Quinta Brunson has earned three Emmy nominations for: Abbott Elementary — one as the show’s executive producer, one to write the pilot, and one for her starring role as Janine, an idealistic and ambitious young teacher at an elementary school in Philadelphia. The ABC sitcom is the only network show to earn a series nomination — it also earned nods to supporting actors Janelle James, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Tyler James Williams — and was a breakthrough hit last season thanks to its sharp wit and endearing ensemble cast. Brunson spoke to THR about how she developed workplace comedy, how she always conceived it as a network series, and how she folded real-life topics into the show’s storylines.
Did you feel like your show was going to be nominated for these Emmys from the start?
Not really – I just felt that Abbott was good. I remember a show I pitched… I thought, this is a show that would probably get a bit of a foothold in the first and second season, and then it knows what it is in the third season. But Abbott, felt so fully formed from the start. And once we started filming it, I started to think we had something unique.
Do you remember what that moment was?
We were editing the first episode [after the pilot]. I looked at the director’s cut and thought, “Wow.” Sometimes a first cut can be terrible. But with this the jokes hit, the cast was incredible. I started to think, “Oh boy. I think we could have something very promising here.”
Your mother was a teacher. How did her profession inspire this show?
I grew up as a teacher for many years with my mother. I went to school where she taught, so I spent a lot of time with her in the mornings and after school – just completely entrenched in school life. When I moved to LA I would go back to [visit] this institution I knew so well. l [started] look at it with a different eye. The familiarity stands out a bit more. I remember this feeling. I remember the smell. And I saw my mother’s colleagues get in and out. It struck me that my mother had always kept a certain group of colleagues around her. Her relationship with the director was always unique; the guardian always played a vital role in my life as I was a child who would stay at school until 5pm. I really like work comedies, they are just my favorite things in the world. I saw all the characters so easily, it was just so completely formed for me. My knowledge of this world [came] useful.
How did the ensemble come about?
Tyler was the only one who was completely on my mind. I even reached out to him and said, “I’ve got something I want you to keep on your radar before taking a show elsewhere.” Everyone auditioned. I was looking for an essence that was really not easy to write on paper. Janelle had it. Lisa Ann Walter had it. Chris Perfetti had it, which was a shock because he was the least formed character in the pilot. And then Sheryl Lee Ralph. I thought she was so unreachable that I didn’t remember her name. There was a world where I wish Barbara was [played by] a total newcomer. Someone like Sheryl, who is big, but not the biggest star in the world, appealed to me so much. There is a familiarity with her, but also the opportunity to present her to the world in a whole new way.
After you had your actors in place, did they inform you about the way you wrote their characters?
After the pilot, we had seven episodes ready before we started filming. We were done writing halfway through the recordings. We really need to write these characters as we saw them – the voices of the actors didn’t necessarily influence what we were doing, which I think was good. That helped us to trust ourselves for the second season. The writers know these characters. However, their voices added to it. I know how someone will say a joke in a certain way. We’ve seen their strengths and it certainly tells what we write.
I read that you wanted this to be a network series, rather than a cable or streaming comedy – which are more in vogue right now.
I wanted it to go where people didn’t go. I studied marketing; you can either create a new market or keep playing in the existing market. The streaming and cable space honestly felt overrun. Abbott wasn’t gritty or dark per se – I wasn’t interested in making it gritty or dark. I had to push this where it belonged, which is in the network television room. There are people who think this is a Hulu show, but it airs first on ABC and it’s reaching a different market for people. It’s still reaching the streaming audience, but it actually goes to the grandmas and grandpas first. That’s a strong audience there. I thought it made more sense to target them than to try to attack my massively oversaturated age group.
There is a beneficial Abbott Elementary. Do you think that’s part of why it found an audience?
I think so [is]. Abbott does a lot at once. It still works like a 22-minute network sitcom, but it introduces a whole new humor into the mix. All of us Parks and Recreation, The office fans turned to streamers and cable for a variety of reasons, and I think we’ve been kept out of the network. I’ve said this before, when so many people go to those other spaces and [showing] that younger people, millennials or whatever, can make these huge shows – which have opened the minds of the networks. I think I have the ability to translate my humor into any room, and I think that’s what network TV is for. Being able to reach a 14 year old and a 74 year old is a skill I have. There are other people with that skill. I hope networking continues to work with younger people. I’m 32 and I rarely meet anyone my age in the network TV world. If we make those connections I think there will be more shows like Abbott.
After the school shooting in Uvalde, you tweeted that you have no interest in writing a school shooting episode – despite some fans going so far as to demand one. Where do you draw the line with current topics?
I don’t start from that spot in the room. I think, what is a problem that concerns these people at this school? When I hung out with my mom, the teachers rarely talked about the news — or the coastal political elite talking points we see a lot of online. They don’t have time for that. These are not people who are on Twitter. They have to do their job and the world is small. In the new tech episode [in season one]where a new technology throws Barbara for a loop while Janine raves about it…that’s why we can say so much about how [technology] affects people of different generations. But really, the [episode] log line was small. I think you should start there. I’m not trying to tackle topics, I’m just trying to show what’s happening in this school today.
One thing that really stood out to me was the way the show revealed that Jacob, played by Chris Perfetti, is queer — not with a special coming out episode, but simply by introducing his friend as a different character.
There was originally another character who was queer, but the network felt we had too many characters. l [thought] that was fair. I really didn’t want to not having a queer character on my show – I just don’t think that’s realistic. There are so many queer people in my life, and they never had to come to me. I wanted the audience to feel that too. I was actually shocked to see a very small number of people saying, “I’m not watching the show anymore.” First of all, I know they didn’t stop watching. (laughs.) It is important to me to make people more comfortable in this world. I just want my friends to live here freely. I praise Chris who came on the show without knowing it [we would write Jacob as queer]. He immediately jumped on board. It was so incredible.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a standalone August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.