The creator and star of the ABC sitcom reflects on the long, winding road to making an instant hit.
Courtesy of ABC

As streaming Hacks the TV industry, and premium cable continues to make competitors Insecure, launching a network comedy can seem like a laughable undertaking. But Quinta Brunson has succeeded where many not named Chuck Lorre have failed. "My jaw is still on the floor," she says of the glowing response from both audiences and critics to her new ABC sitcom Abbott Elementary

Despite the amazement, Brunson acknowledges there was something in the air on the set of her public school mockumentary. "All of us felt like, 'Okay, we think we're making something good here,'" recalls the 32-year-old creator, executive producer, and star. "Our entire crew — from the PAs to the COVID team — were like, 'This show is good. We're having a good time.'"

Brunson leads a kooky, committed ensemble (including Sheryl Lee Ralph, Lisa Ann Walter, Tyler James Williams, and Chris Perfetti), all playing impassioned teachers at a Philadelphia grade school doing their best to help the students succeed despite a serious lack of funding and an absurdly inept principal (Janelle James). 

Quinta Brunson
Quinta Brunson on the ABC sitcom 'Abbott Elementary.'
| Credit: ABC/Liliane Lathan

The sitcom's setting is deeply familiar to its star, a Philly native whose mother taught kindergarten. "I realize that everybody doesn't have the same relationship to school that I had. It was like a second home," says Brunson, who'd arrive with her mom well before the first bell and leave long after her classmates. "I spent so much time there that [the faculty] became like friends and family to me." Watching them "talk about the new standardized testing, or a new reading program that was coming in" all became commonplace.

While that elementary school experience was foundational to writing Abbott Elementary, it was going to the Young Performers Theater Camp that really gave Brunson her start as a performer. Although she was there as a dancer, the program left room to try other disciplines. "I got to be an understudy Rizzo in Grease one year," she remembers. "The kid who was Rizzo never got sick, so I didn't get to do it, but I was like 'What does it mean that I'm wishing this girl would get sick?' It's like, 'I might really want to pursue this one day.'"

Brunson says she was "a fantastic student. I would cry if I got a C," but her path changed in college when she fell in love with improv, eventually dropping out of Temple University to take Second City classes in Chicago before moving to Los Angeles to pursue comedy. While working at an Apple store to pay the bills, she developed a viral Instagram sketch character known as the "Girl Who's Never Been on a Nice Date." Then a friend's invitation to film a taste-test video for BuzzFeed led to a few years working at the media company, where she honed the skills necessary to become the multihyphenate she is today. 

Quinta Brunson
Lisa Ann Walter, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Quinta Brunson, Chris Perfetti, and Tyler James Williams on 'Abbott Elementary.'
| Credit: Gilles Mingasson/abc

But BuzzFeed was never her endgame. "I was saving a lot of money so I'd have a cushion to rest on as I pursued other things," says Brunson, who left the content creator job in 2018. She quickly booked a role on a CW dramedy pilot from showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker. The series (an adaptation of Iva-Marie Palmer's novel The End of the World as We Know It) never made it to air — but before parting ways, Brunson pitched an idea to the duo: an animated mockumentary about teachers in the vein of Bob's Burgers. Timing wasn't right, however, and Brunson moved on to HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show, while Halpern and Schumacker worked on HBO Max's Harley Quinn. Then, by chance, Brunson ran into Schumacker on the Warner Bros. lot right before the pandemic started. "He was like, 'Hey, remember the idea you had a while ago about the teacher show? We really like that idea. We should try to do that,'" she recalls. 

The result of that conversation made its debut in December, with the latest of Norman Lear's Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials serving as its lead-in. "I loved Norman Lear's comedies," says Brunson. "So just me as a fan was like, 'Oh, that's super tight.' " But the industry-savvy creator also saw the strategic benefit of the time slot: "I thought that was really smart. I knew that we would, from that, have a certain comedy audience come to our show." And she was right. Almost 3 million people watched Abbott Elementary that night. (Like, actually on Dec. 7, not on their DVR later that week or on Hulu). Almost a million more tuned in when episode 2 aired in early January — and those impressive ratings have sustained. 

Quinta Brunson
Behind the scenes of ABC's 'Abbott Elementary' with Quinta Brunson.
| Credit: Gilles Mingasson/abc

Brunson says that the best part of creating the show has been the world-building. "No, it's not on the scale of a Harry Potter or anything like that, but that's the most fun part of storytelling. You create this world that you get to decide what happens in, and what the characters look like, and how they interact." That feeds into her favorite part of acting on the show, which is working with her cast. "It makes me feel like a better performer to be able to bounce off of such great performers," she says.

"In this day and age, to get this kind of response for a network show that's airing weekly, has absolutely been a shocker to me," says Brunson. But seeing Abbott succeed right out the gate and trend on social media for days-long stretches is, she admits, "honestly, a little scary." For now, she's just trying not to dwell on any suggestion that her show could be broadcast sitcoms' great savior: "As soon as you start putting all that pressure on yourself, that inherently changes what it is that you might be trying to do. And my job was not to get people back to network TV; the job was to try to make a good show, which I think we're doing."

The comedian also points out that "we forget sometimes, everybody doesn't have cable and everybody doesn't have streaming platforms, but network TV is for everybody." Like the teachers on her show, providing to the underserved is an important part of her work. 

Abbott Elementary allows Brunson to "get in the arena where we can make a comedy for everyone that still has thought behind it, still has messaging behind it, and still has a good story. Because I think everyone deserves to watch good TV." 

Quinta Brunson
Quinta Brunson on 'Abbott Elementary.'
| Credit: Gilles Mingasson/abc

A version of this story appears in the March issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Feb. 18. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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