Quinta Brunson, Head of Her Class

Quinta Brunson has had a bewildering summer. For the first time since she was 14, she spent it not working. Brunson—who has written, starred in, and executive-produced the certified hit Abbott Elementary and simultaneously restored her entire industry’s faith in the viability of the half-hour network sitcom—went on strike with the rest of the writers in the WGA union in the spring, and remained on it through the summer when the actors joined them on the picket line.

Now that the WGA has scored a new contract, Quinta Brunson is back in business (although shooting the new season of Abbott will have to wait until SAG-AFTRA settles its negotiations too). She doesn’t cast it as a silver lining, but she does acknowledge that these past few months have given her “time to process” her whirlwind ascension from viral video creator to genuine star.

Carolina Herrera shirt and pants.

The 33-year-old—as an entire generation knows—got her start as the mind behind beloved shorts like “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date,” which nabbed her a job at BuzzFeed. Abbott Elementary, which takes the tropes of the traditional workplace comedy and sends them up by setting it at an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia, is her first network show and creative brainchild. Needless to say, given its rapturous reception, there will be others. She’s signed a multiyear deal with Warner Bros. Television Group to develop new series and tell fresh stories.

Who better to talk to Brunson about her wild ride in Hollywood than a woman who knows very well where she came from? Newly minted Meet the Press also hails from Brunson’s hometown of Philadelphia. Both women are self-proclaimed “Philly kids” to their core—tenacious, open, and generous in equal measure. Here Welker and Brunson talk ambition, heartbreak, inspiration, and what’s next for Brunson, from her ideas for new shows to… moving to London? Janine Teagues would be so proud. — Glamour

Quinta Brunson: Yeah, my brothers and sisters—they really liked to watch me imitate characters from their favorite shows. I don’t think I realized that I was doing impressions; it would just be like, “Quinta, say this.” And then I would say it, and I really enjoyed making them laugh.

Where does that come from?

I was just passionate about making people laugh! It brought me such joy. It really connected me to my siblings. I came so much later than them, so I think to them that was the value in me. Because they thought my mom was done, and then here I come and it was like, “Ugh.”

What’s the age difference?

There’s eight years between me and my brother closest to me, 20 years between my oldest brother and me.

How did growing up in Philadelphia, broadly speaking, set the stage for everything you’re doing now?

Philadelphia is such a unique city. To just call it diverse would be reductive, which is what people do sometimes: “Oh, diversity.” Yeah, it’s diverse, but it’s more than that.

It’s something I try to put into Abbott. It’s such a rich, rich, rich city. It’s amazing to be able to walk from where I live to UPenn’s campus and also to the little Ethiopian city that’s right next door and then to Drexel and then also be two blocks away from South Street. You know?

I wonder how that set you up to be successful in, frankly, one of the most competitive, challenging industries in this country.

Here’s a perfect example: Before I moved out of Philly, I was confused that people had never really been around Muslim people before, or even Jewish people, or Italian people. We’re all in such close proximity. And it’s not like we live in harmony, but so much felt accessible to me. I felt able to tap into other cultures easily. It wasn’t foreign; it wasn’t scary to me. It was right next to me.

And I think with Philadelphia being a city that’s not as big as New York, it feels more communal. It feels more like the city is one big messed-up family, but one big family. I feel like all of that lent itself to me being able to get through this industry, because another thing about Philly: It’s a big underdog city, and we like it that way. And I feel that way about myself in this industry. It’s like, “I know that I’m good. I’m not really proving that part, I’m just—

You still feel like the underdog?

Yeah. I don’t think I ever stopped feeling like the underdog. And who knows if that’s good or bad for us?

Versace dress, bracelet, and ring. Swarovski necklace.

Does that fuel you to keep going?

I think that part of me feels like I still have more to show. Abbott Elementary is only scratching the surface of what I’m capable of, and sometimes I feel that people think that making Abbott is easy, and it’s not. And that makes me feel like the underdog, like, “Oh, you think this is my best work? Oh okay.” Abbott is very good work, and it’s my show and my baby, but I feel like I have more to show creatively. And I just got here. I just need more time.

