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The Comedy Writer: Kristen Bartlett proves she's ready for prime time with SNL gig

by Chuck Gordon

The day after 2016’s presidential election, a stunned and sleep-deprived Kristen Bartlett ’05spent most of her workday hammering out a sketch for the comedian Dave Chappelle.

An avowed liberal from the mountains of North Carolina, Bartlett felt like she’d been punched in the gut by the election. As they do every Tuesday, she and her fellow writers at Saturday Night Livehad been up late the night before writing sketches they hoped would be included in that week’s show. On this Tuesday they also kept one eye on the election returns. The writers were exhausted. Processing the election results in the midst of a grueling work schedule proved difficult. “It was a very, very hard night for everyone,” she says.

Bartlett, in her first season as a writer for the show, worked through the night with cast member Alex Moffatt to refine an idea Moffatt had.

“It was so quiet,” Bartlett says. “It was six in the morning, and Alex and I sat in his office and – he’s so wonderful – he said, ‘Let’s get this done.’ The sun was up, and it was like, ‘We have a job to do. We have to get on with our lives.’”

The work ethic it takes to become a writer on SNL, and to survive the show’s brutal work schedule, is nothing new to Bartlett. She hails from a blue-collar background and had always chosen paths in her life that were, if not safe, at least practical and work-driven. She’s no loafer, and she has always known she’d have to pay her own way. She loved English in college but majored in communications because she figured that would give her more marketable skills. She transferred to Wingate from UNC-Chapel Hill for a variety of reasons, a big one being a Belk scholarship. And, not having the luxury of familial affluence to support her dream of comedy stardom, she has always held down a day job.

But lurking in the background for the past 20-plus years was a desire to write for television. And now she does.

It would be easy to overstate the improbability of Bartlett’s career arc. After all, she’s clearly talented, and few people could outwork her. But as she herself says, “Not a lot of people from Black Mountain go on to do SNL.”

Finding her gang

Like hundreds of North Carolina teens every fall, Kristen Bartlett arrived at the state’s flagship university for her freshman year a little unsure of herself, despite a straight-A resume from Charles D. Owen High School. It was the fall of 2001, and Bartlett found herself overwhelmed by the number of students in her classes. Dorm living didn’t suit her, and she was no longer a big fish.

“I wasn’t happy there,” she says. “It was too big – which is funny because I live in New York now. It wasn’t right for me at the time. The classes were enormous, and it was easy for me to not go. The only thing motivating me was me, and I just wasn’t motivated as an 18-year-old kid.”

Before her first semester ended, Bartlett began scouting around for an escape plan. High-school friends started touting the benefits of Wingate – “You can be friends with everybody,” they told her. “You can talk to your professors.” She’d been offered a Belk scholarship as a high-school senior, and she called Wingate’s Admissions Office to see if it was still available.

“They said yes, and so I transferred,” she says. “And I was instantly happier.”

Wingate life suited the girl from Black Mountain, who relished being treated like an adult. “We were in apartments, and it was just like a different life,” Bartlett says. “It was not the arrested development of living in a dorm and getting drunk every night or whatever. It was nice to have it be serious a little bit.”

Better yet, she found her tribe. “I very quickly found the English Department and fell in love with a lot of the professors there, like Dr. (Taura) Napier and Dr. (Sylvia) Little-Sweat and Dr. (Beverly) Christopher, and the people in those classes I really loved. That was like my nerd herd. I sort of found my gang.”

Air time

The first SNLsketch Bartlett worked on that made it on air was, naturally, a take-off on a popular TV show. Bartlett made it to SNLpartially on the strength of her work with two sketch and improv groups – Bridge and Tunnel, which she co-founded, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – and at both, she excelled at writing TV parodies.

During the second week of the 2016-2017 SNLseason, Bartlett worked with veteran cast member Sasheer Zamata on a spoof of the Netflix hit Stranger Things, which is set in the 1980s. Zamata’s premise was a simple question: Where are the black kid’s parents?

The host that week was Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer/producer/star of the smash Broadway hit Hamilton(in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past four years). “Lin wanted to play the guy with the lisp,” Bartlett says. “I was like ‘Cool. That’s awesome. We’re going to write you as this kid.’ Now he was excited about it.”

Miranda was great as Dustin, and the sketch proved worthy of its airtime that week by getting some big laughs. Still, Bartlett was new to SNLand didn’t know during the week whether they had hit the target. “There were people the previous year who didn’t get anything on until the following spring,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting it.”

