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'Abbott Elementary' creator Quinta Brunson finds humor and heart in the classroom

In the new sitcom Abbott Elementary, Quinta Brunson stars as a rookie second grade teacher in an under-resourced, majority Black public elementary school in Philadelphia.

42:46

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 23, 2022: Interview with Quinta Brunson; Review of TV show 'Law & Order.'

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new hit sitcom "Abbott Elementary" about the teachers in a majority Black, under-resourced elementary school was created by my guest, Quinta Brunson, who also stars on the show. Before getting her own show, she was known for her viral short videos and series on the internet, like The Girl Who's Never Been On A Nice Date. She was a producer and actor for BuzzFeed Video and was a cast member on the first season of "A Black Lady Sketch Show."

In "Abbott Elementary," she plays a second grade teacher in a Philadelphia school. She's pretty new at the job and has remained fired up by idealism, but is still pretty naive. The series is a mockumentary. In this scene from Episode 1, she's in front of the camera, describing herself. What she says is interspersed with a scene from her classroom. She's given her students to the count of three to do what she's told them to do. She's already up to eight when this scene begins.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABBOTT ELEMENTARY")

QUINTA BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) I'm Janine Teagues. I've been teaching second grade here at Abbott Elementary for a year now.

(As Janine Teagues) Eight... nine...

(As Janine Teagues) As a product of the Philadelphia school system, I'm proud to say I survived and now teach here today.

(As Janine Teagues) All right, guys. So there have been three presidents since this one. OK? It's a old book, so here's where I taped in the others. (As Janine Teagues) I'd say the main problem in the school district is, yeah, no money. The city says there isn't any, but they're doing a multimillion-dollar renovation to the Eagles stadium down the street from here. But we just make do. I mean, the staff here is incredible. They're all amazing teachers. I really look up to them all.

(CROSSTALK)

BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) Well, I look up to the older ones. We younger teachers are still getting the hang of it - if we don't end up leaving. Look. I know this school is rough, but I became a teacher to make sure students come out alive. And after learning a lot in my first year, I finally feel on top of things. Jamal (ph), what are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Jamal) I had to go, and the toilets don't work.

BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) And the rug was plan B?

GROSS: Yeah. That scene ends with Jamal peeing on the rug in the classroom because the toilets are broken. And the chaos we heard in the middle of that scene when she was talking about the young teachers having a hard time, what we saw, which you can't see on the radio, is one teacher using an extinguisher to put out a fire in a trash can, another teacher ducking from things being thrown around the room by students, including a globe, and another teacher who's given up and walked out carrying her things in a box while giving the school the finger.

Quinta Brunson, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this series. Thank you for making it.

BRUNSON: Thank you so much for having me. It's so cool to hear you, like, describe the scenes that are happening. It makes it funnier to me. You describing what's happening in the show - it's so crazy.

GROSS: So why did you want to do a series about a new teacher in an elementary school?

BRUNSON: I wanted to do a series about public schools because I was visiting my mother one day. She's a - now retired teacher, but at the time she wasn't. It was the year before she retired. I went to go visit her while she had a parent-teacher night that she had to be at for her school. And I was in my mother's kindergarten class. I was a student at the school where she taught for five years after that. But I just got to look at it in this different light.

I got to see this woman who had loved this job for so many years, so much so that she didn't even want to give it up, still love it this much, despite it getting harder, despite, you know, teachers not having all the support they need, despite kids growing even more unruly than they've been in recent time. She still loved the job, so much so that her and I got into a little argument about her needing to retire soon. And I just thought that that was the beauty right there. That was the message. The comedy was filling itself out. But the beauty is someone being so resilient for a job that is so underpaid and so underappreciated because it makes them feel fulfilled and like they're doing their purpose here.

GROSS: So your mother was your teacher in kindergarten?

BRUNSON: She was, yeah. I was only 4. I started school early at 4 or 5. And to me, it was just my norm. You know, I went to school with my mom. You know, she made me breakfast in the morning at home, and then we went to school. And I called her mom. She - I think she didn't require me to call her Ms. Brunson.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRUNSON: I did call her mom. But she treated me exactly equal to the rest of the kids, which is one thing I remember from that time. And it just felt like a continuing of the nourishment and nurture I got at home.

