How Quinta Brunson Hacked the Sitcom

Author: Editors Desk, Molly Fischer Source: The New Yorker
March 18, 2024 at 15:32
With a half-hour mockumentary-style comedy about teachers at a majority-Black public school in Philadelphia, Brunson created an old-fashioned, mainstream hit.Photographs by AB+DM for The New Yorker; Dress and shoes by Buerlangma
With a half-hour mockumentary-style comedy about teachers at a majority-Black public school in Philadelphia, Brunson created an old-fashioned, mainstream hit.Photographs by AB+DM for The New Yorker; Dress and shoes by Buerlangma
With “Abbott Elementary,” the comedian and writer found fresh humor and mass appeal in a world she knew well


In mid-January, two days after Quinta Brunson accepted the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her starring role on the ABC show “Abbott Elementary,” she was in a hair-and-makeup trailer on the Warner Bros. lot at 7 a.m. “I actually was a little late this morning, which I hate, but a pipe burst in my house,” she said. Her voice was still hoarse from a weekend that also included several galas and the Critics Choice Awards. At the Emmys, the television luminary Carol Burnett had presented Brunson with her trophy—she was the first Black woman in more than forty years to win the category. Onstage, Brunson had worn a pink crushed-satin Dior dress with a nineteen-fifties-prom-queen silhouette and proclaimed her love for her family, her show, and her medium. “I don’t even know why I’m so emotional,” she said through tears. “I think, like, the Carol Burnett of it all.”

In the trailer, Brunson sat before a mirror in a loose navy sweater, a Dior-logo print scarf over her hair. Lisa Peña-Wong, a nail technician, was in the process of swapping out Brunson’s glittery awards manicure for a simpler look—something more befitting Janine Teagues, her character on “Abbott,” an eager-beaver second-grade teacher who’s still finding her personal and professional footing. Brunson has a connoisseur’s appreciation for sitcoms, and for the constrained pleasures of a fictional world that stays nearly the same week after week. “Small growth is important, especially in TV, especially if that TV’s going to last a long time,” she told me from her makeup chair. First-season Janine did not get her nails done; third-season Janine does. “I think it’s what people are secretly signing up for,” she said.

Brunson is also the creator of “Abbott,” one of its executive producers and showrunners, and the leader of its writers’ room, all of which means that she has the final word on everything from costumes to punch lines. At the moment, a MacBook was propped on her lap, so that she could review an upcoming episode’s cold open. “The minute we call cut, somebody’s throwing a laptop in front of her,” one of her co-stars, Chris Perfetti, told me. “It’s astounding how much of the show is held in her brain at one time.”

“Abbott Elementary” arrived in December, 2021, as a midseason addition to ABC’s lineup: a half-hour mockumentary-style comedy about teachers at a majority-Black public school in West Philadelphia who are doing their best with the little they’ve got. The first episode finds Janine introducing herself to an unseen camera crew at the start of her second year on the job, wearing a nameplate necklace that reads “kindness” and a default expression of radiant, anxious positivity. Two years counts as an achievement, she explains, because most teachers burn out after one. Her young colleagues include Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), a handsome and taciturn substitute teacher with a sense of self-discipline verging on the eccentric, and Jacob Hill (Perfetti), the kind of white ally who talks about how he applied to Morehouse. The veterans on hand to advise them are Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), a genially mobbed-up South Philly divorcée, and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a regal, God-fearing kindergarten teacher loosely based on Brunson’s mother, who taught in the Philadelphia public-school system for thirty years.


Image may contain Face Happy Head Person Smile Photography Portrait and Adult
“Comedy—it’s wack to say, but it is kind of a religion,” she said. “It was, like, ‘This is it for me. This is what I believe in.’ ”Boa by Georges Hobeika

In its first season, “Abbott” set records at ABC for viewership across broadcast and digital platforms. From the beginning, the show had a distinctive mix: it was idiosyncratic but accessible, familiar but fresh, warm but not sweaty. Its success was seen as a sign of hope for an old-school model of TV. GQ credited Brunson, a comic and writer who came up on the Internet, with having “saved the sitcom”; the Los Angeles Times wondered whether she could “save broadcast TV.” Cute scholastic accolades abounded: “Somebody put a shiny, red apple on Quinta Brunson’s desk, because her ‘Abbott Elementary’ is schooling the competition,” a story in TheWrap read. In a landscape of quirky streaming projects and auteur dramedies, Brunson had achieved the unlikely—an old-fashioned, mainstream hit.

