Quinta Brunson Did Not Mean for ‘Abbott Elementary’ to Make You Cry

The 75th Primetime Emmys had Quinta Brunson in her feelings before she was even called to the stage to accept the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. “It was such a celebration of television,” the “Abbott Elementary” creator/star told IndieWire over Zoom. “I remember the beginning of the ceremony ran through a number of famous sitcoms, just things that have raised me and always inspired me to want to make a comedy myself, and make TV. And it was already emotional for me, I can’t lie. It is what I do. It’s my craft. So it’s always incredible to be in a room that’s celebrating it and seeing it for the beauty that it is.”

That is why Brunson, who will receive the Visionary Award at IndieWire Honors on June 6, tends to widen her scope when she talks about the impact of all the awards attention. “When any of us wins, it feels like a real celebration for the rest of the crew, cast, and everyone who works on ‘Abbott’ and puts their heart into making a great TV show on network television,” she said.

But though she is often credited as the savior of network comedy, Brunson does not feel like an outlier. It is the awards machine that has shifted away from recognizing great linear television. “When you have to go there and sit in the rooms and be there for this superlative competition, it just sometimes makes me wish that more work was being considered. There’s so much that goes into it, like campaigning and visibility and being a critical hit or stuff like that,” she said.

Two shows that made her go “Man, I really wish they were in the mix,” as she sat at these awards shows were CBS comedy “Ghosts,” which is “consistently good TV,” Brunson said. “It has high production value, great performances, managing to deliver laughs and a real good time on network TV,” and FX crime drama “Snowfall,” which “was mind-blowing to me that it didn’t get awards recognition during its run.”

Quinta Brunson, winner of the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series award for 'Abbott Elementary,' attends the Governor's Gala for the 75th Primetime Emmy Awards
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When she says “I would love to see a broader scope of what we consider awards worthy,” it speaks to Brunson’s call for Emmy voters to give more shows a chance, but could also sum up her feelings on who wins these awards. Her history with the Emmys has been a series of seconds. Her Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series win in 2022 made her the second Black woman to ever win the category, after Lena Waithe became the first five years earlier at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards. When she received the aforementioned honor this year, for her performance as earnest Philadelphia primary school teacher Janine Teagues on the second season of her hit ABC sitcom, she once again became the second Black woman to win the category, but this time the gap between her and her predecessor Isabel Sanford’s wins was 42 years.

That bittersweet factoid was not something that had crossed her mind until she was asked about it backstage, after being handed her Emmy by TV icon Carol Burnett. Ultimately, she mentions she was in good company that night with people like “Beef” star Ali Wong becoming the first Asian woman to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series and “The Bear” star Ayo Edebiri becoming the third Black woman to win Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, but their wins are “more an indicator of where we should be than where we are,” she said. “I just hope as time goes on, we fall out of even mentioning or even thinking about the first, second, or third. I hope it just becomes more and more common because everyone is doing such great work.”

The joke that has been going around on the internet about wanting to live in precedented times could really apply to Brunson’s experience making “Abbott Elementary.” Although it is for the most part a traditional network comedy, all three seasons have each been created under different circumstances. “Our first season was made in a vacuum. The entire season was filmed before the [first] episode even aired. It was completed three months before it actually aired on ABC. So that was cool because we had a different amount of time, a different way of making the show,” said the creator. “This third season actually put me back in a very scrappy place. Because having a shortened season, and one that was affected by the strikes, it forced me to go back into my, ‘All right. We’re doing things quicker, faster with less time and more money than I ever had in my scrappy days. But budgets are in a different place because of the shortened season.’”

'Abbott Elementary'
Disney/Gilles Mingasson

While she was familiar with writing and producing episodes while the season began airing, as “Abbott Elementary” had seven episodes in the can when Season 2 premiered, this time around, they only had three ready when the show came back in February. “I remember Episode 7 was airing, but we were still retooling that one up until a week before it actually aired on TV. That was a rush for us,” said Brunson of the Season 3 episode titled “Librarian” that aired mid-March.

“It’s interesting when TV is produced at that rate that it still comes out looking anything like good at all,” she said, citing “Saturday Night Live” as an even more extreme example. “There are people who look at ‘Abbott’ and maybe think, ‘Oh, they’re not in a pressure cooker. They’re fine,’ because we’ve been a successful show. But sometimes that puts the pressure on more. Once you are successful, it’s like, ‘Oh, shit. We have to keep being successful. We have to keep being good. We have to honor this audience who has decided to come on this ride with us while still making them feel at home. But also, surprising them and giving them a good story.’ So it’s all relative.”

One element that has made the third season of “Abbott Elementary” feel unique to viewers is its wide spectrum of guest stars. Not only have Philadelphia legends like Bradley Cooper and Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts stopped by the school, appearing as themselves, but sitcom veterans like Cree Summer and Tatyana Ali have had recurring roles, and social media stars like Sabrina Brier and Casey Frey have had scene-stealing cameos.