GROSS: One of my favorite characters on the show is a middle aged, very experienced Black teacher who so easily gets the students to listen to her. And she's, you know, she's more cynical than your character, not about the children or about teaching, but about the ability to get resources. But I love those teachers, those teachers who just have that kind of magic touch. And the kids respect her and listen to her and will do what she says. While chaos is - might be happening all around, her students will not be in chaos. How do they do it? I've always wondered, like, how do they do it?

BRUNSON: I don't know. You know, my mother has that ability. And that character, Barbara Howard, is loosely based on my mother. It's something I've watched her do for years and continue to do, to just get a room of children to act right with nothing more than a look. I just think it's a gift. You know, one interesting thing about it is I think my mother has just as much respect for her students as they do for her. And I think that relationship creates a bond, and I think that's very important. That's an important part of that power.

GROSS: Now I know another inspiration for this series was a teacher that you had when you were in sixth grade, was it?

BRUNSON: Yeah. When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Ms. Abbott, who was my first teacher in a new school that was away from my mother, that was my first time going to another school and having this teacher who - I was scared, you know, I was scared to go into the real world or what I looked at as the real world at the time. And she just took me under her wing. And I really give her a lot of credit for, you know, helping me leave the nest, so to speak, and she was this incredible, an incredible teacher who put her all into it, making sure that her students felt special and were ready for the world.

GROSS: What did your mother do or what did, you know, Ms. Abbott do to reward and to punish kids? Because I think that's always a tough one. You know, like, what should the rewards and punishments be?

BRUNSON: Rewards are fine. Rewards can vary. My mom, a kindergarten teacher, a star, a nice gold star, can really brighten up a kid's day. And then I think Ms. Abbott did things like, you know, fun trips and, you know, fun trips and just fun things like doing murals and stuff like that felt like rewards. And honestly, just positive reinforcement, just building confidence. You know, getting an A feels like a reward when you're teaching well, when you're doing the job well for your students. I think for punishment, that's a hard one because I think it varies from child to child.

I will say about both my mom and Ms. Abbott, I don't think punishment is really in their vocabulary. I think they always have to look at it as a broader issue. Why is this child acting out? What is going on at home? What's going on in their behavior pattern in this classroom? Because they get to know these students. Very often, for my mom, the child that misbehaved the most was kind of like her favorite student by the end of the year. She would have this weird relationship where she would come home, and my family would know, OK, this is your problem child this year but is also, like, your favorite child because you come home and talk about them every day. So it's really about learning their behavior. And these are little people, you know? And so I'm not sure punishment was ever a part of the discussion for teachers like my mom and Miss Abbott. It was solving the problem. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, I do.

BRUNSON: And maybe that meant a timeout, right? Maybe that meant I need to talk with your parent. Maybe it meant you sit with me during playtime because you don't get to have playtime for that behavior you exhibited. But we're going to talk about why that wasn't OK behavior. So it's always a toss-up. It depends on the student.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Quinta Brunson. She created and stars in the hit ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNBITE OF DICE RAW'S "PREGUNTA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Quinta Brunson. She created and stars in the ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary," which is set in an under-resourced, majority-Black school in Philadelphia. Brunson plays a young second-grade teacher who's still pretty inexperienced. This is her second year as a teacher.

You started as a comic, and I know that you're very short. I should say I'm very short, too. Do you want to compare height (laughter)?

BRUNSON: Yeah, let's do it. I didn't know you were short.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, yeah. I'm short. You couldn't tell by my voice. So...

BRUNSON: No.

GROSS: No.

BRUNSON: Or your pictures (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). So I'm like - I don't know - 4'11" give or...

BRUNSON: We are the same height.

GROSS: ...Take maybe. Oh, OK. Right. So, like, when I'm in front of a microphone, I have to stand on something. Like, if there's a podium in front of me, I need something to raise me so that you see more than a forehead sticking up. When you started in stand-up, were you self-conscious about being short, that people wouldn't be able to see you over other people's heads or that, you know, that you wouldn't have enough, you know, command on stage because you weren't, like, you know, physically overbearing?

BRUNSON: You know what? No. For most of my life, I did not feel self-conscious about being short. If anything, I looked at it as like a superpower. It was something very interesting about me, and people thought I was cute and funny. And when I started doing stand-up, it was just another thing to be funny about. I feel like I've become more aware of it recently. Like, recently, I'm like, man, I am not giving grown woman to people. They think...