Donald Glover, a friend of Brunson’s and the creator of the experimental FX comedy “Atlanta,” said that “Abbott” made him jealous. “I always get in my way about making a simple, good sandwich,” he told me. “I complicate things.” Brunson’s show was a reminder of the satisfactions of saying, as Glover put it, “I’m just going to make a good-ass hamburger.” ABC signed “Abbott” up for a full second season of twenty-two episodes, which went on to average a noteworthy 9.1 million viewers each; the third season premièred this February. In 2023, the show’s art department rebuilt the school’s façade, replacing Vacuform plastic panels with an actual brick edifice on the studio lot, not far from the fountain featured in the opening credits of “Friends.” “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” the production designer, Michael Whetstone, told me, laughing. “But you have to do it on a show that you think is going to be around long enough to warrant it.”

Last summer, Brunson texted Moira Frazier, the head of “Abbott” ’s hair department, to say that her character should have a middle part this season. “In Black culture, there’s a thing called a bust-down middle part, and I just associate it with being a bad bitch,” Brunson said. “When I have a middle part, I feel like more of a boss than when I have my side part. This middle part, for Janine—it’s big.” In the trailer, Frazier situated Brunson’s wig and studied the result. Getting the middle part perfectly centered required vigilance.

Increased scrutiny, often with an almost possessive undertone, has become part of Brunson’s daily life. Her crushed-satin Emmys dress, for example, prompted a contingent of online observers to fret that she’d neglected to iron it. “I wanted to wear that dress,” Brunson told me, frustrated but also wary of seeming to complain about the hassles of success. “I’m not a hot girl who’s going to wear a hot outfit. I just want to show up in a dress I like that is comfortable for me, because I don’t want you to come to me for the outfits I wear. I don’t want you to come to me for being pretty, even, or anything other than a good writer.”

We took a short walk from the trailer to the “Abbott” soundstage—for longer distances, Brunson drives a yellow golf cart labelled “q-baby.” When we arrived, she was greeted by cheers and applause from her cast and crew. “ ‘The Bear’ is not a comedy!” someone yelled. (The FX show about a Chicago restaurant had beaten out “Abbott” for Best Comedy Series at the Emmys.) People were gathered in a staged school hallway lined with bulletin boards and glass-fronted display cases, one of which held a papier-mâché bust of Barack Obama. Brunson addressed the crowd briefly, saying that her Emmy had been “a win for the entire show.” She had the air of a team captain whose mind was already half on the next game. Afterward, she went to her dressing room, where a production assistant had left her a bag of Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Fries, with “Congrats!” scrawled across it in Sharpie.

Until recently, Brunson had a dressing room the same size as those of her co-stars, but this season she accepted the need for a larger one; she uses the space as an office, and sometimes all the writers squeeze in with her. The room was dotted with souvenir pictures of her with friends and colleagues at Smoke House, an old-Hollywood restaurant near the Warner Bros. lot. She finds it impossible to resist the photos that staff take of guests and then sell back to them for ten dollars. “To me,” she said, “this is one of the advantages of having money.”

She pulled a bow-tied pink Zara blouse and a pencil skirt from a rack. “Sitcoms, over the last twenty years or so, became a little bit more wish fulfillment, a little bit more glam,” she told me. Viewers tuned in to “black-ish” eager to see what Tracee Ellis Ross’s character would wear. Brunson saw the appeal, but, because “Abbott” depicts public-school employees, it was important to her that the characters dress with a degree of realism. “For Janine in particular, a girl who has a lot on her plate, and is ambitious,” she said, “knowing how to look exactly right is not the first thing on her mind.” Janine’s efforts at flair—bright patterns, chunky accessories—often fall flat. “I thought about myself much younger,” Brunson, who is thirty-four, said. “The things I wore in college were absolutely insane.” Brunson liked that the pink blouse looked a little prim, because in that day’s episode Janine, newly promoted, was being sneaky, meddling in the affairs of a substitute she mistrusts—minor high jinks on the periphery of the episode’s main A and B plotlines. “Sometimes I think C stories are the best stories,” she said. She occasionally tries to pitch an alternative: “What about, in this episode, if Janine’s not in it?”

Back on set, she and Lisa Ann Walter were shooting a scene of post-high-jinks contrition in Melissa Schemmenti’s classroom. Brunson’s position demands diplomacy—if she has comments on a scene partner’s performance, she’ll pass them to the director rather than deliver them herself. After a few takes, the episode’s director, Jen Celotta, one of several veterans of “The Office” who have worked on the show, sounded almost apologetic for not having more notes. With Brunson out of earshot, Brittani Nichols, the episode’s writer, explained to me that they were stalling for time. A surprise delivery was on its way for Brunson, and they wanted to keep her busy until it arrived.

