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Everyman Comic Nate Bargatze Celebrates 20 Years in Comedy

Photographs by Jim Wright

On a pretty cul-du-sac 25 minutes south of Nashville, Nate Bargatze lives in sprawling two-story brick house that doesn’t stand out. He’d owned the house for a couple years before the neighbors realized the man Jim Gaffigan told Esquire was “one of the top up-and-coming comics” and Marc Maron told Rolling Stone was “a comic who should be big”  lived down the street.

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Jim Wright for Variety

For the preternaturally likable comedian, whose template is the foibles of his own life, that’s the way he prefers it. Not one to crave the spotlight, the man whose “The Greatest Average American” Netflix special yielded a 2022 Grammy nomination for comedy recording is more than happy being just like his audience. 

The way he sees it: “I assume I’m like everybody in the audience, and I could be friends with everyone out there. We’re all the same. We all have relatives, families, lives. It’s human-to-human interactions, the same problems. Start there.”

Bargatze has been a comic for 20 years, and created a style uniquely his own by recognizing the humor in small things. But it also nails just about everyone else, too.

He makes it sound so simple. Two decades into a career in which the soft-spoken Everyman has created a world from musing about a life that could happen to any suburban 20-, then 30-something, he quietly carved out a profound space in comedy.

Two Netflix specials — 2019’s “The Tennessee Kid” and 2021’s “Greatest Average American” — are the tip of the achievements, alongside his 2015 special “Full Time Magic.” Beyond countless comedy festivals, he’s played numerous music fests, including Bonnaroo and South by Southwest.

His ability to get out there and mix it up makes Bargatze the kind of comic people want, or even need, to see. During the pandemic, he adapted, performing dates to people in their cars at drive-ins, stadium parking lots and at Universal Studios, where his latest special was filmed.

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Nate Bargatze photographed at Zanies Comedy Night Club, Nashville TN by Jim Wright for Variety Jim Wright for Variety

“It was important to him to get back out on stage and give his fans the gift of laughter,” says Nick Nuciforo, UTA’s co-head of comedy touring, of the unconventional approach to continue Bargatze’s growth during COVID. “We innovated and built a tour of drive-in movie theaters and socially distanced parking lot shows. That tour helped set up his Netflix special, ‘The Greatest Average American,’ which was shot outdoors at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. Nate was fully prepared and totally unfazed by the elements, which included several helicopters flying overhead while taping the special.”

Bargatze now has a film in development, a September special slated to be shot at the Celebrity Theater in Phoenix and his weekly “Nateland” podcast, billed as “all things comedy.” “Nateland” features the comic and friends musing on topics from aliens to candy, maps to hotels, deep diving into what could be termed “Nate Think.”

Anyone who watches Bargatze’s deeply personal comedy knows a great deal about him. He believes the less distance between the man onstage and the actual human creates the best connection. Not that he’s documenting every moment everywhere — “There’s something to be said for mystery. I like mystique” — but the slight kid from Brentwood, Tenn., isn’t shy about using real moments from his life, whether being yelled at by a clown (his father), being sent up by an Applebee’s waitress (his then co-worker, now wife) or pranking his friends (he has an infamous bit about rewrapping his friend’s burger with a bite out of it), front and center when he’s onstage.

The basics of Bargatze are simple. He went to DuPont Elementary in Old Hickory, Tenn., a school with around 300 in pre-K through fourth grades. He loved Vanderbilt sports, where his cousin was a coach and his mother worked in the ticket office. He moved to Donelson Christian Academy, where his father, a nationally renowned magician, had a day job teaching history.

“I could only go there because he was a teacher. We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “I was never in his class. But they called him ‘Mr. B’ and he’d do magic in the classroom. He also was in the TSSAA, which is the NCAA of high school sports where they do all the rules for the past 20 years. He’d do his magic show and motivational speaking about not drinking or doing drugs.”

Bargatze didn’t fall far from the tree. At age 5 or 6, he remembers telling his favorite joke to his father: “‘Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup,’ and the waiter says, ‘Don’t worry, the spider on the bread will get it.’” 

He never thought about being a comedian, stand-up or otherwise, but in high school, he made a group of friends laugh at a party and carried on for 30 minutes.

“The next weekend, we were with a different group of kids from another school. My friend said, ‘You should tell that story,’ ” he remembers. But this time, he bombed. “I thought, ‘It was doing so good before, how do I get them to laugh?’ [The kids from my school] filled in the blanks, so I realized the first thing to get people to laugh is connect with them.”

Joking that Donelson was “a blue-collar private school,” he references the 1985 Mazda 626 he drove as a 1997 graduate. “It was the oldest, not-cool car there. I called it ‘Old Blue,’ because it was. But that’s what makes you different; it’s more intriguing. I learned a lot of comedy is taking that side of how things are.”

His stint working at Applebee’s is a cornerstone joke of his earliest success. When he tells Laura Baines, the woman he would marry, that he wants to be promoted to waiter, she teases him about dreaming big. Eventually, he moves on to  meter reader at the water company. 

Bargatze, who recently realized he’s dyslexic, says: “I worked for the county. I had great benefits. I wasn’t the best at school, so this was a solid job you can have for the rest of your life.”

Except the kid raised by the clown/magician/motivational speaker had seen the world through a much different prism. As a high school senior he was asked where he would be in 10 years: “I said, ‘I’d play Zanies,’ and it was kind of a joke.

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Nate Bargatze’s low-key, observational style has made him a star on the stand-up circuit. Greg Gayne/Netflix

“But if you say it, a lot of stuff happens. You put it out there, and …”

While still dating the sassy Applebee’s waitress, he heard about comedy college in Chicago. It seemed crazy, but why not? He’d never had a job he couldn’t come back to, so he and his friend Michael Clay took the leap. Looking back, he recognizes their motivation.

