The first time I saw Kristen Bartlett was in The Dead Dads Club, a show she wrote and performed with her husband, Jason Gore. Their fathers had died only months apart but, after dealing with some peculiar characters, they found a way to turn their grief into comedy. The sketches were as funny as they were touching. I left the theater and called my parents right away.
The Dead Dads Club performed to sold-out audiences at Upright Citizens Brigade in Chelsea, and went on to sell out special engagements in Los Angeles and Montreal.
Kristen’s sometimes dark, comedic voice served her well during her first year with Saturday Night Live, a season that helped the country laugh during difficult times. The show would go on to earn 22 Emmy nominations, a new record for the late night institution.
As Kristen gears up for her second season with SNL, I spoke with her about her journey to writing for the show, her love for sad, tragic characters, and why you need people in your life who can make a good casserole.
Could you give me a snapshot of what your life was like before coming to New York? Where did you grow up?
I’m from Black Mountain, North Carolina, a small town outside of Asheville. It was a very beautiful place to grow up – kind of artsy, kind of rural. When I was a kid, it was pretty boring, so we had to make our own fun. For me, that meant engaging in lots of teen girl drama. I was always writing – short plays and sketches, poems, novels that were derivative of Dawson’s Creek. Immediately after I left, Black Mountain became a super hip beer town where everyone wants to live.
And then college?
I graduated from Wingate University, a tiny Baptist college outside of Charlotte – I am not religious, but I am spiritual in that I subscribe to Oprah magazine. There were 2,000 students total, and I became friends with my English professors because I’m a real big school nerd. My junior year, I applied for an internship from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. They have a fantastic program targeting students who have zero industry connections, and they pay a stipend that covers living expenses in Los Angeles. Price Hicks, the internship director at the time, told me she picked me because she’d never heard of Wingate and thought I needed the help.
I interned at CBS in Drama Development, working for Nina Tassler, Laverne McKinnon, and Christina Davis. It was my first time living on my own in a city, and I drove around in a ‘94 Acura from Rent-a-Wreck, which is the only place that will rent cars to 20-year-old idiots. I’m not a great driver, and I wrecked it even more by accidentally driving it into a parking meter in Hollywood. One day, Laverne called me into her office and said that she felt that I was unhappy interning in development. I thought that I was about to be fired, but then she said that she recognized that I was a writer and wanted to help me pursue that. She and Christine encouraged me to spec an episode of Nip/Tuck, and then, at the end of the summer, I did a mock pitch with them. It was a very big deal to have these two genius TV executives validate a dream I wasn’t even ready to take seriously, so I definitely owe them lunch.
When did you decide to move to the city?
I was a working class kid, so it was imperative for me to get a job right out of college. I worked at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta doing Standards & Practices. I wanted to live in New York or LA and I still had a dream to write, but I had to support myself first. Eventually, CBS offered me another S&P job in New York, so I moved up with my husband, Jason Gore. Jason knew about UCB classes, and it was something he really wanted to do, and he wanted me to go with him. I flat out refused to take an improv class – that was way too intimidating – but I agreed to do a sketch class. We took Sketch 101 with Adam Conover. I’d go to class each week with an idea I thought wasn’t funny, and he would patiently encourage it, and then suddenly I fell head over heels for UCB and took every sketch and improv class I could.
Was UCB what first drew you to comedy writing?
What’s kind of funny is that I always had a half idea to be a comedy writer, but I had no idea of how to pursue it. There just aren’t a lot of comedy writers in Black Mountain and there was no one around telling me what to do. I religiously recorded Conan and SNL, and I never missed a Rosie. But it really wasn’t till I started taking classes at UCB in 2009 that I began taking it seriously.
Do you think if you had known how to pursue comedy earlier, you would have done things differently?
I wouldn’t change a thing about any of it, because I’m proud of having real non-comedy life experience. I know how to work in an office. I’ve had to use a fax machine. I know how to cook and budget and raise a dog. I’m also really glad I pursued comedy with Jason, because I think he’s truly, deeply, madly funny, and I love writing for him.
Everyone I’ve spoken with says the most important part of their career was making connections with other people. Who were your mentors and allies and how did they help you?
