Comedian Quinta Brunson says growing up in Philly launched a meme, a book and, now, a network TV show
In “She Memes Well,” the viral comedian and actor writes about her Philly childhood, attending two experimental public schools that have closed, and how Los Angeles could never replace Philly for her.
Quinta Brunson insists she has not graduated from the internet.
The Philadelphia native and one-time Apple Store technician whose 2014 comic Instagram video “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date” became the viral “OOO He Got Money,” meme, which led to a job at Buzzfeed, then a role on HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, has published a book of essays, She Memes Well, and has a new deal with ABC to create, write, produce, and star in a 13-episode workplace comedy series set in a fictional Philadelphia public school, Abbott Elementary.
“I refuse to turn my back on it,” Brunson said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where the West Philly native moved to further her comedy, writing, and acting career, but was so homesick for the city that “has culture coming up through the cracks of the sidewalks” that she had to throw a party to “replicate the Philly feeling I’d been missing.”
“That line does not exist,” she said, speaking of the internet versus more traditional ways of creating. “Internet kids are more famous to the next generation than Kevin Hart.”
The internet has been a place of opportunity for young Black female comedians like Brunson, she says, a “space for marginalized voices,” a vehicle that shows, “how powerful, lo-fi, and accessible creativity could be.” Being a meme — an image, text, or video, shared over and over, morphing into cultural significance as millions get in on the joke — is one thing. But her book also shows how much craft and hard work are in the creative success equation.
Brunson still finds herself doing Philly things like filling a gift box with “oils and incense and Frooties,” which a friend pointed out was “the most Philly box I’ve ever seen in my life.” On Thursday, June 17, she will appear at a virtual event with poet Jasmine Mans at Philly’s Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books at 7 p.m.
Brunson started this week in the writer’s room for her Abbott Elementary, a mockumentary-style comedy series inspired by both The Office and Brunson’s mom, Norma Jean Brunson, a Philly kindergarten teacher. It is set in a fictional Philly public school, where the 70-year-old custodian who voted for Kanye is teaching about the Illuminati in social studies class. It will have a midseason debut, likely in 2022.
Brunson hopes it will be the most Philly show this (City Avenue) side of Mare of Easttown. And yes, there will be Philly accents, though Brunson says she feels a bit “foiled” by the Philly-specific triumph of Kate Winslet’s accent and all things Philly on HBO’s Mare.
“I am a little jealous that they got to the Philly references before I did,” Brunson said. “I think what’s funny about Mare is, people were like, ‘Oh, she got the Philly accent down,’ and I was like, ‘That’s the white Philly accent.’ ”
“People are like, ‘Why don’t you sound like that?’ ” she said. “Because there are differences even within Philly, from South Philly to North Philly, to West Philly to ... we don’t even have an East Philly.”
Easttown’s Mare has left plenty of room for West Philly’s Janine Teagues, Brunson’s second-grade teacher character in Abbott Elementary, Brunson says. (Her mom always wanted her to be a teacher). The Philly accent contains multitudes.
“Within that, you have the different people,” Brunson goes on, “you know, Black people are different from the white people are different from the Asian people in West Philly. And then we’re all different from all the people in North Philly.”
Brunson did not set out to write a memoir of growing up in Philly, a place she describes as “both rough and warm,” but She Memes Well, published this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, reps Philly hard with meticulously observed scenes from her childhood and teens, remembered with a sharply funny eye and, at times, an understanding glance back at episodes of heartbreak and depression. Brunson’s own ambition comes into thrilling focus.
She dropped out of Temple University midway through her junior year after studying communications and advertising, and eventually made her way to L.A. in her early 20s, focusing on live sketch comedy, including “The Girl ...” when a friend said, “You should put that character on the internet.” (Temple keeps reaching out to claim her as a favorite daughter, she says; she’s still waiting for the honorary degree.)
The fifth of five siblings (hence the name Quinta), in a protective Jehovah’s Witness family, she writes of riding SEPTA to school, attending experimental public schools, heading to the Gallery, her “after school temple,” buying $2.99 (“Cutetwoninetynine”) hoops at the hybrid corner store/beauty shops scattered throughout Philly, where you could buy “fake eyelashes, scratchers, Herr’s, magazines, mouthwash, airplane-sized bottles of Captain Morgan, candy, sandwiches.”
Brunson notes they are called “Poppy stores” when owned by Hispanics or Asians and selling food in the back, and “the beauty supply” when owned by Blacks or Asians and selling mainly hair and jewelry. The hoops worked to counter her nerd, art school identity, she writes. She admits to being a prom queen, though for the public Charter High School of Art and Design (CHAD, now closed), where proper Philly etiquette had her walking out the door to her prom to the tune of Beanie Sigel’s “Don’t Stop.”
“ ‘Don’t Stop’ may have meant a night full of fights and extreme gloating to some,” she writes, “but to me, it was elegance and prom night fanfare.”
Brunson also attended Ahali, a semi-rogue elementary school offshoot set up on the upper floor of Harrity Elementary School at 56th and Christian, where her mom taught kindergarten, with a curriculum that centered Black history in all classes.
She recalls going to a sawmill in Manayunk, where Ahali students built wooden boats, and learned about enslaved people being brought over in boats and using boats to escape captivity. The students then rode their boats down the center of the Schuylkill.
”This is what my people had to do? For freedom?” the young Quinta thinks, as she takes in the city from the inside of a boat. “As the waves of the Schuylkill River rocked my little body up and down, I could feel a deep connection to my history and also my future,” she writes.
The memory is an amazingly positive story from Philly public schools, she notes, but also: Ahali has since closed down.
About the current state of Philly, Brunson says she’s having some doubts, and not just because these great schools of her youth have closed. Her parents have moved to Landsdowne, but her siblings and cousins are still in West Philly. The persistent violence this last year has made Brunson rethink whether Philly is even a good place for her family to live anymore.
“Even if I was in Philly, I wouldn’t be in Philly right now,” Brunson said. “It’s something uniquely bad this summer and I think it’s a convergence of issues from the pandemic, and also social media; it’s just a lot of things that came together to make this year really hard as far as guns just being out of control and everywhere.”
Despite having a career basically birthed through the internet, Brunson said she’s had to personally pull back on her involvement with social media. But she still embraces the simple power, the minor miracle, really, of the meme.
Unlike some parts of social media, the meme still feels like a unifier, she says, a shorthand code for something so universal that it catapulted her expressive face and comic bit (the girl impressed by even the basic courtesies of a decent date that she exclaims, “ooo he got money”) and delivery on a worldwide loop that hasn’t stopped.
A second meme pops up every June for Pride Month that has Brunson saying, matter-of-factness implied, get over it, “People be gay.” This meme especially gives her joy, she says.
“I mean, the ‘He Got Money’ meme, it’s funny because it just like pops up randomly; people will pull that up, and wonder, ‘How’s this girl doing?’ and a bunch of people go, ‘Um, she’s doing pretty well.’ And it goes viral again.”
“The ‘People Be Gay’ meme is wonderful because I can count on it every single year. It comes around, and so that to me is so special. That a meme I’m in is connected to such a beautiful thing like a holiday, I absolutely love it. It brings me so much joy.”
The seeming simplicity of a meme disguises a “nuanced form of language,” Brunson says. She embraces it.
“Especially with the ‘People Be Gay’ meme, because it’s a simplification of a very complex idea,” Brunson said. “This meme belongs to the internet, and it belongs to the queer community. It doesn’t really belong to me.”