(LAUGHTER)

BRUNSON: You know, like, I kind of would like to give full grown adult, but it's not giving that. And now that I'm in this space of, you know, producer/showrunner, I want to appear as big as I feel on the inside. I'm just not sure I do (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, I know what you mean from my experiences, but you have a really funny joke about being short. I'd rather you tell it, but you're not going to know the one I mean. Maybe if I say this - the one about how you disappoint people when they find out you're really an adult. Do you know what I'm talking about?

BRUNSON: Ha, ha. Oh, Terry, why would you bring that joke up? That's a controversial joke, didn't you know?

GROSS: Is it? I didn't know that.

BRUNSON: Yeah, I stopped telling that joke because some people thought that it was...

GROSS: Oh, so people aren't going to know what we're talking about. So can we tell the joke? And...

BRUNSON: Yeah, you go ahead.

GROSS: I'll tell the joke. OK, so your joke is the worst thing about being short is disappointing child predators when they find out.

BRUNSON: Yeah.

GROSS: You know.

BRUNSON: Yeah, yeah, that's it.

GROSS: It's - I'm not good at telling jokes, so I killed your joke, but people don't want you to tell it anyways.

BRUNSON: (Laughter) That's OK. It was already dead. It had happened to me at a bar here in LA where I live. There was a man who - first of all, bar so - right? I'm an adult. You know that already. But he told me just straight up - when I told him that I was 25, he went, aw, I thought you were younger. And I was like, excuse me? And he's like, well, you look like about 17, 18, and I'm just like, do you hear yourself right now?

(LAUGHTER)

BRUNSON: And, you know, this man has not a care in the world. He doesn't care about what he's saying. You know, he doesn't care that it's awful. And he's letting me know that I have disappointed him in being 25 at the time.

GROSS: How old was he?

BRUNSON: He was - I don't know how old he was. I didn't ask him, but he looked well into his 30s - well into his 30s, for sure.

GROSS: Did you write the joke after that experience?

BRUNSON: Yeah, I did. I wrote that - I wrote it after. And I had a friend who I'd walk around with, Christine (ph), who was about the same height as me. So we would both kind of get this energy often. So it's funny. You know, people don't like the joke and that's fine and thought it was in poor taste, which might be true. But it is something that did happen to me before and in different ways and same thing with my friend Christine.

GROSS: So how do you feel about having to edit out a joke because some people think it's in poor taste, but other people probably think it's pretty funny? I think it could be a hard choice to make.

BRUNSON: I think it's a hard choice to make. I think it's an individual choice to make. You know, right now, I mean, we're seeing a reckoning of - specifically with stand-up, you know, with what's OK to say and what's not. And I think the reason why the hammer comes down so hard on stand-up is because it's an individualized sport. It's one person on that stage. You have one person to aim your frustrations at if you don't like the joke. What's - I'll watch stand-up, and I'll cringe at something someone says and be like, oh, that's in poor taste. I didn't - I don't like that joke. But I just remember to make the distinction in my mind that that doesn't mean that it didn't happen. It doesn't mean that it's not true. It doesn't mean it's not how that person feels, and it doesn't mean that's not how a part of the world is thinking, you know, or interacting. So I think it's an individual choice. If someone tells me that they just really don't like something that I've said, I'll assess how much I want to fight for said thing. And if I don't want to fight that much for it, then I'm not going to, you know? Like, that joke, for instance, I'm going to fight for things that make people that uncomfortable. That's just not where my energy lies as a person who aims to make funny things.

GROSS: You got your start doing, you know, videos - doing stand-up but also doing, like, really short, like, sometimes, like, 15-second-long videos on the internet and then branched out when you were working for BuzzFeed into longer videos that had, you know, like, stories as opposed to just little bits. You describe yourself as part of the only generation that grew up with and without the internet as a main tool for everything. While you were in high school, Facebook, YouTube, the iPhone and Twitter all came out. At what point did you realize, you know, like, wow, this is really important, and I can really use it?

