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‘Comedy first’: Showrunners of ‘Abbott Elementary’ find laughs amid the politics

Justin Halpern (left) and Quinta Brunson (right) sit holding microphones. The executive producers of “Abbott Elementary” participated in a panel about the series at Warner Bros. Television’s 2024 TCA Studio Day. (Courtesy of EvansVestalWard/WBTVG)

By Victoria Munck

Feb. 19, 2024 11:28 a.m.

This post was updated Feb. 21 at 8:16 p.m.

Three seasons in, comedy is still one television show’s best subject.

At Warner Bros. Television’s 2024 TCA Studio Day, the team behind “Abbott Elementary” welcomed journalists to its set on Stage 16 for a panel with the show’s executive producers. The Emmy-winning sitcom follows the enthusiastic faculty and staff of a Philadelphia public school as they strive to support their students within the challenge-ridden school system. Creator and executive producer Quinta Brunson, who also stars as bright-eyed second-grade teacher Janine Teagues, said the series succeeds at generating inherently political conversations but ultimately prioritizes its humor in the writers’ room.

“I always want to remind people that this is a comedy first to us,” Brunson said. “It’s an underfunded school, it’s public education, it’s a predominantly Black environment. It is the politics that everyone is fighting about. But we approach this as, ‘What makes us laugh in the room?’”

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After an extended break resulting from the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artist strikes, season three of the ABC series premiered Feb. 7, presenting many of its beloved characters with entirely new arcs. To open the panel, Brunson addressed her decision to decelerate the progression of Gregory Eddie (Tyler James Williams) and Teagues’ series-long slow burn relationship in the latest season. Hoping to accurately depict the fluctuating love lives of people in their 20s, Brunson said placing space between the couple allows audiences to refocus on their paths as individuals.

Beyond the pair’s emotional split, Teagues and Eddie adjust to physical distance as the former leaves her Abbott classroom for a new job with the Philadelphia School District – a surprise revealed in this month’s season premiere. Co-showrunner and executive producer Justin Halpern said the major change was not only a great match for Teagues’ driven character, but it also effectively paralleled the efforts for bureaucratic change led by today’s youth. Even the show’s mockumentary format is intentionally timely, director and executive producer Randall Einhorn added, as the fictional world of “Abbott Elementary” still spotlights modern problems.

“I think there’s a very good reason that there’s a documentary being done about an inner-city, underfunded school,” Einhorn said. “It needs to be done. It needs to be spoken about. So I think it’s something that we’ve leaned into because I do believe it’s warranted.”

As a journalist mentioned in a question at the panel, the “Abbott Elementary” team has called attention to the flaws in America’s real-life education system through both its scripts and its philanthropy. The team recently launched an initiative to deliver lunches and school supplies to underserved districts across the country. Reflecting on the sitcom’s impact beyond the screen, Brunson said she was thrilled to help generate more open-mindedness toward educators, specifically citing a viewer who gained more empathy for teachers after watching an episode of the show.

“Watching Janine get yelled at on screen was too much for them to bear, after watching this show and seeing all that Janine does for her students,” Brunson said. “That was not my intention – we just want to make a good TV show. But it is really cool when people reflect on how they treat teachers and what they do.”

Following this, Brunson was asked about the pressure that accompanies the show’s success within an otherwise rough period for broadcast television. Once again emphasizing her focus on comedy, she said she attempts to circumvent the stress by maintaining gratitude for the ability to bring joy to such a wide audience. Some of her fondest memories come from her time in the writers’ room, she added, where the series’ crew can take pride in its work before it reaches the rest of the world.

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Commenting on Brunson’s dual role as writer and lead actress, Halpern said “Abbott Elementary” is able to succeed as an ensemble sitcom largely because Brunson creates scripts as an egoless actress. Furthermore, co-showrunner and executive producer Patrick Schumacker said the program’s vastly talented cast makes it easy to write equally funny content for every character. Brunson’s recognition of this gives every performer the opportunity to soar, Halpern added.

“You cannot make ‘Abbott’ without the way she operates in the writers’ room and on set,” Halpern said. “It is so integral to making great television, and it’s something she just intrinsically understands. Also, because she’s a great person, she’s able to put her ego wherever she needs to in order to make the best show possible.”

To conclude the conversation, the panelists took time to commend the sitcom’s crew, specifically praising its writing staff. Halpern said the team does an excellent job of pushing Brunson’s overarching vision forward, as the team sometimes completes seven scripts by the end of its pre-production period. Still at work, with new episodes slated to premiere weekly, Brunson said she holds a newfound level of confidence in the show’s current season, as the crew has built a fruitful relationship that continues to grow in trust.

“I will say that this season has felt good because after two seasons, I think we’re really a well-oiled machine,” Brunson said. “I really have a lot of faith in my team and everyone to do a good job. … Now, I can rest a little.”

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Victoria Munck | Theater | film | television editor
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
Munck is the 2023-2024 theater | film | television editor. She was previously an Arts contributor from 2022-2023. She is a second-year communication student from Granada Hills, California.
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