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Quinta Brunson appears remarkably unfazed. Whether the creator and star of Abbott Elementary is plugging her project on a talk show or accepting the Emmy for best comedy writing over Jimmy Kimmel’s limp body, the 32-year-old projects an air that never leans too far toward humility or confidence. She’s simply making the TV show that she wants.
What’s earned Brunson so much attention, however, is the fact that what she’s doing is anything but simple. Before ABC launched Abbott in January, the suggestion that a broadcast comedy could overwhelmingly win over critics and pull in 7 million weekly viewers across platforms in 2022 would have gotten more laughs than plenty of half-hours. But, with her mockumentary spin on an underserved Philadelphia grammar school, Brunson has many in Hollywood reassessing what’s possible in this crowded market. That has led to a flurry of pitches for the sitcom savant to take on extra work, something she’s quick to dismiss. “I’ve narrowed it down,” says Brunson. “If it doesn’t serve Abbott right now, then I feel like I don’t have to do it.”
During a rare hiatus — ABC upped Abbott‘s order to a robust 22 episodes for its sophomore season — Brunson, THR‘s comedy star of the year, spoke over the phone about boundaries, the genre’s shifting landscape and her recent boozy run-in with Paul Rudd.
Are you feeling the difference between a 13-episode and a 22-episode season of TV?
Oh, for sure. I have never known the meaning of bittersweet so well. It’s amazing. It’s job security for a lot of people for a long time. It’s more Abbott for people to watch! But I was like, “Fuck, that’s so much TV!” (Laughs.) It’s not a concern of producing all of these stories — it’s about making sure that things run smoothly, trying to make sure my cast and I don’t burn out. Because it is a lot.
Is there anything you wish you’d known a year ago, before the show took off?
I felt very prepared for what was to come with Abbott. There was something about making a pilot, and everyone involved felt it. I did a pilot once where I was like, “Oh my God. If this goes, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I am going to hate my life. I don’t want to move to Vancouver. This show isn’t that special.” It would’ve been my nightmare if that pilot had gone. Whereas with Abbott, it was like, “If this doesn’t go, I don’t know what I have to give to the world because this is the best I can do.” I could see us winning awards. I could see us becoming really popular.
With that popularity, a lot is being put on your shoulders. You’re being credited with “saving” broadcast and the traditional sitcom. You’re representing women and Black women in Hollywood. You’re highlighting the institutional problems of the American educational system. Yet you asked for none of that. How do you navigate that part of the job?
On one hand, I’m super happy to represent very positive things to people. It makes me feel humbled and grateful. I try not to live in it too much because I think it’s a trap. I think perfection is a trap and I think branding’s a trap. But you can’t really control how people see you, good or bad. And so I don’t want to try. I really just want to make a good TV show.
It’s come up in a few interviews that broadcast appealed to you because of how accessible it is, and that it’s available in prisons. Have you gotten feedback from your incarcerated audience?
My relationship to prison is maybe different than most people’s. I know people who have been in prison. I’m one degree away from a lot of people who know someone in prison. I know people who are like, “Hey, I talked to my cousin in prison” — and it’s not for anything terrible — “They watch your show. They really like it.” It’s real direct for me, and that’s always affected my outlook on accessibility. People who are in prison, they’re just people. So I do not get many letters. I get straight-up word-of-mouth. And I take that happily.
What’s changed for you in the second season?
We did a lot of character development in the first season. And not that we’re ever going to stop that, clearly, but there are more opportunities to just be plain, flat-out funny. The audience knows these characters now. But I’m worried this season. Even though it’s my goal to not always be working on the serialized [elements], an episode will finish and I’ll be like, “Oh my God. Is this too broad?” It feels scary, in an age of deep art comedies, to do something that’s a little tongue-in-cheek, a little kitschy … and a little pointless.
Comedy is a big tent. Ten years ago, almost all TV comedies were joke-joke-joke.
Don’t get me wrong because I still think these darker comedies are hilarious. But with a lot of the comedies nowadays, you cannot just pop into an episode. You need to know. The same way you need to know what’s going on in Game of Thrones.
Now that folks are lining up to work with you, who are you most anxious to collaborate with?
Not to be corny, but I really enjoy working with my peers, people who are just across the pond from me or someone whose talent I think has not been put on display yet. Someone who’s already been in a few episodes [of this season] is Keyla [Monterroso Mejia]. I saw her in Curb Your Enthusiasm and did the first real producer-y thing I think I’ve ever done. I called her, like (in old-timey studio executive voice), “Hi, this is Quinta Brunson calling from Warner Bros. I want to put you in a picture!” I thought I had to convince her. That put me over the moon to be able to get her.
And what about household names?
Mindy Kaling. She has a little renaissance happening. I don’t think what she’s doing is easy to pull off, and I feel like people are sleeping on her. I get it, she’s Mindy Kaling, so they’re not really. But if she were a man, people would never stop talking about her. What she’s doing is really hard to pull off. Never Have I Ever has a K-pop-level standom around it, and Sex Lives of College Girls is just a really good fucking show that people can’t wait to come back.
Do you spend much time thinking about the career you want down the line?
I really admire Jordan Peele’s career, just for making the leap to a whole other genre and killing that shit. I don’t know if I’d necessarily want to do it, but it’s inspiring that he did. I love people who inspire me to feel that if I ever want to change my mind, I can. I think that’s what he proved, big time — especially as a sketch person. It’s not that you need the proof, but it’s nice to see someone do it.
You’ve said that a chance encounter with Paul Rudd inspired you to pursue comedy. Have you ever connected on this?
I saw Paul recently in New York. We talked about it briefly, but it was at a comedy club, and I was drunk, so I don’t even remember what we said. I know he knew about it and had told Seth [Rogen] that he didn’t remember. I didn’t expect him to! It was just him being nice to someone, and that makes a difference. You never know who you’re going to affect, just being chill and talking to them about the craft when they have a genuine interest.
OK, I’m going to let you go. Don’t overwork yourself with those 22 episodes.
Don’t worry, I won’t. I’ve turned down things people would never expect because I believe it’s more important to get rest.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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