‘Abbott Elementary’ Creator Quinta Brunson Isn’t Taking Credit for the ‘Return’ of Broadcast Comedies

Photographs by Dan Doperalski

Since the debut of “Abbott Elementary” on ABC in December, creator, executive producer and star Quinta Brunson has been credited with spearheading “the return” of the network comedy. She’s grateful for the love, but she isn’t so sure about that particular compliment.

“Network, all this time, has still been putting big comedies on the air,” she says. “CBS especially was banging out shows with super high ratings, like ‘Young Sheldon.’ ‘The Big Bang Theory’ was on the air forever. And ABC: ‘The Conners,’ ‘The Goldbergs,’ ‘Black-ish.’ They’re holding their own.”

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

Still, it’s no question that “Abbott Elementary” represents an exciting new moment in the comedy landscape. The series, which follows a group of teachers at an under-funded Philadelphia public school, quickly became a top ratings earner for ABC.

By the second episode, “Abbott Elementary” had drawn in the network’s best numbers since “Modern Family” concluded its run in 2020, and it’s the No. 2 new comedy in the adults 18-49 demographic behind “Ghosts” on CBS.

But the numbers also prove something Brunson is more willing to take credit for. “‘Abbott’ is interesting because of the audience it seems to bring back to network [TV],” she says. “I can’t put my finger on it. Some people just say millennials, but it’s not. It’s a certain type of viewer that wasn’t watching network TV, and ‘Abbott’ has given them a show to watch.”

Case in point: Per Nielsen, ratings for the Season 1 finale of “Abbott Elementary” saw a 200% spike after a week of delayed viewing, meaning two-thirds of the key adults 18-49 demographic caught it via DVR, Hulu and other digital platforms instead of during its initial airing on ABC. And in March, the show achieved an especially of-the-moment accolade: Twitter announced it was the most-tweeted TV comedy of 2022. Does that mean “Abbott Elementary” is the network champion of the internet-savvy, cable-free contingent? That might be a start, but it’s still a reductive analysis.

Brunson’s humility extends to the new phenomenon of her growing stardom; she’s thrown off by the attention she gets as an individual outside her show. “I was shocked that it went viral,” she says of a thread she wrote in April on Twitter, in which she responded to a writer who posted a complaint about “Abbott Elementary” being “undramatic” and “more nice than funny.”

“I wonder if that has to do with it being a 22-minute sitcom,” Brunson wrote at the time, earnestly encouraging drama-inclined comedy fans to watch “Severance” or “Succession” instead.

“I wasn’t dunking on anyone. I was just tweeting a random thought I had,” she says now. “It made me think about where we are in the state of comedy. First of all, I enjoy a lot of the dark, prestige comedies. I love ‘Barry.’ ‘Atlanta’ is so dark. But I also enjoy a 22-minute, pop-in, pop-out style comedy. Both of those things can exist, but it seems people feel like the 22-minute comedies take less thought or less art.”

“The Big Bang Theory” is a go-to example for Brunson in that regard. She personally isn’t into the show itself but is reverent and analytical about its cultural impact: “People can say they didn’t like the show all they wanted, but ‘Big Bang’ built an audience. It was a well-written show, and it knew what it was doing. I was not a fan, but my sister loves that show, and I love that my sister loves that show. It means that the show is capable of finding an audience that returns. I don’t think the Mona Lisa is all that tight — but there’s some people who see that painting and are moved to tears. I’m serious. It’s really that simple.”

She adds: “And any person who’s working in TV will tell you that it’s actually harder to work in the constrictions of network comedy. You have to be a little bit more creative to not curse, and not show the blood and drama, but still get people enticed and engaged.”

Networks seem to provide the best of both worlds by that logic: the creative constraints created by short runtimes and FCC regulations combined with the benefit of streaming access later on. For that reason, “Ghosts” showrunners Joe Port and Joe Wiseman don’t even see their show as a strictly network property in its essence.

“I view the show as living in both worlds,” Port says (though the pun, as “Ghosts” unites people from the worlds of the living and the dead, was unintended). “It’s the No. 1 show on Paramount+ amongst comedies. And it has this incredible marketing reach because it’s on CBS, which has football and all these different events that people tune into and see ‘Ghosts’ promos.” Port also relishes in a benefit of network television that streaming services are only just recently beginning to rediscover and capitalize on.“

“What’s good about being on CBS, and even the way they roll us out on Paramount+, is that it’s a weekly show, which I love, because it eventifies it. Some of these [streaming] shows drop 10 or 13 episodes [at once], and it’s like … if a tree falls in the forest, and no one’s around … did it make a sound if you don’t get traction those first two days?”

“Ghosts” premiered in October and follows Samantha (Rose McIver), whose near-death experience endows her with the power to see and communicate with the ghosts who live in her home and died there at different points in history. Port and Wiseman developed the series for U.S. television based on the British series of the same name. When IP is king and the market is saturated with reboots and revivals, “Ghosts” still manages to feel original.

Specificity is the secret. “CBS had acquired the rights for this project and sent it to us, so we watched it, and in five minutes, I was like, ‘I’m in.’ I loved it. It just felt like a very portable idea,” Wiseman says. “Especially now, there’s so many international shows that just air or stream in America, so why adapt it? This one, to me, made a ton of sense, because the characters are very specific to the country or the region that you’re doing it in. It felt like a no-brainer to populate it with American archetypes and go from there.”

According to Wiseman, making a successful adaptation also requires letting go of the source material. “We’re obviously standing on the shoulders of giants. The British series is a huge influence on us. But we’re not looking to replicate it,” he says.

After a thorough research process identifying which locations in America could reasonably house the widest range of ghosts, Port and Wiseman landed among the country cottages of upstate New York, enabling them to put characters in a room together that include a lonely Viking, a Lenape storyteller, a wealthy woman of the Gilded Age, a ’90s finance bro and so on. (Port, who majored in American history in college, says realizing they could write a Viking character if they set the series upstate made their decision easy.)

Nowhere else on TV are a Prohibition-era jazz singer and an ’80s Scout dad able to sit down for the same game of Dungeons & Dragons. This odd string of personalities allows “Ghosts” to accomplish something that Brunson uses as a litmus test in her own comedy viewing. When asked how she decides if a new show is working for her, she says: “I love it when someone does an episode of TV that only they can get away with.”

Her first example of that level of singularity was “Commercial,” episode 6 of NBC’s freshman comedy “American Auto.” Created and executive produced with a satirical bite by Justin Spitzer, the series follows a group of executives at a car company constantly weathering different crises, and “Commercial” sees them try to create a perfectly inclusive TV ad after they’ve run into criticism online for only featuring straight couples in the past.

A series of increasingly absurd events on the set of the commercial demonstrates what it might look like behind closed doors when old brands desperately try to keep up with new political ideas.

“It’s such a well-crafted episode of television. They used their 22 minutes to the fullest,” Brunson says. “I was like, ‘Abbott’ cannot do this. No other show on TV can go the places they went with the material they had. The world they have [created] allowed them to get away with a lot of sharp talking about the optics of things. They got to say shit that you want to see done.”

At one point, the crew begins to question whether one of the actors they’ve cast as a lesbian is, indeed, a lesbian. They don’t want to upset viewers for giving a gay role to a straight person, but as their chief counsel Elliot (Humphrey Ker) reminds them, they absolutely cannot ask the woman her sexuality. They go through a similar dance while selecting and re-selecting races of the couples. Ultimately, the commercial is a mess, marked by childless swing sets and mini-vans because the drawn-out decision-making process meant that the child actors had to go home. They still air it: “No one watches commercials anymore, anyway,” says CEO Katherine Hastings (Ana Gasteyer). It’s a huge corporation — execs will be fine at the end of the day.