BRUNSON: Something that excited me, a little-known relic of my past, was Facebook video. Facebook started having video on their platform when I was in college, and I think that was - I think it was probably my sophomore year that they introduced video to their platform in this way where you could record, you know, however many minute-long things and have it on your Facebook, kind of like YouTube. But the difference was, of course, Facebook was built around your social network. This was still at the time where you needed a - you needed to have a college email address to get on Facebook. So it was really within your network. And that was really interesting to me.

And I made this little show on Facebook called The Rant where I would, like, rant about things on campus, at Temple University, where I went. And I would have an obscure special guest on the show. Only one I can remember right now is - I had this guy - if he hears this, he's going to lose it. But his name was Tim Fox (ph), and he was the hottest white guy on campus, so I had him on the show as a guest. And it was always obscure guests like that (laughter). No one of real influence or - but someone who I just thought was interesting. So, like, my own version of FRESH AIR but with, like, no listeners. But it did...

GROSS: (Laughter) We always have on the hottest white guy, yeah. That's our thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BRUNSON: But it did - it started gaining such popularity, you know, on my campus. And then it started spreading to other campuses. Like, all of a sudden, kids at Penn State were watching my show and kids at UPenn. And then I had - at that time, my boyfriend, he went to school in Chicago, Columbia Chicago, art school there, and I had him on as a guest. And so then that brought in the Chicago audience. And so before I knew it, there were a small amount of really cool college campuses watching this show I was making, and that was exciting to me. That was exciting.

GROSS: One of the videos that really caught on nationally, beyond college campuses, was "The Girl Who's Never Been On A Nice Date," where you always say about your date, he's got money - because he bought, like, a large popcorn at the movie theater (laughter).

BRUNSON: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: So can you talk about coming up with that idea and some of the bits that you did?

BRUNSON: I did that video for the first time, actually, as a stage act. I was doing improv. I was doing improv way before I did stand-up, and I was, you know, messing around with characters and stage and sketch, et cetera. And, you know, I just - I had a friend who told me, you know, the character went over really well at the Comedy Store one night, and he said, you should put this character on Instagram. Instagram had just gotten video. So this was 2013, I think. And Instagram had just gotten video, and he was like, you should put this stuff up, you know, whatever. And he was telling me to put it on YouTube, actually, and I was like, no. I had this huge thing against YouTube. I just did not like YouTube. It was - I thought YouTubers were the bottom of the bottom, and I did not want to be one or even be called one. Even though I watched a lot of sketches and stuff on YouTube, I did not want any parts of it.

But I was like, well, Instagram has video now; I'll just upload it to my Instagram video, see if my friends like it. And my friends did like it. And I think there was this beauty in it, especially for Philadelphians, of, like, we all knew that girl. We all knew at the end of the day, it's a big deal for any hometown person - you know, we're not talking about the big-spender stuff - to splurge on a big, large popcorn, you know, when the small is right there. And I think that was the humor in that is the - once again, the specificity, the smallness, I think that's where my stuff has always lied. The very small, tiny moments to me are the funniest. And I think people love to have that part of their funny bone tickled more than the broad stuff; they like the tiny thing. So I think that's why that video kind of took off.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Quinta Brunson. She created and stars in the hit ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary." We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE BIG BAND'S "DON IS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Quinta Brunson. She created and stars in the new ABC hit sitcom "Abbott Elementary," which is set at an under-resourced, majority-Black elementary school in Philadelphia, where Brunson grew up. Brunson plays an idealistic but inexperienced second-grade teacher. Brunson got her start as a stand-up comic and became known for her viral videos, like her series of supershort videos, "The Girl Who's Never Been On A Nice Date." She was a producer and actor for BuzzFeedVideo and was a cast member on the first season of "A Black Lady Sketch Show."

So in "Abbott Elementary," the middle-aged teacher who is so good at keeping her students engaged and out of chaos and out of trouble and - she's such a good teacher. She describes herself to the camera in this mockumentary as a woman of God. She's very straight-laced in a way that your character is not. But later, when your boyfriend in the series is about to rap at a school event, he asks you to pray with him, and you pray together before the performance. And I thought that was a very surprising turn. I didn't expect your character to be praying. And that's not a knock at religion or anything. I just wasn't - I wasn't expecting it because your character is so in contrast with the character who describes herself as a woman of God. So I - you know, in your memoir, you write that you grew up the child of Jehovah's Witnesses, which was also surprising to me. Did you have a very strict upbringing?

