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‘Abbott Elementary’ creator Quinta Brunson on why she almost quit before her hit new show took off

The 32-year-old multi-hyphenate star sat down with TODAY to talk about why she wanted to highlight the beautiful difficulty in being a teacher at an underfunded school.
Quina Brunson
Nathan Congleton / TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Quinta Brunson always loved school.

Her mom was her kindergarten teacher and they went to school each day in the same building for six years. Brunson vividly remembers specific teaching-related stories that her mother shared, inspiring her to weave some of them into the new hit ABC sitcom “Abbot Elementary," which she created and stars in.

"One of her stories I used in the pilot actually, of another teacher punching a kid," Brunson told TODAY in a conference room at 30 Rockefeller. "She has so many tidbits here and there that I kind of pull from. It's just stuck in my brain — everything that she's told me over the years and everything I've witnessed because I was with her so much at school."

The "Abbot Elementary" character Barbara Howard (Sheryl Lee Ralph) — the seasoned teacher often offering wisdom to the rookies — is molded after her mother. Brunson said her mom and the character both have a knack for getting through to misbehaving children.

"She always had a kid every year who would be the kid that caused trouble, but who would be her favorite," she said. "We would know who her favorite was by who she came home talking about who caused the most trouble. It was always this relationship like, 'Jamal gets on my nerves.' (Jamal) is the only name we'd hear all year and by the end, she’s crying when he's going to first grade."

As a kid, Brunson would get in trouble for flipping around the house and unintentionally breaking things in her path. Her parents didn't punish her, but instead encouraged her exploration.

"My parents, they're solution-based people, so it was like, 'We're gonna put her in dance school,'" she explained. "So that kind of solved that problem. I didn't get in trouble for too long, because I had somewhere to go."

Redirecting kids as they advance in life is one of the reasons Brunson is passionate about education and kids. At one point, she even wanted to be a teacher herself.

"There was a point in time where I really considered it, but it didn't last long," she said. "It didn't go anywhere. My mom really wanted me to be one and I just knew it wasn't for me. I knew I didn't have the patience that it took ... that time."

'Real people who are choosing, most times, to do the most underpaid job in the world'

Originally from West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Brunson is now becoming a household name across the nation because of "Abbott Elementary," but her fame is not a story of overnight success.

The 32-year-old actor and writer first gained prominence as a meme before memes were really a thing, when a short skit of herself went viral back in 2014. From there, her humor and internet savvy landed her a job at Buzzfeed, where she worked for four years as a content creator. After leaving in 2018, she helmed a number of creative projects, including one pilot for the CW that was never picked up. She then worked on "A Black Lady Sketch Show," the animated series "Magical Girl Friendship Squad" and the third season of "Miracle Workers."

But "Abbott Elementary" is her triumph.

In the ABC-sitcom set in her hometown of Philadelphia, Brunson plays Janine Teagues, a novice teacher still holding out hope that the school district will provide desperately needed resources. Barbara Howard and Melissa Schemmenti (Lisa Ann Walter) are seasoned educators who have learned to lean onto their own tricks after countless instances of not receiving enough support from administrators. Along with long-term substitute teacher Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) and history teacher Jacob Hill (Chris Perfetti), the group bands together when the shady principal — Ava Coleman (played by the hilarious Janelle James) — pulls stunts that are disadvantageous to the students.

ABC's "Abbott Elementary" - Season One
"My mom really wanted me to be (a teacher) and I just knew it wasn't for me. I knew I didn't have the patience that it took, that time."Raymond Liu / Getty Images

Why teachers pick their career is one of two reasons Brunson made "Abbott" from the perspective of educators. The other reason is because until now, there's never been a school-based show told completely from this perspective.

"It's usually been half and half — half the students, half the teachers," she explained. "Usually, the show is bouncing between those people and more focused on students but I thought there was something really significant about going into teachers lives in a real way. Not in a jokey way that starts with our perceived comedy impression of them. That's what was compelling to me about doing this kind of show, because there's so much more to show: Real people who are choosing, most times, to do the most underpaid job in the world. What makes up that kind of person?"

