criticism of our principal from other principals, upset at the portrayal of her as “incompetent,” especially since she is female and black. We don’t consider her incompetent. But that’s the perception of some members of the public so far.

She doesn’t seem incompetent to me – more hilariously self-centered and deaf.
And it’s a sitcom. To have a sitcom without flawed characters would be pretty boring, and I think she falls into the ranks of other not-so-great hilarious characters. It’s a fun trope.

But this East 2022. Didn’t you think some people would be offended when you made the black woman in charge look possibly unqualified?
No. I did not do it. I met a manager like that. I’m not going to say who or what school, but when you have someone like that, it’s hard for the people dealing with them. It’s a headache. She is Michael Scott in Office. A pain in the ass. There are three black women on the show who find three different ways to be funny. And if some people want to get mad at her, there are two other black women they can appreciate: Janine, my character, and Barbara, played by the fabulous Sheryl Lee Ralph, who is largely inspired by my mother. Above all, I’m not interested in doing characters who uphold the politics of respectability. We have a rich world, and if people choose to see the worst, that’s not my problem. It’s a personal problem.

I’ve also seen people say that while it’s great, the show points to endemic problems – especially underfunding – in Philadelphia’s public school system, you and the other producers should do something about it. solve the problem.
We kicked off our season by providing a wide range of supplies to schools across the district. When we started, we asked the school district to donate money, but it’s surprisingly difficult to sponsor a few schools. It becomes about which schools? There are so lots of paperwork. The easiest route, at least this time around, was to donate supplies. But we want to do more, and I’ve talked a lot with city council members Helen Gym and Jamie Gauthier. It’s an ongoing conversation.

In 2018 you did an interview with Philly Mag about loving your job. At that time, you were more of an internet star. Do you still love your job now that you’re in the network TV business?
Yes, but it’s much more stressful. I was responsible for myself. Now I’m responsible, as creator and executive producer, for 200 people. All these people have jobs under me. And they want to keep those jobs. I have to sail the whole boat. I try to make the best decisions.

The driver for Abbott Elementary School debuted in December. Have I slept through a seismic shift in the world of television where shows now come out in December?
It’s a new strategy. The idea was that, in a world where people watch the networks less, you have to create the buzz. They were doing the live-studio-public versions of Different strokes and The facts of life in December, and they put our pilot right after, which gave us a very large audience. Then this episode was available on Hulu over the holidays, and the buzz was building. People were getting excited. And then episode two happened. Our ratings for this were higher than for the first. It’s hard to do these days.

Quinta Brunson and Sheryl Lee Ralph at Abbott Elementary. / Photography by ABC / Gilles Mingasson

The season was filmed in 2021, and yet COVID is absent as a subject. Why?
The show was developed before COVID. And then when it came time to do it… I have a personal thing: if something just isn’t funny, I don’t want it on the show. COVID looks like one of those things. Not funny. It wasn’t for our show to manipulate. I didn’t feel like it was up to us to take that.

Speaking of the pandemic, have you had any fun pandemic projects?
I got super into board games and video games. Dusted off Scrabble and dominoes. I was playing Super Mario Party like it was nobody’s business. I also started training, which I had never really done before. I started walking and bought a cheap exercise bike I saw on Amazon. I refused to have a platoon. Everyone got a Platoon, and that really got on my nerves.

The influence of Office is so clear in the show. Were you a big fan, an early adopter?
Huge. Fan. But I was not an early adopter. There was an episode after the Super Bowl in 2009, and it was the first one I saw. Everyone I knew had been talking about it forever, but I refused to watch it.

So what I learned about you in this interview is that you avoid things that are massively popular.
[Laughs] That’s how I operate. But once I saw that episode after the Super Bowl — it was the one where Dwight sets the office on fire — I became a super fan. And I became a big fan of workplace comedy.

You mentioned your mother earlier. Tell me about his influence on your comedy in the workplace.
I was in my mom’s kindergarten class – I don’t think they allow it anymore – and at the time she was teaching 60 kids in one day. That’s some crazy crap from the Philadelphia school district. And I stayed at his school until CM2. I would go to school early with her and sit with her until it was time for me to go to class, and I would be with her in school until she has finished working. I saw so many. I saw her meet parents, directors. She was a huge inspiration for the show. And she had a very good friend at her school, this Italian from South Philadelphia who kept stopping by her class to talk shit, so Melissa Schemmenti’s character is based on her. Jacob is based on my friend in New York, who is a public school teacher. And Gregory is based on the few times I saw a black teacher at school. Such a unicorn.

What was your mother’s reaction to the show?
[Laughs] She likes it, which is so… unusual. She is not easily impressed. I talked to her about it all the time and told her that the character of Barbara was based on her, and I expected her to get a lot of criticism. She had none. I was shocked. He is a very critical person. But instead, she bursts out laughing and says how proud she is of me. It’s the first time since I graduated from high school that she’s said that. So if she says she’s proud of me, she’s really proud of me.

We talked about the negative reaction towards Ava, the principal. My wife and daughter both had pretty negative reactions to your boyfriend boobs on the show.
Bob! Ha!

Are there any men from your past who will recognize themselves in this character?
That is to say Phone a messy question. I’ll just have to pass on that one.

Will he redeem himself by the end of the season?
Let me start by telling you that your wife and daughter are not alone. So many people have issues with Tariq. I can’t say he’s “redeeming” himself, but by the end of the season, I can say you’re not going to want him to leave. He ends up being a super adorable sitcom character. He’s not like Roy in Office. Roy was do not A good guy. They wrote Roy off so you were glad to see him go. But I humanize Tariq as I go.

You left Temple and fled Philadelphia for Los Angeles. How did we lose a great talent like yours?
There was no outlet for me in Philadelphia. If you wanna write for TV, you move to LA May be New York. But I plan to come back all the time. I recently stayed at an Airbnb in Rittenhouse Square. I always dreamed of living there. I wish this was my life. But it can’t. It doesn’t work with my job.

What’s the secret to your success with this show, other than it’s, you know, funny?
It’s a job like any other job. And what I always tell people who want to do this is that they have to study television and film. One of the things that really made me successful was that when I was at Temple, where I was studying television and film, I was also studying advertising — real network television activity. If you know how to put on a show and sell a show, you’re bulletproof.

So … Abbott Elementary School season two?
I know ABC is really excited, but we don’t know anything for sure yet. It’s strange. The pilot came out in December, and the regular episodes started in January, and people loved them. But this is my new fear. We don’t finish until April 12, so there’s still a lot of show to finish. Oh my god I really I hope people will like it.

Published as “On the Record: Quinta Brunson” in the March 2022 issue of philadelphia cream magazine.

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