BRUNSON: I did, you know? But, you know, anyone who knows anything about Jehovah's Witnesses, it's a pretty strict religion to people who aren't in it. But I just - I kind of continued to push the boundaries until I eventually, like, pushed my way out of it. I just wasn't going to be able to be the person I wanted to be while being a Jehovah's Witness. But I have this relationship where I, weirdly, was grateful to grow up as one because I do believe it just kept me out of a lot of trouble as a kid. And the strictness of it kind of helped me, I think - (laughter) you know, my siblings and I away from a lot of the troubles that present themselves growing up in a city like Philadelphia. It's like any other, you know, religion. The part it can play is different in people's lives. And for me, I think it was important to grow up that way.

But as I wanted to be a creator and, you know, be the person I wanted to be, I just kind of - it wasn't for me anymore. And that's something I see in a lot of Black communities. You know, the younger generation, we may not have as strong of a bond with religion as some of the older generation, but that's because we felt like we didn't need as strong of a bond. Whether or not we're right, I don't know because that's kind of not my job to figure out. I just know what it is. You know, our relationships with the church especially have changed, you know? And a lot of my friends, for instance, we're spiritual, yes, and we love the idea of going back to our places of worship to spend time with our family, but it's not the primary anchor of our lives - religion.

GROSS: You write in your memoir that you think your mother became a Jehovah's Witness because she had two siblings who died of causes related to drugs and alcohol, and she wanted a life with structure and rules that she wasn't supposed to stray from. And I suppose she got that from being a Witness and that you got it, too. You mention ways that it helped you, you think, 'cause it kept you out of the kind of trouble that your mother wanted to keep you protected from. But do you feel that it also inhibited you in ways that you wish it hadn't?

BRUNSON: I don't feel that it inhibited me. I do feel that it can inhibit other people, and I've seen it inhibit other people. When I was younger, I just refused to let it, and I wasn't as afraid as I was told I was supposed to be, you know? It's a lot of fear and not just hellfire, but, like, you won't make it into everlasting life if you do this, that and the other. And I was kind of like, you know, I'll take my chances. I'll be the (laughter) judge of that. So that was just how I operated. You know, I asked questions. I remember being very young, and I wanted to know why dinosaurs weren't in the Bible. And no one could answer that question for me. And I was like, well, then we've got some plot holes. And so, that...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRUNSON: ...Really (laughter) - so from a young age and still to this day - 'cause if it's not thing - one thing trying to inhibit you, it's the other. I just refuse to be inhibited.

GROSS: Well, let me just ask you. Do you still keep some form of religion in your life?

BRUNSON: I'm very spiritual. I pray. I read a lot of spiritual material. So the Bible is included in that, but I'm - I also really enjoy Buddhist readings. I enjoy reading different passages of the Quran. I enjoy just reading about spirituality just - attached to no religion. I believe very firmly in talking to something bigger than me. I'm not going to lie - making this show felt spiritual for me. And I think sometimes that's part of it, too, tapping into something that makes you feel connected to something higher than you. So I feel more spiritual than religious.

GROSS: I want to ask you more about your schooling, especially since you're the creator of the series "Abbot Elementary." You went to what you describe as an unconventional and progressive school where the curriculum centered on Black history in all aspects of education. So what grades was this? And would you describe the school?

BRUNSON: Yeah. So this was first through fifth grade. At any given time, there maybe were about 200 to 300 kids in this program total from first to fifth grade. And, you know, you stayed until you graduated, and then more kids came in until the program was shut down.

GROSS: What do you think you learned about Black history that students in public schools were not being taught?

BRUNSON: Yeah, I mean, for us, Black history was bled into every single subject we learned. There was nothing that didn't start with the conversation of a Black person's role in whatever it is we were studying. Whether it be math or science or French or geography, it either started with African people and their place in engineering and Earth and science. Or it started with how Black people came to this country via the slave trade and what that meant for things like Wall Street and, you know, our place in this world. And no lessons started without the root of where Blackness was a part of it.

GROSS: When you went to public school and met a lot of kids who didn't go to this school that you went to, were you surprised that they didn't have that perspective on the role of Black people in math and French and science and literature?