How hard was it to leave Philadelphia to go to Los Angeles?

It wasn’t very hard at all. I knew I had to go. But I had to break it to my parents, and my mom specifically. That was the hard part.

What did she say?

She was not happy. And it was hard for me. That was 10 years ago. I couldn’t express to her my vision. It’s not like when you’re saying, “I’m going to become a doctor.” Saying, “Hey, I want to work in comedy”, that just seems insane to them, and like a one-in-a-million chance to my mom. She was not happy, but she learned to trust me, which was nice.

What was dating like after “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date” was released and went viral?

That’s when I knew I couldn’t go on the apps! I was like, “All right, can’t use the apps,” because I really didn’t enjoy people going, “Aren’t you the girl from that video?” So dating became a little bit more difficult.

Just in listening to you talk, you sound like someone who’s always appreciated and understood your worth and your value. Is that something that is inherent?

Interestingly enough, even though my parents didn’t necessarily support what I was doing at first, going into comedy, a lot of what they instilled in me is what allowed me to advocate for myself. I used to always tell my mom when she didn’t get it, years ago, “You’re the one who put me in dance classes and made me love to be in front of an audience. You’re the one who inspired my creativity.”

And then I really credit this time period in college when I had my heart broken very badly—the end-of-the-world kind of breakup.

We’ve all been there!

We have all been there. But when you piece yourself back together, when you peel yourself off the floor and rebuild yourself, and have friends and community that help you, it’s often hard to get broken like that again. I’m not telling everyone to go out there and get their heart broken, but for me, after that, I felt invincible.

Aliette dress. Alexander McQueen necklace. Mondo Mondo ring. Giuseppe Zanotti heels.

How much was your mom, who was a teacher, an inspiration for Abbott? I mean, I know you talk about the hysterical stories that she used to tell you.

I mean, fully. More than her telling me stories, it was just watching her. I was very in my mom’s world, and so just observing helped me to build out the world of Abbott.

And I’m very happy you said that. So many outlets have been saying, “This show was inspired by [Quinta’s] teacher, Ms. Abbott.” While all teachers are an inspiration, and Ms. Abbott also is—it fully was inspired by my mother’s career. And my mom’s a very shy woman, so she would never be doing the things that Ms. Abbott can do. But when it came down to naming the show, I said I would love to name it after one of my favorite teachers, which is how we got the name.

She was just recognized in Philadelphia.

She just was, and she is wonderful and absolutely deserves it. I called her the night after she got honored, and she was just so grateful and wonderful. And I just want people to know that both of them were a huge, huge, huge inspiration.

When I think about Janine, your character on Abbott, I think about her optimism. To have the show revolve around an optimist is in some ways a risk. Because we’re so used to, on TV, seeing the complicated figures.

Absolutely, I agree with you. I mean, the optimism can sometimes make her both hard to write and hard to watch. But I feel personally that a character like Janine is really important because people like Janine do keep the world going round. We need both the optimist and the pessimist. You need them both to make change. You can’t have a room full of pessimists—nothing will get done—and you can’t have a room full of optimists, because that’s just not realistic. And once again, nothing will get done.

You have said that you wanted to make shows that include Black people, about Black people, but that are not necessarily “confronting race relations.” How do you navigate that?

To me, it’s a choice. I think it’s a choice to tell stories that are exclusively about race, which there’s absolutely nothing wrong with. It’s the same thing as making a show that directly chooses to tackle issues about being queer. But with Abbott, I really wanted to lead with everyday story first, and let everything fold into that. So I wanted to talk about, instead of “Janine confronts her Blackness,” or “Janine deals with this race issue,” it’s really just like, “Janine is trying to change a light bulb.”