“You’re making people laugh. The joy is a gift you’re giving with that relief. … There’s really not much better.”

Class met once a week. Eight-week sessions. All people trying to figure out how jokes work, timing, tension. “Every Wednesday, you’d show up. Then the Lion’s Den on a Monday at first, then Tuesdays, Wednesdays, trying to get spots.”

Initially, waiting tables shaped his approach to making people laugh. Dealing with customers taught “a sense of urgency, because you’re solving the needs of the people at the table. Everything gets put on you, in terms of their experience. Doing comedy, I can put the weight of the world on me. … In my stand-up, everything will go wrong in my world. That’s fine. I can make it funny.”

Hosting a weekend as a fill-in at Zanies in Chicago led to gigs at Zanies Nashville, which paid for trips home. Eventually, New York City beckoned. Bargatze made the move and became more aware of the differences on that highly competitive circuit.

“At that point, I was obsessed,” he confesses. “I tell people you have to be obsessed. With obsession, you don’t give up.”

Working as a barker for the Boston Comedy Club, handing out fliers and trying to get people inside in exchange for stage time, he marveled when comics such as Dave Chappelle — then at his peak — dropped in and people on the street wouldn’t believe him. “You’d say, ‘It’s three steps up, just look.’ It was crazy.”

Bill Burr, Patrice O’Neal and Brian Regan were starting to hit. Hannibal Buress and Pete Holmes were circling, too. If a 2007 Country Music Television special didn’t help, a 2008 “Conan” slot, plus the Just for Laughs Festival began to move the needle for Bargatze. “I figured I can make $20,000 a year doing stand-up. If I can make what I’m making at Applebee’s … why not?”

Reading Jerry Weintraub’s “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead,” Bargatze decided to make the move to L.A. “[Weintraub] always knew any time he was feeling comfortable, it was time to make a change. I could play everywhere, do spots at all the clubs.

“New York taught me the tightness: you never want to be too far from the laugh,” he continues. “The farther you get from the laugh, the bigger the laugh has to be. You learn to stay close to the laugh.

“In New York, it’s just be funny, make the jokes and get the laugh. You have to win them over immediately, where in L.A., they’re gonna go with you more. L.A.’s your crazy aunt, saying, ‘Follow your dreams. Write your screenplay. Start a podcast.’ In New York, it’s more ‘Why would you do that?’”

Being Southerna meant his observational style was different. He spoke slower, and being a craftsman, he really thought about his jokes — and he started catching ears. 

James Buck, former supervising producer on TBS’ “Conan,” says, “He’s a comic’s comic, who plays to the back of the room. There are jokes within the jokes, but even if the people don’t get all of them, they laugh. Like ‘The Simpsons,’ he writes for very, very smart people, but it works for everyone.”

Buck can still recall specific bits to the smallest detail, marveling at a 2013 booking in which his closing was reading a text exchange with his wife. 

“I was worried it wouldn’t have the energy, taking his focus from the people to his cell phone. But it came alive, seeing a man onstage reliving this ‘thing’ on TV. He’d gone out and was responding a little bit tipsy, only now he’s reading what he’d said. People weren’t used to it, so hearing the back and forth, it was so awkward and funny.”

That aw-shucks willingness to make himself the punchline is his secret sauce. He demurs a bit when asked about his gentler approach, in which delivery is more ruminative than full frontal. “If you try to match energy that’s not yours, it goes bad. I once tried to follow Rory Scovel at a comedy festival where he destroyed. I tried to do that, and it was like ‘What are you doing?’” he recalls. “I’m from the South: I talk slower, and people aren’t always used to that. I’m clean, don’t do sex jokes or drug jokes, so I’ve learned to work the opposite of what those folks are doing. In New York or L.A., they might be laughing at you — and in the middle of the country, they’re laughing with you. Either way, they’re laughing.”

He pauses. “At this point, I’d like to be a place people can go where they know this is what you get. With me, when the world’s too heavy, people can come and know you aren’t going to get an opinion. They just want to hear about the horse that’s not dead. A lot of people come up after shows, saying they’d been depressed and ‘You made me feel better.’

“What’s better than that?”

Nuciforo agrees. “The accessibility of his material to all audiences means he can play myriad gigs from corporate shows to state fairs, and everything in- between. It also translates to great ticket sales in major metropolitan areas as well as small towns across America. His comedy is universal, and his potential is limitless.”

Like Tyler Perry or Adam Sandler, Bargatze hopes his name can be a landing zone for people seeking an ironic look at regular life. He’s producing and directing a special for his friend Mike Vecchione (“I told him when I started I didn’t want people to think about me being clean, just funny. All he had to do was work clean”) and looking for more projects to develop.

With Brillstein Entertainment’s Alex Murray and Tim Sarkes helming the management side and UTA’s Greg Cavic and John Sacks on the talent side, plus Joseph Schwartz shoring up touring, 20 years in, there’s much ahead.

In a world where nice guys finish last, Bargatze smashes the rule. With zero irony, the comic who sold out the iconic Ryman so quickly they added two nights at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry says, “I never wanted to get in trouble with my parents, never wanted them to feel weird about them coming to see me. 

“I was always uncomfortable making people uncomfortable. I’d be sad if I made somebody feel bad. That would break my heart. I didn’t realize my purpose was to be a relief, but the people who come to my shows — all different backgrounds, political belief, ages, especially since the pandemic — you can feel the relief when you hear them laugh.”