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In 'She Memes Well,' Quinta Brunson Describes The Difficult Path To Her Comedy Career

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For millions of people, this phrase...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QUINTA BRUNSON: (As character) He got money.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: ...Conjures a specific image - a young woman's face, mouth open, eyes wide. It's a meme that launched the career of Quinta Brunson. She's now a TV writer, actress, comedian and author, and her new book describes the difficult path that led her to this place. It's called "She Memes Well." Quinta Brunson told me that growing up the youngest of five children in Philadelphia with conservative religious parents, she was always told that she should pursue a stable career, but that's not what she had in mind.

BRUNSON: Becoming a performer, comedian - anything other than a teacher, really - seemed very far-fetched. So I kind of split off into this separate world, where secretly I was doing improv classes. And I would come home...

SHAPIRO: You literally - like, you snuck off to Chicago...

BRUNSON: I did.

SHAPIRO: ...From Philadelphia to take classes at Second City and didn't tell your parents that that's what you were doing.

BRUNSON: Didn't tell my parents. And I, like, came back home. My mom was like, where were you? I was like, doing drugs.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BRUNSON: Anything was better than...

SHAPIRO: Than doing comedy.

BRUNSON: ...Taking improv classes.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So you moved to Los Angeles. You get a day job at the Apple store, and you get a chance to do a comedy show where you create a character that now tens of millions of people have seen. This is the girl who's never been on a nice date.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNSON: (As character) Excuse me, waitress. Where you all get your water? Oh, my God, you got money.

SHAPIRO: So you created these YouTube videos with the character, and it completely took off. And you start getting recognized on the street, even in the Apple store where you're working. What was that...

BRUNSON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Moment like for you?

BRUNSON: Yeah. Well, first correction - they were Instagram videos. I never actually was on YouTube. I never actually made a YouTube video.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

BRUNSON: They just got...

SHAPIRO: And it was, like, the earliest days of Instagram video.

BRUNSON: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Like, some have said you were the first viral Instagram video, which...

BRUNSON: Seriously.

SHAPIRO: I don't know if that's possible to fact-check, but it's been said.

BRUNSON: I don't know if that's possible to fact-check, either, but it has been said because I started using Instagram video, like, as soon as it happened because it wasn't a thing. I don't think we knew the potential of Instagram at that point. It was just, like - that was back when Instagram was very pure. Like...

SHAPIRO: Right. Nobody knew what an influencer was necessarily.

BRUNSON: Exactly. It wasn't a thing yet. But as far as, like, getting recognized and stuff, it was surreal, I think because that - you know, I talk a lot about celebrity and fame in the book and what it is and what it means now. But at that time, with that kind of notoriety, people recognizing me - I'm doing air quotes for people who can't see this - it was like, oh, is it this easy to be recognizable? And I think I was thinking that to myself because I was like, that was a fluke. That was - I didn't do that on purpose. And now people are recognizing me.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BRUNSON: But I don't have any of the things that go with that like most of the other people.

SHAPIRO: You weren't getting paid for those videos.

BRUNSON: Right. Not one thing - not the pay...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BRUNSON: ...Not the house, not the fanciness. So it was odd.

SHAPIRO: So you got a job at BuzzFeed, where your job was to make videos that would go viral, and you were hugely successful. Like, these videos had tens of millions of views.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNSON: It's also super-easy for bae to kiss you on your forehead. It's right there even when you're wearing heels.

SHAPIRO: This is a video about advantages of being short, we should say.

BRUNSON: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUNSON: Shopping's awesome because your size is usually available. But even if it isn't, there's always the kids section. I ain't ashamed.

SHAPIRO: So what do you think you learned from that experience that maybe made you a different kind of comedian from the standard, like, coming up through the ranks of doing standup in small clubs, the path that so many people who are in comedy right now have done?

BRUNSON: Yeah. I think working at BuzzFeed Video specifically kind of taught me about, like, the science of relatability, where, you know, those BuzzFeed videos - the era, that time in those videos all had a - there was a format to it. There was an idea behind it that, you know, you're making these videos that someone from here in America can understand but also someone in Mongolia somewhere can understand because that's how universal the concept is.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. It also just feels kind of, like, whether a joke lands or not might be subjective, but whether a video gets seen and shared is measurable.

BRUNSON: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: Like, you can actually put numbers to whether a thing landed or it didn't.

BRUNSON: Absolutely. Yeah. And there are things that you would do on the internet that would not go - that would not get a chuckle in a comedy club or, you know, in standup or as a sketch. There are tweets that are hilarious and super-shared and well-shared. But if you said it out loud in real life, it's not as funny. So these are all different stages, really. I consider the internet just another stage, and you have to tailor the performance for the stage.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. So you were in the first season of the HBO show "A Black Lady Sketch Show," which has been nominated for Emmys. And let's listen to a clip of one of the sketches from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW")

BRUNSON: (As character) Unfortunately, my clients weren't unable to attend this hearing, but I'm sure they would appreciate it if we took some time to find out how my girl over there got her goddess locs all right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Thank you, girl.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I see you. I see you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm suing your clients, and I...

SHAPIRO: This is a courtroom scene, we should explain.

BRUNSON: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: So especially after growing up not necessarily seeing yourself reflected in the comedy that you were watching, just tell us what it was like to be surrounded by other funny people making comedy, all of whom were Black women.

BRUNSON: Yeah, weirdly cathartic in a way I didn't expect at all. I don't know. It wasn't necessarily a worry of mine until I realized I have been denied it so much. Like, and I have my own, like, collectives and, like, my own friend groups of Black friends who do comedy. But actually, like, performing and creating a piece of work on this sketch show with other Black people, Black women was like, man, this is a thing that Adam Sandler gets to do all the time. That is crazy (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Just be with people who have the same life experience he does...

BRUNSON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...And not have it be a thing.

BRUNSON: Right. And I was like, that's nuts. Like, I don't...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BRUNSON: Seriously because I even think...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BRUNSON: ...As a woman, period, you're probably not getting that experience that often of being with an entire other group of women. But how many, like, dude movies and shows have there been?

SHAPIRO: Right.

BRUNSON: Groups of dudes, typically white dudes, you know, doing their thing.

SHAPIRO: OK. I have to end by asking about a show you created and starred in that is not out yet called "Abbott Elementary."

BRUNSON: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ABBOTT ELEMENTARY")

BRUNSON: (As Janine Teagues) I'm Janine Teagues. I have been teaching second grade here at Abbott Elementary for a year now. The staff here is incredible.

SHAPIRO: And this is a show where you play a second grade teacher.

BRUNSON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And because you say in the book your mother raised you with the expectation that you would become a teacher, I've got to ask how she feels about you finally being a teacher but maybe not in the way she imagined.

BRUNSON: Yeah. She was super-happy. I think it's a way for her to get to live her dream of me being a teacher. And especially because this show is a mockumentary style, like, I think she really gets to feel that. So she's very proud but not because I created a show for ABC but because I am a teacher.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Did you have that in mind at all when you were creating this show? Were you like, oh, this is going to make my mom feel happy?

BRUNSON: A little bit, for sure. But ultimately, I just think that her story as a teacher - which is nothing unique - it's the story of many teachers in America, many public school teachers. I just think it's super-special. And she watched the pilot and was just like, you really nailed it. Like, you nailed it. And that meant a lot to me.

SHAPIRO: Quinta Brunson's new book is called "She Memes Well." Thank you so much for talking with us today.

BRUNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF METRONOMY SONG, "THE LOOK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.