And if you don’t know Brunson at all? That will probably change soon, as her latest project marks a foray into what is arguably her most mainstream platform yet: network television. The Philadelphia native created the new ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” in which she stars as a second-grade teacher at an underfunded public school in the city alongside actors Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tyler James Williams and Lisa Ann Walter. The mockumentary, which aired its third episode Tuesday night, has garnered rave reviews and already attracted tons of buzz online.
It’s only a matter of time before Brunson is memed once again, but as the earnest teacher Janine Teagues.
Brunson chatted with The Washington Post over Zoom this month about her unique career in comedy, the rewarding process of creating “Abbott” and her personal connection to Janine’s story.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Q: Tell me about the origin of this story.
A: My mom is a teacher, so that informed a lot of it. I went to visit her about three or four years ago, before she retired, and I was at school with her at night. It was an open house night and they had her staying until 8 o’clock. I was just like, “You should not be here.” My mom’s school isn’t in a great neighborhood. It was 7:58 and one parent walks in, and I’m actually upset. Like, “How dare you? You had all day.” My mom did not care. She sat down and had the parent-teacher conference with that woman while her son played with blocks in the corner. I was just sitting at my mom’s desk watching it, and I was like, “This is what I would like to spend my energy on.”
I just love a good workplace comedy. My mom has had so many funny stories and so many funny characters who — you know, she doesn’t even find this stuff funny. But she told me stuff and I was like, “Mom, this is hilarious.”
Q: The show is quite uplifting, even though the characters are dealing with heavy things. How did you navigate the kind of comedy you wanted to do here?
A: I wanted to make the audience fall in love with the workplace, and I wanted the comedy to feel like you, the audience member, were working at Abbott, too. That informed the mockumentary style — a style I’m already obsessed with, but I think the reason I love it so much is because it makes you feel as if you’re there.
Especially with subject matter like this, I think it’s important for the audience to feel like they’re in on an inside joke with our show. If I say to you right now, “No soup for you,” that only means something to you because you’ve seen “Seinfeld,” too. And if you haven’t seen “Seinfeld,” then that means diddly squat to you. To me, the best jokes are inside. They can only live in the world and the soul of that show.
Q: Not only did you create “Abbott,” but you also star in it and produce it. What was it like to take this all on?
A: I created and developed it along with Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker, my executive producers, and wrote the pilot, which was a really great experience. Honestly, I may be one of the few people in the world who loved their development process. It feels so rare but Warner Bros. and ABC were excellent partners. Everything they suggested only heightened it, and they listened to me. It was really valuable.
Randall Einhorn, who is the director for the first four episodes and the finale, he joined us as an EP. He fell in love with the show, and he wanted to be here. One thing that’s great about Randall is that his work helped pioneer the American mockumentary style with “The Office,” and he kind of helped launch “Parks and Recreation,” too. Sometimes I wonder where we would’ve been without him.
Q: Even in the first few episodes, your character’s relationship with the older, more experienced teacher played by Sheryl Lee Ralph is really compelling. What was it like to work with her?
A: Sheryl came from a lot of multi-cams. Also, she’d never seen “The Office.” She’d never even seen a mockumentary show. Her finding a balance between what makes her fantastic and now tweaking that for the more subtle reality of a mockumentary style show, she found something that I honestly find brilliant.
She’s got to stretch muscles on this show she hasn’t gotten to stretch in years. Sometimes what happens with older actors — especially older Black actors — is people just start hiring you to come be yourself. They’re not giving you compelling work, especially in comedy. They’re hiring you to come be yourself and “do that thing you do.” Sheryl is pushing into new zones, and she told me that it feels so good to do at her age.
Q: Do you feel your background of creating your own videos online has influenced how you view network television and approach the show itself?
