How Quinta Brunson Hacked the Sitcom with “Abbott Elementary”

In mid-January, two days after Quinta Brunson accepted the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her starring role on the ABC show “Abbott Elementary,” she was in a hair-and-makeup trailer on the Warner Bros. lot at 7 A.M. “I actually was a little late this morning, which I hate, but a

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In mid-January, two days after Quinta Brunson accepted the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for her starring role on the ABC show “Abbott Elementary,” she was in a hair-and-makeup trailer on the Warner Bros. lot at 7 A.M. “I actually was a little late this morning, which I hate, but a pipe burst in my house,” she said. Her voice was still hoarse from a weekend that also included several galas and the Critics Choice Awards. At the Emmys, the television luminary Carol Burnett had presented Brunson with her trophy—she was the first Black woman in more than forty years to win the category. Onstage, Brunson had worn a pink crushed-satin Dior dress with a nineteen-fifties-prom-queen silhouette and proclaimed her love for her family, her show, and her medium. “I don’t even know why I’m so emotional,” she said through tears. “I think, like, the Carol Burnett of it all.”

In the trailer, Brunson sat before a mirror in a loose navy sweater, a Dior-logo print scarf over her hair. Lisa Peña-Wong, a nail technician, was in the process of swapping out Brunson’s glittery awards manicure for a simpler look—something more befitting Janine Teagues, her character on “Abbott,” an eager-beaver second-grade teacher who’s still finding her personal and professional footing. Brunson has a connoisseur’s appreciation for sitcoms, and for the constrained pleasures of a fictional world that stays nearly the same week after week. “Small growth is important, especially in TV, especially if that TV’s going to last a long time,” she told me from her makeup chair. First-season Janine did not get her nails done; third-season Janine does. “I think it’s what people are secretly signing up for,” she said.

Brunson is also the creator of “Abbott,” one of its executive producers and showrunners, and the leader of its writers’ room, all of which means that she has the final word on everything from costumes to punch lines. At the moment, a MacBook was propped on her lap, so that she could review an upcoming episode’s cold open. “The minute we call cut, somebody’s throwing a laptop in front of her,” one of her co-stars, Chris Perfetti, told me. “It’s astounding how much of the show is held in her brain at one time.”

“Abbott Elementary” arrived in December, 2src21, as a midseason addition to ABC’s lineup: a half-hour mockumentary-style comedy about teachers at a majority-Black public school in West Philadelphia who are doing their best with the little they’ve got. The first episode finds Janine introducing herself to an unseen camera crew at the start of her second year on the job, wearing a nameplate necklace that reads “kindness” and a default expression of radiant, anxious positivity. Two years counts as an achievement, she explains, because most teachers burn out after one. Her young colleagues include Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams), a handsome and taciturn substitute teacher with a sense of self-discipline verging on the eccentric, and Jacob Hill (Perfetti), the kind of white ally who talks about how he applied to Morehouse. The veterans on hand to advise them are Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter), a genially mobbed-up South Philly divorcée, and Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph), a regal, God-fearing kindergarten teacher loosely based on Brunson’s mother, who taught in the Philadelphia public-school system for thirty years.

“Comedy—it’s wack to say, but it is kind of a religion,” she said. “It was, like, ‘This is it for me. This is what I believe in.’ ”Boa by Georges Hobeika

In its first season, “Abbott” set records at ABC for viewership across broadcast and digital platforms. From the beginning, the show had a distinctive mix: it was idiosyncratic but accessible, familiar but fresh, warm but not sweaty. Its success was seen as a sign of hope for an old-school model of TV. GQ credited Brunson, a comic and writer who came up on the Internet, with having “saved the sitcom”; the Los Angeles Times wondered whether she could “save broadcast TV.” Cute scholastic accolades abounded: “Somebody put a shiny, red apple on Quinta Brunson’s desk, because her ‘Abbott Elementary’ is schooling the competition,” a story in TheWrap read. In a landscape of quirky streaming projects and auteur dramedies, Brunson had achieved the unlikely—an old-fashioned, mainstream hit.

