‘Abbott Elementary’ Creator Quinta Brunson On Relating To Teachers & The Rejuvenation Of Network Comedy06/14/2022
When Quinta Brunson was a child, she would observe her mother working as a teacher, and those early years stuck in her writer’s brain so vividly, and so accurately, that her show about a Philadelphia public school, Abbott Elementary, has not only garnered accolades from teachers nationwide, but has become a stake in the ground for the resurgence of network comedy. With only its second episode, Brunson’s mockumentary-style series achieved ABC’s highest ratings since the Modern Family finale. Brunson, who previously appeared in A Black Lady Sketch Show and Big Mouth, is currently working on the script for Season 2.
DEADLINE: You began by making comedy videos on YouTube and Instagram. What motivated you to be such a self-starter?
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QUINTA BRUNSON: I think it is the need to try to make something, and no matter how much you try to pull away from that, you get pulled back into wanting to just make something. And for me my stages changed a lot. Sometimes it was stand-up, sometimes it was the internet, and sometimes it was BuzzFeed when I worked there for BuzzFeed video, and I just was always interested in creating for the stage that was in front of me. And when network television became an option, creating in that space or creating for TV, I was really excited to pursue making a show and using all of the skills I had developed from doing all the other things. I’ve always loved TV, especially network television, so it was an opportunity, and I took it because I wanted to. I wanted to master that realm, tried to anyway. I tried to create something there.
DEADLINE: Abbott Elementary is inspired by watching your mom teach, were you a pupil at the same school?
BRUNSON: Yeah. I was in her kindergarten class and I went to the school where she taught from first to fifth grade, and so I would ride with her to school in the mornings and go be with her after school and just view a lot of her experience.
DEADLINE: You were really young at that time, and yet you still absorbed all these subtexts in her world. When you are the sort of child who is a natural writer, you are always observing and listening and taking stuff in, and people assume that you are not because you’re a child.
BRUNSON: Right. Yeah. Absolutely. My mom is even surprised about how much I had taken in because when she sees the shows, she’s can’t believe certain things that are in it because she hadn’t realized I was paying that much attention.
DEADLINE: You really wanted it to be on a network, right?
BRUNSON: I was very interested in it being on network TV, specifically ABC, because I just think that ABC represents family viewing. I think that streaming and everything is fine, but I do think streaming Netflix or Hulu, or even HBO Max is not necessarily geared toward the family viewer. I think they have been trying to crack that for a while. What do shows look like for people who are both 55 and 25 to watch together at the same time? And I just don’t think that streaming has really captured that yet. And I think people still look to network for those kinds of shows. And I knew that Abbott was a show like that. I knew that it was meant to be seen by many different people. And I wanted that for it.
One of my favorite things to hear is when people say, “My gosh, this is what I watch with my family, it’s the only thing I can watch with my children.” And younger people being like, “I’ve been watching it with my grandma, we both love it.” That’s what I still feel you can get from network, you know? I think that’s still unique to that space.
ABC was in a great position when I pitched to them where they were looking for a new comedic angle. They had these legacy shows that were on the brink of going off the air and they wanted to refresh what comedy looked like. And that was the place that I wanted to be, that was appealing to me. I wanted to go somewhere where I could help develop what the new tone of comedy would be instead of maybe going to another network and trying to fit into what they had already built. And I think that’s a special time in a television station when they’re like, “We need to create anew, we need to be born again.” And to be able to be a part of that time was so appealing to me and it really worked out with ABC for that reason.
DEADLINE: You got incredible ratings and then you were renewed almost right away for Season 2. What do you think your secret sauce is?
BRUNSON: Well, I think it’s a couple things. I think one, I really just feel like everyone who works on the show—including me, of course, but the writers, the hair and makeup team, the set design, the prop team, our Covid department—I think everyone really cares, our development execs at ABC, our development execs at WB. I think everyone really cares about making a good show and that’s an important part of it. I think sometimes people make shows and hey, they want to make money and that’s something you can do in TV. I think we are in a special place where we all care about it very much and trust each other very much, and that’s huge too. I think the network and studio really trusting us to do something new and risk-taking for ABC was really important. I think that the show is coming at a time where people are appreciating… It’s weird because I don’t necessarily think of it as like optimism, I don’t know what the word I have is for the show yet.
DEADLINE: To me it feels like warmth.
BRUNSON: Warmth. I think there’s a warmth to the show for sure. And that goes into what I’m talking about. Our director, Randall Einhorn, who also became an EP on the show, one of our main directors, he worked with me to develop the tone, even the way the show looks, the feel of it, the warmth of a public school and what that feels like for an audience member.
