It's only in its second season, and Abbott Elementary is already being named one of the greatest sitcoms in TV history. Quinta Brunson's Emmy Award–winning mockumentary series is often highlighted for its amazing casting and relatable storylines, but what makes the show truly stand out is its writing.
In honor of the show's success and the Season 2 finale airing tonight, I sat down with Brittani Nichols — a producer-level writer on Abbott Elementary — to learn more about the ins and outs of bringing each episode to life, the most challenging character to write for on the show, her history with Quinta, and so much more.
Oh, and did I mention she wrote Season 2's final episode, "Franklin Institute"?
You have worked with Issa Rae, written for A Black Lady Sketch Show, and have won multiple awards for your work. What drew you to writing?
Laughing! Watching other stuff and just thinking I was, like, so funny and so sharp. It's so weird. I think, truly, just being a fan of other people is what made me want to be a writer.
Writers are often inspired by real-life experiences. How has being a queer, Black woman influenced your writing?
I think it really helped position me as a good straight man, ironically enough. That's the correct term I should be using. Because I think I just am always in the position of noticing the weird thing that's happening before anyone else, because I carry myself in such a way that I sort of have to be on the lookout for a weird thing happening for safety reasons.
I think that just bled over into comedy, where it's like in an improv scene, or in a real written scene, where someone is just saying something that feels a little off, or is trying to hide something, or cover something up. I'm just the first person to be like, "Wait a second. Stop right there. And let's investigate that."
Has it also influenced the projects you attach yourself to?
Absolutely, yeah! I think I am, at all times, trying to create something that a younger version of me would have appreciated or thought was cool. There have been so many times in my career where I'm doing something, and I'm like, "Oh man, teenage me would love the shit out of this!" Or, "If teenage me had seen this, this could have helped me come to some conclusions earlier on about things." So, just trying to use art to give people a sense of community.
A lot of the things that I work on, I want it to feel like people are in the room with the characters, and that if they don't have that for themselves in their real life, for that brief period of time, they feel like, "Oh, these are the sorts of people that I know I want in my life." Hopefully it inspires people to seek that sort of thing out if they don't have it.
Have you ever felt like being a part of these diverse communities was ever used against you when trying to find work?
Hmm...I honestly think that it's only protected me, because I think that anyone who doesn't want to work with someone because of the identities that I hold is not something I want to work with anyway. I think it's really helped me find projects that I am drawn to, honestly.
If people are coming to me simply because of an identity marker, there are plenty of times where I'm like, "Oh, just because this is a Black thing or a queer thing, it still doesn't line up with who I am as a writer, or performer, or a person." But when it does, it makes it that much more special.
How did you first meet Quinta and how did that meeting lead you to writing for the show?
So, I originally met Quinta when we were both acting in a BuzzFeed web series called You Do You, and we just continued to see each other around town. I think the last time I saw her, before Black Lady Sketch Show, was in Larry Wilmore's office. We were both just going to meetings with different people in the office. Then we worked together again on A Black Lady Sketch Show. I think she just had an appreciation for the weirdness that was present in some of my sketches, and I wasn't coming back for Season 2 of A Black Lady Sketch Show because I had a show in development at Quibi — RIP. And I won't say this...
Say it! [Laughs]
...I had a feeling I was going to need another job, and so Quinta told me that she had this show in development at ABC, and that if it went, that I was one of the people that she was considering bringing on. I was already friends with one of the other showrunners, Justin Halpern, and when I read the pilot, I just was like, "This is so funny, this is the sort of writing that brought me to the industry."
This is the sort of show that when I was in my early 20s, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, if I had seen this, it would have been one of those shows that made me go, "That's what I want to do. I want to be a television writer." So, it was really a no-brainer once she said she was interested in possibly having me.
You mentioned you read the pilot. After joining the team, did you and the rest of the writers room help flesh out the characters? Or were those characters and their personalities already set in stone?