I think that’s the way the majority of the people that I [know are]. Like my family, they’re very working class. When they’re at work, the issue at work is just the task at hand. And when you’re working in a predominantly Black environment, the issues just don’t come up as much. So for me, with Abbott, it’s like, well, this is a predominantly Black environment. These are characters that aren’t going to spend their days talking about race. And as you can see on the show, it’s not like race never comes up. It does.

David Koma dress. Agmes earrings.

You are creating this show against the backdrop of this incredibly complex cultural moment that we are in, where curriculum is being debated, school safety is front and center in so many schools across this country. And I read that some people had wanted you to actually write an episode that deals with a school shooting. You rejected that idea. Why?

I think two reasons. One is similar to what I just mentioned about race. I just think about the day-to-day in a workplace comedy, and I don’t think that that’s the realistic day-to-day in the classroom. I say that knowing that school shootings happen all the time, every day or every week, unfortunately. But there are two different realities. There’s the one present in the classroom where teachers are just trying to get through a lesson. And then there’s the outside perspective of us engaging with teachers through the news.

To us, these school shootings are the biggest thing happening, but when I talk to my friends who are teachers, yes, that’s huge, but today they’re just trying to get through this lesson. They’re just trying to get the reading scores up. They’re just trying to do this job. If anything, the school shooting thing is in the background, like, “Fuck.” It’s kind of like, “We got to deal with that too?” Do you know what I mean?

So it’s complicated, and I just don’t know if I want to dedicate my space to that. I don’t want to open up my show to that political violence. I consider it that at this point—even the discourse of it is violent. And although I participate in it outside of my show, and I’m a huge advocate for eradicating gun violence in this country, but I don’t think my show has to carry that.

A lot of people, I think, would be curious: What kind of a student were you?

Oh, I was really good. I loved being an A student. I loved learning and I loved getting the answers right, but then once I got in high school, there were some days where I was just like, “I don’t really want to be here. I think there’s more value in me walking around the city.” I would walk around downtown and walk around Independence Hall, and really just feel the city.

You were experiencing life. I had one day like that, full disclosure.

I had many, many, many, many, many, many. And to me, I was like, it wasn’t a big deal. It’s like, I actually spent the day at the art museum.

And you still learned a lot.

I learned tons. It got kind of rough during high school, but I still graduated.

One of the country’s most well-known teachers is the first lady, Jill Biden, and there’s a picture of her watching the premiere of season two of Abbott Elementary. How did that hit you when you found out? And did you ever imagine that the show would have this reach and impact that many people?

I recently met Janet Jackson, and I was like, “I just want to say I’m a huge fan, as a former dancer.” I was a dancer, and we danced to every single song Janet ever made. She stopped me, and she was like, “I love your show.” It hadn’t even occurred to me that Janet Jackson would’ve ever seen Abbott. I was just like, “What?”

So the Jill Biden thing, honestly…that was during that period of time where things were not connecting. It was like, “Oh, Jill Biden’s watching the show in Air Force One. That’s cool. Okay, so tomorrow we need this.” I had a whole period of moments like that happening and being like, “That’s too big of a thought. I’m going to minimize it, put it in the back of my brain. Let’s get ready for work tomorrow.” It was nuts. I recently saw that picture again and it was just like, “What?”

Can you give us any teaser for what people can expect on season three of Abbott Elementary?

I think they can expect more exciting guest stars—people who are very exciting to me. And I think they can expect more growth. That’s the beauty of starting your characters young. Janine and Gregory and Jacob are in their 20s. I think it’s fun that the audience is sometimes shocked by the choices they make, because they’re, like, 20 and they’re stupid and they’re growing. That’s exciting to me.

You have, what is it? Four, five jobs? How do you approach that? I mean, that is so much responsibility.

Yeah. It changes. Our first season was only 13 episodes, and we created those 13 episodes before the show aired. Second season, I had to learn how to pull back a little bit because we filmed 22 episodes which started airing while we were writing and filming. I couldn’t be in every place at once, so I had to pick and choose my battles. This season I’ll have to learn where I need to be and when. It’s an ever-changing process. But I think now I’m going to put a little bit more emphasis on taking time to relax, because I can’t say that I have done that for the first two seasons. I have to learn how to also say yes and no to things.

