Quinta Brunson on Winning Emmys With Sheryl Lee Ralph, Why ‘Abbott Elementary’ Wasn’t Ready to Be Named Best Comedy Yet and Changing the Stakes in Season 2

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

It’s Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after she’s won an Emmy, and Quinta Brunson’s voice is hoarse. The days of pre-award festivities leading up to the Sept. 12 ceremony were frantic, starting with Variety’s Showrunners Dinner (where she swapped war stories with fellow TV creators like Dan Harmon, Danny Strong and Liz Meriwether). Then came the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, the Governors Gala and Disney’s post-Emmy celebration, which spilled into the next day. Something had to give.

Yet when the “Abbott Elementary” creator and star sits down for an in-depth interview with Variety, her creative voice is clear and strong.

On the morning after the Emmys, she’s back on Warner Bros.’ Burbank lot, about to take part in a table read and start production on a new episode of the hit ABC comedy. Before the grind resumes, however, Brunson stops by the studio commissary’s executive dining room for breakfast and a quick conversation about the WBTV comedy’s tremendous early success and Emmy wins.

The specific moment when she claimed her gold for outstanding comedy writing (stepping over a jokingly prostrate Jimmy Kimmel — more on that in a moment) now feels like one big blur. But there are plenty of highlights she does still remember.

“Henry Winkler’s wife came up and told me how much she loved the show,” Brunson says. “That meant a lot to me. I love when people’s mates or family members come up and tell me that they love the show, because that’s how I know they really are watching as a family. And that makes me happy.”

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Brunson pulled off the rare hat trick of landing nominations for comedy series, comedy writing and lead actress in a comedy. In winning writing for a comedy series, she became only the second Black woman in television history to be honored in this category, after Lena Waithe (in 2017 for “Master of None.”) “Abbott” also picked up a trophy this year during the Creative Arts Emmys, for outstanding casting in a comedy.

And in the single most joyous moment of NBC’s live Emmycast, “Abbott” co-star Sheryl Lee Ralph won for comedy supporting actress. It was Ralph’s first Emmy, and the win made her only the second Black woman in TV history to be honored in this category — and the first in 35 years (after Jackée Harry in 1987 for “227”).

The “Dreamgirls” Tony nominee let her pipes loose with a rendition of Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species” as the first part of her acceptance speech. “It could not have been more beautiful,” Brunson says of Ralph’s victory. “Sheryl comes in and lights up our set every morning.”

As she sips water to soothe her voice after a weekend of cheering for the show and chatting with friends, fans, colleagues and idols, Brunson muses that she’s nevertheless ready to strip off her Emmy fingernails and suit up as Janine Teagues, the cheerful, modest elementary school teacher she plays on the show, set in a Philadelphia public elementary school.

“I will put this directly into Janine today,” she says, fighting back the exhaustion.

Her phone continues to ping with congratulatory texts from pals Issa Rae, Gabrielle Union, Thundercat and Zack Fox, who plays her ex-boyfriend on “Abbott.” Members of Brunson’s family — including her mother, a former teacher who inspired the star to create the show in the first place — are also excitedly calling her.

“My mom was losing it,” Brunson says. “I talked to her last night, and she was just so proud.”

As she should be: In creating a breakout laffer for broadcast TV — in an age when comedy hits and broadcast hits are both in short supply — Brunson was already the toast of the town. Add an Emmy win, and she has joined the ranks of primetime’s top-tier show creators. She’s also part of the rarefied space of multi-hyphenates who star in some of their shows, a list that includes Rae, Tina Fey, Lena Waithe, Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader.

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“It’s hard for broadcast shows in this environment to get the kind of critical acclaim that their streaming counterparts do,” says Warner Bros. TV chairman Channing Dungey. “It just seems like you’re always starting with one hand tied behind your back. And so this recognition was so truly gratifying. For Quinta, this has been such a passion for her from the beginning. She’s a triple threat. There are very few people that I would consider her peers.”

Adds “Abbott” cast member Chris Perfetti, who plays fellow teacher Jacob: “If the story broke later today that she’s actually a bionic woman, I would not be surprised. She is one of the most generous, genius people I’ve ever encountered.”

Brunson is using those superpowers to make sure “Abbott” doesn’t falter in its sophomore year. The bar is higher this time out, as the show has a full 22-episode season order, something that was once the norm but is now a rarity that tests the mettle of any production team.

In Season 1, “every single episode, the goal was to show people what we can do, what a banger the show can be,” Brunson says. “But now we’ve got episodes that are just chill. They have no real stakes. And I hope that audiences are OK with that.”

What they will see is a more expansive view of the “Abbott” world, including more peripheral characters in the school, new relatives of main characters and peeks into their homes and personal lives.

“It feels like I’m adding another layer to these rich characters that I love so much,” she says. “But I don’t want to be out of the school that much. I want to stay in these hallways, so people feel at home when they come watch.”