That question compelled Brunson to create characters who had that same combination of fire, patience, kindness and stability.

"I knew I didn't have the patience to be a teacher," she said. "My mom did and that's so significant to know this is the job for you and you know what it takes in the long run to do it ... It's actually a really hard job that you have to have a lot of gall, hurt and emotional stability to be able to do. So if you can't do all of that, you're not going to be a good teacher. If you can do all of that, it's actually really special."

Quina Brunson
Originally from West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Brunson is now becoming a household name across the nation because of "Abbott Elementary," but her fame is not a story of overnight success.Nathan Congleton / TODAY

That's why, despite not having the patience before, Brunson wants to become a teacher one day.

Brunson once taught dance classes and said after her Hollywood reign, she wants to teach middle schoolers what she's learned in the industry: that content is "fascinating."

"It'd be cool to start teaching that to people younger then when they're in college," Brunson — who ended her studies in journalism and communication at Temple University early to pursue a career in comedy full-time — said. "If that could become a course even for middle schoolers because now they're so ahead of the game with digital stuff, it'd be beneficial for them to actually know the financial component behind all this, or just to know the actual business behind it."

The cast of "Abbott Elementary."Pamela Littky / ABC

For now though, Brunson is booked and busy because "Abbott Elementary” was recently renewed for a second season. There's one question fans want answered: When is Janine going to dump her leach of a boyfriend and begin dating Gregory?

“I don’t know; we’ll see ... ” Brunson coyly said, before adding, “I have to say that."

The show returns March 22, 2022 after a three-week hiatus. Fancasts (fans predicting what will happen or what they want to see) have been circulating on Twitter of dedicated viewers wanting to see legendary actors Delroy Lindo or Tichina Arnold guest star on the series.

“What makes you think I can afford these people?" Brunson said in response to fans’ demands. "That’s what kills me.”

But next week, she promises "there’s someone in the show that people are going to be really excited to see.”

'My heart on paper'

Brunson's support of education goes beyond warm childhood stories and a hit show predicted to become a cash cow. The marketing team behind "Abbott" redirected funds from the series to buy supplies for teachers and made them available in a renovated bus that doubles as a mobile lounge when they need a break. But Brunson wants to see more done from elected officials to pay teachers more and support public schools.

Average teacher salaries are shockingly low and while there's a lot of public support and commitments from elected officials to fund public schools, the problem continues. Brunson said, “Teachers should never have to want for anything."

She said we have yet to see change in droves in this area because it's "easy to talk about stuff to seem cool or smart" of the platitudes elected officials often preach, but it's another thing to actually make it happen.

In order to see any real action, "sometimes it takes a teachers strike to get that kind of effort," or otherwise make it clear that they will "not let up" on getting the funding they need.

Nathan Congleton / TODAY

"Abbott Elementary" is raising awareness about these disparities and the real trials teachers go through. Memes and related Twitter threads regularly go viral on social media. She said she knew they were making a good show with impact but didn't know if it would reach people. Well, it is, and the warm reception has been a pleasant surprise.

"I’m just shocked," Brunson said. "This rarely gets to happen for a sitcom where everyone is (excited) for the first season. So I’m shocked about that but I do believe we made a good show. It’s all warranted so yes, it’s not too surprising. But it’s just like, wow, this is what you dreamed of."

Brunson said the outpouring of support confirmed that she is walking in her purpose.

"'Abbott' is definitely a dream show. I definitely felt if 'Abbott' didn't get made, I thought I might have to quit," she revealed. "But I wasn't gonna have to quit. I probably would've called it quits because I knew it was the best I can do. It is good enough, and if for some reason this doesn't make it, then that's a sign that I need to redirect my energy elsewhere. Go where I will be loved and accepted.

"'Abbott' is my heart on paper. So I knew, this is it.'"