Word of mouth used to make or break a comedian. Sure, people still flock to a place like The Comedy Store on any given night, but there’s now that expectation that comes with it of “Who’s going to drop in?” And while there’s an air of excitement to that and it’s certainly a great way to see your favorite comics, that’s only something that became a talked about thing within the last few years.
There was a time, way back when, when those who populated a place like the Store didn’t have anything to offer but their jokes (certainly not a household name). The destination was the act, not the name. Nate Bargatze sort of harkens back to that time of having a career built on word-of-mouth, having been championed by the likes of Jim Gaffigan, Marc Maron, and Jimmy Fallon. This is something he even talks about in our interview.
When you watch Nate, a Tennessee native who currently resides there as well, onstage, he has this ease to him. He is a true stand up, completely committed to the pureness of the craft and the form. There are some people who may rely more on certain things that are meant to enhance their special and make it funny, and it does work well for many, but that’s not his thing. For Nate Bargatze, it’s all about the words he says on that stage. As a storyteller, he conveys this nuanced cadence that allows the audience to trust him while also slightly doubt him at the same time. There’s something to be said about that subtle Southern charm while not ever going out of his way to exude it. It’s hidden under his dry wit, but it’s there.
In his newest special, The Tennessee Kid, we get a front row seat to the master at work. He spans a variety of topics here about his family wedding rituals, analyzing what is the proper thing to do with a decaying horse, getting trapped in a football stadium, having to tell his daughter about the family’s dead dog and more stories about having a clown as a father. One of the most inspired bits of the special comes towards the end, when he offers a continuation of some things he said in his last special, and basically retells those stories with the new twist. It doesn’t give off that feeling that he’s run out of material so much as there’s just so much more he has to stay, he can’t sit still and quiet about it. It’s almost like seeing the brain at work, shouting “No wait! There’s more you have to say!” And yet somehow, it all manages to sustain this natural flow.
We recently spoke to Nate about the new special, why he chose Georgia, his feelings on the new streaming culture with stand-up, his ABC pilot, how his voice has evolved over the years, and how he wants to be remembered.
What made you want to do the special in Georgia?
I hadn’t been to Atlanta in a very long time, so that was kind of a main reason. I was kind of thinking Atlanta or Dallas. And then I just went to Dallas at the beginning of 2018, right before we taped the special. So Atlanta, I hadn’t been there in a long time so I thought it would be a good place to go. Somewhere where I think people would be excited, they haven’t seen me in a while. So that was really the big decision. Picking a place that is a good place for comedy and a place that I haven’t been and it kind of just came together and it wound up being Atlanta.
I don’t think people realize how much thought goes into even the smallest decisions, like where to film the show.
No. Like I live in Nashville and so I would like to do a special in Nashville. But the hard thing is I end up performing a lot in Nashville. So when you look for a venue to shoot a special, you want to be positive that nobody’s heard this stuff. So yeah you’ve got to really think about where you haven’t been. You can’t go somewhere and be like “Well, I was already doing some of this material.” You want it to be fresh eyes and ears. You have to really think about it. Pick a place that’s got a good venue that looks nice and you think people will be excited.
How would you describe the Nashville comedy scene?
It’s great. I’m not in it as much as like New York, because I started in New York, so I was very much in it. But I do know that there are a lot of very funny comics in Nashville. Comics are moving here to start comedy. The Zanies comedy club here is an A club. And then they have some other little rooms, some clubs are popping up. So it’s very nice to see it coming together, and they have some really funny comics. When I was here a long time ago there was a group, it just wasn’t as big. And now I do go out, like if I’m doing The Tonight Show and I’ve got to run that five minutes, I will usually go bounce around. And it’s just crazy to see all these comics, people you don’t know, just how young comics are, early 20’s it’s really coming together. I hope Nashville can keep it rolling and hopefully become like an Austin or a Denver, one of these scenes that have gotten to be really big scenes.
You made the leap two years ago from Comedy Central, where you did your first hour, over to Netflix with your half hour special. What was that transition like?
It was great. There’s some people I dealt with, like JoAnn Grigioni was at Comedy Central at the time when I did my special and she was at Netflix, too. Now she’s at FX. So that was great, she’s been there for both hour specials and that helped. And it’s interesting. I don’t ever have any trouble with jokes and cursing or anything, but my problem can be I mention Starbucks or things like that, it can be brand places. And sometimes Comedy Central was like “You can’t say some stuff.” So it’s really nice with Netflix, you just do your jokes like you do on the road. Netflix is amazing, The Standups [his half hour Netflix debut] changed my life. More people started coming out. It was a mix of just being around for a long time, but I think a big leap was The Standups. And it’s nice to do one on my own.
You get to that point in your career where it’s like you’re always kind of doing stuff that is apart of things. Even shows you do and festivals you’re a part of stuff. So you do hit a point where you’re like “I want to go do my own. I want to be my own thing.” And that’s what this hour really felt like. It was like “Okay, this is the first hour. You’ve got some pressure on it. Standups did pretty good so you want this to be just as good and not be a letdown.” So I felt a shift in my career, taking that next step, whatever it is, whether it’s bigger or it all falls apart.
Right. And the idea of the stand-up specials, because there are now so many platforms, has evolved massively. Do you ever feel like there’s now too many specials? Is it hard to stand out?
