The Philadelphia native is a Temple University/Second City-born, internet-bred comedy phenom. Though you know you probably most recognize her face from A Black Lady Sketch Show, or even those viral Buzzfeed videos you used to share with your cool co-workers a couple of years back, Brunson solidified herself as a fixture in the culture with her Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date Instagram series way back in 2014.
If you’re not immediately familiar, just know that she’s the one to thank for the phrase, “Oh, he got monneeeeyyyyy” being eternally added to the collective Black girl lexicon.
Brunson’s rise from viral Instagram shares to creator and star of her own primetime network comedy rocketed in a mere six-year time frame. But Brunson notes that while virality is helpful, it’s far from all a young comedian needs to take them to the next level.
“I think sometimes there’s this narrative, “oh, you go viral and then…ABC calls you,” she said. “But that’s not what happens.”
While social media buzz helped point her in this direction, preparation in her craft and laying foundations with fellow comedians and networks is what steered her to the destination.
“I was practicing this – writing, comedy, show-creation – before going viral. That was just a byproduct of the work I was already doing,” she said.
For a long time, one of the main outlets was stage for comedians, whether that be stand-up or improv,” she added, likening social media to just another stage on which to showcase her work. “As the outlets continue to change, new things get invented every day, there become more and more stages to share with the world what you can do.”
That astute eye for opportunities to showcase her skill has led Brunson to ABC for her brainchild, Abbott Elementary. The half-hour single-camera comedy goes inside an underfunded Philadelphia elementary school. We follow Janine Teagues, an optimistic, although naive 2nd-grade teacher who’s been on the job for one year and believes she can make a positive change, one student at a time.
A product of the Philly school system herself, Brunson says her show was mainly inspired by her own mother, who worked as a teacher in the Philadelphia school district for 40 years. She even attended the school her mother worked at all through elementary, witnessing firsthand all the additional energy her mother poured into her role for two or more hours after the end of each school day.
“The way she cared for her students beyond just teaching them how to read, she became so many different jobs and roles,” Brunson recalls. “That really is what inspired me to go there, because I just felt that it was such a rich world that hadn’t really been tapped into yet.”
Though the show was developed three years ago, before COVID-19 brought the classroom to the living room then sent teachers and students back to the halls of learning in a now high-risk environment, Abbott Elementary sees some special significance as the plight of educators has become a hot button forefront topic.
Still, Brunson’s mother was the viewer she sought initial approval from. Thankfully, she got it.
“She was a huge test for me because my mom is both not easy to impress [but she also] knows it’s based off of some of her experiences,” she said. “I expected her to be critical, and she was. But…she loved it. She was just…like ‘wow,’ amazed with what we were able to portray on screen. And she just thought it was funny, which was the most important to me.”
Brunson’s plucky and optimistic Janine is juxtaposed against a group of somewhat jaded experienced teachers. In particular, you have Sheryll Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard, the multi-decade veteran educator who has seen it all and expects the worst from the school system. The dichotomy between the two makes for different approaches to the same problems, and a unique way of tackling issues plaguing the school that may actually bring about real change.
Brunson sees the juxtaposition as an opportunity to shed light on the generational debate of gen-z vs. millennials vs. boomers, and how working together outvalues thinking your personal approach must be best.
“I think there’s this optimism that comes naturally with youth,” she observes. “I know millennials in particular, [can be] very much, ‘I’m going to do this thing and no one’s ever tried it before. It must not have been done.’ And it’s like, no, there are people who have tried before,” she continued. “They’ve been at it for years, and that’s why they’re jaded. They’re knee-deep in the game. And they’ve seen it all and done it all. But I think there’s value to mixing those worlds together.”
Brunson was not only driven by sharing the story at the heart of Abbot Elementary’s dry, awkward realist comedy, but by providing an avenue for Black actors to just play regular people for a change – not a heightened caricature of gangster or glam.
“I think that’s really fun for us, as Black actors,” she said. “It’s weird, sometimes we’re not afforded that space. It’s very interesting.”
“For creators, the question is often ‘what do I want to spend my time with?’ What stories would I like to spend my time with for the foreseeable future? And I felt that way about this,” she said.
Abbott Elementary premieres tonight at 9:30 ET/8:30 Central on ABC.