“Was she the one that yelled about the fight?” Quinta asks, racking her brain. “I can’t remember.” I’ve just told her that my adorable neighbor Zion played a student in the debut episode of Abbott Elementary, and Quinta is committed to pulling Zion’s last name from the recesses of her mind.
Not that I’d expect her to remember it—after all, this is a woman who oversees hundreds of cast and crew members on any given day, whose hit show is currently three Emmy wins and two record-breaking seasons into its run, and who has the massive responsibility of keeping our country laughing through whatever fresh hell the world brings next. Honestly, it’s a minor miracle she’s managed to squeeze me in today at all, even if she’s already multitasking: At this moment, she’s getting ready to head to set, a plush towel swaddling her freshly (finally!) washed natural hair, when…boom. “Broadnax!” Quinta laughs. “Zion Broadnax. I know my kids!”
Unlike folks who might’ve mistakenly equated the meteoric rise of a fresh Black face with overnight success, I first peeped Quinta’s unstoppable grind way back in 2014, when my friends and I obsessed over her video series The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date, aka “He got money!” And then again in her iconic BuzzFeed Video era. It was that specific moment in internet history when the rapidly growing media company’s video series were truly inescapable, and her unique brand of humor was right at their core.
I started working at BuzzFeed not long after, and although we never got a chance to collab—she was in L.A.; I was in NYC—I watched closely as she dropped banger after viral banger. I learned that she’s been funny, unsurprisingly, since childhood, when she’d crack up her family with spot-on impressions, and since her college years at Temple University, when she’d skip classes for a week at a time to take intensive improv workshops in Chicago. Eventually, she dropped out of school to move to L.A., juggling her passion with a job at the Apple Store. First she was broke, then she was booked.
All that hustle laid the groundwork for her aforementioned creative baby, Abbott Elementary, a mockumentary about passionate teachers in an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia. And now comes her mogul phase: Quinta just scored a multiyear deal with Warner Bros. Television Group to continue her work on Abbott and create and develop new content, and she even just portrayed the ultimate boss, Oprah Winfrey, in the biopic Weird: The Al Yankovic Story.
But first, breakfast. “Sorry, Patrice,” she says. “I ordered food, and it’s here, and I have to….” Quinta somehow manages to chow down without breaking our flow. When I ask a question she likes, she’ll tell me. When she laughs, I take note. When there’s a Zoom snafu, she’s patient. And for a couple of hours, I get to experience what it might feel like to work alongside her on-set or in a writers’ room.
Such a huge part of the narrative around Abbott has been how deeply it resonates across all different audiences. How, in all seriousness, do you do that?
I can feel a chord that’s connected to everybody else, where I can feel what people would like to see right now or what would make people feel better. I think that’s why Abbott hits the way that it does. Even if we’re telling a really specific joke about Jill Scott or Lil Uzi Vert, there’s a way to craft it so that it will still make a white grandma in Wichita laugh, even if she doesn’t know the reference.
I’d argue that the same is true of your work from your BuzzFeed days. Well, our BuzzFeed days. I just saw a tweet from a fellow alum where he said that working there in 2014 through 2017 “was like being a part of the Suicide Squad.”1 That got me thinking…what movie describes your BuzzFeed experience?
1. Working there at that time was notoriously…interesting. Google “Why I Left BuzzFeed” for a deeper dive.
My first thought was The Social Network because of the crazy highs and the unexpected lows. Then I was like, Okay, maybe more like Get Out. And that’s self-explanatory.
Man, it’s interesting. My experience was more fun than most people’s, for multiple reasons. When other people tell me about their experiences, I’m like, “Fuck, that sucks. I’m sorry.” And I acknowledge that their experiences were real.
I don’t fault myself. My role was to create comedy videos. But there were times when I wished I was more of an asset to the Black employees who were going through things. I just was so removed from it all that it was shocking to hear later. I remember messaging an old employee, “Hey, I’m sorry. Back then, I was in my own world.” They were like, “There was nothing you could’ve done.” I was like, “True, but….” It felt weird to feel that oblivious. I never wanna have that feeling again.
I feel that. I mean, it was quite a time.
It was. I want someone to write the book on it, but it won’t be me. I could be a source though.
Well, back then, you were a team player, and now, on Abbott, you’re the captain. How would your team describe you as a boss?
I wanna make sure that everyone is taken care of, that we’re not working everyone to death. It’s tiring work. Everyone’s waking up really early, the cast, the entire production crew. We’re very fortunate to have pretty good hours because mockumentaries just shoot faster. But still, I like to check in. I just wanna make sure people feel supported, taken care of, heard. I wanna have an open relationship with the cast, and that requires communication and patience. It’s not easy. My writing and production staff often tell me how I’m a very good boss and one of the best ones they’ve had. But I still…I don’t know.
I come from a production assistant background. That was my first role on a set before even being an actor, that and writing. I think with Abbott, there’s a possibility that we’re in this for the long haul. I try very hard to treat all the members of my staff—about 200 to 300 people—equally, and we try to put that ethos into the production, treating everyone with care and respect. Stuff like that trickles down, even to the kids and adult background actors.
