Welcome to It’s a Hit! In this series, IndieWire speaks to creators and showrunners behind a few of our favorite television programs about the moment they realized their show was breaking big.
“Abbott Elementary,” which follows a group of teachers at an underfunded elementary school, has become a breakout sitcom for ABC. The series was the brainchild of creator and star Quinta Brunson, inspired by interactions with her own mother, who was a former teacher. It’s quickly grown a devout bevy of followers, many of whom see the series as highlighting the struggles teachers face every day.
As series regular Tyler James Williams noted during an interview with IndieWire earlier this year, “[Teachers] choose this vocation knowing what comes with it, knowing how hard it is, and choosing to help raise your kids. Your children, not theirs. This show lives in a perfect space. If I can make you laugh on Tuesday night with your family and then Wednesday morning, when you drop your kids off to school, if you’re just that much nicer or have that much more compassion [for] the people that you’re dropping your kids off to then I did my job.”
Brunson talked to IndieWire via Zoom about crafting the series, the nerves leading up to its premiere, and the moment she knew it would be a hit. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and rearranged for flow of conversation.
INDIEWIRE: What was the original concept for “Abbott?”
Quinta Brunson: I remember having the initial thought for this series by spending time with my mother before her retirement; she was about a year and a year and a half from retiring. I was spending time with her at her school and the idea for the show popped into my head. After doing some tweaking about what kind of comedy this would be, where it would live, I thought of it as possibly a cartoon at the time, because I was working on some other projects and knew I wanted to be a part of it, but making it live action would be harder. So it actually became easier to think of it as a cartoon, but as time went on I wound up developing it into a live-action show.
Was this a hard sell?
I have a good relationship with Warner Brothers already because I had developed with them in the past, and sold with them in the past. So this was an internal pitch to Warner Brothers first, and they loved it. Then it was about deciding, “Is this a network show or is it a streaming show? Is it a cable show?” We all felt very deeply that it was a network television comedy, so we went to pitch various networks and, fortunately, multiple networks bought “Abbott.”
ABC was the one we wanted to sell to, and so we sold it to ABC. After that, [there] was more development, developing the pilot, because at that point all you have is your pitch document. I didn’t sell a pilot, I just sold the pitch. So then it was about writing the pilot, which I did myself. So then we shot the pilot and that was the scariest part of the process for me because after editing it, we knew it was good. I felt in my heart like, “This is good and it’s the best I can do.” And that’s a good feeling for me because it lets me know that if this isn’t good enough, then I might need to actually quit [laughs]. I felt in a very prideful way this is the catalyst of my power at this moment. I remember when I found out, I think it was Superbowl weekend that it was picked up to series.
Was there a specific moment where you knew it was a hit?
I had a feeling of “this is good” for a long time, while filming the pilot, while writing the show. We all had this feeling that [this] is a little bit more special. I don’t know if that correlates with whether or not it’s a hit, but everyone working on the show felt like this. We feel like we’re making something good. And that is such a good feeling to have. It was hard for me to figure [out]. I was like, “is it because it’s mine, my show?” I had projects that were my own before, digital, but it still never was quite this feeling. That was my first sign.
There were two other specifics [moments]. One was when I saw an “Abbott Elementary” No Context page pop [up] on Twitter. I was like, “Whoa,” because I hold those in high regard. That’s such a huge sign to me [that] it’s a good comedy. The other thing was when people started to tell me they were watching the show with their family members, whether it be a grandmother or child, or they’re sending me pictures of watching it with their whole family. Seeing people say that they were watching with their families was really special to me because this is a network television show that’s ultimately meant for group consumption, and it hits a bunch of different demographics. That made me feel like, okay, we’re doing our job, which is having groups of people from different age groups and different ethnicities watch the show, and enjoy it, and tune in every week. “The Office” was on the bubble for its first three seasons, and that happens a lot with comedies, it’s to be expected. But for us to have done the ratings we had in our first season, you don’t see it these days.
Are you a person that gets release day jitters? Did you get them here?
[I’m] not the most jittery person, but right before the pilot premiered, I was like, “What if we were wrong?” It hit me really hard. And then before each episode every week I would go home and think, “What if they think this one is too silly? What if they think this one is too serious? What if they don’t like the way we discussed gifted programs?” It wasn’t till about episode 11 that I finally stopped having the jitters.
Why do you think “Abbott Elementary” has connected with audiences?
Lisa Ann Walter, who plays Melissa on the show, said early on [that] everyone’s either had a teacher [or] is a teacher and that relationship is really reliable. I never quite looked at it that way, but that’s very true. We spend so much of our lives in school, and ultimately you spend so much time with your teachers. But what I think, more than anything, is when it comes to comedy I prefer to have a grounded, human approach with my characters.
There’s a version of this show that could have been very [un]grounded and still would have worked, especially on a streamer or cable. We get silly, but the humor really grows from these grounded situations and the minutiae of everyday life for these teachers. We wanted to make it feel like people who have everyday jobs can relate to these characters. You may not work at a school, but maybe you work at the airport, or maybe you work at an office, but you can identify those relationships between coworkers anywhere because they’re rooted in the humanity of what makes us tick, how we annoy each other, and how we uplift each other.
“Abbott Elementary” is available to stream via Hulu and airs on ABC.