BRUNSON: Absolutely. I mean, I'm still surprised to this day. I have friends who have gone to college and don't know what I learned in first - (laughter) first grade, you know? Like, I remember when "Hidden Figures" came out. It was a really big deal. And everyone was like, whoa, whoa, Black women did - I'm like, wasn't - didn't - no one got that in first grade?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BRUNSON: You guys didn't learn that when you - (laughter)? Or, for instance, which is so funny - this was my funniest, you know, thing from that time. You know, in first grade, all the other kids were watching, like, Disney movies on Friday. We watched "Amistad." And I was just like...

GROSS: That's a heavy film.

BRUNSON: (Laughter) I was just like, that's heavy film. But our teachers didn't believe in keeping the heavy away from us, right? They believed that we would be best prepared if we knew what the world was. It's interesting because now there's all this conversation of critical race theory, right? And, you know, I see all these people who are afraid of it and what it will do. It's like - but for me, it didn't even make me angry as a child. I'm telling you, it just told me my history. And that was it. It prepared me for the world. It prepared me for what had happened, what could happen and what I hope doesn't happen, and what I want to never happen again. And I - and it just - all it did was just the truth. It was just the facts.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Quinta Brunson. She created and stars in the hit ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Quinta Brunson. She created and stars in the ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary," which is set in an under-resourced, majority Black school in Philadelphia.

You write in your memoir that you had a cousin from West Philly who was shot to death while crossing the street. And at this time in your life, you were living in LA. I think you'd probably not lived there for long. And it was, I think, devastating for you to be so far away when this happened. And, you know, you've spoken of how when you started, like, rebelling against your mother's, like, strict rules, you were, like, living two lives - the life that you lived at home, and then the life that you lived on campus at Temple University and the life that you lived when you moved out to LA.

You were reluctant to talk to your LA friends about what happened to your cousin. Can you talk about why you were uncomfortable bringing it up, like, what your concerns were? And I'll preface this by saying, I'm very sorry to have read about your cousin. What an awful thing to happen in your family and to your cousin.

BRUNSON: Well, my cousin, Tyrese (ph), yeah, he - that did happen to him. And it was uncomfortable to talk about because, you know, here in LA, at the time, I was working at BuzzFeed. And, you know, I was in the land of fun and sunshine. And for me, that experience felt very unique to living in Philadelphia, to being a young, Black woman from Philadelphia, even. And, yes, gun violence can and does affect everyone. But by proximity and for many, many reasons, it hurts my community often. And gun violence, to me, just felt so specific to me and specific to home. And I didn't want to share that hurt with people who didn't understand it.

When I was back home in Philly, the way that, you know, we talk about gun violence, as it affects our communities, is different. It's a - there's an understanding there. There's a love there. There's an understanding of the makeup of our city and of our families and our communities, where the love is not absent. And we have an understanding of why these things happen. We may not be talking about it in a super, you know, pinpoint, here are the facts, statistics and data stuff. But you just know it because you're from there. But talking about it to anyone else - I mean, to be honest, even talking about it to you, I don't know that you know that much about intercommunal gun violence past what you've read somewhere. And it's - so it just feels uncomfortable, you know?

And it's one of those weird things. I talk about it with my friends from Philly. It's like, well, how do we stop it if we don't talk about it more or bring it to a larger platform? But at the same time, we feel uncomfortable. It's so between us and between our worlds. But I think I'm landing on the idea that, like, we just have to talk about it, because the same gun issues we're talking about when someone brings a gun and shoots up a mall or when somebody brings a gun and shoots up a school, they overlap with what's happening in communities. And so while it's uncomfortable, it's something - which is why I chose to write about it in the book. I think it deserves the attention of this country because it's happening in this country.

GROSS: Is that something you think you would try to address in your show, even though your show is a sitcom? Like - or is that something, like, too - just, like, too serious to even think of putting in?

