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Comedy Interview: Nate Bargatze

Grant Walters Grant Walters Comedy Interview: Nate BargatzePhoto courtesy Nate Bargatze
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The acclaimed headliner and star of Netflix's "The Tennessee Kid" stops in Columbus with his new "One Night Only" tour Saturday night.

In The Tennessee Kid, his most recent comedy special that arrived last year on Netflix, Nate Bargatze doesn’t even have to finish the opening line of the show before his unaffected deadpan triggers laughter from the audience. His material is folksy and strongly relatable, to be sure, but it’s his marvelously unpretentious deadpan, his ace, that leaves you giddily anticipating each next bit.

Tennessee native Bargatze moved to Chicago in 2002 to enroll in improv classes at The Second City, which he eventually left to try his hand at stand-up comedy. Two years later, he headed east to New York, where he would remain as a working comic for the next eight years. 

Bargatze frequently discusses following his father, Stephen, into showbusiness, a former clown turned world-class magician whose influence is evidenced in Bargatze’s first full-hour special, 2015’s Full Time Magic, and his debut comedy album, Yelled at By a Clown, which came a year later and landed at number one on Billboard‘s Comedy Albums Chart.

With six appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, four turns on Conan, and a recurring guest stint on @midnight, Bargatze became a regular fixture on the small screen. In 2011, he received his own Comedy Central Presents feature spot. In July 2017, he performed an acclaimed half-hour set for Netflix’s The Standups.

Off-screen, Bargatze joined Jimmy Fallon’s Clean-Cut Comedy Tour in 2013, and has done live shows for the troops in Iraq and Kuwait five times. In addition to touring the country as a headliner, Bargatze supported Chris Rock on his 2017 Total Blackout Tour. He regularly performs at Bonnaroo, SXSW, Oddball Comedy Festival, Sasquatch, Clusterfest, and the Just For Laughs Montréal Comedy Festival, where he’s received critical praise multiple years in a row.

Bargatze was featured as one of Esquire‘s “Best New Comedians” by Jim Gaffigan, one of Marc Maron’s “Comedians to Watch” in Rolling Stone, one of Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” for 2015, and as the number one entry on Vulture‘s “50 Comedians You Should Know” list in 2015.

The coronavirus pandemic has been inordinately unkind to performers who rely on live performance as their bread-and-butter, but a handful of comedians have pursued outdoor venues for limited tours this fall that aim to keep everyone involved at a safe and comfortable distance while still being able to enjoy a much-needed respite. Bargatze has mapped out his own One Night Only tour, which will hit eighteen cities throughout the month of October. On Saturday night, he’ll stop in Columbus for two shows at the South Drive-In.

I caught up with Bargatze yesterday morning for a phone interview as he prepped for his fifth appearance on the tour in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and we spent time chatting about his upcoming shows and his new podcast, Nateland, that debuted in July. 

It’s really great to see you on the road again. Tell me what it’s been like assembling a tour in which you’re using venues that don’t typically host stand-up comedy shows.

“I mean, the preparation…everything’s regular in terms of writing jokes and getting to these gigs. All that’s the same. But performing, yeah, that’s what’s different. We’ve done a couple shows…like the one we’re doing tonight is in a parking lot under a tent, like, outside. So, some of them can be like that, and then you have your drive-ins. They’re both cool in their own way. These ones, you can hear the audience laugh a bit more, but at the drive-ins it’s a little harder to hear people laugh. If they sit out of their car, you can kind of hear the people up front. You’ve just got to trust and hope the show’s going good when you can’t hear them [laughs]. But it’s very cool, it’s very cool to come to these drive-ins. We get there in the morning, and you’re just kind of there by yourself all day and night until the show. Which is kind of neat.”

I know you work particularly hard on the timing of your set. When you don’t have the intimacy with your audience that a comedy club would usually provide, how does that impact how you deliver your material?

“Yeah. I mean, so, last night I could kind of hear the crowd. So, your timing kind of goes from when you hear some laughter – maybe there’s a beat after that you’re kind of waiting. Because I’m…and I’m going to jump ahead, but I’m hoping to tape a special at the end of this, so I’m trying to time my set out for that. And so it’s interesting to do it, and then you’ve got to kind of slow yourself down a little bit – and that’s where that trust is where you’ve got to go, ‘Alright, if I’m going to stay somewhat true to the timing of me being in an audience, I’ve got to sit there in the quiet and trust they’re laughing.’ I hope they’re laughing [laughs]. I could be way off, who knows?”

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

“Uh, it’s definitely been different. You know, I’ve definitely hit points of realizing, ‘I’ve just been at home.’ I like to golf, so I’ve been golfing all the time. Which is fun, but then you’re also, like, ‘I gotta do something, man!’ That’s where the podcast came in. You just try to be somewhat creative, and you don’t want to come out of it and feel like you’re behind, you know? I didn’t want to come out of it and be, like, ‘I didn’t do anything during this weird time in the history of earth. I should’ve done something.’ You don’t want to come out and have things be worse. So, getting to do these drive-ins and doing the podcast, I’m trying to at least just improve a little bit.

“But it’s definitely hard. You get down and you have days when you get depressed where you’re like, ‘Ah! What’re we doing?’ Everything stopped. That’s the weird part. My career…where my career was at, it was going great. We were doing theaters, we were moving up, and everything was kind of moving forward. And then it halts – but it halts for everybody. It’s definitely just a weird time, and you’ve gotta get used to it. It’s great being on the road now. I feel like we’re back, you know? Back to doing something.”

