Quinta Brunson joins Matthew McConaughey, Mila Kunis and Jennifer Hudson as one of PEOPLE's 2022 People of the Year! Look for all four covers on newsstands this week and read more below from Brunson's revealing interview in the new issue.
What a difference a year can make. In late 2021 Quinta Brunson was working on her passion project, a sitcom about a public school in Philadelphia. As its creator, writer, showrunner and star, she was eagerly anticipating the Dec. 7 premiere of Abbott Elementary on ABC. "I wanted to bring back the straightforward 22-minute workplace comedy," says Brunson, 32, whose previous credits include roles on HBO's A Black Lady Sketch Show and TBS's Miracle Workers. The Philly native loosely based her Abbott character — hopelessly optimistic second-grade teacher Janine Teagues — on her mother, a former kindergarten teacher.
Abbott was an instant hit, logging more than 7 million total viewers and becoming ABC's highest-rated comedy since the Modern Family finale. A season 2 renewal followed — Brunson even persuaded the network to redirect marketing money to buy school supplies for real teachers — and so did seven Emmy nominations and three wins, including outstanding writing for a comedy series for Brunson, making her the second Black woman to take that prize.
Looking back on what she has accomplished this year, Brunson, who has been married to Kevin Jay Anik since 2021, admits she's playing with house money: "I just wanted to make a good show with good people, so everything else has been exciting additions to the plan."
It's almost 2023, but thinking back to one year ago, did any of this year's accomplishments make your list of New Year's resolutions last year?
No, not necessarily. My main priority was just making Abbott. All of the things that have been happening are because I got to make that and make it the way I wanted.
What did it take to bring Abbott Elementary to life — and who didn't see the vision?
To be honest, I didn't have to deal with much "I don't see it." There was one other network that will remain nameless that didn't understand the value of it, but that's how it goes. ABC won that bidding war. My co-showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker also saw the vision right away. I was fortunate. It's most certainly not a common L.A. story for Black creators, but I think [I'm] a sign that times are changing.
Speaking of origin stories, what's yours, starting with your name? It means "fifth" in Spanish, right?
My name's really simple. I'm the fifth child, and my parents [Norma Jean and Rick Brunson] weren't necessarily creative, but I love it. My siblings [brothers Kwei and Kalid and sisters Njia and Kiyana] all have real names that mean things, and they have a lot to live up to. My name is just a number, and I could decide it meant whatever I wanted.
Long before Abbott Elementary, you made a name for yourself as a content creator, making popular comedy sketches on Instagram and BuzzFeed. What was life like back then?
I was doing improv around L.A. and broke. Very, very, very broke. A hearty meal was a banana and a Cup Noodles. If I could get both or get two bananas in one day, I was doing well. I was working at [an] Apple [Store], but I still loved comedy so much. At the time SNL was kind of a goal. Then Instagram added video. I loved making my friends laugh, and then it took off, and that kind of changed my life.
Where do you get your confidence?
I think it's always been there. I was a very confident kid. My parents always taught me to look at people and situations like everything's equal. Nothing seems too intimidating to not be confident. I think the most intimidating situation I was in recently was meeting Malala [Yousafzai, the Pakistani education rights activist].
When the script got sent to my agent, and they said Daniel Radcliffe was playing Weird Al, I was like, "Yeah, I would love to come hang with him." And then they said Oprah, and I was like, "Whoa, hold on!" But I read it and thought I could do it justice. It wasn't too serious, but it also wasn't too dumb, because I didn't want to insult Oprah or tarnish her legacy. The movie is so stupid, and I say that in the best way. I love dumb comedies. Austin Powers in Goldmember was my favorite movie growing up. My mom wanted to burn the DVD. She hates stupid stuff.
What's been your husband Kevin's highlight from this past year?
I don't talk about my relationship that often, because it's something that I like to keep sacred and safe. Nor do I bring him out to be analyzed or attacked by the world. We've had such a year together. He truly has been by my side and supportive every step of the way, so for him to be there with me at the Emmys and help me up to get my award and to be able to thank him was so special.
What was going through your head in that moment?
To be honest, I felt very confident about my chances, so it wasn't shocking to me. It was just like, "Wow, I'm really winning an Emmy right now." [My costar] Sheryl [Lee Ralph] had been working for so long to get that [outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series] acknowledgment, and I felt like I just got here. I'm extremely grateful.
Afterwards someone told me what was going on [online], and I was like, "Really?" I'm a comedian, and I know him, so I just went along with it. It wasn't a big deal to me, but that doesn't change how people feel. It made them feel a way, and that's just the way it is.
You won for your writing on Abbott, but you wear so many hats on the show. Now, while you're in the midst of season 2, how do you keep it all together?
RELATED VIDEO: Quinta Brunson on the 'Wild' Success of Abbott Elementary: 'We Have Developed a Really Wonderful Fan Base'
What fan encounter touched you most this year?
I don't go out that much to public places. I have a little bit of social anxiety that I'm working through. The biggest risk I'll take is Universal Studios, 'cause I kind of feel like that's my turf, even though I have no right to say that. But I had a really interesting fan interaction at a party recently, where a girl came up to me and said she had a friend she was watching Abbott with before she passed away. One of the things her friend asked her to do was to finish the show. And now I'm crying at this party. Part of me was like, "Why would you tell me that right now?" But also I'm so happy she did. It put into perspective what a good comedy can do. The best thing I can hear is that it's bringing people together.
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Abbott Elementary airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC.
For more of the exclusive interview with Quinta Brunson, and PEOPLE's three other People of the Year cover honorees, pick up this week's issue, on stands Friday.