BRUNSON: Yeah. You know, my good friend Kate (ph) and I have a joke that we - an inside joke between us that we hate - we absolutely cannot stand when people say, I'm tackling this subject. We're going to tackle anything. We are not playing - you know? Like, we're not playing a game of, like, ah, I got to go get this subject. If the subject is not coming to us organically in the room in a way that we all feel comfortable talking about it, comfortable making the jokes, we're not going to try to force our show upon these topics because that's how it would feel. You know, there's an episode coming up where, you know, the subject matter of gun violence very, very, very briefly mentioned and so much so that I was reading the script - and I see every single script after it's written, and I'm a part of the outlining and storyline phase. But while this episode in particular was being written, I was on set filming, so I wasn't in the room for the whole thing. And I got the script, and I was like, oh, you know, this - wow, this small sentence right here - and I made an adjustment to it - says so much about gun violence in Philadelphia without saying anything.

GROSS: What was the sentence?

BRUNSON: So this will air before the episode, but there is a parent who is a nurse and is late to a parent-teacher conference, and she says it's because she was busy, you know? You know, sorry, she was late. I was busy getting a bullet out of someone's groin. Is it a joke? Maybe. Is it just what that nurse who works in Philadelphia had to do? That is what is happening, you know? So to me, it's about what is organically coming up when we're talking about Philadelphia, but not going to seek it out.

GROSS: I know we're out of time, but I'm wondering, what's it like for you now to have power and money? I mean, the show is a real hit. I mean, it's something you really have to think about now. You have different kinds of decisions, and you just have a different place in the world.

BRUNSON: Yeah. Well, you know, I have a big large family to take care of, so I'm taking care of my family. With the power part, I don't know. I'm still examining that, examining what that means for me. I don't know how much I like the idea of that, but that doesn't mean it's not the case. So a lot of times it's about how I can be a good leader, how I can hopefully continue to maintain a positive work environment on "Abbott." You know, there's, like, somewhere close to 300 people who work on the show. I want to continue to be a good leader of this group. That's something I have to do and maintain a good work environment.

And it's also about - I guess, so far it's about managing, you know, what to do with this newfound attention. You know, for instance, one of the decisions that we made as a group with the studio and the network was instead of marketing the show - we're doing well, right? And hopefully I don't regret this, but we're doing well. We have very good ratings. People are watching the show. It was like, well, how about we put this marketing money toward something else? And we chose to put the marketing money toward supplies for teachers, you know, and it's about being able to make those kind of decisions that really excite me, things that can really materially help people. And I think other than that, you know, I've been prepared for this for a long time. And so I'm just going to keep doing what I have been doing.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on the series. And I just want to say, you know, as somebody who got fired after six weeks teaching eighth grade, I have such respect, and I'm in such awe of teachers who really know how to do it and who create, like, safe, respectful environments for their students where their students can really thrive and learn. And I'm grateful to you not only for providing, like, a really just totally enjoyable, funny, entertaining series, but for creating those kinds of teachers who each in their own way create or are learning to create that kind of environment where their children can really benefit. So, you know, thank you for all of that.

BRUNSON: Thank you. Thank you. I'm so glad you enjoy this show. And thank you for watching and for interviewing me.

GROSS: Oh, my pleasure. Quinta Brunson created and stars in the new hit ABC sitcom "Abbott Elementary." After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review the return of the original "Law & Order." It resumes on NBC Thursday after a 12-year hiatus. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The NBC drama series "Law & Order" premiered in 1990 and was televised until 2010, spawning several spinoff series along the way. But this week, the original "Law & Order" resumes after a 12-year hiatus. It's a continuation, not a reboot. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this look at the show's history and impact, as well as the contents of this new incarnation. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LAW AND ORDER" SOUND EFFECT)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That sound, which has signaled a transition between scenes on NBC's "Law & Order" and all its many spinoffs for decades, has become one of the most recognizable sounds on television. That's basically because it seems to have been around forever, and in TV history terms, it almost has. The original "Law & Order" series started in 1990, almost a full decade before the premiers of "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos." Series creator Dick Wolf, who had worked as a producer on "Miami Vice," launched "Law & Order" as a drama series that, in essence, was two series in one. The law portion was a cop show, showing how the police solved the crime and arrested the prime suspect. And the order part was the courtroom drama, showing how the prosecutors built their case against the accused and argued it at trial.