On Wednesday evenings, the final show rundown is posted on the wall of the writers’ room – “very much like high-school theater,” Bartlett says. The first week of the season, Bartlett waited for the room to clear and then checked the list. She didn’t make it. “It’s a hard thing to go look at that wall,” she says. “Even now I’ll wait until the crowd thins out and then I’ll go check it out, unless I know.”

The second week, for some reason, she didn’t even check the list, instead going to her office. A few minutes later, Zamata stopped by. “We got in.”

“She told me,” Bartlett says, “and I’m like, ‘Oh my God. That’s so insane.”

When a sketch gets the green light, the fun is just starting. Even though it’s Wednesday evening by this point, and everyone’s operating on minimal sleep, there’s still work to be done. Bartlett and Zamata immediately meet with members of the design team to begin the process of constructing the set, assembling the props and figuring out the costuming. After all, Design has just a couple of days to turn the stage into a close approximation of the Stranger Thingsset – as well as create sets for all the other sketches.

“We told them specifically what we wanted things to look like,” Bartlett says. “Like, the little boy, this is what we wanted him to look like. These are the backpacks that we want. This is the bike we want, a classic ’80s bike.

“It’s amazing. That’s the real talent at SNL: these people who can make anything happen.”

Developing her skill set

Late in her junior year at Wingate, Bartlett began scouting around for summer internships. “I applied to Playboy,” she says. “I applied to Cameron Crowe’s company. I was just trying to get an entertainment internship, and I didn’t know what that would be.”

She wound up being accepted into a competitive program run by the Television Academy of Arts & Sciences. Always practical, she chose to intern in the drama-development department at CBS in Los Angeles. “I applied for development because I was still in that mindset of ‘I need a job that’s going to support me,’ and development is a great job for that,” she says.

Bartlett was on her own for the summer, thousands of miles away from home. It was difficult and stressful, but she wanted to work in entertainment, and this was a size-15 sneaker in the door. She was in meetings where writers for newer shows, such asCSI: New York, got feedback.

“The job included hearing pitches and being with writers in writers’ meetings, to give them notes on their first season,” she says. “You weren’t organizing. You weren’t getting coffee. You were in these meetings.”

Bartlett worked hard and was grateful to be learning so much, but Laverne McKinnon, then the senior vice president of drama development at CBS, sensed that Bartlett wasn’t 100 percent on board with development. Bartlett says, “She called me in and said, ‘I get the feeling you’re unhappy here. I can tell you’re a writer.’” So McKinnon and Christina Davis, another drama-development executive, had Bartlett pitch them “spec scripts” of current shows. Bartlett wrote something for Nip/Tuck. “They took me through that whole process, which was very generous and cool.”

Around this time, Bartlett, admittedly “scared and sad and lonely” in L.A., joined Match.com in an effort to meet people. The person she most connected with, Jason Gore, lived in Virginia. “I was like, ‘What’s the point? You’re not in L.A.,’” she says. “But we hit it off and really dug each other. He made me laugh real hard when we talked on the phone.”

Gore flew out to see Bartlett, and before long they were a couple.

“We had a lot in common in terms of the pop-culture stuff we both enjoyed, and the fact that we were both raised in the mountains,” Gore says. “But the biggest thing for me was how funny she was. I thought she was amazing the first moment I spoke with her.”

After returning from L.A., Bartlett spent the fall 2004 semester in England with the Wingate-in-London program. In October of that year, Gore flew to London and proposed. “We had been dating exclusively for only six weeks,” Bartlett says.

Her friends and professors were taken aback by her engagement. “It wasn’t my style,” she says. “I was pretty independent. I had just been in L.A. alone. I’m very liberal, intensely liberal, and an intense, insane, hard-ass feminist, and that’s part of why I loved being at Wingate, because I loved having to fight sometimes.”

‘Chonk’

The first SNLsketch Bartlett was the driving force behind was “Chonk,” which aired on Oct. 15, 2016. A prerecorded “commercial” for a made-up women’s clothing brand, the sketch focuses on “the commercialization of body positivity,” as Bartlett explains. “There’s such a language with brands about, ‘You’re beautiful, you deserve this,’ and it’s really just trying to sell you deodorant,” she says.

