It's Quinta Brunson's World and We're All Just Laughing in It

Quinta Brunson — creator, executive producer, and star of the hit comedy Abbott Elementary — could moonlight as a tour guide. She meets me at the Warner Bros. Television building on a crisp day in April. The building, tucked behind bushes and an open-air set of a quaint city street, is boxy and drab, one of the least magnificent structures I see on the massive lot. And yet Brunson has a way of showing its hidden magic.

Flanked by a publicist and a studio rep, we load into a golf cart, where Brunson leads me on a tour of the WB campus — it also just happens to be a tour of one of the most exciting young careers in comedy. In fact, while we chat in front of an outdoor set of a white church used in Gilmore Girls and Pretty Little Liars, an eager fan on a stretch cart packed with visitors on a guided tour loudly points her out.

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In 2018, she was cast as a lead in a CW series called The End of the World As We Know It after auditioning in this very building. The show never went to air, like two other television shows Brunson successfully sold before Abbott.

Brunson’s current project is on a very different trajectory. By its second episode, Abbott Elementary gave ABC its highest ratings for a comedy since the series finale of Modern Family almost two years prior. By the end of its first season, Abbott had earned a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score from critics, putting it in the company of hits like AMC’s Breaking Bad, Amazon’s Fleabag, and Netflix’s Bojack Horseman.

The show is a workplace mockumentary following determined teachers in a public, underfunded Philadelphia school of mostly Black students. At its best — which the show seems to operate exclusively at — Abbott Elementary picks up where The Office or Parks and Recreation left off, presenting fully developed characters who resemble regular people. The show finds humor in the solidarity of a thankless job, offering the kinds of genuine laughs that might provide a glimmer of light on an otherwise hellish workday.

While it features tons of smart, witty, adorable children, Abbott Elementary centers on the teachers doing their best to serve them with limited resources. Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a doggedly optimistic but direly insecure 25-year-old second-grade teacher who has made it to her second year at the titular school, a rarity.

The show quickly became a critical darling, surprising even Brunson at times. “I worried before every single episode of Abbott aired,” she says. “I’d ask my partner, ‘What do you think, is this good? We thought it was a good episode, but is it?’ Then, I was proven wrong each week.” The series was renewed for a second season in March. As we make our way to the Ellen soundstage, where Brunson is scheduled for a sit-down with the day’s guest host, NBA star Dwyane Wade, we drive through an outdoor set of trees, bushes, and a 10,000-square-foot lagoon, currently a dry, dusty shell of itself. Known as “the Jungle,” Brunson’s WB rep says, it’s the only set of its kind in Hollywood.

Our next stop, Stage 16, is where most of Abbott Elementary was filmed. It’s a towering rectangular warehouse; the tallest soundstage in North America. For the show, they built the interior of a school inside, based on the actual school where they shot the pilot. We find it almost completely empty, save for a few workers hanging out near the entrance. Against the interior front wall are stairs so high it feels like they’d take you directly to the pearly gates through a latch in the roof.

Outside, the publicist and WB rep point me to a plaque on Stage 16’s exterior that lists everything that had been shot there since its completion in 1936, including some of Brunson’s favorite movies: 1985’s The Goonies, 1984’s Ghostbusters, and 1993’s Jurassic Park. While the plaque listed 59 movies shot at the stage, only four other TV shows had been, a fact that Brunson takes pride in. At the time, the plaque needed to be updated to include Abbott.

“People were very confused when we first got here,” Brunson says. “They were like, ‘Why is there a show about a school on Stage 16?’ We were getting dirty looks from around the lot.”

Eventually, though, the 400 kids in and out of the set became beloved around the studio. “It’s funny because a lot of them were in another production here right now,” Brunson says of the young actors. “Some of them are kids who never had a job before Abbott, and now they’ve been plucked for something else going on around here.”

Like her show’s central character Janine, Brunson, 32, is a Philly native. Her father managed parking lots in nearby Delaware, while her mother taught in Philadelphia public schools for 40 years. She was even her kindergarten teacher. So, like Janine, Brunson went to Philadelphia public schools, including two specialty high schools. At one, she learned engineering and became interested in designing amusement-park rides. At the other, she specialized in the arts.

As a child, Brunson knew that she wanted to write and perform comedy, but it didn’t seem like a realistic option for most of her life. There were only a handful of Black women comics to look up to, and her parents preferred that she do something more traditional anyway. Brunson would stay in Philadelphia for college, where she studied advertising and broadcast telecommunications at Temple University. She also danced and participated in theater and improv.

After dropping out of Temple University in her junior year, Brunson worked at an Apple Store in Philly and enjoyed it. When she moved to L.A. to pursue comedy, she transferred to a store there. Not long after, she began to gain traction posting skits online. Brunson’s early videos have by now reached more than 1 billion people on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

In one skit, from 2014, she plays “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date” and is thus impressed by a man buying a bundle of snacks for her at the movies. “He got money!” Brunson’s character memorably declares, exaggerating each syllable. Even if you’ve never seen the original clip, you’ve likely seen it in GIF form across the internet.

She was eventually hired by BuzzFeed Video and worked there at the height of its popularity, creating and starring in shorts and quick series for the media company before making three more elaborate shows under its umbrella. Those web series prepped her to create, write, and sell two shows to major networks after leaving the company. The first was about a dubious girlboss at the head of a fictional media company, one not unlike BuzzFeed. The other, Quinta and Jermaine, was sold to CBS and centered on a pair of friends (Brunson and actor-comedian Jermaine Fowler) living in Washington, D.C., who must navigate an accidental pregnancy together after they regrettably have a night of drunken sex.

Television veteran Larry Wilmore — who created The Bernie Mac Show, co-created Issa Rae’s Insecure, was a consulting producer on The Office, and wrote for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — came on as executive producer. Together, they honed Brunson’s ability to make high-level network TV. Brunson’s hopes for Quinta and Jermaine exemplified her commitment to making television with nuanced, relatable Black characters. She recalls early hurdles with CBS. Like the matter of her character’s mode of transportation. “I wanted her to ride the bus. She was working at the museum,” Brunson says. Network executives objected to that. Why? “They thought that looked too poor to be enjoyable,” she explains. “Because they were like, ‘Can she be in a Nissan?’ It was anything they could do to not have this character on the bus. That socioeconomically represented something too unenjoyable to watch.

“I get along with these executives, but it’s not about that,” Brunson says plainly. “They’re still racist. It’s the comfortable racism that comes from being at a company like CBS for so long that only leads to shows that are like The Neighborhood, that are confronting race relations more than they’re about Black people.”

She had learned via her scripted BuzzFeed series that she could specialize in making shows about Black people across different walks of life that embrace their Blackness without making it the crux of the characters. “Like, here is how we talk and here’s us having the regular human stories that every other human has, that kind of shit,” she says.

To Wilmore, this is Brunson’s gift. “Many times television gets caught up in showing the extraordinary experience — everything from The Kardashians to Succession — [of] people that have extraordinary lives that we could never relate to, but [with] Brunson, there’s a humanity to her that is very relatable,” he says. “And it seems simple, but sometimes a simple thing like that can be a revolutionary act.”

Brunson was intentional about making Abbott weekly, rather than delivering all of the season at once. “You finish a whole show and it’s just like binge eating, binge drinking” she explains. “It’s fine in theory, but it’s not fun.” When Brunson and I meet, the Abbott Elementary writers’ room is a week and a half out from picking back up, and she’s eager to get back to it. “I’m ready to make better television,” she says. “I love my writers room.” She lists three factors that weighed heavily on the process of hiring writers: They cared about comedy, they were kind, and they had a healthy relationship with education. In turn, many of the show’s writers have intimate relationships with teachers and school staff — they are their siblings, parents, uncles.

Quinta Brunson photographed for Rolling Stone

Phylicia J. L. Munn for Rolling Stone.

She still thinks about her time working at Apple. “Something that stuck with me from that world was, if someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer to it, instead of making up an answer, you go, ‘I don’t know. Let’s find out.’ Part of the ethos of curiosity and creation is [that],” she says. “People have been asking questions like, ‘What exactly is going to happen in Season Two?’ and stuff, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to get to my writers room, and we’re going to figure it out because it’s a really creative, powerful room.’”

While some of the Abbott adults’ flaws are more apparent than others — take the mostly selfish principal Ava Coleman, played by comic Janelle James, who used emergency funds to plaster a new school sign with her image on it to the building — they each get the space to be as complicated as real-life adults actually are. The show’s characters are funny because they feel fleshed out, even as vehicles for a barrage of well-timed jokes. And while Janine’s drive can cause as many problems as Ava’s callousness, if there’s a villain in Abbott Elementary, it’s the systemic disadvantages the teachers are working against.

Brunson and her siblings grew up in a three-story row home in West Philly, but moved to nearby Lansdowne when she was 14 years old. Lansdowne offered them a driveway, so her parents didn’t park away from home, which became particularly prudent with drive-by shootings happening in the city. “I’ve lost classmates to [gun violence], family members, friends,” she says.

By the time the year 2021 began, local outlets declared that there had been more homicides in 2020 than there had been in 30 years. In October 2020, Brunson and West Philadelphia Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier discussed community safety in the face of gun violence on an Instagram Live they organized. “I ran up on her social media one day, because I was like, ‘Is anybody doing anything about this?’” says Brunson. “My cousin had just died, and I just was, at that point, mad. I was like, ‘I’m simply tired of this. Is anyone even trying?’ And she was trying.”

“A lot of it is systemic. A lot of it is socioeconomic. A lot of it is personal responsibility. It’s a lot of parenting, or lack thereof, boredom, lack of after-school activities. There’s so many things that lead to it being so horrible,” says Brunson.

She’s in talks about improving conditions for Philly teachers and students with other councilmembers, too. Councilwoman-at-Large Helen Gym introduced a resolution to honor Brunson’s efforts on- and off-camera. “Abbott Elementary brings to prime-time television a loving ode to Philadelphia educators, school children, and their families, as well as a call to action to fund and support our youth and our public schools, and for that, this council body is both grateful and inspired,” reads the resolution.

