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Even before she stepped over the prone body of presenter Jimmy Kimmel to accept an Emmy award, Quinta Brunson had made history.
That’s because as creator and star of ABC’s hit comedy Abbott Elementaryher three Emmy nominations already made her the first Black woman nominated in three comedy categories in the same year, and the youngest Black woman ever nominated as an actress in comedy.
So when she walked to the Emmy stage to accept the win for best writing in a comedy, making history again as only the second Black woman to earn that honor, it felt more like an acknowledgment of success already achieved. (Unfortunately, Kimmel was onstage pretending to be passed out after drinking too much as part of an early comedic bit, drawing criticism for stealing attention from her moment.)
Brunson, speaking in an interview weeks before the Emmys, said she never created Abbott Elementary expecting to win awards. She just wanted to create a cool new kind of workplace comedy set in an underfunded West Philadelphia school.
“Abbott Elementary is not a show about wish-fulfillment teaching…it’s really the reality of teaching, underneath a workplace comedy,” she said. “I think Abbott, strangely, is very small. And that serves as escapism for an audience. I wanted people to fall in love with this world where it’s almost as if the outside world doesn’t exist….They’re small, pocket stories that [you] can get lost in.”
Small stories with a huge impact
But in creating a small show centered on a specific world, Brunson touched a nerve.
Abbott Elementary earned three wins total on Monday night, a surprise triumph for Brunson’s co-star Sheryl Lee Ralph as best supporting actress in a comedy.
With a storied career that includes starring in the Broadway cast of Dreamgirls and the film To Sleep with AngerRalph was considered overdue for the recognition an Emmy win brings – and she made sure to point out that having “a Quinta Brunson in your corner” was key to her success.
On Abbott ElementaryRalph plays Barbara Howard, an experienced teacher who winds up becoming a sometimes-reluctant mentor to Brunson’s character, the inexperienced and overly enthusiastic Janine Teagues.
Earlier this year, a woman filed a lawsuit against Brunson and ABC claiming that Abbott Elementary is a knock-off of a series she created in 2018. Brunson declined to comment on the lawsuit.
But Brunson says both Janine and Barbara are based on her mother, a former kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia, now retired. In fact, the whole idea for creating a mockumentary about a struggling, urban school came from an argument Brunson had with her mother in 2017 while visiting her at work.
The two of them were at odds: Brunson wanted her mother to retire from her grueling and increasingly dangerous teaching job; her mother wanted her to quit comedy and return to Philadelphia. Then, a student’s mother seeking a parent-teacher conference showed up just as they were about to leave.
“I remember I was so mad at first,” Brunson said, laughing a little. “But the woman was a nurse, and she came in with her son. I just watched her son go play with blocks while my mom had this conference with this woman and it was just so moving to me. I [thought], these are all the makings of a show for me. I have the humor and the heart. I know this story very well.”
That moment with her mother and a student’s parent is re-created in a scene from Abbott Elementary where Janine confronts a mother who shows up late to a parent teacher conference – only to learn the woman is an emergency room nurse delayed by treating a man with a gunshot wound.
“I saw it when I was sitting at my mom’s desk,” said Brunson, who added she initially thought Abbott Elementary might be an animated show. “I was like, ‘Oh, I want the audience to feel a part of this,’ which is the beauty of mockumentary. They are in the story with you.”
Creating an authentic urban school
The school Abbott Elementary depicts is fictional, named after Brunson’s middle school teacher. But it’s also like many real-life underfunded schools in Philadelphia. Achieving that level of authenticity, Brunson said, required lots of vigilance, including an unusual request for the show’s casting director.
“I had to say something that I think a lot of people hadn’t heard before, which is, like, no white children [in the cast],” she said. “I wasn’t saying it to be mean or to be prejudiced. It’s just that the reality of this school in West Philadelphia is…there just wouldn’t be white children in the school.”
Brunson says she traces her success to the support she’s received – from superstar producer Shonda Rhimes, who met with Brunson early in her career when she was making videos for BuzzFeed, to Issa Rae and Robin Thede, who brought her in as a co-star on Thede’s HBO’s series A Black Lady Sketch Show.
Now, with Abbott Elementary starting a second season Sept. 21 and Brunson fresh off signing a new multi-year deal with Warner Bros. Television, the writer/actor/producer is ready to pay it forward and support some emerging talents herself.
“I’m so fortunate in that I’ve never had the experience of not being helped…I always felt there were people around who wanted to see me succeed,” she said. “I’m trying to do the same thing now. I see people who are good – especially young Black people – and I’m [saying], ‘Yeah, come on over.’ Because, why not? I love making audiences fall in love with new people.”