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Quinta Brunson is the first Black woman to get 3 Emmy comedy nominations in 1 year


"Abbott Elementary" creator and star Quinta Brunson could make history at the Emmys on Monday, but she's already made history as the first Black woman to receive three nominations in comedy categories in the same year. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spoke with Brunson on how her mother inspired network TV's latest comedy series hit.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Quinta Brunson wasn't trying to win awards or accolades when she developed the idea for a TV mockumentary about an elementary school in Philadelphia. But she did want to craft a sharp workplace comedy about small moments every teacher faces.

QUINTA BRUNSON: I don't know how many TV shows about TV shows or TV shows about the TV industry we can watch. I think "Abbott" weirdly is very small. And that serves as the escapism for an audience. I wanted people to fall in love with this world where it's almost as if the outside world doesn't exist.

DEGGANS: It seems Brunson touched a nerve. The show has already won several awards from the TV Critics Association and an Emmy for casting at the Creative Arts Awards on Sunday. Brunson says some of "Abbott Elementary's" success comes from its authenticity. The school it depicts is fictional, named after her middle school teacher, but it's also like many real-life underfunded schools in Philadelphia. Getting the look right, Brunson admits, required an unusual request.

BRUNSON: I had to say something that I think a lot of people hadn't heard before, which is, like, no white children. I wasn't saying it to be mean or to be prejudiced. It's just that the reality of this school in West Philadelphia is there just wouldn't be white children in the school.

DEGGANS: Brunson plays Janine Teagues, an overly optimistic second grade teacher who often reveals a little too much to the show's unseen filmmakers.


BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) There was a great website called AtoZOneTwoThree that taught me how to read when I was a kid. My parents certainly weren't around to do it. I had to potty train myself - overshare.

DEGGANS: TV veteran Sheryl Lee Ralph plays Barbara Howard, an experienced teacher who balances Janine's optimism with practicality, explaining why teachers treat each other like work friends, rarely connecting with each other outside of the school.


SHERYL LEE RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) We come here. We love our kids. We are good colleagues. And then we leave.

BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) But I just feel like it doesn't have to be that way.

RALPH: (As Barbara Howard) Girl, this ain't a sorority. I'm not shoplifting Plan B for you.

DEGGANS: Earlier this year, a woman filed a lawsuit against Brunson and ABC claiming that "Abbott Elementary" is a knock-off of a series she created in 2018. Brunson declined to comment on the lawsuit, but she did say Janine and Barbara are both inspired by her mother, a retired kindergarten teacher in Philadelphia who could be both practical and wildly optimistic. Brunson says she dreamed up the show back in 2017 after an argument with her mother at her school. She wanted her mother to retire from a grueling, increasingly dangerous job. Her mother wanted her to quit comedy. Then a woman showed up for a parent-teacher conference.

BRUNSON: And I just watched her son go play with blocks while my mom had this conference with this woman, and it was just so moving to me. And I was like, wow, these are all the makings of a show.

DEGGANS: That real-life moment became a scene on the show when Janine, who's upset about her own absent mom, confronts a parent who shows up late for a conference.


BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) It's not fair that they have to be more of a grown-up than you are, and the only time you reach out is when you ask for a Disney+ login.

RALPH: (As Monica) I have my own login, and I was stuck in the E.R. There was a guy with a bullet in his groin, and I thought it'd be a good idea to stick around to help him get it out. Is that OK with you?

DEGGANS: As the show competes in six more Emmy categories on Monday, Brunson could make more history, turning the inspiration from her mother into landmark wins at TV's biggest awards show. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF HD SONG, "TALENT N DA BAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.