“Right now, we’re all on such different pages in the world,” says Quinta Brunson of our increasingly stratified modern existence. “People usually use that to refer to politics, but it’s in every way. Our platforms, and how we communicate with each other, it just feels like everyone’s living in different worlds. So my goal was to be able to make something that brings people together.”
On visits back to her family home it was hard to pick something that would be communally enjoyed by her, her mum, or younger generations in her Christian family who may not all be able to stomach trending shows like Euphoria, where the director sprinkles genitals into its scenes like Salt Bae throws seasoning on steaks. “Network became old people TV, streaming became young people TV and HBO became pure raunchy TV, so there’s a lot of separation,” she adds. Without reaching back into the vault of 80s and 90s classics, the options for an intergenerational hit have been few and far between. Enter Abbott Elementary.
“I was at a restaurant and an eight-year-old ran up to me and started screaming that she loved Abbott Elementary and then I hear from Oprah who is asking what’s going to happen with Janine and Gregory,” she adds.
Building on the growing trend of comedic black women writing and fronting their own runaway hits (the ranks of which include Issa Rae’s Insecure, or Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum), Brunson plays Janine, Abbott Elementary’s slightly awkward but ruthlessly optimistic protagonist trying to do her best work in America’s ruthlessly underfunded education system. It deftly weaves hilarious gags, flourishing romances, and all the hallmarks of a great sitcom with a message about the importance of teachers without feeling like a show that only explores hard-hitting issues in a way that makes you feel like you’re being hit over the head with its political gesturing. That’s a tricky balance to achieve.
The formula is obviously working. This year saw a number of wins including an impressive sweep at the Golden Globes, the NAACP Image Awards, the Emmys, and Critics’ Choice Awards, alongside a stream of pictures of Quinta slaying in some of the best looks the red carpet has seen in a while. When we speak, she’s still bathing in the afterglow of the incredible awards season. She says: “The best part is seeing the cast win. Sheryl [Lee Ralph], Janelle [James], and Tyler [James Williams] – seeing Tyler win a Golden Globe was just incredible.”
Even though the accolades certainly don’t hurt, Quinta gives off the impression that her joy still lies in being able to sharpen her skills as a storyteller. Being inquisitive appears to be the key to her creative success. “I’m motivated to keep finding stories that aren’t being told, what stories don’t make it to air, and why aren’t they?” In season 2, her character is in a slightly messier place than usual. Recovering from heartbreak, the ruthless optimist is projecting an image of being OK while her life is in disarray. However, Janine is still pushing with all her might alongside her colleagues to fight for computers for the students, or accessible furniture for disabled children, and trying to level up her craft and therefore the pupil’s chances. The motivation for this heartwarming story is close to home for Quinta, as her mother was an inner-city teacher.
When we speak, Britain’s teachers are preparing to go on strike. “It’s incredible that it’s happening, teacher strikes seem to be harder to pull off here. I don’t know why,” she says. I explain as succinctly as I can about Britain’s flop era, the ruthless cuts to public services, and the heartening union action that has resisted Tory neglect with all of its might. She believes she needs a subscription to one of the UK newspapers to know what’s going on and I miss the opportunity to give her a sales pitch for a gal-dem membership. However, I do manage to slip in a suggestion for a strike episode into the next season of Abbott Elementary to spark a copycat strike across America.
“Strike episodes are so hard to write. King of Queens had an arc with a strike, it’s really tough writing,” she says.
“What about The Simpsons episode where Lisa is singing outside the cooling tower?” I ask.
“Simpsons is a cartoon, they get away with it.”
I suggest we continue troubleshooting this in the writer’s room but I really think we’re onto something.
“My goal was to be able to make something that brings people together.”
Her tapestry of influences are clear – for example, King of Queens comes up a few times as does The Cosby Show, and 227. You may also recognise Quinta’s face, voice, or humour from other standout projects like Netflix’s pubescent fever dream cartoon series Big Mouth, or as one of the video vixens that Thundercat fails to impress in his music video for ‘Dragonball Durag’ (a tune), helming many of the sketches of Black Lady Sketch Show, and also playing the aforementioned Oprah in the recent Weird Al Yankovic biopic. She knows her stuff and her phonebook only becomes more impressive as time passes. Has she ever spoken to Oprah in character as Oprah? “Absolutely not. I speak to her like I’m her child. I have so many mothers, there’s my actual mom, there’s Sheryl, then I have Oprah. I just keep adding,” Quinta says.
In February, to celebrate the release of Abbott Elementary’s arrival on Disney Plus in the UK, gal-dem hosted a preview screening of the show and a post-viewing Q&A with author and TV-writer Bolu Babalola (“we’ve never met in real life but I really like her”) about Quinta’s trajectory from the online content creator on Vine, Twitter, and Buzzfeed to one of the biggest names in network television. We unpacked how budding creatives can use the online space to power their career. Quinta reflects on how the online space created a community for people of colour trying to create interesting projects.
“I met a lot of people in digital spaces. Not all of my peers moved onto television but some have high positions in the industry at magazines online and print, high positions at Amazon and Hulu,” she says. “Naturally the people you communicate with on there become your network and as they work they continue to grow.”
However, she stresses that the key sea change in her career was really becoming passionate about studying the terrain. She feels the online realm is democratising the industry but doesn’t prepare you. “Yes people make it by accident but why not be intentional?” She studied the subject in college and majored in advertising which she believes helped. “They don’t teach that side to creatives when your work is essentially a 22-minute placeholder for the commercials they’re putting in-between. You can get mad at it or you can understand the way it works and how it functions.” She cites Issa Rae and Donald Glover as people who started on the internet but says that they still kept an eye on how to the business functions to learn how to navigate or disrupt it.
It feels like the Vine star-turned-TV wizz angle is one that Quinta is keen to refine, as well as any notions that her knack for virality impacts her writing of the show or means she tries to make meme-able moments – even though the shots of Tyler side-eyeing the camera continue to do the rounds as reaction gifs on Twitter.
“We can’t target online because that’s not a specific enough demographic,” she says. The writing team are mostly millennials so they naturally take in pop culture and know what’s in the zeitgeist. Quinta continues: “From the first season I was really keen on focusing on the human story above everything else. You watch The Mandalorian or Succession and they’re not making online bait. It’s just good solid compelling storytelling then you’re golden. You know Bridgerton isn’t going to start making references about fucking Nick Cannon, but the show is solid so it becomes something that people like.”
In other interviews, Quinta has remarked on the fact her mother is surprised by how many little details she seems to remember from her childhood, like watching her mum stress over teaching and advocate for student welfare; both themes that have popped up in Abbott Elementary. Picking her comedic brain, it’s clear that the key to her success is that she’s an observant and keen student. Now she’s blazing a trail for other dreamers to watch and learn.