Quinta Brunson has revived the sitcom — and she's just getting started

"I really trust in myself and my own Blackness."

Culture
ByJamal Jordan

Abbott Elementary is a show about a group of teachers in an underfunded Philadelphia school struggling to provide for their students. In almost every way, the odds are stacked against them. Budget shortfalls loom, the teachers struggle with authority over the students, the electrical wiring is liable to plunge the building into darkness, and the little money the school has is wasted by the principal, an aspiring influencer. And yet, the educators overcome these roadblocks to create a healthy — if very funny — education for their students.

Much like the teachers of Abbott, the show itself has beaten the odds and managed to single-handedly resurrect the half-hour network television comedy, a format many critics had long-declared dead. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, the show has broken ratings records for ABC and proved to be a critical darling, getting glowing reviews that paint it as breathing “new life into the mockumentary” and call it the perfect show for our time. And while Brunson was not a household name before Abbott, the widespread and breathless acclaim shouldn’t come as a surprise for those familiar with her earlier work with Buzzfeed Video (remember Green Screen?), or her one-season stint as a member of The Black Lady Sketch Show.

Brunson grew up in West Philadelphia as the youngest of five children. Her family watched sitcoms “constantly,” and it shows in her encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. Zooming from her home in LA, she effortlessly schools me on the history of television, comedy, and special effects, referencing figures and series as disparate as the Lumiere Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Martin, The Office, and Ace Ventura (while apologizing that her cat, Jack, insists on jumping in front of her camera). That deep well of cultural knowledge has informed her work, which has often involved trying to find completely new avenues of comedic expression.

“That’s the sign that someone should go into comedy,” she says. “If you grow up trying to invent new ways to be funny.”

As one of the pioneers of millennial internet culture, she did just that — and during the process helped define our generation's sense of humor. Now that she’s achieved mainstream recognition with Abbott, it’s clear she’s got a lot of lessons to offer about the art of comedy, as well as what it means to find crossover success as a digital-native creator.

The Process Behind the Punchline

Abbott is uniquely suited for our moment: It’s funny and extremely earnest, a relief from the very long list of terrible things we’re dealing with every day. “I wanted to make a show that was easy television,” Brunson says. “A lot of our television now is super long plot lines where you need to be there for every episode and every season to even understand what's going on. And I think maybe a lot of us really were just missing the feeling of pop in, pop out television.”

But under its simple structure, the series is grounded by something much stronger: A soul — the difficult-to-describe but meticulously crafted heart of the show, which gives heft to even the most subtle moments. Part of that she credits to the show’s mockumentary style. Stylistic choices such as lingering a bit too long on a character’s reaction, or sneaking a glimpse of someone when they’re “alone,” destroy the fourth wall, forcing the audience to exist more presently with the characters. “It allows you to be inside on the joke with them. … You get to be really in there with them, sharing their joy or sharing the absurdity of their situations.”

“My house was just a big comedy house, but my family didn't look at it that way, which is the beauty of network television: These were just things that were on TV that they liked to watch.”

Brunson seems obsessed with creating a sense of intimacy and community between the characters and their viewers. Lamenting the way that network sitcoms are moving away from “the inside joke,” she explains: “I think the best comedies of all time have a line in them that means nothing to anyone who didn't see the show.”

No soup for you!” I blurted out.

“Exactly,” she says, giggling. “Soul can turn anything funny.”

Well, almost anything.

“Guns don't make it into the show this season and COVID didn't because they're just not funny,” she says. “Our whole room starts with this mutual respect for teachers and their positions in our lives and what they were to all of us. … We did not even want to disrespect teachers by trying to make those things funny.”

From a “Big Comedy House” to Hollywood

Because each of her parents and siblings had different tastes, Brunson’s comedy diet was broad. The list of shows she watched (or, in her words, “studied”) as a kid is long: Martin; Roc; King of Queens; Saturday Night Live; In Living Color; Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; The Bob Newhart Show; Conan; The Mary Tyler Moore Show (“an old-head sitcom,” her parents’ favorite); Friends (the “new era” of 90s television, introduced by her sisters); Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; and The Kings of Comedy (introduced by her brothers). But one show seemed to have struck a specific cord: The Disney Channel’s Even Stevens, an early-aughts children’s sitcom that was distinct for its punchy one-liners, constant sight gags and lack of a laugh track (as well as launching the career of Shia LeBeouf.)