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Quinta Brunson created and stars in ABC’s hit sitcom “Abbott Elementary.” ABC

“It was exciting because it felt a little risky. As we were pitching it, we had to keep saying, ‘We know this is potentially dangerous territory,’” Spitzer says. “There were so many funny challenges along the way with like, putting out a casting notice for a part of an actress who we think is going to be a lesbian, but then we’re not sure if she is. Everything was eating itself, like this weird Möbius strip or something.”

The employees of Payne Motors generally fail when it comes to adapting to the times, but “American Auto” itself stands as testament to Spitzer’s idea to do so. He first pitched the series to NBC in 2013, but it was back-burnered as he went on to create and produce six seasons of “Superstore.” When he came back to “American Auto” after almost a decade, he found fresh angles for humor and a new confidence in his own ideas.

In the pilot, Katherine has just taken over as Payne’s first female CEO when the product team realizes, while testing the new Payne Ponderosa, that they’ve designed a racist car. The Ponderosa is a self-driving vehicle that hits assembly line employee Jack (Tye White), revealing that the braking mechanism doesn’t detect darker skin tones. “There may have been AI [in 2013], but it wasn’t in the press as much,” Spitzer says. “So [the original pilot script] was about developing a hybrid-electric green vehicle for red America.” Therefore, the show was always meant to deal with American political divides, but by 2021, Spitzer had the language to accomplish that with more depth.

Similarly, Katherine’s character was not always written as a woman. “Even when I read it now, it’s almost arbitrary. This wasn’t supposed to be a show [strictly] about a female CEO. I wrote it as a man; I rewrote it as a woman.”

At multiple points, Katherine’s gender becomes a springboard for the show’s best jokes. Sadie (Harriet Dyer), the company’s chief communications officer, is constantly having to guide Katherine through the “right” way to navigate press appearances as a woman. Beyond how a feminist appearance might benefit her stock options, Katherine couldn’t be less interested; she thinks “the revolution is over” and that “the woman thing is so played out.”

“There are little things you find along the way. That’s always the case when it comes to the identity of any of the cast,” Spitzer says. “I feel like almost any of them could have been any race, any gender, any age — but once you end up with the actors, you start writing to them, and then no matter what they are there, there’s stuff that brings [more] into the conversation.”

When it comes to “Abbott Elementary,” it’s episode 8, titled “Work Family,” that Brunson considers most unique. In it, Janine (Brunson) is hurt to find out that her colleagues see themselves as friends at school, but not outside. It’s later revealed that, at least for fellow teacher Jacob (Chris Perfetti), that distance has been created intentionally because he doesn’t want to have to confront Janine about her dead-end relationship with her boyfriend, Tariq (Zack Fox). It’s a painful conversation, until the scene cuts back to Tariq, who is on stage at a school assembly advancing his fledgling rap career with an anti-drug performance. Bringing a 5-year-old girl onstage, Tariq asks the crowd: “What if this little stage manager shawty died from drugs right now? That’d be pretty messed up, wouldn’t it?”

For Brunson, the humor comes from Tariq’s earnestness. He’s a freeloader who takes Janine and her share of the rent money for granted, but that’s due to immaturity and absent-mindedness more than malice or manipulation. While Brunson is proud of the way Janine learns her worth and moves on, she’s also proud that she wrote Tariq as a bad boyfriend without making him a bad person — TV has enough of those.

“We have these Black main characters, and I saw an opportunity to make sure that they were fleshed out and dimensional,” Brunson says. “We don’t very often get to see that. Yes, there have been other Black shows, but not as many. So, I don’t think that Tariq is a villain. I think people are just growing up. Tariq is doing the best he can, and we wanted to show that too.”

Work and home have been the common language of sitcoms for decades, so these creators seek out alternative presentations of those paradigms. But no, Brunson, Port, Wiseman and Spitzer aren’t ushering in “the return” of network comedy. If anything, this new wave is being created by the viewers at home.

“So many different people tell me that they’re watching the show. They’re vastly different in age, race and income level,” Brunson says. “So, I don’t know what that specific thing is. I’m not sure I need to know. I feel like all we have to do is just keep making the show.”