Television

Bringing the Workplace Comedy to School

A conversation with Abbott Elementary’s Quinta Brunson.

Quinta Brunson standing in character with a binder and ID badge.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pamela Littky/ABC via Getty Images.

How do you make the struggles of an underfunded school into a laugh-out-loud sitcom? ABC’s new comedy Abbott Elementary manages to ace that test, thanks to its creator and star, Quinta Brunson. She built the foundation of her comedy career online with her own Instagram series and later working for BuzzFeed, eventually landing a role on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Brunson to discuss the sitcom, and her unconventional path to comedy stardom. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: Congrats on Abbott Elementary. As we’ve said, you’re not just the star, you’re the creator. What was the inspiration behind this project for you?

Quinta Brunson: Well, one thing is I’m just a huge fan of workplace comedies. It’s my favorite kind of sitcom. I was obsessed with that dynamic of people coming together who would not maybe talk to each other if it weren’t for this workplace. So, that was huge for me. And then mockumentary-style comedies proved to be my favorite in the long run.

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When The Office and Parks and Recreation came along, I was like, well, this is extremely my jam. What made those comedies work was having a veil to go behind. And I thought, we know teachers. We have this one-dimensional version of them in our heads. But what’s behind that one dimension? I wanted to make it a little bit more on purpose, having a documentary crew in a school to show us what goes on behind the lives of these people we all know. One of the cast members on the show says, “Well, you either are a teacher or you had a teacher.” And I had seen other workplace comedies about teachers and stuff, but none that really went behind the veil in that way that I thought could be really cool.

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What’s interesting is that none of these workplace comedies have ever had this many Black people before. All we had was Retta on Parks and Recreation.

I know! And here’s the thing, Retta and Darryl in The Office… I don’t know, something about seeing people like that. Seeing our people in that format, I think that Retta and Darryl are two of the best characters of all time in my world. And I think it’s because they got to talk to us via that camera about what their life is at these workplaces. And I think that’s so special for us. We are people existing in a world where we exist as side characters. We’re reduced to our races and not our actual feelings and thoughts, so that really drew me to the mockumentary format. It was honestly one of those things where I was like, why haven’t we done this yet? There really wasn’t anything out there using this format yet with Black people at the forefront. People of color at the front. And yes, we have white characters in our show because that’s just the makeup of a Philadelphia public school, but none such stories where Black people were at the forefront.

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How did you pull together this cast for Abbott Elementary? You’ve got Tyler James Williams, who everybody loves from Everybody Hates Chris. You did a hilarious segment with him when you guys were both on A Black Lady Sketch Show. How did you decide that he was one of the main characters, and how did you fill out the rest of the cast?

First of all, the role of Gregory, I actually kind of wrote for Tyler. When I worked with him on A Black Lady Sketch Show, I just really enjoyed working with him so much. I talked to him about this show. He mentioned to me that he would love to get a series, just to have some stability. And I was like, “Hey, I think I might have a role for you. I’m writing it with you in mind and if you want it, I’d love for it to be yours.” So, fortunately, the network in studio were already in love with Tyler, so that was easy. Then everybody else had to be casted. I didn’t necessarily have someone in mind, and I also thought there was this opportunity for new talent.

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I think the other thing that makes sitcoms, specifically workplace sitcoms, work is new people for audiences to fall all in love with. Janelle James who is kind of a newcomer to TV, she’s a standup. She blew me away. Janelle told me that she had gotten the script and she DM me and she was like, “I just got your script and it’s funny. And I want to audition.” I knew Janelle as a standup, I didn’t even know she acted. I was like, “Hell yeah. Please audition. The more the merrier.” And she was it. It was this specific character. She got it. She got all of it. And having her was just like this dream. And the studio and the network saw her, and were like, ‘Whoa, where did she come from?’ And I’m like, I don’t know, but this is who it has to be. The discussion is over.

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Then Sheryl Lee Ralph was our last get. We were so fortunate. She had just come off of a show. We were having trouble casting Barbara’s character because I just needed a certain oomph, and Sheryl brought it. I think Sheryl had never been on a show like this before. Sheryl just came off a multicam, and Sheryl hadn’t even seen The Office. She had the essence and everything else was an on-the-job learning experience. Like, oh, okay. I’m on at all times? I’m always in scene because the camera’s catching things at all times? But she mastered it and now has developed what I think is a brand new, beautiful character to this format of show.

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So, that’s how casting went. And then my character, Janine, was brought about because I originally pitched this show based on Sheryl’s character, Barbara. It had no Janine in it. And the studio kind of said, you’re crazy if you think we didn’t buy the show because of you. I was like, all right. So, I developed Janine based off of good friends of mine who are pure optimists who get on my nerves, but without them, nothing would get done. There in how beautiful the world can be is what motivates us to create a better place. And I think that that was a beautiful character to have in a school like Abbott.

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I also grabbed your book, She Memes Well: Essays. And so I’ve been reading through the book, really, really enjoying it. And I want to talk in particular about how it has to do with Abbott Elementary. A lot of people, especially in comedy, they talk about how they hated high school, it was miserable. You were prom queen. I mean, you went to Charter High School of Art and Design (CHAD), you went to sort of a tech, science architecture school. But how did your experiences in what appears to be a pretty functional, good high school experience, how does that inform Abbott Elementary? Because most people say that high school was terrible and you’re not that person.

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I’m so happy you brought that up. My schooling experiences period, I had the most amazing teachers from kindergarten to high school. I had these teachers who cared so deeply. I had a teacher in sixth grade who actually the show was named after, Miss Abbott. She came to my house and picked me up because we were doing a pretzel sale, and my parents were like, “We can’t get her there.” And Miss Abbott was like, “Well, I’ll come get her. This is important. We’re going to make the dough. I’m teaching a lesson about food, and learning, and selling.”

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Those are the kind of teachers I had in my life from beginning to end. High school teachers that I can’t even go down the list of the way those people just cared about us. And so having a good experience informed what kind of show I would create. A lot of people I think have created school shows with the idea that no one wants to be there…the students, the teachers. Not me. People are doing this job or they care that much. They’re being paid pennies. This is just what they do. So, I was able to show that.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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