The “Abbott Elementary” set is supposed to seem as though it has survived decades of hard use: linoleum floors are scuffed; acoustic ceiling tiles are warped and water-stained. When the surprise delivery appeared, it looked like an arrival from another planet. It was also roughly the size of a planet: a dome-shaped arrangement, some four feet in diameter, of pink roses, hyacinths, and peonies, rolling down the hallway toward Brunson on a pallet steered by two crew members. “It’s bigger than you,” someone said, amid general clapping and laughter. “It’s literally bigger than me,” Brunson, who is four feet eleven, said. Her colleagues began to sing “Happy Emmys to You.” She opened the card. “From Oprah,” she read. “Dear Quinta, And still you rise, and make history. Oprah Winfrey.” Brunson posed for a picture standing behind the flowers, only her smiling face and her middle part peeking over the top.

Shooting was finished by 11:30 a.m. “I never wrap this early,” Brunson said. Later, she told me she was a little sorry that my time with her in the days that followed the Emmys had been unrepresentative. These were “very, very, very, very easy, light days,” she said. I mentioned her assessment to Tyler James Williams, her co-star and friend. The whole cast had been exhausted and running on adrenaline, he told me. Calling it easy? “See, that’s the flex,” he said.

The bouquet, once photographed, became a conundrum. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this—bring it home?” Brunson wondered aloud. (She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her husband, Kevin Jay Anik, who works in California’s legal-cannabis industry.) In the end, she had it moved to the “Abbott” production offices, where it loomed over that afternoon’s table read. Afterward, cast and crew members plucked flowers to take home, and by the next day all that remained were a few blocks of green florist’s foam.

“Abbott Elementary” débuted at a moment when teachers and their work were the subject of politicized debate. covid closures had brought new attention to the role of public schools; the right-wing group Moms for Liberty was just starting to agitate against classroom discussions of race, gender, and sexuality. The show didn’t address such topics directly—there was no talk of, say, mask mandates or book bans. Yet, by situating the action in the present and taking up the ordinary daily challenges of teaching, “Abbott” presented an implicit argument for the profession’s significance, and its dignity. The month the series premièred, a video shot at a South Dakota hockey arena went viral: it showed teachers on their hands and knees scrambling for dollar bills to buy school supplies. In a culture that produced such spectacles, “Abbott” offered a humanizing perspective.

Image may contain Clothing Dress Adult Person Cup Formal Wear Electrical Device Microphone Footwear and Shoe
Her taste and instincts defined the show from the start. “I think the one thing she may have acquiesced to on the pilot is being the star,” one producer said.Dress by Harbison; Shoes by Brandon Blackwood; Jewelry by Georgina Jewelry

Still, success has come with an expectation that the show will speak on behalf of teachers, or dramatize such charged public issues as school shootings. “I’ve loved Spider-Man since I was a little girl, but I’ve started to love him even more lately because I get it,” Brunson told me, referring to the superhero’s attempt at early retirement. “Back in the day, I was, like, ‘Why is he dumping the suit?’ I get it. You have to carry New York on your back and you did not sign up for that.” Representation can mean that people claim you as their representative. “Especially being a Black woman, you carry a lot of responsibility,” she said. “With that responsibility, I still need to be able to do what I want to do.”

She has known what she wanted to do with “Abbott” from the beginning. In the pilot, one of Janine’s students pees on her classroom’s story-time rug, rendering it unusable—a problem that is ultimately solved because Melissa knows a guy working on the Philadelphia Eagles’ stadium renovation, who snags discarded team-logo rugs for all the teachers. (“I hate to be corny and ‘Sex and the City’ about it, but Philly totally is a character in the show,” Brunson told an audience recently.) Midway through the episode, there’s a scene in which Janine and Gregory meet in a bathroom and contend with a malfunctioning toilet. Justin Halpern, an executive producer and showrunner on “Abbott,” remembers saying to Brunson that he thought the scene could be cut for time. “And she was, like, ‘I think this is going to be one of the most important scenes in the script,’ ” he told me. Audience testing proved her point: viewers loved the interaction, which showed the beginning of Gregory and Janine’s slow-building attraction. “She was a thousand per cent right,” Halpern said. The episode won Brunson her first Emmy, for writing.

Erin Wehrenberg runs comedy programming at ABC, and she recalls being particularly struck, when Brunson first pitched the show, by the “very moving” relationship between Brunson’s character and Barbara, whom Janine idolizes and strives to enlist as a mentor. “It was really evident that Barbara was her mom now and Janine was her mom young,” Wehrenberg said. Brunson herself understands the correspondences more broadly. “Six different characters on ‘Abbott’ are six different ways of showing people who I am,” she told me.