Most of the podcasts I listen to are hosted by comedians, so I love that you’re in the mix now, too. What was the impetus for starting Nateland this summer?

“It felt like it was time with this COVID thing. I mean, I’d always thought about just going and doing it, but then you get busy. So with COVID, I thought, ‘Well, we might as well do it now.’ Doing it, I think it’s fun to be funny – it’s good to be funny. As a comedian, we do need to be funny and be funny a lot. It’s what helps you be funny. And during this time, this pandemic, you were having long stretches where you felt like you weren’t cracking jokes or just being funny. So starting this podcast was a big part of that.

“But it was also to do something to just give people a break. If someone does want to listen to a comedy podcast, they can have one that’s not so political or topical, or that talks about the world’s problems. You can have one that’s a break for your own mental health, and just watch something else and laugh at something that’s dumb and doesn’t matter. That’s what our podcast is.”

In one of the episodes, you answered a question from one of your listeners about when someone should make the decision to pursue stand-up comedy as a full-time career. When was the moment for you when you thought, ‘Yeah, I think I can do this for a living without a safety net?’

“Mine was…I’m trying to think. I stopped working…I mean, I was married, and that was a great help, and she had a job. So I was able to stop a little bit before I would’ve had to if I wasn’t married. But I always look at it as when I start making as much money as I would waiting tables [laughs]. That was, like, all you were trying to get to. I do think some guys quit too soon, and it’s hard, and I get it. But you want to say ‘I’m a full-time comedian.’ That’s your first really big goal as a comedian. But, yeah, I probably haven’t worked in…I’d say it’s been or 13 years, or something like that, since the last job I had.

“I imagine this is all gonna fall apart, and I’ll be back to work, so…but as of right now, I’m not working [laughs].”

[laughs] Mmm…I think you’re going to be okay. So, let me ask about The Tennessee Kid, which is one of my favorite hours of stand-up. What did that special change for you as a comedian?

“For me, what it’s changed is that people are coming out to specifically see you, which is new. I mean, now, I guess it’s been a year, year-and-a-half…right before that I had a half-hour on Netflix [The Standups], and you could have about half the audience know who you are, and the other half doesn’t. And that’s how it goes as a comic, you slowly build up as you fill the audience. After The Tennessee Kid, you switch to, ‘These people are really here to see you.’ And that’s another gigantic goal that you have in comedy is to be able to do that.

“Then it starts a new chapter of your comedy career where now people are super excited to see you. I feel like you can maybe get laughs a bit easier than before, because you’re not trying to prove yourself as a comedian. But, having said that, you have to be really funny because there are expectations that are pretty high. So you’ve gotta be above their expectations, and you have new challenge. But it’s amazing, you know? Having people come out to see you and know who you are…I mean, that’s it. That’s what you’re trying to do. Having The Tennessee Kid on Netflix has been huge for me.”

I agree. My wife and I drove from Columbus to Lexington, Kentucky last year just to catch you at Comedy Off Broadway because we loved The Tennessee Kid so much. Bouncing off of that, which comedian would you, hell or high water, make time to see?

“You know, I would say there are plenty…there’s [Bill] Burr, [Dave] Chappelle. Burr’s been one of the biggest ones for me just watching him kind of come up. I mean, he’s older than me, but I got to watch his rise as comedian.

“But for me to go pay to see someone…we’d always talk about ‘Who’d you go pay to see?’ And mine would be Dave Attell, who used to host Insomniac on Comedy Central. But Dave Attell, he’s not unclean, he’s not clean, but he’s just…it’s pure jokes. He’s the funnest comic for me to watch – you’re gonna die laughing the whole time, and he’s just very joke heavy. He’s my guy that I could go watch over and over again. We just want to see someone fun as comedians, so you just end up choosing the one that’ll be the craziest or funnest, and that’s who we want to see.

“Or, I would pay to watch any one of my comic friends just bomb [laughs]. There’s nothing better than going to watch your friends that you know are funny just really struggle on stage. So, if you could guarantee that for me, I would pay for that [laughs].”

You’ve been a stand-up comedian for almost 18 years now. What are you still learning about the craft, or about yourself as a performer?

“I think you’re learning how to be a show. I mean, at a comedy club, you’re part of the show. People may not know who you are, and you’re going up there…I feel like you’re doing a show. But now, you are the show. It’s, like, people got babysitters and all these things to come out. So, I’m learning how to be that show and how to create that act. My act is much different than it was back then. It’s longer, and you’re doing an hour, hour-fifteen on stage. The set is different and every joke gets a little bit longer.

“So it’s keeping that going, that level…that higher level than where you were. I can always tell…in this new hour, in every hour, I always have this one joke that I can’t figure out [how] make work. And then I realize, ‘Oh, it’s probably just gonna work in the next hour.’ It’s almost like that joke is above…it’s, like, ‘I don’t know how to do that yet. I don’t know how to tell that joke yet.’ [laughs] I’ll just say, ‘Ehh, I’ll just wait and probably figure it out in a year.’

“It’s just that. And trusting yourself on stage.”

Nate Bargatze’s “One Night Only” tour stops at South Drive-In, 3050 S. High St., on Friday, October 2. Tickets are $100-$225 per vehicle ($33-$50 per person), plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available here. The 7:30 p.m. show is sold out as of press time, but a limited number of tickets remain for the 10:30 p.m. show. Learn more about Nate by visiting his official website; following him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; or by subscribing to his YouTube channel.

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