I also think after Covid, and these years of watching teachers go through hell, I think this came at a time where people were appreciating teachers way more and that wasn’t on purpose, Abbott was in development before Covid even happened. And then it just happened to hit the air after a year where everyone was talking about teachers. I think another thing too, is it goes to what I was talking about, about family viewing. I know that I really wanted to blend the humor of younger people and the humor of older people. I’m such a fan of old television shows, but I’m also a fan of new television shows, and more modern-day comedy. And they’re so different, but I wanted Abbott to blend those worlds, and I think that’s another really important factor about the show. I think the humor has mass appeal.
DEADLINE: You’ve said you had to fight a little bit to hire lesser-known actors. Tell me about that decision.
BRUNSON: Yeah. For instance, when it came to the role of Ava, there was a little bit of push to get a big name. But I really felt that the role needed, no matter what, it needed the right person for the job, it needed someone who grasped who Ava was, which I think was really unique. It was hard to explain Ava to people. But I had this feeling when we see the right actor, we’ll know it and I don’t think we have to go with the biggest name. If the person with the biggest name is the right person, then that would be fine. But I was like, we need to go with the right person. So that wound up being Janelle (James), which I think to ABC, they were like, “Oh, we don’t know them.” And I’m like, “I don’t care. I just don’t care. She is it and I know she’s it.” And that was like the extent of the fight. They kind of backed off. Because I think that they knew it too that she was good.
I think for the character of Jacob played by Chris Perfetti, there was a little push there too to get someone a little bit more well known. But I saw Chris Perfetti perform and I just was like, he’s it, he gets something very special about this character that at the time was very surface level. And I think that we needed someone like him to help bring Jacob to full life, to get the idiosyncrasies of Jacob and the nuances. And I just was like, “No, I know this is the right guy.” So that was another example of just wanting to go with someone who was lesser known, but absolutely was the person for the job.
DEADLINE: You initially conceived Abbott as a cartoon and developed it as a mockumentary-style piece. Your director and EP Randall Einhorn had worked on that mockumentary style when he did The Office too. Did you always know mockumentary was the way to go?
BRUNSON: Yeah. Absolutely. Mockumentary was always a part of the show. I knew that mockumentary would lend itself to this story, because I don’t think mockumentaries should be used for no reason. I think there should be a reason. And I felt that what better way to cover this school then via a documentary? I think documentaries are fascinating. What different people give to the camera, who tries to be in front of the camera and what’s actually going on? And I thought that was a great vehicle for these characters. It was also the moment I saw my mother, the moment I really got the inspiration for this idea. I was looking at my mom sitting at her desk and she was having a parent-teacher conference. And it was the year before she was about to retire. And I felt it. I felt like, Wow, I feel like a mockumentary-style camera right now because I’m in this room, but I’m not a part of what’s happening, I’m just watching it. But I’m in this room physically and I wanted the audience to feel that way too. And I think that has a lot to do with how we feel about the humor of Abbott. It’s one thing to laugh at teachers, it’s another thing to laugh with them. And I feel like having that mockumentary style gives our audience the ability to laugh with them, they are a part of the school.
I did think of it as a cartoon, but that was mainly because I was working on another project at the time. And I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to dedicate time to it. I knew that whoever was going to buy such a show was going to want me to be in it. And I was like, OK, so maybe it’s a cartoon it could work. Because I thought a cartoon, that could be cool too. Fortunately, it wound up being live action.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about Season 2?
BRUNSON: I think one thing that’s exciting to me is for the first season, I really wanted the characters to stay in the school for the most part. I think we leave maybe three times, to go to a nail salon, to go to the zoo. And that was on purpose, I just wanted the audience to fall in love with our school and they did and it worked and I’m so happy. So, this season, now we get to go maybe to some of the character’s houses, go out with them at night and stuff like that. And I’m just pumped about that because that’s really exciting for us as writers to venture out with our characters. And I just know our writers from the first season were like, “Oh, we want to leave sometimes.” But I was like, “We just got to stay here though. Just for the first season.” I have a very firm belief that workplace comedies should take place in the workplace. And if they don’t, then they’re not a workplace comedy. So, I was sticking to that.
DEADLINE: What’s been some of the best feedback you’ve had?
BRUNSON: In the beginning of all of this, we did a premiere just for teachers in the LA area. And I didn’t realize until that moment, while we were watching it with these teachers, I was like, Oh my God, I’m nervous. What if they hate it? I hadn’t really thought about it before. Afterwards they all came up and were like, “Wow, this is crazy. We haven’t really seen ourselves on TV like this before, we haven’t seen our stories like this before.” And that was just very moving and overwhelming. I wasn’t expecting that response really from teachers, believe it or not. And I just love that they feel that way and that we were able to capture their stories in a positive way, in a way that they can be proud of also.
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