How Quinta Brunson Made the Next Great American Sitcom
Abbott Elementary just keeps breaking records.
The new ABC sitcom’s debut, as reported by Deadline, marked the network’s first comedy premiere to quadruple ratings since its original airing. Then, when Abbott Elementary returned with Episode 2 in January after premiering in December 2021, it garnered 9 million total viewers. For 18-49, “Light Bulb” was ABC’s strongest comedy telecast of a new or returning series since the series finale of Modern Family.
If you know the brains behind the operation— creator, writer and star Quinta Brunson— the blossoming success of Abbott Elementary is no surprise. With classic comedy training and a sense of internet-molded humor in her back pocket (see: "The Girl Who's Never Been on a Nice Date” series, which first launched her into social media stardom), Abbott Elementary is a laugh-out-loud, touching sitcom fit for a cross-generational audience. As the series makes its way through its stellar first season, Brunson opened up to LA Confidential about the pestering positivity of her character Janine Teagues, the everlasting importance of word-of-mouth TV suggestions and the possibility of a Season 2.
Abbott Elementary has highlighted issues like lack of public school funds and the problem with gifted programs. Do you and your writers’ room approach writing the show with these concepts and build out an episode from there?
In our room, we get to talking and talk about storylines first that are interesting to us. Usually it comes from something we become excited about in the room, and that's not always something like the gifted program. Sometimes it's just a small idea that we all get very excited about. And we usually say, “How would each of our characters respond to this?” And that's really what makes us land on what it is we want to tell a story about that week because as episodes go on, you'll see that some of them are a bit broader, they're still taking place in the school, but not necessarily a school issue, like the gifted program or new tech. Sometimes it's very personal to some of the characters. So I think our goal is if we're excited about the idea and we know that each of the characters in our show will have a strong and different response to whatever the storyline is, that's what makes us want to go in that direction.
You've said you wrote Gregory with Tyler James Williams in mind. Did that have anything to do with your chemistry as star-crossed lovers in "Rome and Julissa" from A Black Lady Sketch Show?
I do know I have good chemistry with Tyler as an actress, and I ultimately just really appreciate him as a person. I think he is such a joy to work with. He's very professional, very kind and when I met him in doing that sketch on A Black Lady Sketch Show, I just enjoyed working with him so much and I think that feels very valuable for actresses and actors too to be able to work with someone when you have that good of an energy with. I remember leaving that sketch thinking, “Man, I hope I have the opportunity to work with him again one day soon because that was just such a pleasant experience.” And I feel that way about everyone who I work with that makes me feel that good. When I was writing the show, I knew I wanted to have a Black male teacher and I was like, “Wow, wait, Tyler would kill this.” I also kind of realized I started to write it with him in mind and instead of trying to audition someone like him, I just decided to see if he was available. So it was great because we did get to have this continuing of what we do well on screen together from the sketch show, got to continue it here at Abbott.
How would you describe Janine’s personal style? You tweeted she was getting some hate for her outfits.
seeing a lot of Janine outfit slander.— quinta brunson (@quintabrunson) January 12, 2022
I think Janine is killing it for a teacher. For instance, a lot of teachers message me and are like, “Where did Janeen get that dress? Where did you guys get that sweater?” I think she's absolutely killing it. I think she's doing her best at Target and at the thrift stores. It's funny because when I talked with our costume designer, Susan Michalek, I said, “You know, Janine goes to school every day believing she's pulling off Ms. Frizzle.” I think she is like, “I am the modern day Ms. Frizzle.” She loves her outfits, clearly. She keeps wearing them despite getting roasted every episode, but I think she is trying to pull off Ms. Frizzle and I think she's doing an okay job at it.
Janine has such bright energy, but, as a new teacher, she can be naive. Why do you think it's important to have a lead character who is so optimistic?
Well, first of all, I think it depends on the show. But for this show, I think Janine is the person who has the best relationship with the camera crew that's here at the school. And she wants so badly for the audience, whoever will see this documentary, to believe in the beauty of this school as much as she does. And I think that's what makes the character a good main character because it's a place where it's easy to look at the bad. Even for some of the other staff, they're rested in their ways in how the school is, but Janine just refuses to look at this place as anything other than a place for possibility and a place to make better. And I think that's a great lens for the audience to see the world through.
Brunson with Janelle James in Episode 9.