Donald Glover, a friend of Brunson’s and the creator of the experimental FX comedy “Atlanta,” said that “Abbott” made him jealous. “I always get in my way about making a simple, good sandwich,” he told me. “I complicate things.” Brunson’s show was a reminder of the satisfactions of saying, as Glover put it, “I’m just going to make a good-ass hamburger.” ABC signed “Abbott” up for a full second season of twenty-two episodes, which went on to average a noteworthy 9.1 million viewers each; the third season premièred this February. In 2src23, the show’s art department rebuilt the school’s façade, replacing Vacuform plastic panels with an actual brick edifice on the studio lot, not far from the fountain featured in the opening credits of “Friends.” “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” the production designer, Michael Whetstone, told me, laughing. “But you have to do it on a show that you think is going to be around long enough to warrant it.”

Last summer, Brunson texted Moira Frazier, the head of “Abbott” ’s hair department, to say that her character should have a middle part this season. “In Black culture, there’s a thing called a bust-down middle part, and I just associate it with being a bad bitch,” Brunson said. “When I have a middle part, I feel like more of a boss than when I have my side part. This middle part, for Janine—it’s big.” In the trailer, Frazier situated Brunson’s wig and studied the result. Getting the middle part perfectly centered required vigilance.

Increased scrutiny, often with an almost possessive undertone, has become part of Brunson’s daily life. Her crushed-satin Emmys dress, for example, prompted a contingent of online observers to fret that she’d neglected to iron it. “I wanted to wear that dress,” Brunson told me, frustrated but also wary of seeming to complain about the hassles of success. “I’m not a hot girl who’s going to wear a hot outfit. I just want to show up in a dress I like that is comfortable for me, because I don’t want you to come to me for the outfits I wear. I don’t want you to come to me for being pretty, even, or anything other than a good writer.”

We took a short walk from the trailer to the “Abbott” soundstage—for longer distances, Brunson drives a yellow golf cart labelled “Q-BABY.” When we arrived, she was greeted by cheers and applause from her cast and crew. “ ‘The Bear’ is not a comedy!” someone yelled. (The FX show about a Chicago restaurant had beaten out “Abbott” for Best Comedy Series at the Emmys.) People were gathered in a staged school hallway lined with bulletin boards and glass-fronted display cases, one of which held a papier-mâché bust of Barack Obama. Brunson addressed the crowd briefly, saying that her Emmy had been “a win for the entire show.” She had the air of a team captain whose mind was already half on the next game. Afterward, she went to her dressing room, where a production assistant had left her a bag of Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Fries, with “Congrats!” scrawled across it in Sharpie.

Until recently, Brunson had a dressing room the same size as those of her co-stars, but this season she accepted the need for a larger one; she uses the space as an office, and sometimes all the writers squeeze in with her. The room was dotted with souvenir pictures of her with friends and colleagues at Smoke House, an old-Hollywood restaurant near the Warner Bros. lot. She finds it impossible to resist the photos that staff take of guests and then sell back to them for ten dollars. “To me,” she said, “this is one of the advantages of having money.”

“I thought cats were supposed to be aloof.”

Cartoon by Lonnie Millsap

She pulled a bow-tied pink Zara blouse and a pencil skirt from a rack. “Sitcoms, over the last twenty years or so, became a little bit more wish fulfillment, a little bit more glam,” she told me. Viewers tuned in to “black-ish” eager to see what Tracee Ellis Ross’s character would wear. Brunson saw the appeal, but, because “Abbott” depicts public-school employees, it was important to her that the characters dress with a degree of realism. “For Janine in particular, a girl who has a lot on her plate, and is ambitious,” she said, “knowing how to look exactly right is not the first thing on her mind.” Janine’s efforts at flair—bright patterns, chunky accessories—often fall flat. “I thought about myself much younger,” Brunson, who is thirty-four, said. “The things I wore in college were absolutely insane.” Brunson liked that the pink blouse looked a little prim, because in that day’s episode Janine, newly promoted, was being sneaky, meddling in the affairs of a substitute she mistrusts—minor high jinks on the periphery of the episode’s main A and B plotlines. “Sometimes I think C stories are the best stories,” she said. She occasionally tries to pitch an alternative: “What about, in this episode, if Janine’s not in it?”

Back on set, she and Lisa Ann Walter were shooting a scene of post-high-jinks contrition in Melissa Schemmenti’s classroom. Brunson’s position demands diplomacy—if she has comments on a scene partner’s performance, she’ll pass them to the director rather than deliver them herself. After a few takes, the episode’s director, Jen Celotta, one of several veterans of “The Office” who have worked on the show, sounded almost apologetic for not having more notes. With Brunson out of earshot, Brittani Nichols, the episode’s writer, explained to me that they were stalling for time. A surprise delivery was on its way for Brunson, and they wanted to keep her busy until it arrived.

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