So, the writers room definitely helped flesh them all out, and it was, I think, a pretty easy thing to do, because they were so well-defined in the pilot. Quinta really found that good balance of someone that you recognize, but also someone that you hadn't seen before; really meshing those things together what was already in the pilot into everything else about these characters, and really trying to give them those levels so that they don't feel one-dimensional, and that we are constantly learning things about the characters while keeping them recognizable to the audience as we move forward.
You all have done a great job with ensuring the characters don't feel one-dimensional! Can you walk me through what it takes to build an episode? Basically a regular day in the writers room.
To build an episode, we start with a basic idea, like it could be as simple as what if Barbara and Melissa have an annual Christmas party? Or coming from the perspective of Jacob, what if he really doesn't like Christmas? It can start from a nugget as small as that, and what we do is sort of figure out how much meat that particular idea has. Is it enough for it to be in a story so that it's the central focus of the episode? Or does it feel more like a B-story that we can sprinkle in? So we will have a list of A-stories and B-stories, and once we dig into them a little bit, we try to see what theme is developing. Or what is the lesson that the character is learning? We use that to then pair them together.
We'll say, "You know, it seems like people are sort of learning similar lessons, but very different scenarios." Or sometimes it's just a matter of, like, real estate — we're seeing so much of these two characters, we need to see some of the other cast. In one episode, we were really focused on Ava, so let's put her in more of a backseat role in this episode...just doing the math in that way. After we break out the big ideas, we do this thing called boarding, which is sort of the stereotypical thing people have seen on TV of the note cards on the wall, with the little ideas, and putting everything into the correct structure.
Then we board it and we'll go through the board probably like three times, just to make sure that the logic works, that scenes are where they can be, because it's also a matter of, "Is this taking place over one day? Is it taking place over several weeks?" and having stories that can flow on that same timeline together. Then we do the outline. The way we do the outline, I think, is somewhat unique. I haven't been in other rooms where we've done it like this, and it is by far my favorite outline process. Every writer takes a scene. We just go around the room — like, you get scene one, you get scene two, you get scene three — and that creates just so much texture in our episodes, because every writer has the opportunity to get solid jokes into the outline that the person who's writing the script can then take or leave them. Plenty of times they're like that, "I don't want that joke [laughs]!" But it gives everyone the opportunity to have moments throughout other people's episodes. Then the writer will go off with the outline and write the episode that they've been assigned.
Has there ever been a disagreement on how a particular scene should play out or how a character should respond in a certain situation? And how do you all typically work through that?
Oh, all the time! Of course. A writers room is somewhere where I think you have to be comfortable with conflict. Not in like a toxic way, but people have ideas that they believe in, because we're all trying to make the show the best that we can. So it's a lot about knowing, "Okay, is this an ego thing? Am I holding on to this because it's my idea, or am I holding on to this because I think it's the best idea?"
Sometimes you just have to know when to sort of sit back and be like, "Alright, I've said my piece and in about two-and-a-half hours everyone's gonna realize I was right. So I'm just gonna kick back and chill until that." There's a lot of playful arguing and just people being passionate. It's part of what's fun about the job — seeing people so invested in telling the stories in a way that feels good to all of us. And I think that's a healthy part of producing the product that people seem to enjoy.
Quinta always gets the final say. So, if we're ever waffling on something, we'll just have to be like, "Alright, when Quinta gets a break on set, tell her we need her to settle it."
Which character do you enjoy writing for the most?
Season 1, my favorite was Tariq (Zack Fox), and Season 2, my favorite has been Gregory (Tyler James Williams).
Which character has posed the biggest challenge for you when it comes to writing their story?
I think the characters that challenge us the most are the kids, just because we're not children. There are plenty of times where we slip things through and we're like, "There's got to be one weird kid that knows this information." I think so many of us were the one weird kid that knew some pop culture reference that we had no business knowing. That's a cool way to flesh out the the kid characters that we don't get to see as much, but we give them really specific things so that you sort of know this kid's interests.