Abbott’s principal, Ava Coleman (Janelle James), is a wily narcissist who blackmailed her way into the job and keeps a ring light in her office for TikTok shoots. Ava is also the show’s resident insult comic, and Janine is her preferred target. Ava makes fun of Janine’s height; she makes fun of her clothes; she calls her Lori Leftfoot when they co-lead a step class. In one episode, Ava comes upon Janine pacing and absent-mindedly clapping her hands. “You psyching yourself up to be yourself today?” Ava asks. Especially at the beginning, “the meanest jokes about Janine in the show were written by Quinta,” Halpern told me.

When “Abbott Elementary” premièred, broadcast comedy looked like unpromising terrain. Audiences still showed up for the networks’ talent shows and procedurals, but the entertainment Zeitgeist was drifting away from traditional prime time. An ambitious young comedian circa 2021 was more likely to aspire to the creative freedom offered by cable or a streaming platform, where a showrunner could make an eight-episode season replete with swearing and formal experimentation, find a niche audience, and be praised as “revolutionary,” or at least “edgy.” But the network sitcom—even as the staginess of classic multi-camera shows had given way to more dynamic single-camera productions—remained a rule-bound form, a twenty-two-minute sestina, with fixed beats and commercial breaks.

Brunson was a dedicated student of the genre. “I watch everything,” she told me, by which she meant everything from “The Andy Griffith Show” to “That’s So Raven.” She has an encyclopedic knowledge—she knows the pilot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” by heart—gleaned from endless rewatching. Larry Wilmore is something like the dean of Black comedy writers in TV, a force behind such influential shows as “In Living Color” and also a mentor to Issa Rae and Robin Thede. “I worked on ‘The Office,’ ” Wilmore told me. “But Quinta knows it better than I do.” Brunson had made plans to meet Norman Lear, arguably the architect of the modern sitcom, before he died, last December, and she spoke wistfully of missing her chance. “My biggest influences are network TV,” she said. “When a new network show comes out, I’m on the couch, hoping that it’s good. Often being disappointed. But I want it to be good.”

The old-fashioned sitcom offers viewers the illusion of a place where everybody knows your name, and the comfort of an onscreen camaraderie that deepens over time. This comfort has to feel easy, but it is not, in fact, easy to achieve. Brunson was inspired by such predecessors as “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office,” combining their mockumentary structure with a flood of Internet-friendly pop-culture references. It took a full season of “Parks”—also a workplace show with a perky protagonist—for viewers to figure out how they were supposed to relate to its main character, Leslie Knope. Janine’s exasperating lovability, by contrast, was clear immediately.

Sitcoms set in schools (“The Facts of Life,” “Saved by the Bell”) have tended to focus on students’ antics—“Welcome Back, Kotter” may have been named for a teacher, but its breakout star was John Travolta, who played a teen-age lunkhead. More recently, comedies centering on teachers, such as the short-lived NBC series “AP Bio” or the film “Bad Teacher,” found sour humor in their distaste for the job. Yet, in Brunson’s experience, teachers loved what they did. In 2018, she was a young TV writer in L.A., visiting home and hanging around her mother’s classroom, when the idea for “Abbott Elementary” came to her: a workplace comedy set in a school. Originally, Brunson called her show “Harrity Elementary,” for the place where her mother worked.

The denizens of “Abbott Elementary” have sitcom problems (misguided plans, embarrassing secrets) that find sitcom resolutions (humbling failures, lessons in empathy). But their world is anchored in the realities of public-school teaching, which give the show its texture and its stakes. “Abbott” depicts the ingenuity required to face a perpetual lack of funding and an intransigent bureaucracy, along with the unforeseen challenges presented by a roomful of kids. (“That’s what happens when you enforce a no-nose-picking policy,” one teacher, wised up, tells another.) The basic human question of “Abbott,” Brunson told me, is “Can these people move this rock up this hill?”

This could skew high-minded or overly earnest were it not for Brunson’s deep appreciation of the juvenile. She has absolute clarity about what she finds funny, which includes the critically reviled 2015 Will Ferrell vehicle “Daddy’s Home.” (She briefly fantasized about remaking it as “Mommy’s Home,” before being dissuaded. A friend’s verdict: “Aim for the stars, Quinta, before you aim for the ground.”) She has a soft spot for the entire Ferrell œuvre; one of the scenes I watched her film with Walter had blocking inspired by “Anchorman.” Such movies represent a golden era of cinematic stupidity, and “stupid” is high praise on the “Abbott” set. After all, “stupid” physical comedy stretches back to such predecessors as the Three Stooges and Buster Keaton, a legacy Brunson came to appreciate as a young comedy nerd. (She also took a clown class in college.) “She’s not afraid to let us run for the stupidest jokes ever,” Williams said, admiringly. Randall Einhorn, an executive producer and a frequent director on “Abbott,” told me, “One of my goals is to have Quinta say to me, ‘Randall, that is so stupid. Let’s do that.’ ”

Her taste has always defined the show. During the development process, Brunson was willing to say no to changes that ran counter to it. “I think the one thing she may have acquiesced to on the pilot is being the star,” Patrick Schumacker, an executive producer and showrunner on “Abbott,” said. “She initially wanted the show to be about Barbara.”

