‘Abbott Elementary’ Showrunner and Star Quinta Brunson Wants To Tell Great Stories First and Effect Change Later

Quinta Brunson has earned three Emmy nominations for Abbott Elementary — one as an executive producer on the show, one for writing its pilot and one for her lead performance as Janine, an idealistic and ambitious young teacher at a Philadelphia elementary school. The ABC sitcom is the only network show to earn a series nomination — it also earned nods for supporting actors Janelle James, Sheryl Lee Ralph and Tyler James Williams — and was a breakout hit last season thanks to its sharp humor and endearing ensemble cast. Brunson spoke with THR about how she developed the workplace comedy, how she always conceived it as a network series and how she folds real-life topics into the show’s storylines.

Did you feel, from the beginning, that your show would be nominated for these Emmys?

Not really — I just felt that Abbott was good. I remember one show I pitched … I thought, this is a show that would probably find its footing a little bit in the first and second season, and then it knows what it is in the third season. But Abbott, from the beginning, felt so fully formed. And once we started filming it, I did start to think we had something unique.

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Do you remember what that moment was?

We were editing the first episode [after the pilot]. I looked at the director’s cut and was like, “Whoa.” Sometimes a first cut can be horrifying. But with this, the jokes were hitting, the cast was incredible. I started thinking, “Oh boy. I think we may have something quite promising here.”

Your mom was a teacher. How did her profession inspire this show?

I grew up with my mom as a teacher for years. I went to school where she taught, so I spent a lot of time with her in the mornings and after school — just fully entrenched in the school life. When I moved out to L.A., I would go back to [visit] this setting that I knew so well. I [started] looking at it with a different eye. The familiarity pops out to you a little bit more. Like, I remember this feeling. I remember the smell. And I watched my mom’s co-workers pop in and out. I noticed how my mom had always kept a certain crop of co-workers around her. Her relationship with the principal was always unique; the custodian always played a vital role in my life, because I was a kid who would stay at school until 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I love workplace comedies very much, they are just my favorite things in the world. I saw all the characters so easily, it just was so fully formed to me. My knowledge of this world [came] in handy.

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How did the ensemble come together?

Tyler was the only one who was fully in my mind. I actually reached out to him and was like, “I have something I want you to keep on your radar before you wind up taking another show somewhere.” Everybody else auditioned. I was looking for an essence that really wasn’t easy to write on paper. Janelle had it. Lisa Ann Walter had it. Chris Perfetti had it, and that was a shocker because his was the least formed character in the pilot. And then Sheryl Lee Ralph. I thought she was so unavailable that I didn’t let her name cross my mind. There was a world where I wanted Barbara to be [played by] a total newcomer. Someone like Sheryl, who is big, but not the biggest star in the world, was so appealing to me. There’s a familiarity with her, but also the opportunity to present her to the world in a brand new way.

Once you had your actors in place, did they inform the way you wrote their characters?

After the pilot, we had seven episodes finished before we started filming. We finished writing halfway through filming. We got to really write these characters the way we saw them — the actors’ voices didn’t necessarily influence what we were doing, which I think was good. That helped us trust ourselves for the second season. The writers know these characters. Their voices, though, have added to it. I know how someone will say a joke a certain way. We’ve seen their strengths, and it definitely informs what we write.

I’ve read that you wanted this to be a network series, rather than a cable or streaming comedy — which are more in vogue right now.

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I wanted it to go where people weren’t going. I studied marketing; you can either create a new market, or you keep playing in the market that exists. The streaming and cable space felt overrun, honestly. Abbott wasn’t necessarily gritty or dark — I had no interest in making it gritty or dark. I needed to push this where it belonged, which is in the network television space. There are people who think this is a Hulu show, but it airs on ABC first, and it reaches a different market for people. It still gets to the streaming audience, but it actually goes out to the grandmas and grandpas first. That’s a strong audience right there. I felt it made more sense to target them than to try to target my massively oversaturated age group.

There’s a wholesomeness to Abbott Elementary. Do you think that’s part of the reason it found an audience?

I definitely think it [is]. Abbott does a lot at the same time. It still operates as a 22-minute network sitcom, but it introduces a brand-new humor to the mix. All of us Parks and Recreation, The Office fans went toward streamers and cable for different reasons, and I think we gate-kept out of networks. I’ve said this before, if so many people going to those other spaces and [showing] that younger people, millennials or whatever, can create these massive shows — that opened up the networks’ minds. I think that I have the ability to translate my humor to 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 out there. I hope that networks continue to work with younger people. I’m 32, and I rarely meet someone my age in the network TV world. If we’re making those connections, I think there will be more shows like Abbott.

After the Uvalde school shooting, you tweeted that you have no interest in writing a school shooting episode — despite some fans going so far as demanding one. Where do you draw the line with topical subject matter?

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I don’t start from that place in the room. I think, what is an issue that affects these people at this school? When I hang out with my mom, the teachers were rarely talking about the news — or the political coastal elite talking points that we see a lot online. They don’t have time for that stuff. These aren’t 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 is excited for it … through that, we get to say so much about how [technology] affects people from different generations. But really, the [episode] logline was small. I think that’s where you have to start. I’m not trying to tackle subjects, I’m just trying to show what is happening in this school today.

One thing that really struck 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 boyfriend as another character.

There was another character originally who was queer, but the network thought we had too many characters. I [thought] that was fair. I really didn’t want to not have 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 out to me. I wanted the audience to feel that way. I was shocked, actually, to see a very small amount of people say, “I’m not watching the show anymore.” First of all, I know they didn’t stop watching. (Laughs.) It’s important to me to make people more comfortable in this world. I just want my friends to live freely out here. I commend Chris, who came into the show not knowing that [we would write Jacob as queer]. He jumped on board immediately. It was so incredible.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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