That is something that comics think about and there’s just so many different platforms that you can do specials at. So yeah, it’s very hard to stand out. You just hope that what you do is what makes you stand out. And you know, with all the specials that come out, your biggest fear is you do a special and no one sees it. Because they just missed it. It’s the thing that’s just out of your control. You hope people watch it and you hope it gets talked about. Word of mouth is still a very big thing. That’s something you just hope you get a hold of and they keep on talking about it. People saying “You’ve got to watch it.” I know when I do a lot of shows, people bring people who’ve they introduced to me. So like I say onstage “I know there’s a lot of people here who have pressure as much as I do because they’re like “This guy’s really funny,” and then if I’m not funny the friend is like “Never listen to them ever again.” So word of mouth is a very old school way of thinking, so it is neat to still have that old school mentality. And the greatest thing about Netflix is that it’s up there. You don’t know when people are going to find it, but it’s nice that you can be like “Hey, go watch it right now.” You’re not like “Wait ‘til this day.” My Comedy Central special came out on the night of the Mayweather/Pacquaio fight. So I’m not up against that. I didn’t even watch my special, I watched the fight.
I want to jump around a bit. Was your first time doing stand up in Chicago? I know you studied at Second City here.
Yeah, I took classes at Second City, an 8-week course. And they have like a year-thing. So I was with a buddy of mine and we moved from Nashville. And he wanted to go to Second City, so I started at Second City. And it’s not like I have improv skills or something like that. I realized right after doing a course “I really want to focus on doing stand-up.” So I took a class with a guy named Jim Ross. So I got into stand-up and my buddy wound up staying and doing a full year at Second City. I was in the city for 2 years and everybody was new. Hannibal [Buress], Pete Holmes, Kumail [Nanjiani], T.J. Miller. A lot of guys that were all starting out and we were all brand new. And then I moved to New York from there.
Do you feel like having a background in improv helps improve one’s stand-up?
It wasn’t bad to do it was so long ago. It was like a good introduction to comedy, taking that class. Realistically I should’ve done it the full year. It was almost too good. I already wanted to do stand-up, but that just reassured it. Like “Yeah, I want to do stand-up.” I like the idea of creating my own jokes and stuff. But obviously Second City is big and even being a part of something with all the pictures on the wall [of alumni] you just felt like you’re in the heart of comedy going there. It was very neat.
Now I’m always curious to ask how do you feel like you style has evolved over the years?
It’s changed with time. A big part of it changes when you’re in the city like New York or Boston when you’re coming up, you’re only doing 10 minutes, 12 minutes, 15. So you learn how to get very tight and get rid of all the words, get to the joke the quickest. And you learn how to kill onstage. That was a big deal. I kind of came in that class of you’re supposed to murder onstage. That’s what you do. So you learn how to do all that stuff. Then you start headlining, and when you headline you do an hour and it’s just such a different thing. I think one of the first clubs I headlined at, on the road, was back at… Chicago’s Zanies was the first club I ever went to, I got to host it. And it was one of the first clubs that I got to headline. When you first go do that, I would get tired. I would do the first 30 minutes and I would feel tired, the audience would feel tired, like kind of be over it. I was used to performing for 10 minutes and now I have to expand it. So once you start headlining and having to do more time, your jokes get a lot longer. You tell stories. I got into stories a little more and then mixed it in with jokes. You learn your voice and you learn what makes you funny. Not to be like so technical about it, it’s almost like taking the fun out of it. But you learn how to be funny. You learn what’s your thing that people laugh at and what you do. It all comes down to voice. For me it’s voice. I think some people have their voice quick, and then they have to learn to do jokes. I think I was on jokes first and then learned my voice.
I want to ask where are we at with the ABC pilot that got announced last year?
I don’t know. It’s still up in the air. There’s really no answer. I’m not even making it up. Developing TV is not always the most fun. You just get no answers. You can sometimes get no answers at all. I’ve done shows where it’s not like anybody came back and went “No, it’s not happening.” You just stop talking about it. And then that’s the “No.” Right now I don’t know. There’s really no answers for it. Maybe it can happen somehow, maybe it can’t. It’s one of those where it can work out or in 6 months I can go “Now it’s completely over.” Right now it’s still in the middle ground. We should have an answer, they’re making pilots right now. But we don’t have that answer, so it’s cool. Dragging. That’s something I like with stand-up is nobody can take that from you. That’s the saving grace. At least you have something to go to. I can still make jokes, I can still tour. That’s the wonderful thing about doing stand-up.
Was acting something you actively aspired to do at some point?
I don’t know. I think you have your dream of “I want to be like Seinfeld or Ray Romano.” Ray Romano’s got an unbelievable career of stand-up, then had a big monster TV show, now doing very cool acting stuff. You think you want to do all the stuff. I’m always pretty open to “Yes, I think I want to do it,” but then I could end up going “I don’t want to do this at all. I just want to do stand-up.” I think we’re in a world now where stand-up’s kind of exciting, I think people are finding it more than they ever had. Guys can just really be stand-ups. They don’t have to go do everything else. I’m a die-hard Seinfeld guy. Seinfeld I think was the original dream of doing a show like he had and now what he’s doing with his career.
The final thing I want to ask, and I always love asking this, is what would you say you want your legacy to be?
I think being known as being a great stand-up. To be a true stand-up comedian. To not be where people are like “Oh, he did stand-up?” That’s how they know you and that’s at the peak. So whatever I do with my career, I want stand-up to be the first thing. And then after that can be whatever else panned out, but it all came through stand-up. No one ever questions that you didn’t do stand-up. Not that they do, but you see sometimes with people they could not know someone’s a stand-up comedian and they are. So I think just being a stand-up. I always liked with Jay Leno while he hosted The Tonight Show, and Seinfeld too, they were always stand-ups. That’s what they do. They were stand-up comedians. That’s what it all came back to, that’s what it was about. Stand up is the thing that got me anywhere or anything, it all came through stand-up. So to be known as hopefully one of the better stand-ups and to stand out amongst a very crowded group of unbelievably talented people.
Nate Bargatze: The Tennessee Kid is now streaming on Netflix.