Brunson grew up in West Philadelphia, the youngest of five, and early on her much older siblings gave her entrée into the world of big-kid pop culture. Her sister Njia told Seth Rogen, on his podcast, that she remembers Brunson riding in her car seat, doing an impression of the Jamie Foxx character Wanda from “In Living Color.” Brunson quickly found that she could make her whole family laugh by imitating bits from the nineties sitcom “Martin.”

Brunson describes her parents, Rick and Norma Jean, as “searchers”—in their younger days, they’d been involved with the Black Power movement. They’d also been performers: her father was a gymnast, and her mother was a modern dancer. By the time Brunson arrived, though, they had become Jehovah’s Witnesses; while she was growing up, her mother taught kindergarten and her father managed parking lots. Brunson attended a formative elementary-school program focussed on Black history called Ahali, which was situated on the top floor of the building where her mother taught. She was an energetic child, so her mother signed her up for acrobatics and ballet classes. She liked both, but her early encounters with “Martin” and “In Living Color” had stuck. “Comedy—it’s wack to say, but it is kind of a religion,” Brunson, who left her parents’ faith at twenty-one, told me. “I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but it was, like, ‘This is it for me. This is what I believe in.’ ”

She was hesitant to tell anyone. “It was a farfetched dream for a little girl from West Philly, especially when most of my friends were planning on becoming nurses or teachers,” she writes in her 2021 essay collection, “She Memes Well.” “Even though all of my comedy heroes were white guys at the time, I still wanted to be exactly like them.” Her friends didn’t always share her interests, but she was popular, and she had confidence in her instincts. “My first venture in taste was ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ ” Brunson told me. She was fourteen when the movie was released, in 2004, and she left the theatre eager to proselytize. Her friends and classmates at the Charter High School of Architecture and Design were unmoved. “Finally, the DVD came out,” she said. “I brought the DVD into school and was, like, ‘This is what I’m trying to tell you all about.’ ” With a good student’s bravado, she persuaded her teacher to let the class watch it, and her classmates were converted. “I remember that being a moment for me,” Brunson said. “Being, like, ‘I know comedy.’ ”

A career in show business was considered too “worldly” by her parents—her mother pressed her to consider a more useful field, such as teaching—so Brunson enrolled in the communications program at Temple University, while continuing to live at home. Her family had always been close, but she began to feel the strain of her parents’ faith and expectations. “I remember intense fights with my mom,” Brunson said. “You could write a scene out of them. Like, did Greta Gerwig produce this fight?” She’d begun sneaking around to attend improv rehearsals, or to hang out in friends’ dorm rooms watching the radically strange Adult Swim sketch series “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”

“When I was young and in it, I didn’t know what we were fighting about,” Brunson said, of her relationship with her mother. “When I got older, I realized this was a person who’d lost a lot and didn’t want me to lose anything.” Brunson now sees her mother’s embrace of a faith with strict prohibitions on drugs as a way of seeking safety. At the time, though, the objections to her goals were baffling. “I didn’t understand! You’re the person who put me in dance classes—why are you mad?” They watched a lot of “King of Queens” together. “It felt like the only time we got on the same page was through TV,” Brunson told me. (Recently, she sent her mother a selfie from the award circuit with Jane Seymour, a.k.a. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.)

Brunson, taking a methodical approach to her ambitions, read Tina Fey’s memoir, “Bossypants,” and researched the career paths of comedians who wound up on “Saturday Night Live.” Everyone seemed to have passed through Second City, the Chicago comedy institution. Brunson used her savings to fly out for a weeklong improv course and lied to her parents about where she was. After the class’s final performance, the teacher pulled her aside and told her she ought to take Second City’s sketch-writing course; when Brunson said that she’d spent all her money on the first class, the teacher gave her five hundred dollars to cover the cost. Back in Philadelphia, she left school, took a job at an Apple Store, and began saving money to move to L.A. In 2013, she got a transfer from the Apple Store at the King of Prussia Mall to the one in Century City. She didn’t tell her parents she was going to California until after she’d bought the ticket. As she’d expected, they disapproved; for a time, she held out the possibility of finishing her degree there to reassure them.