Speaking of the kids, your set seems like such a positive, safe environment for children. These days, more and more former child stars are speaking out about their traumatic experiences in the industry. How do y’all go about avoiding this?
We maintain a really healthy set. Our kids are not overworked. They’re always filming in the same classrooms with the same people, so they get to have friends and just be kids. It helps that they aren’t the focus of our storytelling. When I first started making this show last year, I said I really wanted the children to almost be, like, the paper in Dunder Mifflin. Like, that’s the job, you know, that they’re there to do. And hiring people who knew how to work with and talk to children and who liked them was very important.
You seem big on setting intentions, which doesn’t really surprise me. Word is you told your costar Sheryl Lee Ralph’s son that you were gonna get her an Emmy. You did that! Got any more manifestations up your sleeve?
I did say that, and I meant it. But it was more like, I’m gonna give her material that will be Emmy-worthy, and I feel that way about my whole cast. I’m gonna continue to give them compelling material that makes people see their skills and see what I see in them. I want them to have the world at their fingertips. My writers too. That requires continuing to make a really good show. So that’s where my focus is.
And it shows! But have you actually taken the time to celebrate and sit with your wins too?
I’m just not sure that certain things have been processing the way they should. I’m finding my ways to celebrate, but it’s been a consistent grind. My focus is to make more Abbott and make it well. So while I’m grateful and appreciative for the wins, I just feel like I’m going through the motions.
When Abbott’s first season wrapped, we went into promotion for that season. Then the show was airing and we were promoting it, and then we went right back into making the show again. But we have a winter hiatus and I’m looking forward to actually, like, going away and being able to sit in silence. Silence and sitting seem to be in short supply for me.
I was recently telling someone older and way more successful than me that this period feels a little bit like a blur. But the person said that watching my wins has allowed her to remember her own wins and have this celebration she never gave herself. I was like, “Wow, that’s powerful.” I look forward to the day when I can look back and remember, Ah, yeah. That was cool.
I binged some of your interviews on YouTube and found a fun GRWM video of yours where you said you’d been pre-Emmys partying so hard that you lost some of your voice. Which party was the coolest?
As soon as you step into Colman Domingo’s2 party, you leave your inhibitions and self-consciousness at the door. Everybody was dancing everywhere and just having a ball. It’s not easy to craft that kind of environment. And Colman is so fun and loving and kind. His energy is so warm. He is the vibe.
I went to the party with my Abbott costars Tyler James Williams, Janelle James, and Chris Perfetti. Oh my god, I have a picture. [Quinta reaches offscreen to grab the cutest black-and-white photo of them at the party.] This is a new experience for all of us. This was my first Emmys, period, let alone being nominated. Colman’s party felt like the release we needed. I love to straight-up dance. My older siblings would throw house parties like that. I feel like that went outta style. Cell phones killed that vibe, once it became cooler to look cool than it was to actually have fun. It changed things. I miss it.
On that note, I did clock that you have a TikTok account….
I got one just to have it in case I ever need to post Abbott stuff on there. As for other stuff, I was like, Ah, I could learn…mmm…no. I have no interest whatsoever. Even if I wanted to make a TikTok, I feel like there’s a high expectation and I’m like, Nope, not seeking any validation of any sort. So many people are doing incredible things on TikTok, like Tabitha Brown. But I’ve had my fill of creating content for the internet with the intention of making something that people would enjoy and that would go viral. I don’t really tweet my thoughts anymore. I just feel like I’ve moved to a different process of communicating with the world. Now I just wanna do nothing on the internet.
Okay, here’s a question I’m asking for a friend, aka me: You once said you’ve never suffered from impostor syndrome and you feel very good at what you do. You added that if anything, your life is probably harder because you “refuse to pretend” that you’re not good. First, werk! Second, please explain.
Some people have been hesitant to work with me because I’m very firm in my beliefs, which I don’t think is a bad thing. That’s really healthy to be like, “This is not gonna work out and that’s that.” Why would I compromise? Because of that, I didn’t like work for a while. That’s how you can make things harder sometimes, because I could have been collecting a check. I also felt isolated. But I was very comfortably out of work and just trying things out here and there, finding other ways to pay my bills, until something came along that was beneficial to me.
That reminds me of a quote I read recently. In her review of the latest Marilyn Monroe film Blonde, critic Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “The trouble with being a woman and making your art look so natural is that the world believes you unaware of your own magic.”
Oh my god. Angelica’s so good. Goddamnit.
As a woman, especially a Black woman, that hit a nerve. It also brought to mind champion athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka and artists like you. Whether flipping, serving, or acting, you all make extremely difficult and wonderful acts look so natural.
I think about that quite often. How do I try to word this without sounding like an asshole? I don’t think that Abbott is easy to do. Similarly, I don’t think Insecure was easy to do. I don’t think anybody can do that. That was unique to Issa3 and her version of storytelling. It’s just funny because often with men, it’s like, “Whoa, they’re revolutionary!”