What Brunson does tease is the slow burn of a relationship between Janine and Gregory, the new teacher played by Tyler James Williams (who was also an Emmy nominee this year). It’s the classic “will they/won’t they” staple, but with a different approach.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel; the wheel works,” she says. “I’d just like to give it some spinning rims.”

Brunson speaks with confidence about her plans for the couple. “For Janine and Gregory, they actually get to be work colleagues who do the exact same thing and want to do it well,” she says. “We get excited writing little situations for them that have nothing to do with love. We all know the attraction is there … and you get to have moments that mean nothing to our characters but everything to our audience. I’m just pumped about them.”

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Although “Abbott” is an established show, Brunson says the season opens a bit as a series refresher, almost as a pilot to set the stage for what will likely be a larger audience drawn by the spotlight of the Emmy wins.

She feels the weight of those expectations — which is why Brunson admits she’s relieved that “Abbott” didn’t win the Emmy for comedy series this year, as many had predicted.

“There’s this grace that’s given to a show when they haven’t won yet,” she says. “A nation is rooting for it. It’s the underdog. It was so exciting that the first season was so well received by fans, and critically acclaimed. But I want us to be able to keep growing. I’m not sure I wanted audiences to expect prestige yet. I want us to have fun and get to be an awkward toddler.”

The success of “Abbott” has also allowed Warner Bros. TV and ABC to use the platform for good. Brunson helped facilitate the donation of some of the show’s Emmy campaign funds toward supplies for schools in need of help. Although she downplays the show’s education advocacy, noting that “Abbott” is comedy first, it continues to shine a spotlight on the budget woes and needs of underfunded schools, particularly in areas that predominantly serve children of color. And of course, the show continues to highlight how woefully underpaid teachers are, and the heroic lengths they go to in order to help students.

“It all comes from us just trying to drive our characters, trying to bring the realism of the situation into [their stories],” she says. “So it’s amazing that in doing that, we get to highlight what teachers go through, what their issues are. Sometimes I don’t see the impact until I hear it. It’s really rewarding to feel that way and makes me even more inspired by our actors and by Randall Einhorn, who directs a lot of our show. Sometimes it’s just the way he chooses to shoot something that then gets to be inspiring.”

“Abbott Elementary” sprang from an idea Brunson had been kicking around for years, a workplace comedy based on her mother’s experience as a teacher. Brunson says she identifies more with hardscrabble, no-nonsense Barbara, the veteran teacher played by Ralph, than she does her own character. Janine’s sunny disposition is based on Brunson’s friend Ashley.

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“When I met Ashley, I was completely the Barbara to her,” she remembers. “Could not stand her. Get away from me. But over the years we have become the best of friends. She is such an inspiration to me, to remind myself that I’m doing well, that I have good things in my life.”

Barbara, of course, is played by Ralph on the show. “She’s so front and center in my whole life and trajectory and being and everything right now,” Ralph says of Brunson. Speaking to Variety also the day after the Emmys, Ralph notes that Brunson was the only person she thanked on stage with their full name. “Hers was the only name I could really get out fully,” Ralph says. “Just her name! I couldn’t get my husband’s full name out. Couldn’t even get my children’s full name out. But I could say out loud QUINTA BRUNSON!”

“Abbott Elementary” came to life after Brunson met fellow showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker while working on a pilot for The CW. When that project didn’t move forward, the idea for “Abbott” did.

“From our perspective, Quinta is a brilliant writer who happens to also be an incredible performer,” Halpern says. “Her brain works in the way that a writer’s brain works.” Schumacker notes that Brunson hadn’t planned to be in “Abbott” at first, and wanted to focus on Ralph’s character as the lead.

“She is, I think, most comfortable in the writers’ room, even though she exudes confidence on set,” Schumacker says. “Our job as her partner is to try and honor the vision that she came to us with so clearly since the beginning.”

Williams marvels at how Brunson “shouldered the weight and kept going” — and has now been rewarded. “It feeds my soul,” he says. “She stood up and said, ‘this is the show that I want to make as a freshman showrunner and writer.’ And that to me is what the Emmy was for. She stuck to her guns and she was right.” 

Brunson also credits Larry Wilmore, whom she thanked in her Emmy acceptance speech, for giving her the tools to create her own pilot. Although Wilmore wasn’t involved with the creation of “Abbott,” he and Brunson developed another pilot for CBS — and she took that opportunity as a showrunner bootcamp to soak in Wilmore’s experience at the craft.

“I knew how to structure a script, but he taught me the art behind doing it for network television,” she says. “Figuring out what your timing is, according to the platform you’re on and the act breaks you have. That’s stuff I learned from Larry, 100%.”