Arriving in L.A. as a twenty-three-year-old, Brunson lived cheaply (“Bananas and Cup Noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” she said) and joined an improv group. She was still working at the Apple Store when a friend at the legendary West Hollywood venue the Comedy Store asked her if she’d be interested in performing there. The catch was that she would be up the following night. Brunson, undeterred, immediately began to recruit a lineup of sketch-comedy collaborators.

Kate Peterman, who went to college with Brunson and is now a writer on “Abbott,” was one of the friends Brunson texted, and she remembers the group arriving at the Comedy Store the next day. They assumed they’d be performing in the Belly Room, a small space upstairs, but no: they would be on the main stage. “Everyone got really, really nervous except Quinta,” Peterman said. Calmly, Brunson began making logistical requests. “It wasn’t mean or bossy,” Peterman said. “It was so direct—knowing exactly what needed to happen.” It was revelatory to see her friend in charge. “She was running the show from the beginning.”

That night was the first time Brunson did a character she called the Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date. The crowd was predominantly Black, which was important to her. “Black audiences are the hardest to make laugh,” she writes in “She Memes Well.” “If they didn’t like it, I had nothing.” They loved it. Brunson’s friends urged her to make a video sketch featuring the character. Over the next couple of months, the Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date became the subject of a series of clips shot with friends and shared on Instagram. In one fifteen-second video, the Girl waits at a movie concession stand alongside a man. Skittles, Reese’s Pieces, pretzels—Brunson’s face registers each new snack he buys as a scarcely believable extravagance. Finally, the date orders a large popcorn. Her eyes pop like those of a cartoon character who’s just seen an especially tasty pie. “A large?” Brunson says. “You got money—he got money! Get it all for him!” Brunson’s amazed expression and the phrase “He got money” soon took on new life as a reaction gif. (The skit has followed her: after the Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts had a cameo in the Season 3 première, one fan tweeted, “Abbott Elementary got money money!”)

In 2014, finding an unfamous stranger’s funny post on Instagram took work—the app was not set up to encourage virality. But Brunson’s follower count went from about a thousand to more than thirty thousand, and kept growing. Suddenly, she was navigating the economy of social-media celebrity. She could get paid to appear in character at events, which was lucrative but also, she eventually decided, “awkward and soul-crushing.” She could sell branded merchandise, but, ultimately, she did not want to be in the T-shirt business. Soon, she was getting spots in standup shows that she wouldn’t have had a chance at otherwise. She was conscious of her own inexperience. “Standup is a craft and a community and an art form,” she told me. “A lot of these Internet people would get up there and bomb.” She was realizing that she liked creating characters and collaborating more than she liked standing alone in front of an audience and talking about herself; standup, she said, was “not my method of storytelling.” When a friend of hers named Justin Tan asked her to eat Doritos in a video for BuzzFeed, where he had a fellowship, Brunson said yes.

Image may contain Face Happy Head Person Smile Photography Portrait Dimples Adult Clothing Hat and Body Part
“She’s not afraid to let us run for the stupidest jokes ever,” Tyler James Williams, a co-star and friend, said.Hat by Lynn Paik; Dress by St. John


Image may contain Face Head Person Photography Portrait Happy Smile Formal Wear Clothing Hat and Adult
“Six different characters on ‘Abbott’ are six different ways of showing people who I am,” Brunson said.Hat by PR Solo Private Archive

“International Doritos Taste Test” wasn’t much as a piece of comedy. But in 2014 BuzzFeed was flush with venture capital and positioning itself as the digital future of media. Brunson talked her way into a fellowship, too, and soon she and Tan were making sketch-comedy videos for the site. Each video had a budget of around three hundred dollars and offered, within certain tight parameters, “a hundred per cent creative control,” Tan said. “We would write it one day, shoot it the next day, edit it the third day, and it’d be online and be seen by millions of people.” One of their earliest collaborations was the 2014 video “If Everyone Acted Like the Real Housewives,” in which minor office conversations about forwarded e-mails and borrowed staplers degenerate into screaming, tears, and hurled drinks. Their 2015 clip “Wedding Season Is Coming” is shot in the style of a horror-movie trailer. BuzzFeed’s emphasis on relatable content made it a proving ground for the kind of mass appeal required in broadcast TV. “The Internet ate her up,” Tan, who is now a writer and director on “Abbott,” said.

At BuzzFeed, Brunson would casually walk into a boss’s office and ask to chat, according to Peterman, who worked there, too. In part, this was the preternatural self-assurance of a woman who would later bond with Oprah Winfrey over never having experienced impostor syndrome. But to Peterman it also illustrated Brunson’s basic view of the world: “She has never looked at people as anything other than exactly equal. There is no pity. There is no idolizing. Everyone is on the same level.” Donald Glover, who was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness as well, observed that, among former members of the denomination, “there’s an innocence that never goes away.” He added, “I don’t think she sees the barriers.”