“Chonk” shows women of varying shapes and sizes and talks about their “unique body.” At the end of the ad, it advises men to go to a place called “Normal Clothes,” where men of all sizes shop for essentially the same styles.

The ad’s skewering skepticism didn’t go unnoticed. AdWeekThe Hollywood Reporterand New Yorkmagazine all wrote admiringly about the sketch’s humor and message. Several websites recap and review each SNLepisode, and “Chonk” was almost universally held up as the gem on its night.

The week after “Chonk” appeared was a test of Bartlett’s self-awareness and modesty.

“When you wake up the next morning and there are 10 things about what you wrote, it’s nice, but you really have to keep your ego in check,” she says, laughing, “because you’re the same person you were when no one would see your stuff. It’s just that you’re in this amazing position now.”

Such an outlook is unsurprising to Bartlett’s good friend Michael Hartney, who, as a performer and instructor at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, has seen close up how much effort it has taken Bartlett to get to this position.

“There are definitely people who fall ass backward into a career,” he says. “Kristen Bartlett is not one of those people. She’s not one of the people who’ve had a career handed to them. It’s the result of years of hard and good work.

“She never stopped. She never got discouraged, and, like all of us, there were plenty of reasons to get discouraged. She’s kind of a relentless workhorse.”

Bleeping Mike Nichols

Like most people in the subjective world of comedy, Bartlett doesn’t always know when a sketch or joke is going to land. But she does know when one has crossed the line. For nearly a decade, Bartlett supported herself, and her comedy dreams, by working in “standards and practices,” first for Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta and later for CBS in New York.

The S&P department is essentially the naughty-word police. Back in a more innocent time, the folks in S&P were the ones who kept writers from including the word “pregnant” in dialogue. Today, they hit the “delay” button quickly when a wardrobe malfunction occurs.

Even though she started in Atlanta, working in S&P gave Bartlett her first introduction to comedy writing. After about a year with Turner, she had earned a promotion and found herself working for two comedy properties, Adult Swimand Super Deluxe. Rather than simply rapping writers’ knuckles, Bartlett worked with them to come up with solutions when she thought something wouldn’t live up to the network’s guidelines. “That was sort of like doing the writing, even if I wasn’t writing the material,” she says.

The experience convinced her that comedy writing could be a viable career choice, so she started sending her resume to companies in New York and Los Angeles, to be closer to the country’s big comedy scenes. Pretty soon she got a call from CBS, and she and Gore moved north.

Working in S&P has helped Bartlett go to bat for jokes she knows are OK for network TV, especially late-night TV. More than that, simply having worked in an office gives her a perspective that a lot of writers don’t have.

“Knowing what real life is can be helpful,” she says. “I can write an office sketch, because I know what kinds of things happen there. I know what annoys office people, because I lived that life for a long time.”

At CBS, Bartlett worked as a bleeper for the Grammys, the Tonys and other big productions, keeping one hand hovering over the button while watching the shows, which are on a seven-second delay. Once, she bleeped Mike Nichols, who uttered an expletive after receiving his Tony for directing Death of a Salesman. “He was someone you didn’t expect to say something, and that was almost worse,” Bartlett says.

The work was steady and the paycheck helped Bartlett and Gore pay the rent on their place in Jersey City, but Bartlett knew she didn’t want to work in S&P her whole life. She wanted to be a comedy writer. And Gore helped get her there.

The Dead Dads Club

In 2009, Gore began trying to persuade Bartlett to take improv classes with him at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, a well-known program founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts. “He was extremely pushy,” Bartlett says. Gore, a former radio deejay who also works part-time in the comedy world, knew more about UCB than Bartlett did, and he eventually revealed that there was a sketch-writing program there too, so she agreed to check it out.

Both flourished. Although Gore is more actor than writer and Bartlett more writer than actor, each can do a little of both. And Gore seemed to bring out the funny in Bartlett. “Jason has a great sense of humor and would just make me laugh all the time,” Bartlett says. “We were funny people, but it wasn’t necessarily what we were doing professionally yet.”

Toward the end of their first UCB class, in September of 2009, Gore’s father died. The couple took the week off to drive to Radford, Virginia, where Gore grew up, to take care of all the arrangements and pay their respects. Four months later, Bartlett’s father died unexpectedly. Suddenly, they were back in the South for another week of mourning.

