Secret Superhero Quinta Brunson’s Special Power: Comedy

Quinta Brunson knew she wanted to be an entertainer from an early age, but was never quite sure how she would achieve that. Her path was guided by influential educators who pointed her in the direction of comedy, and although there were surprising turns along the way she has now arrived at her destination, lauded as “the savior of network television comedy”, but she’s not content with mere success. Through her hit show Abbott Elementary she’s quietly working to repay the educators who inspired her, by highlighting inequalities in America’s underfunded public school system, and inspiring better support for the nation’s teachers and pupils; a wholesome Secret Superhero undertaking delivered through comedic stealth. 

Secret Superhero Quinta Brunson’s Special Power: Comedy

INSPIRATIONAL TEACHERS

Quinta was born in West Philadelphia in 1989, and given her name as she was the youngest of five children. Her mother taught in a local kindergarten school, where Quinta spent much of her own childhood helping out, experiences which would inform her later work. Her own education would have a much larger impact on her ambitions, however; as a high school student she began to take improv comedy lessons and immediately knew that she wanted to become a performer. 

Secret Superhero Quinta Brunson’s Special Power: Comedy

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Quinta Brunson knew she wanted to be an entertainer from an early age, but was never quite sure how she would achieve that. Her path was guided by influential educators who pointed her in the direction of comedy, and although there were surprising turns along the way she has now arrived at her destination, lauded as “the savior of network television comedy”, but she’s not content with mere success. Through her hit show Abbott Elementary she’s quietly working to repay the educators who inspired her, by highlighting inequalities in America’s underfunded public school system, and inspiring better support for the nation’s teachers and pupils; a wholesome Secret Superhero undertaking delivered through comedic stealth. 

Secret Superhero Quinta Brunson’s Special Power: Comedy

INSPIRATIONAL TEACHERS

Quinta was born in West Philadelphia in 1989, and given her name as she was the youngest of five children. Her mother taught in a local kindergarten school, where Quinta spent much of her own childhood helping out, experiences which would inform her later work. Her own education would have a much larger impact on her ambitions, however; as a high school student she began to take improv comedy lessons and immediately knew that she wanted to become a performer. 

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Her parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and disapproved of television as a medium, so Quinta’s ambitions remained distant until she left for college. She originally studied close to home at Philadelphia’s Temple University, but during summer recess she would travel to Chicago to take improv classes at Second City, the world renowned improvisational comedy theater and community. While there, her talents were spotted by another inspirational teacher, Shelly Grossman; as Quinta describes it she “gave me a scholarship right out of her pocket and said, ‘You need to do comedy for a living.’ So I planned my exit out of Temple, out of Philadelphia, and into my career.”

RELUCTANTLY VIRAL

Things didn’t go quite as Quinta planned. She moved to Chicago and found work in an Apple Store, while practicing improv and sketch comedy with a group of like-minded comics. She formed valuable bonds and learned a great deal about the craft of comedy, but commercial success was not easy to come by. During this time Quinta was aware of the growing popularity of YouTube, but viewed the medium and those who found success through it with a degree of disdain; she disliked the individualistic nature of the medium, preferring the collaborative ethos of the comedy world she was immersed in. 

It consequently came as some surprise to her when she became one of the first breakout stars of a new social media platform. She had taken to recording small skits and character pieces and sharing them with friends over the newly launched Instagram Video service. One of these, Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date - in which Quinta plays a woman who is amazed that her date is treating her well - went viral. Quinta produced several more iterations of the sketch, and went from being an obscure improv comic to an online star, finding herself being recognised at comedy events as “that girl from Instagram”. Her career snowballed; she became a development partner at Buzzfeed, and was also commissioned to make a series for YouTube, called Broke. The irony of this show’s success was a part of the joke; online fame hadn’t led to financial security for Quinta, and even when she found herself being included in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2017, she was still saddled with student debt. 

Secret Superhero Quinta Brunson’s Special Power: Comedy
Quinta playing Dr. Charlie Collier in iZombie

BACK TO SCHOOL

In 2018 she began the difficult transition from online star to network television. CW commissioned her first pilot, The End of the World As We Know It, but did not pick the show up. She had a similar experience the same year with CBS, who turned down a pilot for Quinta and Jermaine, a show about an unwanted pregnancy. Happily she was able to find work in other shows such as the supernatural comedy-drama iZombie and the first season of HBO’s acclaimed A Black Lady Sketch Show in 2019. Quinta had intended to stay on with A Black Lady Sketch Show for the second season, but the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the show’s , and when production resumed she was concerned about the safety of returning to a filming lot. She bowed out of the highly successful show, and instead began to concentrate on writing. She published her first book, She Memes Well, and began work on her third network pilot, for Abbott Elementary. This time, ABC picked the show up, which proved to be a very shrewd decision. 

The first episode of Abbott Elementary was broadcast in December of 2021, and had an immediate and remarkable impact. Within the show’s first year Katie Couric had credited Quinta as having “single handedly revived the dying network sitcom.” and Quinta had been cast to play no less a personage than Oprah Winfrey in the Daniel Radcliffe movie Weird:  The Al Yankovich Story. Perhaps the most impressive plaudits came from LeBron James, who wrote the following for her inclusion in Time’s 100 Most Influential People Of 2022 poll:    “Quinta Brunson is more than a writer, producer, actor, and comedian. She’s a student and a master of her craft. A game changer in network television. Smart and funny as hell, in that order. She’s a Swiss Army knife that can—and does—do it all.”

Secret Superhero Quinta Brunson’s Special Power: Comedy
Quinta in character as Janine Teagues in Abbott Elementary

One of the reasons for Abbott Elementary’s success is the skillful way it blends the traditional broad humor of network comedy with sharp social commentary on the funding crisis in America’s schools. Although it’s a show which takes its cues from similar mockumentary network sitcoms such as Parks and Recreation, it has been far braver - and craftier - in packaging social commentary alongside its jokes. While some of these messages are overt, with episodes focussing on teachers making public appeals for charitable donations of school supplies, or Quinta’s doomed attempts to perform janitorial repair work on the school’s light fittings, there is also a more subtle parodic undertone. The school’s principal, Ava Coleman (brilliantly portrayed by Janelle James) is vain, self-absorbed, and unashamedly corrupt, routinely diverting funds intended for the children into her own vanity projects. 

The show’s ability to weave these thinly-veiled swipes at politicians into primetime network television is remarkable, but Abbott Elementary pulls it off by coating the satire in a pill of warm, wholesome fun. Even Principal Coleman has redeemable qualities, and the struggles of the staff working under her are portrayed with enormous affection. They are some of the most heroic characters seen in modern comedy, battling adversity with a dogged determination to do the best for the kids in their classrooms. LeBron James - someone who fights his own Superheroic battle to improve America’s education system - described the trick perfectly: “[Quinta] uses comedy to shine a light on big issues in public education in a very real, relatable way—not to put down, but to give hope that we can do better. Better to support our teachers, wrap around our students and their families, and deliver the education they all deserve. That’s the real beauty of Quinta’s brilliance. Using humor and nuance to connect people over everyday realities in order to improve them—for students, teachers, creators, and everyone who comes after her. Because it’s all about opening doors. Breaking down barriers. And doing it with love, kindness, and compassion. While still being an absolute boss like QB.”

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