Quinta Brunson Made Network TV Cool Again

She got famous through her memes. Now she has created the most charming show of the winter.

Photo: Emily Shur
Photo: Emily Shur

Most people know Quinta Brunson as “the Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date” or the BuzzFeed Meme Girl. She got her start as a stand-up comedian but found her audience by memeing well, as she puts it, playing characters like “the girl who could Milly Rock on any block” and the woman who, shocked by her date’s ability to afford a large popcorn, yells, “He got money!” So when Brunson’s sitcom, Abbott Elementary, debuted on ABC this past December, much of Twitter exclaimed, “The ‘He Got Money Girl’ is on TV now? I love that for her!” unaware that she is also the show’s creator, writer, and executive producer.

Brunson, 32, isn’t bothered by those who think being the subject of BuzzFeed videos was what launched her to success. “I think it’s cool!” she tells me, flashing her famous, meme-worthy smile. “It shows it doesn’t matter what you did first — all of these platforms are just ways for artists to flex their muscles.” She’s sitting in her living room surrounded by moving boxes because she recently purchased a house in Los Angeles — the “He Got Money Girl” has now made some money herself.

Abbott Elementary is a mockumentary about a group of Philadelphia public-school teachers with limited resources and support who are trying to help their students. It’s centered on Brunson’s character, Janine Teagues, a second-grade teacher doing her best. The show features a classic “Will they or won’t they” couple — Janine and her co-worker Gregory (Tyler James Williams) — and an ensemble cast that has already found its rhythm. The series isn’t just a critical success (though it’s certainly that — it has a 100 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has quadrupled its ratings since its premiere); it has a fan base similar to those that developed around Parks and Recreation and The Office. With only five episodes of the show aired, its viewers have assembled fan cams comparing Abbott Elementary’s Janine and Gregory with TV couples like Pam and Jim or Ben and Leslie. Mindy Kaling tweeted her seal of approval. “I’m shocked,” Brunson says of the show’s popularity. “Sitcoms in the past, you watch them slowly build up an audience, so I wasn’t prepared for this.”

As “the girl who could Milly Rock on any block” in 2016. Photo: Quinta Brunson/Facebook

The world of Abbott Elementary is rooted in Brunson’s own life. She grew up in the West Philadelphia school system, where her mother was a kindergarten teacher. (The series is named for Brunson’s middle-school teacher Ms. Abbott.) Her path to comedy began in earnest in 2008, when she was attending Temple University and waffling over which major to choose. She was watching a lot of Saturday Night Live — the Kristen Wiig–Jason Sudeikis–Bill Hader era — and she realized, “Wait, all these people went to one place to learn how to do this?” She started skipping school, traveling to Chicago for weeks at a time to take classes at the Second City, the famous improv theater. One of her teachers, Shelly Gossman, encouraged her to take the writing course. But there was a problem: Brunson was broke and hadn’t told her parents about her comedy aspirations, so she couldn’t ask them for money. Then Gossman offered to pay for her class. “That was the defining moment of, like, Okay, I will be doing this for the rest of my life,” she recalls. “No one had ever given me money to do something I was good at before!”

Brunson spent a few years honing her comedy and stand-up skills. Her comedic voice walks the line between self-awareness and self-deprecation before finding the laugh in her absolute joy in being herself. She’s around five feet tall, but her presence demands attention (she often began her sets by reproaching the mic stand for being condescending toward her). Not until 2014, when she translated her stage act to mediums like Instagram and YouTube, did Brunson start to build a following. Her first hit, “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date,” was a self-produced Instagram series. The videos were quick glimpses into the lives of 20-somethings; Brunson’s facility with internet lingo and memes made her a fast sell for viewers who had grown up with social media. Eventually, she caught the eye of BuzzFeed Video, where she was hired as a full-time producer creating and starring in one-off videos and series.

Although it has never been easy to turn internet fame into TV success, Brunson’s brand of comedy always seemed like a natural fit for television. Her character-driven sketches spotlighted her ability to world-build and, most important, to nail a punch line. But the media landscape was rapidly shifting; no one was sure how people even watched television anymore, and every tech company was trying to become a production company. Around 2016, Brunson started making shows for many of them. Her first two were done in partnership with BuzzFeed Motion Pictures: Verizon go90’s Up for Adoption, a mockumentary about volunteers at an adoption center, and Broke, a YouTube Red series about three friends moving from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams. In 2017, she sold Quinta vs. Everything, in which Brunson tackles all types of life issues one episode at a time, to Facebook Watch. While characterizations of Black women often traded in respectability politics or showcased them as saviors, she wasn’t afraid to be silly, wrong, and imperfect. These shows laid the groundwork for Abbott Elementary, with Brunson drawing from her personal experiences to tell stories that reflected her life and community. “I was cutting my teeth on what it took to create television shows,” she says. “I didn’t formally go to school for this, so it was like on-the-job training.”