The show has partnered with Scholastic to provide free book fairs across the country, and has worked with other organizations to present a third-grade teacher and her southwest Philly school with new books, school supplies, a $40,000 check, and a new hallway mural.

Still, Brunson is careful not to come off as some celebrity savior and is more energetic about ending the endemic of underfunded public schools than helping out teachers on an individual basis.
“I don’t want people to ever think I’m doing the celebrity thing, which is putting a Band-Aid on the problem by donating,” she says. “At the end of the day, the donations help. I have friends who are teachers. They need it. We can and so we will, and it helps them in the meantime.”

Personally, Brunson is looking forward to testing Janine, who, she says, she’s very different from. Real-life Brunson might want to strangle Janine, she clarifies. She more so identifies with Principal Ava Coleman, many of whose lines are things Brunson has said in the writers room.“There’s one line in there that’s specifically taken directly from my mouth,” Brunson explains. In Episode Five, Janine asks Ava, “What happened?” when a difficult student is transferred from another classroom to hers. Ava, who should know why, dismissively responds, “Girl, I don’t know, things happen all day.”

Brunson is also looking forward to building the characters’ relationship with the city of Philadelphia. “So in Philly, hookah bars are big,” she says. She imagines having Janine and a coworker ending up at the same hookah bar — specifically Gregory Eddie (played by Tyler James Williams of Everybody Hates Chris fame), a serious and talented substitute first-grade teacher who seems a bit smitten with Janine before developing another love interest.

“Gregory’s not a nerd like Janine. He is nerdy, but he has friends outside of [Abbott]. And he has game. Philly’s a small city. So, they could still wind up with the same hookah bar, from two totally different places.”

If we’re lucky, Brunson will be making Abbott Elementary for quite some time. She wants to be a mother, but is thinking she’ll hold off on that. “I don’t know if I’m stopping the train anytime soon to do it,” she says. “I want to be able to be there with the child. I don’t want to have a baby and then go back to work. I would love to take a year or two off to be able to be with a child. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do that.”

She just moved into a four-bedroom house with her partner, an upgrade from the Studio City condo they shared. It has a pool that she’s looking forward to using more. It allows friends and family to stay with her when they need to. And it’s not too far from her favorite amusement park, so she can eat, drink, ride, and dream as much as she wants.

When Brunson brings me to Universal Studios Hollywood, it’s Easter Sunday and very busy, which she jokingly finds sacrilegious. She’s something of an expert on the park and professes to know the grounds like the back of her hand. “Fun fact, I’ve been almost kicked off the [studio tour] tram before,” Brunson had explained. “The [guide] got one of the facts wrong, and I was like, ‘That’s not accurate.’ She was like, ‘OK.’ Then at the end she was like, ‘Hi  … Quinta?’ She knew who I was from BuzzFeed. She was like, ‘We actually don’t encourage that. I didn’t really say anything because it was the middle of the tour, but please don’t do that.’”

I had been encouraged by Brunson’s reps to secure a VIP escort for the day at Universal, to fast-track us through rides and minimize disruptions. Given how often Brunson was still recognized, it was a good idea. Our guide, a generous and knowledgeable man named Bobby, had been working at the park for nearly a decade. He seemed impressed with Brunson’s preprepared run of show for getting through the attractions. “I love this,” he says after she outlines her schedule of rides.

Throughout my time with Brunson, she managed to attract the kind of low-fidelity, real-life humor that defines her work. Strangers seemingly couldn’t help but interrupt us with their own unique quirks, almost like they were auditioning for a background role on Abbott. As we head to the Transformers ride, a man shouts “Ooh, he got money!” toward us, gleefully quoting the 2014 viral video that perhaps started things off for Brunson. Later that same afternoon, we’re cut in on by very-dedicated actors playing Dracula and Doc Brown from Back to the Future, who stop by our lunch table.

Then, there is the middle-aged woman who approaches us softly as we are eating. Her face is framed by blond, red, and brown braids, pulled back into a ponytail, and she has braces on her teeth. Brunson was talking to me about when she realized she wanted to make television shows, but she stops herself mid-sentence to greet the woman.

“I love it,” the woman says with a quiet Southern drawl and a big smile.

“Thanks, girl,” Brunson responds quickly.

“My son noticed you because he wants to be a teacher and he loves your show,” the woman continues. “He don’t watch regular TV because he don’t like commercials.…”

“Just like my niece,” Brunson empathizes.

“But he loves the show. Can I take a picture?”

Brunson kindly obliges, and I offer to take the photo. Brunson asks for the woman’s name — it’s Ramona — and introduces herself, too.“Is there anything in my teeth?” Brunson asks me. I check them out and assure her there’s not. I take two pictures of them. She asks Ramona questions about her trip — where her family is traveling from and how long they’ll be in town. Ramona and her crew are wearing Universal T-shirts with neon-pink lettering that look like they were custom-made for the occasion.

“Good luck in your career,” says Ramona as she makes her way back to her son. “I hope you continue to blossom. I hope you’re successful.”

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