And if we have a storyline later that is about something sort of off kilter, we know to bring those kids back. But you just want to be careful that you're not making them sound like Young Sheldon or whatever. They're not all these geniuses trapped in second grade, like they're just second graders. We're trying to just make sure that it sounds like something that kid would say.
What has been your favorite episode so far and why?
I mean, I just have to be honest: "Fundraiser." [Which she wrote.] Something might come out this season where I'm like, you know what, that's my new favorite. But for now, "Fundraiser" is my favorite, just because I think there are so many moments in it where the characters are like the purest distillations of themselves. It's also an episode where we get to give some depth to Ava, and I really liked getting to do that because it's a really tricky dance to give that character depth in a way that still feels like she can be as terrible as she is.
Even these cooky characters like Tariq, Ava, and Maurice have a line of logic that's happening underneath that is informing all of the sort of wild things they say and really bring that to the surface. This is the mindset that is informing all of these decisions and, a lot of the time, it results in some things that are less than favorable. But sometimes, that exact same mindset is what's leading this person to act with empathy and care.
Has there ever been an episode that was based on a real-life experience, whether it be a writer's or Quinta's?
Gregory's food stuff is probably the most famous example of something from the writers room going directly into the show. But we also had a conversation about what the sexiest day of the week is, which ended up being a cold open. Sheryl Lee Ralph confusing celebrity names was a real thing that was happening in the real world that we worked into the show. There's probably more that I'm not thinking of, but those are the ones that immediately come to mind.
Love that! As a writer, how do you feel about improvised lines? Are you a stickler for making sure the words in the script make it on screen? Or are you okay with the actors playing around with their lines?
So, I come from an improv background, so I am very comfortable with actors improvising when the time is right. It doesn't happen that much on the show, honestly. I think part of it is, we have pretty short days, and people sort of enjoy having those short days. I feel like a lot of the times when you're doing improv, it's to surprise the crew, right? It's to surprise your fellow performers, to maybe make something feel fun if it was feeling a little dry. I think that we're already having so much fun with things as scripted. This set is so loving and just enjoyable, that we don't need to inject improv in.
But at the same time, there are plenty of times where actors have ideas and jokes that they bring to us as writers. We're super open to it, because it's a collaborative process. Every episode is strengthened by every single person that is collaborating, from set and hair, the director, lighting...every single department that is collaborating is adding something, and if an actor has something that they want to add to the mix, I see no reason not to leave the door open for it. But we work really hard on the scripts, so, fortunately, the actors don't feel like they need to jazz it up.
Speaking of people bringing ideas to the writers, Twitter is very vocal about what they'd like to see on the show. Before he actually guest-starred on the show, people on Twitter were pushing for Orlando Jones to star as Tyler James Williams' father. Now, I don't know if that had anything to do with you all putting him in the show, but how do you feel about people pushing these guest stars on the show? Does that influence you guys at all?
I will only speak for myself, but I think there are other people who feel the same way: We do not like it. It's not fun for us. It's not that we feel pressure, I just think that it's a business and there is a very specific way that you go about trying to get cast on a show. And it is not to DM writers or to add us on Twitter. That's just not the way that things happen for the most part.
What the hell do I know? Maybe there are other shows where they're like, "Yes, please tell us your casting ideas." I think it's fun for people to dream-cast on Twitter. That's all fine and good. It's just when it gets sort of directed to us where it's like, "Hey, do this. Cast this person, this will be fun." It's like, "Well, don't you like the show? Don't you find the show to be enjoyable?" We have a pretty good idea of who works on the show. If that's a person that we think fits into the world, they're gonna come up in conversation already. We don't need to depend on Twitter to do casting for us.
It just hurts their chances more than anything. The thing that could happen is that we just get annoyed and then we're just like, "No, just to make a point, we're not gonna cast that person!"
