Star and creator Quinta Brunson talks using comedy to shine the light on a broken education system

Quinta Brunson (late of HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show) didn’t make a sitcom about public school educators just to laugh at their uphill battle in a notoriously tough environment. “With the state of our schools, at the root of it being underfunding and lack of care for our teachers and students, it means that we have to be special about the kind of stories that we want to tell,” says the star and creator of Abbott Elementary. “Are we laughing at these problems? Are we laughing with the people who do the job regardless? I think there’s a huge difference. We don’t want to create an environment where we say these issues are OK and shouldn’t be fixed. What we want to do is say: ‘Look at these people who do the job. How can we support them further?’”

Abbott ElementaryABC

Abbott Elementary follows a group of schoolteachers in Philadelphia who, despite the odds being heavily stacked against them, are determined to help their students succeed. In creating the mockumentary-style comedy, Brunson was inspired by her own mother, who worked as a teacher in Philly, as well as friends who are still entrenched in the educational system. “Nothing can stop them. They know all the systemic issues that are there, but, at the end of the day, they have to teach your kid how to read,” Brunson muses. “That’s what was really important about this—giving people a behind-the-scenes look at what teachers really do through humour and heart and straight-up comedy.”

Chuckles are the key for a show like Brunson’s—keeping those relentless everyday challenges from coming off as downright deflating. “The important thing is to make sure that you have that absurdist point. You need to go a little bit farther than what happens in real life. That balance allows us to tell these stories,” she explains. “If we were just telling people the reality of what’s happening in these schools, that’s not fun to watch. That’s just straight-up documentary. Ultimately, I want people to be able to laugh with us.”

Abbott ElementaryABCShe’s certainly captured the hearts of her co-stars. Lisa Ann Walter, who plays hardened yet resourceful teacher Melissa Schemmenti, recalls her reaction to reading Brunson’s script for the first time. “What she did was really brilliant,” says the comedian. “I said to her, after I read the script and laughed and cried, that there is nothing that these teachers do that you don’t support, because everything they do is for the kids. My mom was a teacher in D.C. public schools, and I recognized a whole lot of what was going on.”

What also struck Walter was how the mockumentary format allowed the teachers to show glimpses of their humanity: “When we do our talking heads [straight-to-camera addresses] and they catch us doing reactions, it’s showing a face of who they are that they’re not even showing their co-workers. My character is so angry at a lot of stuff, but when you see a heart and vulnerability in moments that they don’t know they’re being caught, you’re seeing them as a complete person, which we don’t view our teachers as.”

The format, which has become familiar from shows like The Office and Parks and Rec, levels up a notch with the help of Survivor and Office alum Randall Einhorn, who serves as exec producer. “It upped the ante,” says Brunson, who also thinks there’s another key factor that sets Abbott Elementary apart. “Black people have been dying for a mockumentary show with Black people in the front seats. I was like, ‘What if we, for the first time in my knowledge, see some characters of colour at the forefront of those shows?’ It just was an opportunity.”

Abbott ElementaryABCFor the teaching ensemble, which includes Janelle James as Ava Coleman, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara Howard and Everybody Hates Chris’s Tyler James Williams as Gregory Eddie, standing in front of a classroom of young children has had a surprising effect. “One of the things that we noticed really early on is that a lot of the times the kids can’t really differentiate the fact that we’re just actors and we have actually no power over them,” says Williams. “We find ourselves, in some ways, teaching them.”

But what’s touched Williams the most is the appreciation he has for his own teachers, even if it’s long after the fact. “We forget the work that goes into being a teacher outside of just educating,” the actor reflects. “We hand the lives and the minds of our kids over to these people in the hopes that they can help be the village that makes them functional adults. We oftentimes forget that, and I think our show successfully brings that to the forefront in a way that we can laugh at.”

Abbott Elementary airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC