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With a rare (read: unheard of these days) breakout broadcast comedy in ABC’s Abbott Elementary, a false narrative has emerged that creator and star Quinta Brunson came out of nowhere. In reality, the 32-year-old actress, producer and scribe spent the past decade charting a less conventional path to success — translating a string of viral shorts (Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date) into a staff gig at BuzzFeed, a turn on the first season of Robin Thede’s A Black Lady Sketch Show and now, one of the most talked-about new series of the year. “The way networks talk about expectations, specifically with sitcoms, is to not talk about them,” Brunson says. “It’s exciting to exceed expectations.”
A Philadelphia native who took classes at Chicago’s Second City outpost before migrating to Los Angeles in 2014, Brunson has been amassing acting credits (iZombie, Single Parents, Miracle Workers) while selling scripts — though nothing that garnered such a flood of attention. Her workplace comedy, set at an underfunded elementary school in her hometown, even has Hollywood talking about linear TV in a tone that doesn’t resemble pity. But during a Valentine’s Day Zoom from her San Fernando Valley home, Brunson just seems happy to be making content with something other than BuzzFeed budgets for once.
Abbott Elementary is a TV darling and growing upward of 300 percent in time-delayed ratings. I’m assuming, premiering a broadcast comedy in 2022, that you did not expect this scenario.
I hoped that after two seasons, people were going to be like, “Hey, anyone ever heard of this show?” The best recent sitcoms that I can think of, like Schitt’s Creek, didn’t start gaining traction until the second or third season — even The Office and 30 Rock didn’t initially make noise.
Naturally, you believe in your show — but why do you think the audience came to it so quickly?
I give ABC a lot of credit for that. They premiered it out of the Norman Lear special [Live in Front of a Studio Audience], and then they had the pilot up on Hulu for a month so people could watch it and then come back with us when the season started. There are some people who think Abbott Elementary is just a Hulu show, and that’s fine.
What was your first official job in entertainment?
I was a production assistant on Donald Glover’s “Heartbeat” music video [in 2011]. I was just desperate to get a job in Hollywood, and I am one of the few people that actually really enjoyed being a PA.
How much for-hire audition work have you done as an actress?
Part of the reason why I veered toward digital in the first place was because I just didn’t like the idea of auditioning. I had something against it, a little bit of a chip on my shoulder — but not in an obnoxious or narcissistic way. I just feel like if you don’t want me, then you don’t want me. I talk to fellow actors about the idea of being a social actor. When friends just call and say, “Come be in this thing,” that’s how I like to act.
Stand-up seems kind of like a constant audition. Did you enjoy it?
Being onstage is an adrenaline rush. At first, I was really apprehensive about doing it, but it helped me find that I have a natural ability to speak in front of a crowd. And even when I think I’m bombing, I’m not really bombing. That’s a really good feeling.
What jobs do you think helped prepare you for wearing so many hats on Abbott Elementary?
Selling shows prior to this one and learning from showrunners like Larry Wilmore and Michelle Nader. I also felt prepared because of my experience at BuzzFeed, where you are a producer on a lot of your own content — running small teams and getting them to execute your vision.
At BuzzFeed, you were talent and also kind of a development exec. How did that work?
There was all of this organic growth in different directions, because the internet was the Wild, Wild West then. It’s not like any of it was technically planned. It was all just happening. As we got the opportunity to sell shows to other digital platforms, that’s when it became more serious. A lot of us became development partners because we were developing IP for the company. I sold a show to Verizon go90, which doesn’t exist anymore, YouTube Red, which doesn’t exist anymore, and Facebook’s platform at the time … which I don’t think exists anymore.
Do you think starting that way, working with comparably smaller budgets and shorter timetables, made you more efficient working in mainstream Hollywood?
Absolutely. If anything, I had to adjust to having bigger budgets. There have been times where my EPs have been like, “Quinta, we can get props. We have a budget.” Some things are still so far-fetched to me. “What? We can just go there and film it?”
Tell me one thing that you’re still surprised that the studio paid for.
We make so many Philadelphia references in the show, and we got Jim Gardner, a local news anchor in Philly, to make an appearance. That just seemed like the most far-fetched thing in my mind. I was like, “We’re never going to be able to get him!” And Casting was like, “We can just call him and then pay him to be on the show.” I was so used to it being such a nightmare making videos and shows for BuzzFeed, because the rules of the internet are different about what you can and can’t say without paying someone — or showing something without permission.
What’s one common misunderstanding Hollywood execs have about digital talent?
That the talent coming up in digital doesn’t know how television works — and, for what it’s worth, I think there’s sometimes truth to that. It’s why I’ve encouraged digital creators to learn the landscape. Yes, it’s a creative medium, but it’s a business. It’s cool to come in and be like, “I’m gonna do it my way,” but you need to know the mechanics of how your field works. That said, some people feel digital creators don’t know what they’re doing — but there are many, like myself, who do know. We just started in digital first because that was more accessible, especially for minorities. We used the stage that was in front of us.
Speaking of your first stage, when I saw your original Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date eight years ago, I genuinely thought you were a woman caught on candid camera.
You’re not alone. Some people still think that. I saw someone recently commented on that video, and they still weren’t putting two and two together. They were like, “Wow, that’s so cool. Somebody plucked her off the street, and now she’s on a TV show!”
What was your worst date in life?
I got really dressed up, because I thought that we were going out to dinner. He picked me up and then drove me from my apartment to his house. He made spaghetti, just Ragu and some noodles, and then we watched Game of Thrones with his roommates. That’s the worst, but he wasn’t the worst.
You grew up in a Jehovah’s Witness family. How did that impact your pop culture intake?
Well, see, I was a bad Jehovah’s Witness. (Laughs.) I sought out things that I was not supposed to — but I will say that because of that, we watched a lot of family shows. And even those family comedies were edgy for Jehovah’s Witnesses, but my household didn’t care because we liked comedies. We were watching King of Queens, Martin, In Living Color and SNL. I valued shows I could watch with my family so much because of that, and I think it informed my love for network comedies.
No pressure, but where do you see yourself in five years?
I hope I get to keep making the show and … just stay alive, I guess? It’s tough out here. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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