3. Why, yes, in case you were wondering: “Issa and I chat. The last time we talked, four hours passed before we knew it. I just felt lighter. It’s like, Okay, someone understands these specific Black things that you go through as a woman running and producing a show, as someone who feels so connected to your stories. It’s hard because as Black woman creators, we still feel the responsibility of representation. But as artists, you want the freedom sometimes to not have to deal with that.”
“Genius”! You see the word applied to them more often. I’ll go back to Mindy Kaling.4 Her Netflix show Never Have I Ever is downright incredible. And if it were Ryan Murphy’s show, we’d all be like, “Ryan Murphy is such a genius!” I haven’t heard the word “genius” thrown around for Mindy. She’s created multiple hit shows! Mindy Kaling is really the GOAT at this shit and doesn’t get enough credit.
And I think about Marilyn Monroe often. She does not get enough credit for her comedic timing. I study her a lot for my character Janine’s subtleties. Certain ways to move the eyebrows and mouth and to be a person that’s holding in so much more than they’re giving off because they’re actually quite in control of the situation.
4. Yes, Mindy and Quinta also chat: “I was curious what her experience was like writing a show while simultaneously filming and starring in it, with The Mindy Project. I reached out to her and she gave me so much advice.”
Yes, more flowers for Marilyn the comedian, please. I remember you saying that what the world needs right now is just some straight-up silliness.
I’m not even capable of the silly I would like to see in the world. I’m a little bit more serious than I let on. The Weird movie is a good step in the right direction. I hope it inspires somebody else to get even sillier. I feel the same way about that as I do about dancing. The kids need to be reminded of pure silliness. There’s such freedom in it.
Okay, so who are some of your favorite silly people right now?
Definitely Zack Fox, who plays Tariq on Abbott. He’s just a silly-billy walnut-head, even in text messages. He fucking kills me. Ayo Edebiri, who plays Sydney on The Bear, she says the craziest things, stuff where I’m like, “Yo, what is wrong with you?!”
The kids on Abbott are silly. One told me a joke between scenes, and I’m a pretty hard audience. He goes, “What does a janitor say when he bursts out of his closet?…‘Supplies!’” That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in my life! And then he just went right back to his little worksheet. That kind of stuff revitalizes me.
And my husband5 is silly. I just laugh and laugh. That’s part of why I married him. His silly is so surprising to me, and I’m very rarely surprised.
5. FYI: Her silly husband, Kevin Jay Anik, is not a professional comedian.
What’s marriage like with a silly partner?
Well, right now, he’s talking to the cat.6 Like, what?! The cat meows, and he’s like, “Yeah, I know, Jack. Yeah, man.” What is wrong with you? The other day, we were watching some commercial. There was a crab on the screen, and we were like, “What sound does a crab make?” I just went like this in front of his face [Quinta pinches her fingers open and closed like a crab claw], and he laughed for hours and hours. He was just in tears and so I was in tears. Stuff like that is just hilarious to me. These things probably aren’t going to be funny in print, but they crack me up.
6. Their cat, Jack, sort of…is a professional comedian? At least, he had his own moment in the spotlight in a BuzzFeed video with Quinta. Jack was unavailable for comment at press time.
It feels extra important to find the joy in those moments when the news cycle can be so bleak. Are there any causes particularly close to your heart? I know, for example, that you’ve spoken about gun violence prevention in your hometown of Philly.7 Can you tell me about that?
Doing anything at all with gun violence prevention is so tough. I feel for the people that are in it day after day.
It feels like a constant losing game, but there are levels to this. One, we need better gun control. There are guns everywhere. Two, we have to change how our youth, Black youth, are looking at life. We have to just do better jobs as the generation before them, helping them to see that their lives matter and that the lives of others matter. There are so many factors: poverty, mental health. It’s just so layered, but ultimately, we gotta start working with our youth, telling them that there’s a better tomorrow and that this is not it.
7. Quinta has written about losing her cousin Tyrese to gun violence.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m reminded of something you said years ago about your own outlook on life and how a friend gave you affirmations to say in the mirror after a breakup that devastated you. You were skeptical, but then a year later, you realized they were working. What were the affirmations?
It was pointing at myself and saying stuff like, “You are worthy. You are free. You are capable. You are beautiful.” I know it works because I do it through Janine to help get me in her mind state. She’s someone who puts on her outfits that the internet hates, looks in the mirror, and goes, “Unique!” That’s such a quiet little revolution. And I remember being able to do that for myself. That breakup was so hard on me. It just broke my self-esteem. It was hard to get out of bed, to go to work. I really needed to do that to get through it.
I’m struck by how open you are, in all the interviews I read to prepare for this too. Thank you for sharing that openness with me.
It’s getting to that point where people know more about my background than I do. I miss coincidences. This happened to me recently with someone where I was like, “Oh my god. I love this song.” And he was like, “Yeah, I know…that’s why I’m playing it.”
Patrice Peck is a journalist and storyteller whose work centers on amplifying underreported stories, conversations, and ideas at the intersection of race, culture, and identity. She is the former senior opinion editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine and her bylines can be found at The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vogue, ELLE, Wired, and more.