A few years ago, you said you wanted to move into playing hyperreal characters or characters that you don't really relate to. Does Janine do that for you?
She does do that for me. Janine feels like a big optimist and I think I have to take a lot of inspiration from other places to be able to pull off Janine.
I have friends who are so optimistic that it bothers me kind of in the way that Barbara (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Ava (James) are bothered in the show by Janine. But it's fun because even in playing her and remembering that there are people like that, it helps me to be a little bit more of an optimist. I think she feels very different for me, but still grounded.
Obviously Abbott Elementary is a sitcom, but it does have heavy moments. They’re usually pretty quick, like Janine mentioning how she potty trained herself or when she explains that the classroom rug is important because it’s the only place a student can get some proper rest because he doesn’t get enough sleep at home. Will there be a point where the show leans into this more or would that defeat its purpose as a sitcom?
No, not at all. Some of the best comedies of all time have gone there with this kind of stuff. I think that's what's the coolest part about these comedies is you can guarantee laughs for people and fun and a good time, but then you can give them the real behind the stories and still promise the laughs too. I think that with our characters, we're definitely going to start peeling the onions a bit more, but we won't sacrifice keeping the show a comedy. That's kind of a line we have to dance on with the subject matter of it being an underfunded public school anyway. Like, yes, we are bringing some real issues to light or whatever, but our goal was not to tackle the issues. Our goal was to present a comedy using real-life material, so it's kind of like comedy first and all that other stuff second, in addition to making it a strong comedy.
Do you think there's a perfect amount of seasons a comedy series should run?
I think it's important to think about that. I think different creatives may have different opinions on that, but I think it's important to think about how long would I like this show to last? I would like for Abbott to last for as long as it possibly can without sacrificing what makes the show good because eventually you just do get into a rut. You've seen it before. You watch shows and kind of go, “Oh, this should have come to an end a long time ago.” But, then you watch some shows where they have nine seasons and you never want them to end because they've done such a good job of continuing to mine out fantastic stories with these characters. So I think it all depends… But there's some things where I'm like, “Yeah, we need to take a page out of the book from the British” and start saying two seasons, three seasons.
Do you think that virality is a key part of being successful in comedy now— can you really deem your show, stand-up set, movie, etc. has had an impact on people if it doesn't end up splashed across the internet?
More than the internet, to me it's word of mouth. And I think that is the important thing for a show is hearing people saying, “Did you watch this? Did you see this? You got to see this. Have you heard of this?” That's the stuff to me that matters. I think in a way, the internet does it on its own and it varies from platform to platform.
All of that is still word of mouth as far as I'm concerned, so I feel like that is really what makes a sitcom a success these days. I think that's kind of always been the case. It's funny because there are old shows, like Friends. I didn't watch Friends until it was way off air, but a friend that I was staying with, she just couldn’t believe I didn't watch Friends. She couldn't believe it. She couldn’t understand. She just kept talking about it. Like, shut up, please, about Friends.
It wasn't until one day it was on TV, I was like, “Man, let me see what the hype is about,” like 10 years later, and this was right before Friends had gone on Netflix. Friends found a whole life on Netflix. It’s just crazy how word of mouth, even after years, can revitalize something. For that I'm very grateful. I think it's incredible that our show got to become this word of mouth show amongst people so quickly. You normally have to wait a while for that to happen, so it's really cool.
In your book, She Memes Well, you said you have a complicated relationship with the concept of celebrity. In the last few months, particularly since the premiere of Abbott Elementary, has your relationship with fame changed?
I think I'm now in a new space with it. You mention my book and as you know, I talk about being known because of the internet. And now I'm in a different space and figuring out my place and my feelings on all of it. I’m still just figuring out where I am and what I am, so I think the relationship has entered a brand new chapter and I’m figuring out where I am in all of it. Ultimately, it's really cool because at the end of the day, I have a whole family of people to care about— not just my cast, but my writers’ room and my crew and stuff. So it feels like all of us get to go through this together, which is a nice feeling. That's one thing I can land on is it felt like something I was always going through alone, figuring out on my own, but now I'm figuring it out with this group of people who get to have this big baby that we love, which is Abbott Elementary, and we try to use all the attention for the best.
Brunson, Williams, Lisa Ann Walter, James, Ralph, Chris Perfetti.
Any word about Abbott Elementary Season 2?
I do not have an answer to that yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays on ABC and is available on Hulu the next day.