On Wednesday, March 11, the coronavirus finally hit the fan for Kristen Bartlett and the rest of the writers of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. They’d been monitoring the situation for weeks and had adjusted their schedules to keep writers and crew members from traveling during peak hours, all the while wondering when lockdown would start.
“We knew there was going to be a moment when we wouldn’t have an audience anymore, but I think all of the late-night hosts weren’t sure when that was going to be,” says Bartlett, a 2005 Wingate graduate and one of two head writers for Full Frontal, which airs on the cable network TBS on Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. “And then Sam came in that Wednesday and was just too scared to have an audience and felt it was too risky at that point.”
Later that day, there was a confirmed Covid-19 case in the building where Full Frontal is taped. The crew rushed through that day’s show, took a week off (sort of) and then got right back to it, this time recording their weekly cable show on an iPhone from Bee’s wooded backyard.
As Bartlett and crew adjusted to piecing together a show from their respective New York homes and apartments, they did some inspired work. As a result, Bartlett is up for three Emmys as a member of Full Frontal’s writing and production teams. The show has been nominated for Outstanding Variety Talk Series and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series. During their unscheduled off-week in March, the team began producing a digital series called Beeing at Home with Samantha Bee, which has been nominated for Outstanding Short Form Variety Series. The Primetime Emmy Awards will air on Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC.
And Bartlett has even more good news: She has signed a sitcom-development deal with ABC. Bartlett has finished the script for a pilot episode of Big Wishes, a dark comedy about a Make-A-Wish-like foundation for adults. But with the pandemic throwing production schedules out of whack, she’s not sure when a pilot would be made.
So it’s been a thrilling, exhausting and scary year for Bartlett, a communication studies major at Wingate who has now been nominated for Emmys five times, including once as a writer for Saturday Night Live, where she worked before moving to Full Frontal.
“It would be amazing to win an Emmy. I think our closest shot is the digital series, but I also expect the worst,” she says with a chuckle.
If Bartlett and crew have proved anything this year, it’s that they can handle the worst. They’ve continued to McGyver a weekly series out of modern technology, patience and hard work. They conceptualize and write each week’s show from different points around New York, and then the show is shot by Bee’s husband, comedian and actor Jason Jones, who operates as a crew of one.
Editors then digitally assemble it from their homes and upload it to the TBS headquarters in Atlanta. A lot is riding on the quality of a handful of people’s home internet connections. Still, a few years ago, the show would have probably simply gone on hiatus.
“Listen, if this was going to happen, thank God it happened at a time when we’re all pretty hyperconnected, you know?” Bartlett says. “Me and the other head writer will have these six-hour-long phone calls where we’re working through a little thing. We basically work with every single communication medium we possibly can.”
The show must go on
Producing the show has been taxing. The writers who live in the city have barely left their homes since March. At the onset of the pandemic, the writing team adjusted its timeline so that the script would be finished by Monday, rather than the usual Wednesday. That gave the new production process time to play out. Now, writers meetings happen over Zoom, a useful technology that nonetheless slows down the process.
But at least they’re still working. It was important to Bee, Bartlett says, that the show carry on. With sirens going off day and night and a tent city set up in Central Park to care for the sick, not to mention businesses staring at an uncertain future, there was more than a little anxiety among her staff, and Bee wanted to ease their minds by continuing the show.
There was also a lot to say about the moment.
“I think she was grateful for the distraction and for the work, and we’re all grateful to be able to say something about what’s happening, because it is perplexing and infuriating,” Bartlett says. “To be able to be vocal about that and say exactly what we think is a really big privilege.”
They’re fortunate to be involved in Full Frontal rather than a sketch show or a sitcom. The show is primarily a series of “acts” that feature Bee commenting on current events, often from a female perspective. There’s no cast and few guests, so it’s perfect for a social-distancing world.
The gig also fits Bartlett to a T. She loves the collaborative nature of writing for the show, and in January, after less than two years on the job, she found herself co-head writer, alongside Mike Drucker. She and Drucker orchestrate pitch meetings, choose which pitches to produce, research topics, create a show outline, run meetings and, of course, write jokes. Oh, and then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
Bartlett found it refreshing that Bee, who has three children, insisted that her team strike a good work/life balance. Normal working hours are 10-to-6, as opposed to the famously brutal schedule at SNL.
“Now I get to go do things and be a human being,” Bartlett says, “whereas when you work at SNL, you’re married to SNL.”
Bartlett, on the other hand, is married to Jason Gore, and social-distancing protocols mean that, on Sunday, the two of them will watch the Emmys broadcast in their 700-square-foot Manhattan apartment/work space rather than walk the red carpet.
And that’s just fine with them.
“I’m grateful to not have to wear Spanx this year,” Bartlett says. “So I’m already winning.”
Sept. 16, 2020