Noted. I will not be recommending guest stars on Twitter [laughs]. What has been the most rewarding and the most challenging part about being a writer?
The most challenging, I would say is how inconsistent work can be until you sort of get to a place where you don't have to worry about working. There's not a lot of middle ground. I think people don't realize being a writer means that you're looking for a job all the time. Like, imagine if just every six months, you had to find a new job. That's the mental experience of being a writer early on in your career, and then all of a sudden, something snaps, and it's just like, "Okay, I'm good."
That's been my experience. Everyone might not feel like that. So, that concern of how am I gonna continue to live in this very expensive city with an industry that is constantly changing and is not built for people like me to even exist in it? Like, how am I going to make ends meet?
And then the most enjoyable part of being a writer isn't as fun. I mean, I am the last person on Earth who's going to tell you that having a job is good, I don't really understand why this is the way humans have decided to exist. Labor is pretty sucky. But to be in a system where you have to work, this is a pretty good job to have. I get to go make jokes and try to make content that makes people feel good after a bad day, or helps people feel seen, and it just feels like a worthwhile thing to put a lot of my time and energy into, if I have to do anything.
Earlier, you mentioned the work days are typically short. Can you walk us through a typical shooting schedule for Abbott?
So for on set, we are built to do 10-hour days instead of 12-hour days, which is why our crew really loves being on our show. A lot of the time, we are well under that. There are some days where we're wrapping before lunch. So, we're finishing in under six hours. Then in the writers room, we get in at 10 a.m. and we're usually out by 4 p.m.
Are the scenes filmed in chronological order?
For the first season, we did block shooting, I believe, for the first few episodes. But the way we're doing it now is every episode is five days of shooting, and we shoot sort of based on location. So, we'll do all of the scenes that are sort of in this area of the set on this day. And this is all stuff that's worked out by our AD team, to also try to help the actors get days off. If we can put all of their scenes in three days, then that means that they get two days off. So, we really try to make the schedule as restorative for everyone that has to be there as possible by doing these sort of puzzles of time, and location, and cast, to keep our days moving pretty quickly.
What has been the best piece of advice you’ve received from Quinta and/or the biggest lesson you’ve learned while working on the show?
I'm just constantly learning the lessons of, like, being a better person or being the person that I want to be, because it is a job that as much fun as it is, it can be super stressful. It is a world where various small decisions take on a very large weight when it comes to producing the show. And so, just learning to be patient. I have hard conversations with people. It's a very interpersonal job...there is so much talking and communicating that happens, that if you don't know how to talk to people, you're not going to be successful.
There are so many different types of people that work on shows, really being able to communicate with every sort of person about every sort of issue is a huge part of it. I think that this is a job where you get to learn lessons and learn how to be a better person, because you're surrounded by so many good people. And so you get to pick and choose and add things to yourself and skills to your tool belt that you're directly gaining from other people.
If you could write for any show — whether it’s currently on the air or not — what would it be?
Right now, I think my answer would be Reboot. It just went off the air. Well, it didn't go off, they got canceled. Unfortunately, a lot of the shows that I really like have been canceled recently, like Southside. But Reboot was really clever and really sort of character-driven and understated, but still a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. It's also a show where I feel like I could have been additive, because I think there's a lot of time where I'm watching shows, and I'm like, "Oh, they're killing it! I'm not gonna get in there and help." And then there are shows where it's just like, "Oh, I think that I could help this. I could make this even funnier. I could really dig in and make the show even better." And that was one of the shows where I was like, "Man, this is funny!" I think I would have had fun in that room. Or maybe not. I might not have had fun in the room. Rooms can be wild!
Lastly, what’s next for you?
Who knows [laughs]? I have a show in development at Netflix and a couple of features that I'm trying to sell. I have my own stuff that I am trying to get off the ground, but it truly does not feel urgent, because I do love Abbott so much. There are not a lot of other shows that are quite frankly going to pay 22-episode network money. And I like having the ability to pay my rent [laughs].