Kristen Bartlett at the 71st Emmy Awards
When Kristen Bartlett, one of the two head writers for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, learned she was nominated for her fifth Emmy this year, she was thrilled. "I was also personally relieved that I – and the other head writer (Mike Drucker) – hadn't destroyed the show during our first year in the position as head writers," says Bartlett from her New York City apartment.
The comedic writer-actress has been writing for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee for two years. Since COVID-19 restrictions halted the industry back in March 2020, the team has been focusing on creative ways to virtually produce. "It's been surprising to learn that we actually do have the capacity to run a show from home," says Bartlett. "It's all about adapting to this new process."
Soon, the Television Academy Foundation alum will add Executive Producer to her resume. It was recently announced that Bartlett will write and executive produce Big Wishes which is in development at ABC with director James Griffiths (Fee-Fi-Fo Films), and 2 Dope Queens co-creator Phoebe Robinson (Tiny Reparations). In the half-hour single-camera comedy, the show asks, in a world where charities make wishes come true for sick children, what about the dreams of dying adults? Bartlett talked with us about landing the opportunity, how the Television Academy Foundation internship impacted her career and how to navigate sensitive topics in comedy.
Congratulations on your latest announcement! Discuss the journey to Executive Producer on Big Wishes and what inspired it.
I've been writing about grief in comedy for some time now. I had a live show called The Dead Dads Club back in 2015 which was a storytelling and sketch show based on my experience of losing my dad within four months of losing my father-in-law. The way my husband and I coped with that loss was to find the darkly funny moments - the weirdness of planning a funeral, the messiness of your own feelings, and the joy of dealing with your most insane family members. Those darkly funny moments inspired me to write Big Wishes. It's a comedy about trying to find hope and life in the face of death.
I'm so lucky to be working with Phoebe and James. They're both so talented, funny, and they just truly believe in the show. I started with a script and both Phoebe and James and their heads of development, Jose Acevedo and Brett Pirtle, have been instrumental in guiding the project. They're a dream team.
How did the Television Academy Foundation Internship impact your career?
It was absolutely incredible; it boosted my confidence! In 2004, I interned in Drama Development at CBS. I came from North Carolina. I was studying at a small school called Wingate University, majoring in English and Communications. I wanted to get into television, but I didn't have any connections at all. I found the internship, applied and was chosen! I believe I found out about it online.
At first, I had this idea of what an internship would be. I thought I would be getting coffees and doing things like that, but this internship was so much more. I was allowed in the room with the executives during pitching season to hear the pitches and I was privy to when they were making decisions. It was a huge privilege and they were very kind to me.
All that summer we were seeing pitches and it was amazing to be in the room for those. They even allowed me to put together a pitch for my own spec. I spec'd Nip/Tuck and it was great, but I was terrified. I was terrified all the time!
Did you always know you wanted to be a television writer?
I always wanted to be a writer; I just didn't know what kind I wanted to be. I loved shows like Saturday Night Live and Conan. They had a huge impact on me as a kid. With the dream of becoming a writer came a lot of doubts, because I had no role models in my town in North Carolina. I didn't believe in myself or that I could make this dream happen, but at my internship, they took me seriously and validated me. They helped me to lean towards comedy and to realize that I really wanted to be a comedy writer.
You eventually got to work on Saturday Night Live, how did that opportunity come about?
I had been in NYC for seven years when I was hired on SNL. I was working in advertising and performing for an improv and sketch theater. I was putting on The Dead Dad's Club. I was establishing my voice in comedy and doing little jobs here and there. In 2016, I heard about a packet call that SNL was doing, where you submit all your best monologues, jokes and sketches so they can get a sense of your writing. I submitted about four of my sketches and later I received an invite to come in for an interview which was mind-blowing! I couldn't believe I was at 30 Rock. I interviewed with the head writers at the time, got the job and worked there for two seasons, including during the 2016 elections. A lot was happening and so much needed to be said. It was my first year as a writer and I got to write a sketch with Dave Chappelle, who was there on election night and generous with his time. I also got to work with Melissa McCarthy, who is one of my personal heroes. Overall a great experience.
How do you handle writing comedic jokes about sensitive topics on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee?
We should be thoughtful about the things we put out there and I don't think I will always get it right... but I do try, and I think we should all try to think about how our jokes will be perceived, and how it will connect with someone. You shouldn't make jokes that are hurtful to people because I think there's a responsibility there. We can be creative in new ways to make different jokes. On Samantha Bee, we cover political issues and issues of identity. I try to be mindful about how people really feel about things, and that involves being open to learning too. I might not have always known about something coming from a small town, I might not have learned about every layer of life. I think it's about being mindful of the words we say; they have a lot of power. I know how it feels when jokes are hurtful to me and I don't want anyone else to feel like that.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers, particularly recent graduates who are trying to navigate such uncertain times?
I know 2020 is an experience and it is completely different. Have faith that this experience will be helpful to your career. I know it is not what you expected but that's the industry. You'll have to learn to adapt to the unexpected. It is not linear. You'll have moments where you have great success and then it will get quiet and full of rejection and uncertainty. Just know that the right thing happens at the right time. Trust that as long as you're doing the work, you'll be OK.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.