Her time at BuzzFeed coincided with online publishers’ brief pivot to video—the boom period in the mid-twenty-tens when outlets pumped resources into short-form content they believed would find audiences (and satisfy advertisers). Brunson signed a two-year contract with the company, and began pitching scripted series to nascent Web platforms. “Broke,” for YouTube Red, followed a trio of twentysomething friends through such not-seen-on-“Friends” adventures as scavenging a bug-infested ottoman off the street; “Up for Adoption,” for Verizon’s go90, was a workplace comedy about pet-rescue volunteers. In one episode of the Facebook Watch series “Quinta vs. Everything,” the Quinta character, drafted to eulogize a great-uncle she hardly knows, lands on a solution: given his abiding love of Steve Harvey, she proposes a group viewing of “Family Feud.” “It’s what he would have wanted,” she tells the assembled mourners. “All of us, together, watching ‘Family Feud,’ rooting against the white family. Together.” Brunson was mapping out the comedic sensibility that would later inform “Abbott”: simultaneously wholesome and irreverent, with the affectionate yet deadly precision of siblings sparring on the family couch.

Larry Wilmore met Brunson when she appeared as a guest on “The Nightly Show,” where he was a host. (They wound up collaborating on a sitcom pilot that never aired.) Wilmore told me he was impressed with her ability to be genuinely funny while still seeming nice. “You never thought she was taking sides,” he said. As Brunson got more outside work, she decided it was time to abandon the “security blanket” of her BuzzFeed job. Issa Rae, who landed at HBO with “Insecure” after breaking through with her Web series “Awkward Black Girl,” told me that she and Brunson “bonded over being Internet girlies.” Brunson looked to Rae for guidance on the Hollywood establishment, but Rae thought she barely needed the help. “Where I identified as this socially awkward Black girl, she can talk to anyone,” Rae said.

Brunson took acting roles, joined writers’ rooms, and developed shows, and along the way assembled a roster of collaborators who would come together on “Abbott.” She met Halpern and Schumacker, her co-producers, when they cast her in a sci-fi-comedy pilot. She met Wehrenberg, the ABC comedy executive, when she was pitching a series that ultimately sold to HBO but never got made. She met Williams when they played star-crossed lovers named Rome and Julissa on “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph, who plays Barbara, the kindergarten teacher based on Brunson’s mother, first encountered Brunson on a studio lot, where Ralph was walking around with her twentysomething daughter. (On “Abbott,” Barbara has a daughter around Janine’s age—to Barbara’s dismay, she works in marketing at a liquor company.) “I saw this tiny young woman coming out of one of the doors,” Ralph told me. Her daughter “stopped in her tracks”: she recognized Brunson from her online videos. “She said, ‘Mom, you have to meet her. She’s going to be big one day.’ ” Lately, Ralph said, her daughter “does not waste a moment to say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

Brunson said that, when her own mother saw “Abbott,” “it was the first time she ever told me she was proud of me. I know she doesn’t think it was, but it was.” In the years since she’d moved across the country, Brunson and her mother had spoken on the phone almost every day; still, she felt as though she’d been trying to explain herself and failing to find the right words. The show, which was intended for an audience of parents, grandparents, and children alike, was a statement of her creative ambitions as well as a testament to how closely she’d been watching her mother’s work. Brunson said, “I remember my mom telling me, ‘I know who you are now.’ ”

On a chilly evening in February, Brunson was at the Whitby Hotel, in midtown Manhattan, for yet another award-season event—this time a screening for sag members. It was two days before the third season’s première; the “Abbott” cast had been nominated for a sag Award for Comedy Series Ensemble, and Brunson was up for Female Actor in a Comedy Series. (“The Bear” would end up taking both categories.) Brunson, wearing a black blazer and shorts scattered with big silver paillettes, arrived in the greenroom before the event began. It had been, she said, “a day.”

Her older sister Kiyana had brought her son and daughter (both of whom have appeared as students on “Abbott”) up from Philadelphia for a surprise visit. Brunson, at her niece’s encouragement, had just made a guest appearance on “Hot Ones,” a show in which celebrities eat increasingly spicy chicken wings while being interviewed. Her nose, she reported, was “still running.” At the screening, sag voters would watch an episode titled “Educator of the Year,” in which Gregory wins an award he feels he doesn’t deserve, because the Board of Education is eager to showcase a Black male teacher. It would be followed by a talk between Brunson and the comedian and actor Ramy Youssef, a friend.

