When she began drafting her first collection of essays, Quinta Brunson wasn’t sure she had anything meaningful to say.
The comedian and actress spent years providing the internet with viral videos and memes that did most of the talking for her and inspired people online to express themselves using her image.
What she found most difficult while writing the book, she said, was getting personal.
“I would come back to it and try my hardest to turn sentences in my life into paragraphs, and then turn those paragraphs into chapters,” Brunson said. As a comedian, she added, “you turn things that happened to you into one-liners, into something to get a joke. But a book requires you to undo all the one-liners.”
For nearly a decade, people have grown accustomed to seeing Brunson, who is 31, do stand-up or appear in sketches online, including in what is arguably her most famous series, “The Girl Who’s Never Been on a Nice Date.”
The expressive way she contorts her face in these videos, to emphasize her shock as she marvels over the splendors of a “fancy” date, drove her to meme status. The laughs come from her awed reaction to completely mundane treatment from her date, like taking her to a restaurant with really good water or buying more than one snack at a movie theater. There are moments when she recognizes his flaws, but she dismisses them because, unlike other men, he’s not broke. Her catchphrase, “He got money,” became an aspirational brag that was shared, retweeted and repeated more than a million times online.
Now, with “She Memes Well,” which Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish on Tuesday, Brunson breaks down her journey from struggling stand-up comedian to being recognized by strangers all over the world. The book includes hilarious anecdotes about growing up in West Philadelphia, being a Black woman, dating and life after internet fame.
She also gives serious thought to the evolution of memes, and how they have emerged as a powerful tool to help people communicate and organize online. Memes mostly succeed as comedic relief, but Brunson thinks they deserve more respect than they receive.
“It’s Earth Day today,” she said during an interview in April, “and I shared nothing but memes on my page about climate change and about how corporations are honestly taking part in ruining the earth. What I love about the memes I shared is that it’s an easy translation for a very big topic that hopefully will make people look further into the issue.”
Brunson credits the memoirs of other actors and comedians, like Gabrielle Union, Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey, as inspirations for her book.
“Those books hugged me at times when I needed the hug,” she said. “I want my book to hug a younger Black girl who might be me.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Brunson was the youngest of five in a close-knit family. She knew from the age of 5 that she wanted to become a performer, but she kept it a secret from her parents for most of her adolescent years, and decided that studying advertising at Temple University was something they could get behind.
Eventually, she dropped out of school, got a job at an Apple store making “a whopping 13 dollars an hour,” and later moved to Los Angeles, juggling different hustles until landing her big break.
Her mother, Norma Brunson, was initially disappointed in her daughter’s decision to leave school, but eventually came to grips with it.
“I reflected on my own youth, and how I made decisions that may not have necessarily made my parents happy,” Norma Brunson said. “She always had this strong determination to do certain things, and is trying to figure it out. And being the youngest of five, I think she just took a little bit of everybody’s personality and came up with this ‘Quinta’ person.”
Quinta, whose name means “fifth” in Spanish, arrived unexpectedly, she writes in her book, and she was told that her presence was a “treat” that strengthened her parents’ marriage, which was strained over the years.
“She’s always been extremely observant and very expressive at the same time, so I just accepted that part of her personality,” Norma Brunson said. “She’s always been a delightful person. She always brought a lot of joy in our household.”
“She Memes Well” was written during a transitional period for Brunson. When she began writing it, roughly three years ago, she was single and working at Buzzfeed Video (a job she affectionately calls her “9 to 5”), where she performed in a variety of parodies and sketches, a format that dominated the web at the time.
Such videos have declined in popularity, as internet users have turned toward apps like TikTok and Instagram for similar content, but Brunson’s career has flourished in more traditional ways.
She’s been featured in a number of TV shows, played a lead role in the first season of HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” which was nominated for three Emmys in 2020, and will produce and star in “Abbott Elementary,” a workplace comedy about Philadelphia teachers that’s currently in development at ABC.
In April, Brunson got her first pedicure in more than a year, and beamed on a video call about how the treatment felt like “a vacation” after months spent stuck inside her home in Los Angeles with her fiancé, playing Mario Kart video games and drinking more than she’d like to.
Despite being physically isolated, and focusing most of her time on family, her small bubble of friends and infrequent trips to Palm Springs to “see some different walls at an Airbnb,” she has been keenly tuned in to the larger world. She wrestled emotionally with the Derek Chauvin verdict in the killing of George Floyd, and with the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl from Columbus, Ohio, who was shot and killed by a police officer on the same day. We spoke two days after both events.
“I’m reeling with the reality of the news,” Brunson said. “But at the same time, trying to balance that with the good things going on in my life and trying to find space for both of those emotions.”
Kate Napolitano, the editor who acquired “She Memes Well,” said she first discovered Brunson’s work through the “Nice Date” video series in 2014. Napolitano, now an executive editor at Dey Street Books, said that when she saw the proposal for an essay collection in 2017, it felt like the perfect moment for the comedian “to explore a different side of her creativity.”
“We had always planned for a blend of serious essays among more lighthearted ones,” Napolitano said, “but after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of protests around the country, Quinta was determined to channel the urgency of that moment.”
In her memoir, Brunson writes about losing her 17-year-old cousin to gun violence a few years ago, and touches on how it felt to write a book during lockdown and widespread protests against police brutality.
“Do I feel like these things continue to happen without radical change? Yes,” Brunson said. “What are we going to do? And I think that’s a tough question for America and Americans, because it’s going to force us to reckon with some truths that we do not want to confront.”
There are tonal shifts in “She Memes Well,” as Brunson ranges from lists detailing her favorite pieces of pop culture to essays about self-acceptance and mental health. What’s constant is her relationship with comedy, and how she’s embracing the ways it has changed for her.
“I’m loving comedy, and comedy is loving me back,” she said. “Maybe I’m not moving as fast as some other people, but I don’t want to move fast. I want to move comfortably. And I feel that’s what I’m able to do now.”