“It was another world of comedy,” she says. “It was still a sitcom, but made for a different audience.” When she tried to tell her family about it, “they were like, ‘We're not watching that white shit,” she says, laughing. But the series piqued her curiosity in different comedic forms, leading her to explore the work of artists like Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges, Moms Mabley, and, later, Judd Apatow.

“My house was just a big comedy house, but my family didn't look at it that way, which is the beauty of network television: These were just things that were on TV that they liked to watch. And I liked it and I loved it and I wanted to love what they loved.”

Unsure how to pursue her comedic dreams, she went to Temple University to study advertising. “When I was entering college, writing television comedy, [being a comedian], none of it was even an option. I didn't think I was going to be able to, I didn't think my parents would let me, so I did the next best thing.”

“Disgusted” by the ideology of advertising, Brunson eventually dropped out of school and got a job at an Apple Store in Philadelphia so she could save money to move to L.A. and pursue her creative dreams. In 2014, just months after Instagram introduced its video features, she produced a series of skits called The Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date (gifting us with one of her earliest catchphrases: “Ohhh, he got money.”) Shortly after, she was hired as a producer for Buzzfeed’s fledgling video operation, where her sketches quickly became a consistent source of virality for the company. As Buzzfeed’s ambitions (and riches) grew, she was promoted to “development partner,” further burnishing her profile. In 2018, after working on two projects with Buzzfeed Motion Pictures (for two now-defunct platforms, YouTube Red and go90), she set off for the world of linear television, pitching her first network pilot to The CW, The End of the World as We Know It.

Breaking Out of the Box

I posit that one of the main joys of watching Abbott is the pleasure of seeing a brilliant creative have space to express themselves freely, or as I put it to Brunson, “make something totally out of the box.”

There are a lot of things about Brunson that make her experience unique. She’s a digital-first creator, a multi-hyphenate, a Black woman — a lot of labels that can, sometimes, put someone in a box. Brunson, however, is deconstructing that box bit by bit. But how do you navigate breaking down those barriers without wasting all of your energy focused on (and talking about) “breaking down barriers”?

ABC/Bonnie Osborne

We laugh for a moment, but as she thinks on this, her tone becomes a bit more serious. “I guess I just really trust in myself and my own Blackness,” she says. “But then on the other side of that is, I would sometimes see the freedom that my white peers had and the way they got to operate. And I was like, ‘You know what? I'm going to do that.’ Something snapped in me two years ago. I was like, ‘I don't care anymore. I don't.’ Because I can't tell who's boxing who now at this point, therefore I'm removing the box.”

A member of the class of young, “outside the box” television creators like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Donald Glover, and Michaela Coel, Brunson and her work are part of the industry-wide shift toward embracing boundary-pushers of all kinds. But in her view, this is simply Hollywood returning to its roots. When I compare Brunson to Issa Rae, she tells me emphatically that, “her presence [in the industry] has made it easier for people like me. Executives are like, ‘we’re never going to let another multi-hyphenate go again.” Adding to her history lesson, she continues, “Many of the first film producers were multi-hyphenates. They [had acting roles] in their work. They produced and directed it themselves. So, I think [creative executives] had to get used to it again, and the internet is partly to blame for that.”

Together, we conjured an image of the not-too-distant future where the memes and videos of the internet’s earliest creators would find themselves on display in museums next to the work of early visionaries like the Lumiere Brothers or Charlie Chaplin. But, for now, Brunson is focused on building the world of Abbott, and further challenging herself creatively. “The box has not disappeared yet and it won't for a while,” she says. “But I think it's important to keep pushing the boundaries of the box … and seeing what we can do and what we can be, instead of what we're told to do and told to be.”