In the time I spent trailing Brunson, she often asked whether the things she was doing were interesting and whether I was having fun. I’d assure her that it was all part of my job, but she seemed to feel that asking was part of hers. She takes her responsibility for others seriously—and sometimes this meant alerting others to my presence. Now, after Youssef arrived in the greenroom and started catching up with her, she interrupted him to say that a reporter was listening.

“I just wanted to talk about how much I love representation,” he resumed.

“Right, right,” Brunson said. “You do representation real good.”

Brunson seems to enjoy the talent-spotting part of her job. Last season, the rapper and comedian Vince Staples appeared on “Abbott” as a love interest for Janine. Staples’s own show débuted on Netflix last month, and he told me he was grateful for Brunson’s advice. “How to run a set, how to lean into the things you’re good at, how not to get easily offended,” he said. “A lot of people just tell you, ‘Oh, do what feels right,’ but she gave real insight.” In 2022, Brunson saw the comedian Sabrina Wu perform at the Just for Laughs festival, in Montreal, and was impressed, especially by a joke about coming out to their dad as trans. Wu also did a bit about having a rivalry with a Harvard classmate, the poet Amanda Gorman. “When I said ‘Amanda Gorman,’ Quinta playfully booed,” Wu recalled. Afterward, when they met backstage, Brunson admitted that she’d toyed with a story line in which Janine and Gorman were rivals. In Season 3 of “Abbott,” Brunson gave Wu a role as a substitute teacher. Recently, one of the show’s writers told Brunson that the third season’s lineup of guest stars felt like an alt-comedy show. She was pleased.

Brunson told herself that this season she’d be better about going home and getting rest, but it remains an elusive goal. “She runs on, like, five hours of sleep a night,” Tan said. Dinner with her husband is a scheduling feat. (“It’s a big deal—first date in a long time,” she told me, of one night’s plans to go out late for Korean barbecue.) “I want a baby, but I think I’ll either be the world’s worst mom or the world’s best mom,” Brunson said. “I’d want to be there for that kid’s every waking moment, but I also know how much I love work, and nothing keeps me away from work—and it worries me.”

The next show that Brunson hopes to make is about a teen-age girl coming of age—something for a Y.A. audience, and funny, but with reality’s rough edges. “I have trouble seeing where it’ll be made,” she said. A previous project she developed with the comedian Nick Kroll attempted to strike a similar tone; network executives seemed perplexed. She’d like to explore projects that are different from “Abbott,” and movies feel like an appealing counterbalance to the long-term commitments of TV. “ ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is the only thing I’d ever want to remake,” Brunson said. In her estimation, the Marilyn Monroe–Jane Russell movie is the first female buddy comedy. She loves Monroe’s comedic virtuosity (“The control she has over her mouth, her eyes?”) and also the movie’s high jinks—“It is so stupid.” She enjoyed Emma Cline’s novel “The Guest,” and can imagine how she’d adapt it, but that comes with a question: “Would they let a Black person—me—spearhead a movie where the lead is not Black, and the story is not Black?” She paused and considered. “Shonda Rhimes did it.”

At the Whitby, Youssef told me that he thought Brunson’s achievement was finding a way to combine the demands of her medium with the idiosyncrasies of her personal vision. “Quinta hacked network TV,” he said. It was a theme they returned to after taking their seats onstage. “I’m making TV for a wide range of people,” Brunson told the crowd. “While I’m making television for Black girls, for Black people, I’m also still making it for a white grandma in Kansas.”

She did it, she said, by accepting that not every element of the show would reach everyone. A case in point was the second season’s Christmas episode. It was, in some ways, a classic crowd-pleaser: Janine and Gregory’s tentative flirtation was in full view as the teachers ventured to a night club. Brunson was determined to feature DMX’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” during the scene. “This is what Christmas at Abbott looks like to me,” she remembered telling network executives, who were skeptical of the expense of licensing the song. “You guys don’t know how hard I fought,” Brunson said onstage. “Maybe that’s one time they were over me, because they were, like, ‘Girl, let it go.’ ” In the end, “Rudolph” played in the club. She described how, at a recent press event, one of the guys doing sound came up to her and said, “I love that you put in DMX.” The sag crowd applauded. “Some people watch that episode, they have no idea what that song is,” Brunson said. But she knew that some people did. ♦

Image may contain Photography Adult Person Electronics Phone Face Head Portrait Clothing Dress and Mobile Phone
“Where I identified as this socially awkward Black girl, she can talk to anyone,” the actress and comedian Issa Rae observed of Brunson.Styling by Ayumi Perry; Set design by Bette Adams; Hair by Alexander Armand; Makeup by Kasha Lassien; Manicure by Temeka Jackson. Jacket by Conrad Booker; Jewelry by W. Salamoon

Published in the print edition of the March 25, 2024, issue, with the headline “A Class of Her Own.”


You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second