Quinta Brunson is Ready To Show an 'Extreme' Version of 'Abbott Elementary'

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Portrait of Quinta Brunson. Jonny Marlow

"I'm just grateful people came to the show early, that they're enjoying it, they're having a good time watching it with friends and family."

The landscape of television is so vast these days, it's rare for a network TV comedy series to succeed. But Quinta Brunson's Abbott Elementary has proven to be a surprise exception, quickly becoming a ratings and critical success. "It's very rare for first-season comedies [to be a success], especially on network." After the show's Emmy-recognized 13-episode first season, its second season (ABC, September 21) comes with a full order of 22 episodes. "I just want people to know when you come to Abbott, you get a range of things. And this season, I feel like we get to play with that range. Now we get to live in it." Brunson says the inspiration for creating the series came from watching her mom's experience as a teacher. "I was in her kindergarten class years ago. I spent so much time with her [as a kid], both during, before and after school." Years later, as an adult, Brunson says "the whole world looked different" after she visited her mom at work shortly before she was about to retire. "I was sitting at my mom's desk, watching her in her classroom. And I was like, 'This is it.'"

How does it feel for the show to be getting such positive attention?

It's so exciting. I mean, For a first season show—we're starting our second season now—you rarely expect to get that kind of recognition so fast. What was so exciting for me was just having people love the show so fast, because it's very rare for first-season comedies, especially on network these days. I'm just grateful people came to the show early, that they're enjoying it, they're having a good time watching it with friends and family. And for this amazing team of people to be recognized at the Emmys.

It is rare! I'm also, personally, so excited to see Sheryl Lee Ralph get the attention I've always felt she deserves.

Me too, honestly. She is someone who I have thought has done wonderful work for years. She reminds me of this often, so I'm not tooting my own horn, but when we first started filming I told her that I was going to give her Emmy-worthy material. I believe I said that, but I don't remember saying that. I just knew she was capable of layers and layers, she's been doing it her entire career. I want to give her material that can showcase all that she does.

How do you think the show benefits from being on network TV instead of cable or a streaming service?

Absolutely. First of all, as a creator, I do believe when you have a show idea, you see it at a certain place. For me, it's hard to deviate from that. So [from] the inception of Abbott, this was for network television, meaning it would be 22 minutes and it would be the kind of humor that is accessible to anyone. Abbott was always made for network, even when I thought about it as a cartoon, it still would have been in the Bob's Burgers fashion. So it definitely would have been different, but I also think it just would have never been on cable or streaming. Doing these panels and interviews, I get to learn a lot about myself, and I've learned my extreme love of network television coupled with being a firm lover and enjoyer of cable and streaming television. I think the two things can coexist humor-wise. I have respect for both of them. There's a different kind of freedom you get to have on your streaming, whereas for Abbott, you really want people to come back after that commercial break. It's how you write the show, and I think that's part of the fun for the audience.

When you're writing the show, after a while do you start writing for the actors playing the characters? Like when you know what they can do, do you lean in to certain things?

I think we could get away with it but my philosophy and thus the writers rooms philosophy is to not make them work more than they already have to. So we try to deliver fully fleshed out scripts, characters intact, motives intact, so that what they do is special, and it's just added on top of what we do. Granted after doing the first season, of course, we see like Janelle [James] is really good at this, Lisa [Ann Walter] is really good at this... but we don't want to lean on them too much. Because then it would feel like we're not doing our jobs. We may write something and then afterwards be like, oh, man, I can't wait to see what Lisa does with this, but we were really just writing the character, Melissa.

You mentioned an early idea of the show was as a cartoon? How did the idea originally come about?

I went to visit my mother who was about to retire, actually it was the year before she decided to retire. I was in my mom's class, my mom's a kindergarten teacher. I was in her kindergarten class years ago. I spent so much time with her [as a kid], both during, before and after school. Sometimes that meant getting to school two hours early and seeing what that looked like and staying too late while she had her meetings and stuff. I think I just took in so much information from that time. And then when I went to visit her before she was considering retiring, the whole world looked different for me. I had been away from it for about 10 years at that point, so I came back to it like whoa, this is a place I lived for so long. But now I'm looking at it with an outsider's view. It was an interesting inspiration, something you know so well but have some time from, it's really inspiring because you can see it a little differently when you're not living in it. I looked at my mom's co-workers and her wacky principal at the time. My mom came to this parent-teacher conference with this teacher and it was really moving to me. I was sitting at my mom's desk, watching her in her classroom. And I was like, "This is it."

What can people expect from the second season?

What I'm excited about, personally, is that now we have 22 episodes, because the first season we only had 13. It was really important to me to show audiences what this show could do with every episode, show a different version of what we're capable of: extreme funny, extreme heart, extreme character development. I just want people to know when you come to Abbott, you get a plethora and a range of things. So now this season, I feel like we get to play with that range. Now we get to live in it. It feels like some episodes are just plain old fun. I think this season is exciting.

You're going to play Oprah in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (November 4, The Roku Channel), which is so exciting. Can you tell us a little about that?

It's insane and perfectly dumb. So perfectly dumb. Like when I got the call about that I was like, "What? Yes. So stupid." I love, love, love Daniel Radcliffe. I'm there because he's a delight. But the Oprah part of it. I was like, this is the perfect way for me to play someone as iconic as Oprah. I don't want to be the live-action drama Oprah, this is exactly how I would like to play people. Like Daniel playing Weird Al even though he's a foot shorter than him. It's so silly and fun. And I really cannot wait. I can't wait for people to see that movie. Weird Al is just enjoyable. It's fun. He was so sweet. Like, such a sweet man, a pleasure to meet. I just went in there and had fun and now it's this thing and I just hope people enjoy it.

Listen to H. Alan Scott's on Newsweek's Parting Shot. Available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Twitter: @HAlanScott