And being an creator/star/executive producer isn’t just what’s on the page or what’s on the screen. There are the PR duties that Brunson has embraced, including the just concluded Emmy FYC season. And there’s also the highly public component that comes with it all. Brunson was no stranger to the spotlight, given her on-camera background (which also included stints on “iZombie,” “Single Parents” and “A Black Lady Sketch Show”).

But now she is also learning the intense relationship that fans have with a hit show. Some of that is joyous — “Abbott” was an unlikely hit at San Diego Comic-Con, where its pop-up installation attracted Marvel-sized crowds — but some of it is unanticipated. She felt it this spring, when social media commenters started pressing her for an installment inspired by the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre, even though that’s far removed from what “Abbott” does.

“People asked me for a school-shooting episode or people putting responsibility on ‘Abbott’ that shouldn’t be there,” she says. “As I’ve reiterated many times, this is just a workplace comedy, and that’s it. And I know we do a lot, and we have moments that make people teary-eyed, but the intention is to just make a comedy. The show is inherently political because it’s about a public school in West Philadelphia with predominantly Black children and predominantly Black teachers. But we’ll keep figuring out our place in that world. And as far as people building ownership over the show, I think that’s just what is going to happen when people love something a lot. There’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s OK.”

Brunson admits she has a bit of a complicated relationship these days with the internet, where — coincidentally — she first made a name for herself, producing videos for YouTube and BuzzFeed. At this very moment, as a matter of fact, she’s right in the middle of a trending topic as commenters criticize Kimmel over his Emmy shtick.

Dan Doperalski for Variety

“The internet is doing its own thing in defense of me and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’” she says. “It’s a whole beast. I used to be in it, very inundated in it. But now I feel a little bit more removed. And I was like, yeah, this is the difference in being at home, watching an award show and me being mad about stuff and me at award show, being like, oh shit, it’s a totally different world now.”

For the record, Brunson says she was caught up in the moment of clutching an Emmy, and the Kimmel bit — where he pretended to be passed out cold on the stage floor — didn’t faze her.

“I was totally in my own world and having a really beautiful moment that I will never forget or let be,” she says. “I also understand that as public figures, you exist for people’s own politics. I know that I exist for my own life. But when you become a public figure, you become something for people to talk about. So there’s nothing I can do. I understand how it looks to people. And if I was home, I probably would’ve been pissed if I saw that on TV, but my moment did not feel that way. I’m fine. I do want them to know I’m fine and happy and have loving people.”

And coincidentally, she was lined up to be on pal Kimmel’s late-night show on Sept. 14 to recount the ruckus. On the show, Kimmel apologized — and Brunson had some fun with the host, showing up to crash his monologue, her Emmy in hand.

That wasn’t the only hot topic for Brunson fans coming out of her Emmy night speech. Among the loved ones she thanked was her husband of a year and a half, Kevin Jay Anik. For many, this was the first time they learned that Brunson had a spouse.

“He’s just the most supportive man in the world,” she says. “He’s a good person. That’s the reason I don’t talk about him a lot. I protect my home life very deeply. I do. And he doesn’t deserve what the public can do… I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do all this without a partner like that. I barely ever call him a husband. I call him a partner because that’s truly what he is.”

In addition to “Abbott,” Brunson’s next projects include a role in the film “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,” playing Oprah Winfrey. (She says she heard from the former Queen of Talk, but won’t divulge what they spoke about.)

“When I first had the Weird Al script, I was like, ‘I can’t play Oprah!’ Then I read it and I was like, ‘Oh, this is the exact way I was born to play Oprah.’ Quick, easy, silly, fun, but still respectable. I just admire her so much,” she says. “It was a comedy that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I love Daniel Radcliffe [who plays the title role], and Weird Al — I got to meet him — such a sweetheart. I really enjoy doing things I only have to do for one day outside of ‘Abbott.’”

That includes her guest spot in the upcoming revival of “Party Down.” Creator Rob Thomas previously had Brunson on “iZombie” and was part of the team that had cast her in that CW pilot. “He’s good people,” she says. “And then I’m a big fan of Adam Scott and got to meet him. I love that it’s not a reboot — it’s a continuation.”

Beyond those quick guest spots, Brunson is dabbling in other development, such as a potential revival of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” but geared toward schools (a natural byproduct of “Abbott”), and several movie scripts, including one with Rodney Rothman and Adam Goldberg and another with Seth Rogen’s company.

“Right now, I don’t really have time, unless I wanted to work myself to death, to focus on anything but ‘Abbott,’ and I’m OK with that,” she says. “I’m trying to find out where other people find the time. I was talking to Zendaya yesterday. She’s like, ‘We have to work on something.’ I was like, ‘When? You are in every major franchise in the world!’ I don’t get it. Do people have different time than I do?”

But Quinta Brunson has her eyes on the prize. “This 22-episode [season] hustle is no joke!”

Styling: Bryon Javar; Hair: Alexander Armand; Makeup: Renee Loiz: Dress: Dolce & Gabbana