As a way of handling the couple’s grief, Bartlett penned a 30-minute sketch show about the experience of driving twice to the South in such a short space of time to bury a parent. The resulting mini-play, “The Dead Dads Club,” was produced by UCB and starred Bartlett and Gore.

“The Dead Dads Club was all Kristen,” Gore says. “She took all of the weird stuff that happened to us while we were dealing with the loss of our fathers and made something completely special out of it.”

It’s full of pathos and warmth and gallows humor and demonstrates Bartlett’s chops as a comedy writer. It includes an elderly funeral-home director who’s jealous of the bodies he’s putting in the ground, a mariachi band striking up music at inappropriate times, and the requisite awkward encounters with relatives.

Bartlett’s friend Hartney played the funeral-home director. “I read the script and I immediately said, ‘I have to be in this show. I have to play the very old funeral director,’ because the part was so funny,” he says.

Bartlett and Gore are true comics, in that they can laugh even in the most sorrowful situations. They went to have a sandwich at the same time Gore’s father was being cremated, and in between bites Bartlett’s father commented that “it takes fat people less time to be cremated.”

“I said, ‘OK. Why?’” Bartlett says. “He said, ‘because of all the grease.’ We just laughed. And Jason said, ‘Well, actually he was an alcoholic, so he probably just exploded.’”

“The Dead Dads Club” was funny and got good reviews, but it didn’t make Bartlett and Gore overnight sensations. The New York comedy scene is extremely competitive, and funny young writers, actors and joke-tellers are moving there all the time.

But their fathers’ deaths put Bartlett and Gore on notice that life is short, so they went full-throttle on their comedy dreams. And just like after she transferred to Wingate, Bartlett found her people at UCB.

“We took an improv class together, and that was it,” she says. “I will say that the sketch program at UCB is incredible and is the basis for what I know. But when you take improv at UCB, you find your nerd herd.”

Bartlett persevered, spending her extra cash on UCB classes and essentially working two jobs – one she got paid for (S&P at CBS), and one she paid for (UCB). After “The Dead Dads Club,” she made her way onto the “house team” at UCB and even started teaching classes there. She and Gore also founded Bridge and Tunnel, which put on monthly sketch shows.

Eventually, all that hard work paid off when she was asked to interview at 30 Rock.

Legends of comedy

Saturday Night Live is unlike just about any show on TV in the past 50 years. Aside from sporting events and news broadcasts, live TV went out of fashion in the early ’60s, and with good reason: It’s hard to control. SNL doubles down on the degree of difficulty by creating a show from scratch every week – a daunting task that the cast and crew pull off admirably.

Part of the charm of the show is that it airs live. Because SNLis often revised up until airtime, the actors and guest hosts all read off cue cards. (Donald Trump famously, and disastrously, thought he could improvise, and he bombed.) Some of the funniest moments occur when an actor “breaks” and gets the giggles. Some sketches hit the mark better than others, but each week there are a raft of singles and the occasional double. WhenSNLhits it out of the park, though, it’s spectacular, often culture-defining. The Coneheads. Land Shark. Buckwheat. Wayne’s World. MacGruber. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression.

The list of comedians who have worked on the show is an American (and Canadian) roll call of Hall of Famers over the past four decades: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, Kate McKinnon (I could go on and on). Those are just some of the ones for whom SNLwas their big break. Billy Crystal, Michael McKean, Chris Elliott, Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Martin Short and others all joined the cast after finding success elsewhere. And the list of criminally underused or underappreciated cast members includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Sarah Silverman and Joan Cusack (until the past 15 years or so, women have been primarily background players).

The show’s longevity and format stability have made it an institution. Writing for SNLis a goal for most comedy writers, especially early in their career. Here’s a list of comedy writers from just oneseason (1987-88): Al Franken, Tom Davis, Jack Handey, Bob Odenkirk, Conan O’Brien, Phil Hartman, Robert Smigel and Greg Daniels. Writers have gone on to work on SeinfeldThe OfficeThe Simpsonsand countless other huge hits, and the current crop of writers was nominated for an Emmy for their work during the 2016-17 season.

It’s both a destination and a launch pad.

“It’s what I’ve wanted since I was a little kid and my brother would pretend to be Land Shark and knock on my door,” Bartlett says.

Bartlett has been a writer as long as she can remember. When she was 12, she got a Brother word processor for Christmas. “Even when I was a kid I was writing little plays that I was forcing my cousins to be in,” she says.

