The series that made Quinta Brunson famous runs roughly the amount of time it takes to microwave frozen food. Its most shared highlight is at around 15 seconds: A man playing her date—whose head is cropped out in Wizard Kelly-esque fashion—does the pedestrian act of ordering Skittles, Dips, Reese’s Pieces, pretzels, and a large popcorn. Quinta wears the common inward satisfaction of going out with someone who’s, for at least that night, not broke on her face; “he’s got moneyyyyyyyy,” she says as her eyes bug out at that last order. A star is born.
There were plenty of classic internet expressions by 2014—not-a-rapper Supa Hot Fire’s self-satisfied stare is still an essential GIF—but Brunson’s Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date is the first Instagram series to go viral. It was not a bad look for someone who dropped out of Temple University in 2011 and moved to Los Angeles two years later to pursue comedy. But growth and stability were just as important to her as exposure; selling merchandise-inspired by the show was lucrative, but eventually antithetical.
“A lot of people think just because it’s in front of them—just because someone is offering $60,000 just to show-up somewhere—that you have to,” Brunson says at SoHo’s Lucky Strike on a recent summer weekday, her eyes now dressed in warm purple eyeshadow. “But I didn’t like that.”
Brunson parlayed her success into a junior producer gig at BuzzFeed that grew into becoming a development partner for its Motion Pictures division. The jobs resulted in her helming three original series, including her flagship Quinta vs. Everything, a Facebook Watch show that’s amassed over 5 million views on the platform. She left BuzzFeed in 2018 with ambitions beyond a 9-to-5 gig and landed roles on the traditional silver screen, co-starring alongside D.R.A.M. and Vince Staples in Adult Swim’s Lazor Wulf and guesting on iZombie.
Brunson’s biggest success is her most recent. After crossing paths on the dearly departed The Nightly Show, head writer Robin Thede recruited Brunson, along with Full Frontal’s Ashley Nicole Black and Luke Cage’s Gabrielle Dennis, to star in A Black Lady Sketch Show. A part of HBO’s recent push into experimentation and diversity (which birthed the Latinx-centered Los Espookys and the hyper-surreal Random Acts of Flyness), the show uses a proudly black lens that isn’t strictly beholden to black issues: The unexpected joy of having a courtroom with only black women and a very ill-timed choreographed wedding proposal exist fluidly in this realm.
The recent months have also been an adjustment in how Brunson has leaned back from being her projects’ creative center to a role player— or, as she calls it, “another tool for a different painter.” The canvas isn’t complete: A Black Lady Sketch Show—executive produced by fellow internet alumna Issa Rae—was confirmed for a second season shortly before finishing its inaugural run.
“I don’t think it’s about standing out at all. It’s about bringing what people appreciate me for to the mainstream.”
“The win is not about me,” Brunson says. “It’s a testament to people who create on the Internet. It’s a testament to our generation. I want to continue being that for people: Being [some] kind of a representation for these marginalized communities within the marginalized communities.”
The first half of the decade saw a YouTube boom of comedians (Kain Carter, Spoken Reasons) get a piece of the Internet spotlight. Traditional media hasn’t quite been as fertile. While the past few years have seen groundbreaking successes in Rae’s Insecure and Donald Glover’s Atlanta, there’s still an unspoken one-black-show-per-major-network rule for many channels, especially with comedy. Saturday Night Live has become a microcosm of this trapping for black women: There’s only been seven of them in the show’s 44-year history; Ego Nwodim is the only one left after Leslie Jones’ recent departure. A show that entirely casts and is written by black women is unheard of, and the hope that A Black Lady Sketch Show will be the first of many is instilled in its very title. “It was called The Black Lady Sketch Show, and then we decided to call it A Black Lady Sketch Show so it wouldn’t just be the singular one,” Thede said to The Ringer.
Traditional media still has produced gems even with its shortcomings. Brunson recalls watching Martin, In Living Color, and The Bernie Mac Show in addition to late-night staples like Amy Poehler/Tina Fey-era SNL with her older siblings and parents growing up in Philadelphia. Brunson’s love of comedy led to her ferrying between time zones throughout her college years. “I was leaving college for weeks at a time to go take classes at Second City,” she says. “I was lying to my parents and saying I was staying in my friend’s dorm when I was really in Chicago.”
Brunson made Girl Who Has Never Been on a Nice Date on a friend’s suggestion after performing a version of the bit at the Comedy Store. Although it stands apart from the rest of her work, the breakthrough series does encapsulate her comedy’s knack for blurring the mundane and the surreal with a wink. On Quinta vs. Everything, a trip over a curb becomes a rumination on mortality and being college-educated might get you called up to give a speech at a family funeral, regardless of if you actually know the deceased. A Black Lady Sketch Show isn’t Brunson’s creation, but her style is well adjacent to it.
A Black Lady Sketch Show also feels like a major turn because it’s set to be her longest series. Despite their charms, Quinta vs. Everything and her other two series—Broke, for which she earned a Streamy Awards nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy, and Up for Adoption—all lasted one season. It also looked like she was facing major disappointments post-BuzzFeed: She starred in pilots for the CW’s The End of the World as We Know It and CBS’ Jermaine Fowler co-starring Quinta & Jermaine, but neither were picked up to go to series. The 29-year-old speaks about the shelved network shows with minor relief, though. The latter’s end gave her the time to do A Black Lady Sketch Show, and she would’ve had to upend her life for the former.
“I was secretly hoping [The End of the World as We Know It] didn’t go,” Brunson says. “Because if it did, I would’ve had to go to Vancouver and that show would’ve filmed for nine months out of the year. You’d basically have to move. I wasn’t with it; I didn’t want to be away from my friends, my boyfriend. At that point, in my head, I was starting to plan on having a family, starting to plan for my future. My future does not involve Vancouver.”
Even “family” sounds rebellious. For women in the early stages of their careers, pregnancy is treated like a stumble instead of an essential step in humanity’s survival. (Cardi B was open about the criticism she received for getting pregnant before her debut album’s release). Recent splits hint that television success isn’t that fruitful for maintaining relationships either.
Brunson is unfazed when I bring up those cases during the conversation. She explains that her work and the health of her personal life are interlinked; thus, success for her is being fulfilled on both sides, a wish A Black Lady Sketch Show’s aids with its short shooting schedule. Brunson says this with a natural confidence that suggests this ought to make sense: She shouldn’t have to compromise her private joys if that lack of compromise in her creative vision got her this far.
“I don’t think it’s about standing out at all. It’s about bringing what people appreciate me for to the mainstream,” she says. “It’s about bringing the audience you already had but also gaining another audience through television—and not changing who I am to do that.”