As Janine Teagues on Abbott Elementary in 2022. Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC

By 2018, Brunson had left BuzzFeed, and it looked as if her years of working in the digital-content mines had paid off. She co-created a pilot with comedian Jermaine Fowler that CBS put into development. Titled Quinta & Jermaine, the show was about two friends dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. Larry Wilmore — who has created, produced, or consulted on nearly every major Black TV show (and The Office) over the past 30 years — came onboard as a co-producer. Brunson credits Wilmore for teaching her the beats of network TV. “I came to that project super-green,” she says. “My understanding of television structure completely came from Larry. If I didn’t work with him, I wouldn’t have been able to create Abbott.

When the pilot wasn’t picked up, Brunson used the time to bolster her acting résumé, taking guest spots on the CW’s iZombie and on TBS’s Miracle Workers as Steve Buscemi’s daughter. In 2019, she was hired as a regular co-star and writer on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. She fit right in on Robin Thede’s series, which centers the inside jokes made by Black women. Like Brunson’s work, Thede’s sought to break down the idea that Black women are a monolith. “I didn’t realize how rare it would be to be on a show with that many Black women,” Brunson says. “It did something to my brain where I was like, I’ll never not work without a good amount of Black people on set again.

Brunson started writing the pilot for Abbott Elementary in 2020. She had always been drawn to the rhythm of workplace comedies, but those shows had never put Black people at the forefront. When ABC picked it up, Brunson saw an opportunity to create the show she had always dreamed of making: a network series about people who look and live like her. She realizes this is an odd dream for a millennial who was raised during the Golden Age of cable television and made her name on the internet. But she saw the network-sitcom form as uniquely suited to creating new, lasting archetypes for Black characters. “It’s TV for everyone,” she says. “Part of my goal was TV that could bring a 14-year-old and a 98-year-old together to watch it. I’m hearing that about moms and grandmothers and kids, and it warms my heart.”

Unlike characters on Insecure and other shows about Black female friends, Janine is allowed to be a little frumpy and badly dressed. (“She is doing her best at Target,” says Brunson.) She dates a wannabe rapper (Zack Fox) while her colleague Gregory secretly pines for her. “It was important to have Black love depicted on the screen because, you know, I’m from Philly,” Brunson says. “It’s accurate to the world of a school like Abbott. It’d be weird to see Janine randomly dating some white guy. We were excited to show this cute hometown romance that reminded us of our families.”

I ask Brunson if, at a time when broadcast networks still consider white audiences the majority, she feels any pressure to create a comedy with that in mind. While comedies focused on white women allow their primary characters to be “quirky,” Black network sitcoms are often still expected to depict “good” Black characters and to translate to non-Black viewers what’s being depicted. “I simply refuse to entertain it,” Brunson says. “That’s just not the way I make things. And if that’s what I was asked to make, I just wouldn’t have made it.”

If one character best brings Brunson’s vision of new Black archetypes to life, it’s Ava Coleman (Janelle James), Abbott’s hilariously rude, selfish principal. The character is like Michael Scott and Creed from The Office with a Tiffany Haddish twist. She brings to mind the one girl in school you let do your braids even though she believed the Illuminati was real. She has become a fan favorite, instantly quotable in memes and gifs. The character has also been the subject of Twitter criticism with some accusing Ava of making Black educators look bad. It’s a critique tied up in the burden of representation (no one would suggest Michael Scott represents all paper-company managers). “Janelle is just doing her character so damn well that, you know, people are getting mad at her!” Brunson says. “I chuckle about it. It’s a sign of success to be so good at the role that people are like, Oh my God, I can’t stand her. It’s really cool to have a controversial character on shows right now. I’m putting her in the same category as Shiv Roy.”

During development, the studio pushed her to cast more recognizable names, but she was firm about hiring James. James was a comedian (recently featured on Netflix’s The Standups), and Brunson was eager to introduce her to a broader audience. She felt the same about Fox, a comedian best known for rapping about his depression and tweeting under the alias “Bootymath.” “I believe it’s part of the fabric of a sitcom to introduce you to new people,” Brunson says. “What helps make a show successful is when you have people you can fall in love with, actors people have never seen before.” She hopes Abbott Elementary will launch a new generation of Black comedic talent whose credentials will now be Googled. “If you’re a mom, though,” she adds, “please don’t Google Zack Fox.”

Quinta Brunson Made Network TV Cool Again