Janine’s optimism contrasts with the reality that surrounds her. Janine is one of the teachers at Abbott Public Elementary School. She is full of energy and enthusiasm for organizing activities to motivate the students and improve the school’s performance. Her veteran colleagues look askance at that passion, while the newest addition to the faculty can’t understand why the school is being run by an incapable principal. Abbott Elementary was one of last season’s breakout comedies in the United States. In addition to its popularity on broadcast television, the show has received critical acclaim and recognition in the form of awards. In its first season, the show won three Emmy Awards and three Golden Globes, including Best Comedy.
Featuring good-natured characters in a mockumentary format and informed by the long tradition of workplace comedies, Abbott Elementary is the heir to acclaimed titles of recent American broadcast television like Modern Family, Parks and Recreation and The Office. The show’s creator and star, Quinta Brunson, 33, wanted to pay tribute to her own mother, Norma, an elementary school teacher, and to all teachers. “I had been so familiar with the school world. I had spent so much of my time in schools, watching my mother, not just as a student, but being with her before and after school. I knew the world so well, and I saw the humor in it. I saw the heart in it… So, I said, this is the perfect place to make a comedy,” the Philadelphia-born actress and screenwriter said in a videocall interview in mid-March.
In addition to reflecting the world she knew so well, Brunson also set out to vindicate the work of teachers. The series makes constant reference to the scant funding the school receives from the state and the precarious employment of its workers. The main character even struggles to pay her rent. “I think that teaching is a job that is just so underappreciated. While it’s interesting because it’s part of what makes the humor, it’s also sad… I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Teachers deserve to be paid more,” said the actress and screenwriter.
Nearly every major character in Abbott Elementary is based on someone Brunson knows. Barbara, the strict teacher young Janine sees as a mentor—and the character who earned Sheryl Lee Ralph an Emmy—is based on the creator’s mother. Melissa (Lisa Ann Walter) is inspired by Brunson’s mother’s friend of the same name. Principal Ava (Janelle James) draws on a principal who worked with Brunson’s mother. And Gregory (Tyler James Williams) is based on a friend of Brunson’s who ended up becoming a teacher. Even the show creator’s character Janine has a real-life model in Brunson’s “painfully optimistic” friend. “It was something that used to really bother me... But I loved it. Do you know what I mean? Like, her optimism really saved the day many times. And I just thought about how important that is, having someone kind of believe that, no matter what, things can be better, and you need that around,” she said of the friend who inspired Janine.
Comedies with optimistic main characters that eschew cynicism and tragicomedy, like Ted Lasso and Abbott Elementary, have dominated television in recent years and demonstrate that today’s viewers enjoy them. “I do think there was an influx of cynicism and dark comedy [on television]. As someone who enjoys both cynical and dark comedy, I think that… part of the reason I was motivated to create Abbott was because I was looking for variety. I just wanted to have variety. I think it’s one of the reasons why Ted Lasso took off in its first season, because it was [a] refreshing comedy.”
Abbott Elementary could be seen as part of the resistance in today’s television comedy, where the classic sitcom format has been giving way to plots with continuity between episodes and a tinge of a bitter aftertaste. “I think [classic comedy shows have] started to become undervalued with cable and streaming. And it’s weird now because streaming is trying to go back into the direction of the classic comedy, because there’s a lot of value in the three-act structure… It was funny because when Friends hit Netflix people were shocked, like, oh my God, Friends [is] being watched. And now it’s like, yeah, of course, you can just put on an episode of Friends and have a good time… There’s a lot of value to a show you can just pop on [while] eating dinner and everything is very clear, and you understand what’s happening just by watching a scene. [I’m] watching my niece rediscover classic comedy. She’s 16, and she discovered the Fresh Prince of Bel Air last year. I think there’s so much value in that, just as much value as there is in Game of Thrones or some shit where it’s super intense. Once again, it’s just having the variety.”
Brunson cites her show’s characters as the reason people seem to have connected with it so much. “I think because these are very well fleshed-out characters, [they’re] characters that the writers and I love very much. I think that we start from a very human standpoint with all of them. It’s humanity first, teachers second. And that goes for the stories as well. We try to tell very human stories that anybody can engage with... Also, everyone either is a teacher or had a teacher. And, so, it’s naturally very relatable material. And then I think lastly, it’s a show that they can watch. Surely you can watch it by yourself and have a ball, but you can also watch it with friends and family. And that was on purpose. I really wanted to make a show that people could watch with their whole family if they wanted to they could watch with [their] grandmother. They could watch it with their eight-year-old kid. All of that was really important to me.”
From the internet to television
As a first-time show creator, Quinta Brunson admits that delegating part of the work, given the impossibility of covering it all, has been the biggest challenge for her. That’s even more true in the show’s second season, which has more episodes than the first (22 this season versus 13 in the initial season). Overseeing a series is new to Brunson, who was first known for creating internet memes. Between 2014 and 2018, she worked at the website BuzzFeed, which specializes in viral content; there, she wrote, produced and starred in short videos.
How does someone go from creating memes to having a successful series on ABC broadcast television? “Well, I always wanted to write for television or create television. That was always my goal. I’d wanted to, since I was a young girl. BuzzFeed, Instagram, they all just became these other platforms to express myself and show my work. But I always wanted to write for TV. Because of wanting to write for TV, I had studied the TV business. I wanted to understand how the business of television worked, and [what] it actually took to make a television show and work with networks and studios. So, I think that I had an easier time transitioning to the TV world because that’s the world I was always prepared for and always was the most engaged with in the first place,” sad Brunson, who won her first Emmy in 2022 for writing Abbott Elementary.
Brunson joins the ever-growing list of female writers who have revolutionized TV comedy, including Tina Fey, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sharon Horgan, Mindy Kaling, Rachel Bloom and Issa Rae. What does the female gaze bring to comedy? “I think it just helps to make sure that the women, the characters are well-thought-out. That they aren’t these secondary characters who are one note. It has been done before. I mean, there were many shows with women at the helm in the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Laverne and Shirley, all of these shows. But then things kind of started to veer away from that. And now they’ve veered back to a lot of women-led shows. And with that, we get to see the perspective of New Age women.”
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