Underfunded Philly schools are the setting for new Quinta Brunson ABC comedy ‘Abbott Elementary’

The comedian drew on stories from her mother, a longtime Philadelphia public school teacher.

Quinta Brunson in 'Abbott Elementary'

Quinta Brunson in 'Abbott Elementary'

Prashant Gupta / ABC

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West Philly native and comedian Quinta Brunson brings her spotlight back home with ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” a workplace comedy set in a Philadelphia public school. After a December premiere, it returns Jan. 4 with new episodes available for streaming.

Created by 31-year-old Brunson, the show stars her as Janine Teagues, a 2nd grade teacher on a team that prioritizes students amidst the challenges of scant resources and a poorly funded building. Yes, that’s based in reality — “Abbott Elementary” is loosely inspired by the stories of Brunson’s mother, a teacher who spent 40 years in the School District of Philadelphia.

“It’s a fun show, it’s a straight-up comedy,” Quinta Brunson said in July on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “We’re dealing with everyday people in work situations that they love.”

Trailers for the show feature Brunson’s character in “work situations” that include changing light bulbs, updating outdated textbooks, trying to fix a “reverse flushing” toilet, and teaching math with potatoes smuggled from the cafeteria.

Although her character theoretically only has one year of experience teaching, Brunson plays mentor for a substitute played by Tyler James Williams, perhaps best known for his portrayal of a young Chris Rock in the CW’s “Everybody Hates Chris.” They star alongside Sheryl Lee Ralph — who is married to Philly state Sen. Vincent Hughes — plus Janelle James, Chris Perfetti and Lisa Ann Walter.

After its premiere, “Abbott Elementary” will air Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. starting Jan. 4, when it will serve as the lead-in to the final season of “black-ish.”

ABC picked up the show last March after a competitive bidding war drew attention to the marketability of Quinta Brunson’s creative vision. The comedian’s rise to fame began on Instagram in 2014. Nearly as soon as the social media platform introduced video, Brunson began releasing the roughly edited short sketch series “The Girl Who’s Never Been On a Nice Date.”

The vignettes not only went viral but also catapulted Brunson’s face and her character’s catchphrase -“He got money!” — into meme status. BuzzFeed took note, hired the West Philly native as a video producer, and that platform accelerated her rise as a comic actress. She had been attending Temple University, but when she returned to Philly after a stint in L.A., finishing school “didn’t make sense to me anymore,” she told Cosmo in 2016.

Since then, in addition to creating, producing and starring in streaming series for YouTube, Verizon Go90, and Facebook Watch, Quinta Brunson has appeared in or voiced roles on Netflix, Comedy Central, and Adult Swim. Before making her 13-episode “Abbott Elementary” deal, she starred in season one of HBO’s “The Black Lady Sketch Show.”

Brunson discusses her rise to fame, her Philadelphia childhood, and tensions between her personal and professional lives in her book of essays “She Memes Well,” released this past June.

With “Abbott Elementary” and a primetime spot on mainstream media, she’s perched to add a fan base of families and older generations who may see her, ironically, as a newcomer.

There are similarities, but the show feels different from “The Office.” The Scranton-based comedy made us laugh by exaggerating workplace culture and studying the dysfunctional work family. “Abbott Elementary” is funny, too. But by giving her quirky characters something noble to work towards, Quinta Brunson is using her latest project to call attention to teachers as everyday heroes. It might be her loudest, most wide-reaching platform yet.


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