Pretty early on, Jason and I formed the sketch team Bridge & Tunnel, and every person who ever worked on that team supported me and helped me grow. Aaron Burdette directed us brilliantly for years and helped me discover how much I liked pulling comedy from real life. When I was fresh out of Sketch 201, Leslie Meisel graciously agreed to act in my sketches, even though they were bad and I was making her come to Jersey City to film them. Josh Patten coached my improv team, made it fun, and didn’t raise an eyebrow when I bullied him into following me back on Twitter. Michael Hartney directed my show The Dead Dads Club at UCB, and without him, it wouldn’t have been anything close to what it was. Shannon O’Neill took a chance on me by giving it a run and putting me on Maude night, where I worked with Kate Sidley and Nicole Conlan who became heroes. Eric Cunningham hired me for my first writing job, which was just a day, but I left walking on air. Years ago, Julie Klausner gave me advice on handling rejection that I still think about every week and last year, she put me in her show. Every Tuesday, Jason produces The Best Show and I just hang out trying to get a free slice of pizza, and then Tom Scharpling drops some sort of life-changing piece of knowledge on me.
There are many more, and no one succeeds on their own. When my dad died, my mother’s church really reached out and supported her. They brought over meals, they called her, they showed up. I had this moment of sadness, thinking I would never have that, because I spend my Sundays watching In the Kitchen with David on QVC. But the truth is, these people are my church, and if I ever have to get a hysterectomy, I hope some of them know how to make casseroles.
Did you have a moment where it clicked? That you could do comedy for a living?
There was a point when Bridge & Tunnel started selling out shows – a far cry from one of our first shows on St. Patrick’s Day when we performed for for two of our friends and one drunk stranger – and certainly when The Dead Dads Club got a run that felt very much like we were on the precipice of something.
Then, in the spring of 2016, Kate Sidley and I started writing for A Prairie Home Companion, and it was the first time I realized I could live on what I was earning from freelance and directing without a day job. I didn’t quit the day job, though, because I’m a maniac.
You managed to find humor even during hard times in your show Dead Dads Club. Could you talk about how to write funny even when the world doesn’t feel like a funny place?
Jason and I spend a lot of time making each other laugh, and when his dad died after struggling with alcoholism, it was natural that humor would be our coping mechanism. Also, a lot of funny things just happened, and because we are freaks, we were maybe able to laugh at them immediately instead of after waiting a respectable time. Like, Jason’s dad died the same day that Patrick Swayze died. And because his feelings about his dad were so complicated with anger, he found himself feeling more purely sad about losing Patrick Swayze. When we met the funeral director (that I’d found on Yelp), the guy was 91, grumpily ready to die, and clearly jealous that Jason’s dad had died young at 54.
When my parents came to visit us, they took us to lunch. We sat around, barely touching our food, because at that moment, Jason’s dad was being cremated. My dad tucked into his buffalo shrimp quesadilla and said, “You know they say it takes fat people less time to be cremated.” I asked why, unsure if he was making a joke, and then he said, “Because of the grease.” Not missing a beat, Jason responded, “Well, Dad was an alcoholic, so he probably exploded.” Then, four months later, my dad died, and I had my own nightmare journey that capped off with my Aunt Rita filming the funeral on her FlipCam and literally shoving it in my face for a reaction shot.
It took years before I was able to write about it, but when I did, the experience of being vulnerable and raw made me develop a love for writing dark, sad characters. I think seeing someone react honestly to something terrible that has happened is very funny. Like, I will still laugh so hard at “Grape Lady Falls,” even though I know it’s mean, and it’s only a matter of time before I, too, fall out of a grape-stomping tub. Also, I can’t tell you how many times Anna Drezen has looked over my shoulder at what I’m writing and said, “Kristen, no, that’s too sad.”
When you found out you were hired on SNL, what was the experience like?
I was in the car with Jason when I got the call from Chris (Kelly) and Sarah (Schneider), and I immediately started thinking about logistics, asking when we were starting – because I had to quit my day job and three different projects at UCB and Prairie Home and I needed like a cute haircut and cool back-to-school clothes and to Marie Kondo my apartment. It didn’t really hit me until days later, and then it kept hitting me again and again for the next year.
Now that you’re getting ready for your second year, what have you taken away from your first?
I learn something new every day, because everyone there is a genius – the cast, the writers, the crew, costume designers, the producers. Two things I learned (and am still learning): 1. Ask for advice. Everyone is so generous with their time and knowledge, and they’re experts at what they do. 2. Trust your gut. You have to learn to take direction from people who know way more than you do, while also trusting yourself and why you think something’s funny.
For other writers trying to make a career out of comedy, what advice do you have for them? What, from all your experiences so far, do you feel you could teach them?
Always be absorbed with writing or making something that you’re passionate about. No matter what happens, you’ll be happy and fulfilled right where you are, and you’ll have no time left over to waste worrying about what other people are doing.
Also, don’t feel guilty about taking cabs. It’s hot and you’re tired, and you deserve it!
Nick Jack Pappas is a comedy writer, standup, and activist in New York City. You can follow his political rants on Twitter @pappiness.