A: I’ve always really loved network comedies. That love never went away. I love 22-minute sitcoms. I even love the commercials. And I love the idea of a television show that is for everyone. My favorite shows are shows that were for everyone: “Martin,” “King of Queens,” “The Office.” You would think that maybe because of my digital background and just being a millennial, maybe I would have veered toward streaming or cable, and I kind of did at first. I was playing around in those worlds and was like, “You know, what I really want to do is make a sitcom for network television.”
Network television is clearly not dead. It’s still sitting there. Watching people kind of revitalize the genre in recent times — like with “The Good Place,” it was really inspiring to me to see that take place on network television. “Ted Lasso” is not the same, but it’s almost in the vein of a network show. I was just like, “This can be done.”
I think my experience at BuzzFeed — BuzzFeed was very for everyone, and the stuff I made was made so that anyone could relate to it and share — definitely informed a lot of my love of creating in that way.
Q: What was behind your decision to leave BuzzFeed? It was in 2018, right?
A: Yeah, 2018. BuzzFeed was a 9-to-5 job at the end of the day. People look at it as something else, but it was a 9-to-5 job. When I started exploring options outside of that 9-to-5 job and they started panning out, I just simply could not work that 9-to-5 job anymore. I was like, “Well, I saved enough money and I wanted to go out there and try my hand at creating in the Wild Wild West.” You know, make a pilot that never sees the light of day.
Q: BuzzFeed, especially at that time, felt like it was part of a media landscape where people were throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. What was it like to transition from that environment to setting out on your own to make a name for yourself?
A: It was like leaving one Wild Wild West to go to another one. For me, it was a very positive experience. I didn’t go to college for television and film, or even writing. I went to school for advertising. For me, it was my college, my on-the-job training. You just said it: “Throwing [stuff] at the wall, does it stick? Does it stick?” … “Does it work? Does it not? If it doesn’t, I’ll tweak it, I can delete it, we can learn and try again.” That’s so valuable.
That’s such a fantastic learning experience for people like me, and I think it was such a fantastic learning experience for people like Issa Rae and Donald Glover and Bo Burnham. We then were part of this new corporate version of it because of things like BuzzFeed and HuffPost and things that were more corporate Internet. But you know, that taught me some things, too. I’m personally grateful for the time. That time had a lot of issues as well, though, so.
Q: You mentioned Issa Rae, and I saw you tweet around the time of the “Insecure” series finale about how you appreciated the way she opened doors for people. Do you feel like you’ve gotten to a place in your career where you’re able to do that as well?
A: Yeah, absolutely, because I think opening doors is more simple than people make out. The way I’ve seen Issa do it personally is simply that, if Issa likes something or someone, she talks about them, just casually mentioning the work and the people she thinks are fantastic. That kind of stuff matters.
In many ways, I feel that I’m able to do the same now. I’m constantly just bringing up peers, people I think are incredible in comedic fields. Even in this show, I’m really excited that I’ve gotten to showcase people who I think are cool. Not just celebrities — people who I personally, Quinta Brunson, think are the funniest comedians in the world.
Q: “Abbott” also showcases teachers at a time when there have been a lot of conversations over whether school should be remote or in person. Something I’ve felt is lacking from a lot of the punditry is the consideration of teachers as people, as human beings. Does it feel any more significant for the show to be coming out right now?
A: It’s crazy, “Abbott” was developed even before the pandemic, and I feel like so many people gained a new appreciation for teachers during the pandemic — especially parents who had their one kid at home and were like, “You are crazy.” The teacher is dealing with that kid and 20 others at the same time. Imagine. It’s insane. A small part of my goal with this show, other than to make people laugh, was to elaborate that, look, these people have lives. As the show goes on, we bring more of their lives into the school. Not only are they doing this job, they’re dealing with divorce or dealing with a crap boyfriend like Janine.
That’s what I would see, too, with my mom. She’s doing her job, meanwhile she’s getting a call on her phone about something happening in her family life. But she still has to do this job. They’re just fully fleshed-out people, and I hope and think that’s what the show is doing already.