Staff Writer: Emily Werner
When someone says they went to Wingate, more often than not they’re pharmacists or nurses. Science majors are what Wingate is best known for, so the idea that an Emmy nominated head writer of a late-night talk show came from little ol’ Wingate sounds like a fairytale. But it’s not, it’s the reality for Kristen Bartlett.
Kristen Bartlett is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina. After a semester at UNC-Chapel Hill, she transferred to Wingate University. Bartlett majored in communications with an emphasis in journalism and public relations and minored in English. She remembers her time at Wingate fondly, “Chapel Hill was just too big. I was much more comfortable at Wingate.” She especially liked that professors actually connected with their students.
Bartlett always knew she wanted to be a writer, she just didn’t know how to start. She took writing classes with Dr. Sylvia Little-Sweat who soon became a sort of mentor. In her junior year, she applied for an internship with the Television Academy Foundation – an extremely selective internship that gives students real-life experience in specific categories of the television industry. Bartlett was accepted for the development category. “It was the only one I thought I had a shot at being accepted into,” she said.
The Academy placed her at CBS where she worked with their Senior Vice-President of Drama Development, Laverne McKinnon (who later co-created the production company responsible for Pitch Perfect). “I was chosen because they had never heard of Wingate. Going to a small school actually benefited me,” she recalls. McKinnon knew Bartlett’s true passion was writing, so she had her write a spec script for a medical drama called Nip/Tuck. Then, she got to practice pitching her script to real people in the industry, something aspiring tv writers could only dream of doing.
After graduating in 2005, Bartlett moved to Atlanta, GA, to work at TBS. Then, she moved to New York City to work at CBS. She took sketch-comedy classes at the famed Upright Citizens Brigade – an improv group turned training company founded by Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, and other now-famous comedic actors. This is where she really got her start in comedy. At UCB, she performed her show, The Dead Dads Club, to sold-out audiences. The show was created by Bartlett and her husband, Jason Gore, both of whom lost their dads within a few months of each other. Through the success of this show, she and Gore got to travel to Los Angeles and Montreal to perform.
She started submitting packets (a collection of writing samples) to late-night shows. This is how she landed a job writing sketches at Saturday Night Live in 2016. Throughout the two seasons she spent at SNL, she wrote many successful sketches amassing over 115.5 million views on the SNL YouTube channel. The first sketch she wrote on the show was a parody of Stranger Things. She and former SNL cast member, Sasheer Zamata, worked together to write this sketch and it shows. According to YouTube views, this is Bartlett’s second most popular sketch with 12 million views. The sketch Bartlett is most proud of is a parody of clothing commercials called CHONK. “CHONK was very personal to me,” she said.
Bartlett soon left Saturday Night Live. Although it was a good experience, the busy schedule and competitiveness were not for her. “You work nearly all day, every day,” she said, “…you’d be lucky to go home by 5:00 A.M. but most times you don’t leave until 9:00 A.M.” The week consists of pitching sketch ideas to the host on Monday and writing the entire show on Tuesday. Everyone reads through all of the scripts on Wednesday, and if your sketch is chosen, you meet with the director, props, hair and makeup, and costuming. “There are about 20 staff writers plus some guest writers, so there are weeks where you don’t have a single sketch make the cut. It’s very competitive.”
The whole show is rewritten on Thursdays and they block (arranging how the scene will physically be acted out) the sketches on Friday. Saturday is the busiest day of all. Rewrites happen all day, up until the final second before the show. There is a dress rehearsal at 8:00 P.M. and the live show is at 11:30 P.M. The week doesn’t end there, “There’s an afterparty after every single show. Sometimes there’s an afterparty to the afterparty, sometimes even an after-after-afterparty,” said Bartlett.
After leaving SNL, Bartlett headed over to Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, a late night talk show hosted by one of only two female hosts in all of late night television right now. She is a co-head writer with Mike Drucker, with a staff of 10. Everyone contributes to every single episode. The schedule is still busy, but host Samantha Bee advocates for a healthy work-life balance. “I also just really like working for women. It’s very different,” Bartlett said.
Since the show airs at 9:00 P.M. on Thursday nights, Bartlett’s week starts on Friday. The writers discuss their “act II’s” which are essentially updates on ongoing topics. On Monday, they do fact checks and have producer meetings. The bulk of the writing is done on Tuesdays, along with putting together what the acts will look like. Producers gather clips and transcribers, writers make an outline, and then they rewrite it all in Sam’s voice.
As head writer, Bartlett goes through everything that was written, assembles, and punches it up. On Wednesday, there is a read-through of the script with Bee. There is another round of fact-checking and making sure the jokes are right. Thursday is the day Bee films, the editors do all of the editing, Bartlett looks over the acts and makes final notes, and the final product airs at 9:00 P.M.
Unlike at Saturday Night Live, writers at Full Frontal get hiatuses throughout the year along with summers off. SNL only takes off for summer break and certain holidays. For her work, Bartlett earned herself five Primetime Emmy nominations and two WGA (Writers Guild of America) awards. She has proven that although Wingate is a science-focused school, it’s not the only thing graduates can succeed at. Bartlett has also proven that you can still make it big coming from a tiny school in North Carolina. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee airs Thursdays at 9:00 P.M. on TBS.