A good way to describe it is that in any given scene on “Abbott Elementary” there’s a piece of casting that makes a slice of the viewership extremely excited. Brunson’s own example is actress June Diane Rapheal, who she describes as a “incredible chameleon of comedy,” back playing the district’s chief education officer Elizabeth Washington in Season 3. “While I know her name, I am always excited for the idea that maybe someone who’s watching ‘Abbott’ doesn’t, and just goes, ‘You know, she’s really funny. I want to look her up,’ and gets to see the rap sheet of what she’s done and continues to do in her career,” she said. Same goes for “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” breakout Lana Condor in her network TV debut, as a romantic rival to Brunson’s Janine. “It’s super exciting to be able to introduce these people to an audience that may not know them yet.”

Josh Segarra and Quinta Brunson in 'Abbott Elementary'.
Disney/Gilles Mingasson)

The creator/star relates that aspect of “Abbott Elementary” back to her days hosting a live stand-up comedy show. “The thing I wanted to do was introduce people to the people that I thought were funny,” she said. “And it felt right this season in particular, for me, to be like, ‘Hey, here’s who I think is really cool. I hope you like them too.’” Josh Segarra, of “The Other Two” fame, playing her character’s manager during a fellowship at the district, is another prime example. “I feel like Josh doesn’t even realize how much he’s done,” said Brunson. “He’s just been an incredibly dynamic actor of our time. Not to be corny but he’s incredible.”

In addition to the talent it spotlights, Quinta Brunson’s “Abbott Elementary” has been commended for its altruism. Since Season 1, the show has used part of its marketing budget to give back to the public schools, and people in them, that inspire it. But the creator/star reveals that decision was more a result of the creative process than it is a goal for every show she works on. “‘Abbott was simply born out of wanting to make a good workplace comedy,” said Brunson, “and then, when the show was out, it was like, ‘Oh, man. It could be cool if we could do something to also help teachers.’ It wasn’t that we had to. It was just like, ‘Why would we not? With this budget we have and the opportunity we have with the attention we have, let’s do that.’”

A charitable aspect to each of her creations is not necessarily something that she’s opposed to, but it’s more like Brunson wants to think more expansively as an artist rather than be focused on maintaining some sort of parameters that represent her personal brand the way other successful creators lean on calling cards. “I always think about ‘Game of Thrones.’ They didn’t have to help anyone at all,” said the writer/performer. “Anything else I make will be born out of, ‘What is a good comedy? What is a good drama? What inspires me?’ If it doesn’t turn out to be something inspirational, then so be it.” Directing television as well currently feels like a goal she would accomplish on a project other than “Abbott Elementary.” “I don’t even have the time to because I am filming and I am writing,” she said. “It’s more fulfilling to me right now to bring on other new directors.”

Halfway to syndication, Brunson does already have ideas about what the endgame would be for “Abbott Elementary.” Not that she seems eager for the show to end, network TV is just increasingly unpredictable. “In a way, I started this out being like, ‘Yeah. I know what the ending of this show will be,’ and I still think that idea is in my head, but you never fully know how many seasons you’re going to get,” said the creator/star. “With this crazy landscape of TV, you don’t even know if networks are going to exist anymore in a few years. So it’s stuff like that, that makes me stay on my toes and make it more about the characters than an exact ending. It’s like, ‘What would I want this character’s journey to ultimately be?’”

Quinta Brunson and Tyler James Williams in 'Abbott Elementary'.
Disney/Gilles Mingasson

She admits that her first go at making a 22-episode season as the writer, producer, and star became a little bit exhausting, but that volume comes with the advantage of having more time for character development. “A lot of times it’s about paying attention to how your character is breathing in your world. It’s weird when you’re in the writer’s room, you start to discover their wants and their needs and things that may seem like aspirations now that weren’t aspirations in the first season. So I think as long as you are following that path, you can wind up with some really satisfying endings,” said Brunson.

As a superfan of “The Office,” she brings up Steve Carell’s Michael Scott, who begins the NBC workplace sitcom as an impressively incompetent boss, as a model for how to send off a beloved character. “Towards the end, they find his heart and his humanity and find that it’s about love for him. And his character gets this incredibly satisfying ending of moving to Colorado for Holly,” said Brunson. “Now, on paper, that sounds so boring but it was something that made us all cry and that is really special. So I always think you should follow the characters’ hearts to wind up to your best ending.”

With all that said, yes, she has a vision for where “Abbott Elementary” couple Janine and Gregory (Tyler James Williams) should each end up as individuals, and even ideas for where their teacher colleagues like Barbara (Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph) and Jacob (Chris Peretti) should end up career-wise, whenever it becomes time to say goodbye to those “Abbott Elementary” characters. However, Brunson did not expect to hear that her sitcom has already moved the audience to tears. “We’re never really trying to make people cry,” she said. “But once again, that’s the beauty of following the character journey. You get to those places with the audience who come to know and love these characters, and that’s really fulfilling to me.”

SOURCE: Indie Wire

About Michael Zotos 468 Articles
Founder and owner of Performer.com/Performer Media LLC, a multimedia content creator for a variety of national plus local print & electronic media affiliates.