At school, Bartlett competed in Odyssey of the Mind, in which teams of students work for months to create an eight-minute play they use to solve a series of problems. “I was always the one who was writing the plays,” she says. “You know, everyone has a different skill (in Odyssey of the Mind). That was mine.”

In college, Bartlett contributed pieces to Counterpoint, the University’s literary magazine, and although she was a communications major, she felt most at home among fellow wordsmiths, so with her English minor, she was like an honorary member of the English fraternity. “I got adopted by them because of the writing thing,” she says.

Add in her years writing sketches for UCB and Bridge and Tunnel, and it’s clear that Bartlett had paid her dues. A few years ago a friend gave her the e-mail address for submitting a sketch packet to the SNLtalent-acquisition department, and in 2016, armed with a load of solid TV parodies, she submitted one.

“It was a great packet, and very Kristen,” Hartney says.

Prairie Home Companion and SNL

When Bartlett hit send on that e-mail to SNL, she was established at UCB but still had no representation. By this time, she had scaled back her full-time job to part-time, knowing she wanted to pursue comedy writing as a career. She was writing for Someecards, which produces Internet memes, and in early spring of 2016 she was hired to write part-time for the radio variety show Prairie Home Companion, which needed to groom new writers to take over when longtime host and writer Garrison Keillor retired a few months later.

Things were going well. In the summer, she was asked to return to Prairie Home Companion, which fit her type of comedy.

“She’s not impressed by clever, cerebral, dry stuff,” Hartney says. “She’s like a writer of the people, in a weird way. I think that’s why she was hired as a writer on Prairie Home Companionbefore SNL. And SNLis a show of the people. So she writes about real, regular people. It’s not two hyperintelligent guys in a room gabbing. She mixes smart with silly.

“I think what I love about what Kristen does is that it’s a mix of broad and silly with real heart, like true pathos.”

Still, when SNLcalled, it was somewhat surprising.

“The only reason I was remotely surprised that she got an interview at SNLwas because she didn’t have representation,” Hartney adds. “Certainly the content of what she wrote was like, ‘Yes, she should absolutely interview at SNL. She should absolutely get on SNL.’ But I thought there was no way it was going to get read, because she didn’t have an agent or manager.”

SNL’s schedule begins on Mondays, when the writers and cast pitch the host. Tuesday is the longest day in a week full of them, with writers routinely staying at 30 Rock all night tightening up their work and making it as TV-friendly as possible.

The table read occurs on Wednesday; that takes about three hours, during which the producers and head writers then pick sketches that will (most likely) make the live airing. Sets are built on Thursday and Friday. Videos are shot on Friday, and everything is continuously revised, even up until show time. The pressure builds throughout the week, which is why everyone is so giddy afterward, especially when a show goes well.

“It’s a hard job,” she says. “You don’t want to complain about it, because everyone wants to do it. But it’s the thing you wanted to do, and you got it. I think I had that feeling at the Emmys, getting ready for the Emmys, showing up there, being on the red carpet, which is insane.”

SNLis the biggest, most-sought-after job in the comedy world, so when you hear anybody got it, it blows your mind,” says Aaron Burdette, who was a director for Bridge and Tunnel and a writer on the cable network FXX’s Man Seeking Woman. “That said, if anybody I know could both get that job and then knock it out of the park, it’s Kristen.”

Maybe it’s because that SNLwriter had always been inside her, struggling to emerge while Bartlett made practical decisions about her life. It took Gore to drag her to UCB, but once there the 12-year-old Bartlett and her Brother typewriter were back, ready to reel in the next Land Shark.

“Basically, I wanted to do this when I was my purest, realest self, at age 12, really badly,” she says, “and I knew exactly what it was and that’s what I wanted. And then there was a lot of life trying to take that away, and then it was about coming back to it.”

SNL writers’ tenures vary, and Bartlett doesn’t know how long she’ll stay at 30 Rock, but she knows she’ll continue writing comedy. The track record of writers who have left the show should make her optimistic about SNLand beyond. And she was recently named to the Tracking Board’s “Young & Hungry” list of the top 100 young writers.

“There are so many things I’d like to explore with my career,” Bartlett says. “I’m excited to work on other shows and features, and I dream of creating my own show someday. I’m so inspired by people like Tina Fey, Julie Klausner, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of Broad City. That’s definitely my next big goal.”

 

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