The concept for "Law & Order" wasn't original. The same basic structure was used in the ABC drama series "Arrest And Trial" way back in 1963, starring Ben Gazzara as the cop and Chuck Connors as the defense attorney. But the idea was a good one and allowed "Law & Order" over its 20 years to cycle through lots of cast changes without missing a beat. What remained constant throughout was the structure of the show, the on-location shooting in New York and the use of available Broadway actors as guest stars. If you were a stage actor in New York from 1990 to 2010 and didn't have a credit on "Law & Order" on your resume, you needed a new agent.

When "Law & Order" closed down 12 years ago, its regular cast members included Anthony Anderson, later of "Black-ish," as Detective Kevin Bernard and Sam Waterston, later of "The Newsroom," as Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy. They're both back for this 2022 version, teamed with new characters and players, including Camryn Manheim. Anderson's detective, for example, is now paired with Frank Cosgrove, a white cop played by Jeffrey Donovan, formerly of "Burn Notice" and Season 2 of TV's "Fargo." Donovan's an excellent actor, but even he can't sell some of the dialogue here, which is so clunky it's painful. The old "Law & Order" always had the reputation of having its crimes and issues ripped from the headlines but also had the reputation of being obvious and stilted with its handling of those issues. The new "Law & Order" continues that tradition.

Here's a scene in which Kevin and Frank approach a young Black man on the street to question him and tempers run so high that Frank is pulled away by his partner. Immediately afterward, Frank complains about being treated unfairly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER")

JEFFREY DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Are you kidding me? These young kids - they got no respect. They get to say and do whatever they want. It's like a free pass.

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) I'm not sure what you mean by that.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) I mean, I'm white. He's Black. I say the wrong thing, and my career is over.

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Maybe.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Maybe? Is there another way of looking at this?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Hey, Frank, you came at him hot, man.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) I showed him my badge, and I said, how you doing? How's that coming off hot? Should I have offered him a croissant and invited him to tea at the St. Regis?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Maybe you should have treated him a little more polite, like a law-abiding citizen minding his own damn business.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Truth is, it's these damn phones. They've ruined everything.

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) OK. That's one way of looking at it.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) The other?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) They hold us accountable.

BIANCULLI: There's a different sort of built-in conflict on the Order half of the show. Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy has been promoted. He is now the DA in charge, and he oversees a new staff of assistants, including Hugh Dancy as Nolan Price. And he's upset in the season premiere episode by the way the police extract a confession from the defendant, but McCoy is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER")

SAM WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) This case is front-page news, Nolan.

HUGH DANCY: (As Nolan Price) I get it. But with all due respect, that's not relevant. When you asked me to come here, you said, I need someone who sees the world through a different lens, someone with the guts to make hard decisions.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) I remember. I still feel that way. But it's a legal confession, Nolan. Cops are allowed to lie.

DANCY: (As Nolan Price) They are. But it makes the confession less reliable, less ethical.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) No. If it's legal, it's ethical.

BIANCULLI: The case itself, the one they're prosecuting, is the most incendiary aspect of this otherwise typical new version of "Law & Order." The fictional case involves the murder of a popular celebrity named Henry King, accused of drugging and raping 40 women. It's obvious that this episode is ripped from headlines tied to Bill Cosby. And that's noteworthy, if for no other reason, because when the original "Law & Order" premiered on NBC, two of the network's top five TV shows were from Cosby, "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World." Bill Cosby ruled NBC then and was responsible for its reversal of fortune from third place to first. Today, as "Law & Order" returns for Season 21, Cosby is being used as anonymous inspiration for just another TV plot.

And this new "Law & Order," make no mistake, is just another TV edition of the same familiar show, another cog in a very reliable machine. From its memorable theme music by Mike Post to the quick pace of it's-just-the-facts-ma'am plot points, this new "Law & Order" season is just like all the others. That makes it a watchable show, not a great one. But it's still not a complaint. At a time when all the broadcast networks are churning out more game and reality shows than scripted series in primetime, the return of the old-fashioned "Law & Order" is a step forward, as well as a nod backward.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. "Law & Order" premiers tomorrow on NBC. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, you may be squeamish about insects, but could humans live in a world without them? Insects play critical roles in pollinating plants we eat, breaking down waste in forest soil and forming the base of a food chain for other animals. Our guest will be environmental writer Oliver Milman, who explores the troubling decline in insect populations in his new book, "The Insect Crisis." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER - MAIN THEME")

GROSS: Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER - MAIN THEME")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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