That’s a part of being able to get through the marathon, just as you’re saying that Janine has that growth.

I’m more of a Barbara this year. I’m more about saving the energy this year.

I think that’s the quote of the interview. What is next for you? Do you think about maybe doing something for the big screen?

I do. Another thing about this time period was my brain got the space to really think about other projects because there’s no room in there while Abbott is happening. And I’m really excited for what I’m going to do after Abbott. I know for a fact I’ll never star in a show again, that I write. Never again.


Well, I guess never say never, but I know I will never star in something that I also write. Too much. Too, too much, will never do that again. I’m in it. I love it right now, but I’m like, Never again. And then I really want to produce a show that I’m not in, that I’m really excited about, so hopefully, I get to get that in motion soon.

Aliette dress. Alexander McQueen necklace.

Do you have ideas for it already?

Yes, I have a fully formed idea. I’m really excited about it. I just need time.

Can you share any of it with us?

Just that it’s a coming-of-age story, so about a younger girl. I know an idea is something I really want to do and is good when I’m thinking about it without thinking about it. That’s how Abbott was for years. It was just sitting in the back of my brain.

I heard that you just visited Europe, and you’re thinking about going to London.

Yeah, moving to London.

Is that a real thing?

That is real. I just loved it. I felt at home. You are from Philly. Have you been to London?

Yes, I love London.

Oh, man. I mean, I felt like I was home. The architecture, how old the city is. The gray, the rain—I just absolutely adored it. I felt at home. Abbott keeps me in LA full-time because it just is better to live here. But after the show I definitely could see myself moving out of the country.

And you talked about your husband—what do you guys do in your free time? What do you do to unwind?

Watch different shows and movies. Right now we’re watching Ahsoka. It’s a Star Wars show. What else do we do? Go to museums. We’re going to go see a Keith Haring exhibit, hopefully today at the Broad museum. Hang with our friends. We have a really good friend group here, and doing things like game nights and barbecues and eating. We hang in our pool. We hang with our cat.

What’s your cat’s name?

His name’s Jack. He’s incredible. He’s not that cool, but he’s cool because I love him.

Quinta, let me ask you this, and it’s one that has personal resonance for me. How did you learn how to actually be a boss?

For me, I feel like every job I had before Abbott led to being able to manage the show the way I would like to. I didn’t really have an image in my head of who to be like. I thought about what I appreciated every time I was an employee, and I thought about being a good community member. I love people. I love working in teams and groups, and I try to bring that to my role at Abbott. Even though I am the boss and head manager, I still try to just think of being a good community member, more than anything.

And most of the time, I would say 95% of the time, it really does work. I have the huge honor of being able to be number one on a call sheet and also number one of the production, which means I get to set the tone for how this production works. To me, our production is a community. Notice I didn’t say “family” because it’s not, technically. I’m very against Janine-with-the-family workplace. But I do think it’s a community. Let’s hear each other out. Let’s support each other. Let’s meet when things aren’t going well. Which, fortunately, isn’t often because those two things—hearing each other out and also respecting each other—to me, makes it a healthy environment.

It’s a great guiding principle, and it’s a great place to end. It’s been such an honor to talk to you.

Thank you, it’s been an honor to talk to you too.

Photographed by Joshua Kissi
Styling: Zerina Akers
Hair: Marcia Hamilton
Makeup: Samuel Paul
Manicure: Temeka Jackson
Production: Carisa Barah/Small Battles
Location: Million Dollar Theatre
Braiders: Jehcara Summer Nelson and Dr. Kari Williams

Read all the Glamour 2023 Woman of the Year profiles here:

Millie Bobby Brown
Geena Rocero
America Ferrera
Mary J. Blige
Brooke Shields
Daring to Disrupt Selma Blair


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