“I don’t go anywhere looking like a mess any more,” says Quinta Brunson. “I’ve seen photos of me taken without my permission online. I don’t love it, but it comes with the job.” Unfortunately for her, it is a problem that is only going to get worse.
The creator, writer and star of Abbott Elementary is one of the buzziest names in American comedy. She has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. She is a regular on red carpets. She earned a spot on Time’s 100 most influential people of 2022 list. Next weekend, she will host Saturday Night Live. And all thanks to the astronomical success of her perky mockumentary set in an underfunded, underestimated Philadelphia elementary (or primary) school.
Brunson plays teacher Janine Teagues, a hopelessly optimistic ball of energy who will move mountains to help her students – even if that includes getting sprayed in the face trying to fix the “reversey toilet”, sourcing her own rugs for story time, or making painfully earnest TikToks begging people to donate supplies.
Her colleagues are an eccentric bunch: there’s Gregory, uptight and furious he is not headteacher; Melissa, who has ties to a shady criminal underworld; nerdy history teacher Jacob; and Barbara, a stalwart of Abbott, who is both impressed and irked by Janine’s “hyperactive little heart”. Then there’s Abbott’s wildly underqualified headteacher Ava, who spends more time building her Instagram following and selling her clothes via live stream than shepherding the school to success.
“Some people are bothered by that character,” says Brunson when I tell her Ava is my favourite. “She’s not a great example of what a principal should be.” No kidding. Ava pushes children out of the way during fire drills, ignores (or loses) important paperwork and isn’t shy about her deeply inappropriate crush on Gregory. “But my goal is not to 100 per cent accurately portray teachers,” adds Brunson. “I’m not making a documentary.”
Nevertheless, Abbott Elementary is a funny, compassionate show that gives a glimpse into the struggles and joys of teaching in a public school (the equivalent of a state school in the UK).
Brunson knew it was good, but its success is still something of a surprise. “Comedies on network television are not necessarily awards bait,” she says. Abbott airs on commercial broadcast network ABC in the US, and on Disney+ in the UK. “It’s an honour that our work is not seen as less than just because it’s for a lot of people. It feels special that our work is being recognised and not undermined because of race or sex – it’s just considered good.”
Brunson grew up in west Philadelphia and remembers finding her love for comedy at a young age. “Making my brothers and sisters laugh was everything to me,” she says. “I was shyer around my friends, but I loved to make them laugh in unconventional ways. I remember bringing my Napoleon Dynamite DVD to school before it was a phenomenon. I felt like I had to spread the gospel.”
She started to take comedy seriously after taking improv classes with the famous theatre troupe Second City in Chicago, and dropped out of university to turn her passion into a career.
Now 33, she has been in the public eye in one way or another for almost a decade, first going viral with her “Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date” Instagram skits, in which she played a woman who is impressed any time her date buys her something and shouts, “He got money” to unsuspecting passers-by. In 2015 she started working at BuzzFeed, then a vanguard of the video-first era of the internet. “I was very content,” she says of that time. “I was making more money than I’d ever made in my life.”
Her mother wasn’t so sure. “When I worked in digital spaces, she was like, ‘I don’t get how you’re making money off this – come back to Philadelphia.’ Then when I was on a show called A Black Lady Sketch Show, that was too crass for her. It was on HBO, which is the Devil’s network to her. Then I was on Miracle Workers with Daniel Radcliffe; she didn’t like that I was holding a gun and cursing.” Brunson laughs. “Abbott Elementary is the first thing she gets and she’s so proud of me. It makes up for all the other things.”
Just as well – the show is inspired by her mother’s 40-year career as a teacher. Did she ever think about going down the same path?
“I would go be with my mom in her classroom all the time and I used to teach dance classes, which I loved,” she says. “I respect the profession so much. I entertained the idea, but it’s just not my ministry. It takes patience and dedication – my mum retired five years ago, and she still keeps workbooks and supplies in the back of her car. It’s just in her heart to do that sort of thing.”
Abbott Elementary is named after Brunson’s own elementary school teacher, Ms Abbott, who was “very moved” by the homage. “I think she knows she had an impact on her students, but not how much. Her class has stayed with me for all these years.”
Now, thanks to the success of the show, Brunson is paying her back in kind. “She’s living her best life. She’s doing speaking gigs, as she should, because she’s incredible. Sometimes that sort of thing can make me sick to my stomach, when someone starts acting like an expert on something. But she’s one of the people we should be hearing from. I’m so happy for her.”
The series has been included in a new genre of media branded “nicecore” by critic David Ehrlich in 2018. Along with Ted Lasso and Best Picture Oscar winners Coda and Everything Everywhere All at Once, Abbott Elementary is considered as part of a wave of kind, nice TV and movies, a direct antidote to our increasingly difficult world.
Brunson, however, is reluctant to involve herself in such discourse. “I mean, it’s weird. It’s like… whatever,” she says. “I like Andor, which is super dark, just as much as I like Ted Lasso. Labels can strip away the nuance of a show. Everything Everywhere All at Once, to me, is so much more than a ‘nice’ movie. There are days when I want to watch something deep, and there are days when I’ll just want to watch an Adam Sandler movie. I like variety.”
Just because Abbott is nice doesn’t mean it doesn’t have bite. It is a quietly political series, flying the flag for teachers who, Brunson says, are not as appreciated as they should be. At Abbott, which teaches predominantly black pupils, there is never enough money to provide the children with what they need, whether that’s enough copies of Peter Rabbit or a desk suitable for use with a wheelchair.
“It is a job that has to be a calling because it’s not easy,” says Brunson. “They’re not paid well – they should be paid more.” Coincidentally, we are speaking on a day British teachers are on strike over a pay dispute – proof that Abbott’s messaging about the under-appreciation of teaching as a worthy profession isn’t just relevant to an American audience.
“Lisa [Ann Walter, who plays Melissa] always says that everybody has either been a teacher or had a teacher,” says Brunson. “I guess that relatability is inherently baked in, but I also think just telling a good story will always do that. For years, the most popular books were about a wizard, then they were about vampires and wolves. Even if you can’t directly relate, you can find the humanity.”
Brunson is not just talking the talk when it comes to backing teachers. “I was very open with the marketing team and said, ‘If we’re going to be making this show about teachers, we should really find ways to support them,’” she says. “The ideas they came back with were incredibly smart.”
Instead of funnelling its marketing budget into an awards campaign, Abbott put the money towards providing school supplies to teachers across the US. The show has also partnered with commercial enterprises to host book fairs at schools and donate uniforms and reusable water bottles to students. “Why wouldn’t we go out to the people that the show is about and make a real impact?”
Season three of Abbott Elementary has already been given the go-ahead by ABC and Brunson can see a future in which we are treated to even more. “I think it could do that,” she says, sounding hesitant. Does she want to? “I think there’s real beauty, power and grace in ending something when it’s supposed to end.”
She quickly backtracks. “I’m not saying it’s time to end! But I like how the UK does that. You guys are like, ‘Yep, that’s enough.’”
Abbott Elementary is streaming on Disney+