In March of 2020, Nate Bargatze was gearing up for a year of touring in preparation for a new Netflix special that September. Everything was looking like it was falling into place. But as we all know, none of those things would come to be. Instead of what he had planned, which was a line of theater shows, Bargatze wound up taking to the road, playing socially distanced clubs and even a drive-in tour, making the best of a bad situation however he could.
All of this culminated in a new special, The Greatest Average American, that came out last week. As you watch the special, there’s no secret about when this was filmed. He mentions it sporadically. You see the audience with masks on. The fact that Nate is getting heckled by helicopters is only further proof. But with all of that being said, you quickly forget about all of the obstacles that Bargatze had to overcome just to make this special.
It may have been filmed during a pandemic, but it’s hardly a “pandemic special”. While he does address it, you’ll have no problem watching it 5 years from now and not feeling like it’s a time capsule or dated in any way. Just as his comedy has always had that relatable and universal element to it, much of where Nate’s new material takes us extends far beyond the moment that we’re currently in. It’s perhaps the first comedy special we’ve seen filmed post-March that feels like it can stand on its own. At its core, it’s just another killer f*cking hour from one of the hardest working comics we’ve got out there today.
We recently spoke with Nate Bargatze about his new special, how it came together, filming it at Universal Studios in Hollywood, gauging laughter (or lack there of) at drive-in shows, the evolution of his podcast, having a truck crash into his face, and the importance of bombing.
It’s been less than a year since we last talked in July. Back then, nobody knew when a special could be filmed again. And here we are a mere 8 months later, and you have a new special out.
I did not expect it. The plan was to have one come out. I‘m actually on track to what my original plan was, which was to have one come out. And I thought we would do it [last year]. But then once this COVID stuff hit, I was like “I don’t know if we’re gonna get to do it.”
It was kind of like quick. We were planning on doing it and they were finally went “Look. We’re gonna be able to do it with the proper tests and all that kind of stuff.” And I was like “Alright. Well let’s do it.” So it is very surprising that the special is coming out. (MAYBE CUT?)
How far out was the special before COVID hit?
So the original plan was, I was on your back in March when the COVID stuff hit. I would’ve just done all the theater dates and was planning on probably taping the special last September. And then COVID happened, everything got pushed, and I was like “Alright. Well I don’t know when I was going to tape the special.” And then we’re talking to Netflix about it and then it was just trying to find the time. No one knew an answer.
So I kind of at least had my hour done. I would’ve liked to have done more [shows] with it, just to get it all fine tuned and get it to where it needed to be. Then I set up 20 drive-in movie theater dates. Then they said “Alright. Let’s do the special after that.” And so I at least got to do those and at least do the hour like 20-something times. Normally I would’ve been doing 50-60 shows leading up to that special.
And tell me a little bit about the drive-in shows. It’s such a different dynamic. And I’m curious if you’re still able to help gauge and use the smaller amounts of laughter to help tweak the bits? Does that process change at all?
Yeah. At the beginning, you had to adjust to it. I was truly just thinking “Alright. Let me try to put on the best show. I know I’m not going to be able to hear them laugh.” I mean, some people would sit out front. Like they could sit right behind their cars. So you could hear a few of them. So that was at least some kind of rhythm. Sometimes they would honk and flash their lights. That was almost like their laugh or their response. So I honestly got a little used to that.
It was definitely hard to gauge. Like I have a joke about common core math. And that joke would sometimes hit pretty hard, just because there’s so many parents in the crowd. So when that one hit hard, I could tell. Not like in a normal way you could tell, but like a lot of lights flashing and horn honking. Almost like when you get an applause break. That was your applause break. So you just had to know that that was working out like that. You just had to trust it. Like “Alright. That’s what this response is going to be.” And you just kind of went from there.
And you would do the shows and just be in your own head, it was almost like doing a play. “Alright, I can’t really hear the crowd, but I need to try and keep my timing the same.” Because you’re typically going to go a little faster when you don’t have an audience.
And what were your expectations going into the shows?
I knew it was going to be tough, because you wouldn’t be able to hear the crowd. So I went into it just with the attitude of “Hey, I want to go see what these shows are. It’s a unique kind of thing.” Sometimes as a comic, you [hear] “This show is bad.” And then you’re like “Well, I want to go do it.” Because you just want to go feel how bad it is. I wonder how crazy it can be.
So with these drive-in’s, I went into it with this attitude of “Well, let’s go do it. I want to experience as much as I can.” People we’re not able to go out and do anything. And that was a time where it was getting pretty strict about what you can or can’t do. So I told every comic that came out with me on the road that opened “Look, you’re not going to get the laughs that you want. It’s just not ideal, but go do the best show that you can do. All it is is about them. It’s about making those people laugh and turning their brain off for an hour and a half so they can chill out and have a night out.” And you can tell that. You can tell that people were excited to go out.
And drive-in’s are very fun. It’s a throwback kind of thing. So I just went into it with that attitude. I didn’t go into it like “I can’t believe these shows are bad or good or whatever they were.” All of them were awesome. One we did in Chicago was 45 degrees and it was raining. And people were flashing their lights and honking. 500 cars. Flashing their lights, honking at you. I’ll be honest with you, it’s one of the shows that I remember the most of my career. I was just talking about it to someone. It’s almost like it’s the only way we could have our version of a Woodstock. Where you just kind of have this weird scenario and you’re doing this show. And you and the audience are having this personal “Can you believe we’re all here doing this? How crazy is this?”. So I went into it with that attitude. Just being positive. Because if you were going to be negative, it was going to be very easy to stay negative. Because some shows were tough and some were not. It wasn’t the most ideal situation.
By the way, one of the flashing lights at the Chicago show was mine. I was there that night. Anyway, there have been some comedians who have specials that came out or are coming out that were filmed at a drive-in. Was that something that you ever contemplated doing? Or did you shut the idea down right away?
Uh yeah. I don’t know. No one asked, but if it had gotten brought up, maybe? I didn’t want to do something where it’s like “Oh, it only works in that moment.” If we have to shoot a special different, I want in five years if someone turns it on, it doesn’t feel like it’s a time piece. I talk about COVID, you see the audience and they’ve got masks on, it was shot outside. But we tried to make it feel as normal to a regular special as it can be.
And I think it does. It doesn’t really pull you out of the moment. I really enjoyed the way in which you chose to address it, where you didn’t make it all about the pandemic.
Yeah. I definitely wanted to address it. I typically don’t get into too much timely material. So I just wanted it to be funny. It’s not too serious. It’s not trying to be like some big speech or something. Just make some jokes about it. You’re acknowledging what everybody’s going through, and then get into my regular act. And I may have brought it up in another story, but it was a real quick kind of thing. Make a good joke.
To me, that’s just what I like to do the best. I don’t know. Because we taped it in October. I knew by the time this comes out, A – We didn’t know what would be happening. Is everybody still living in crazy quarantine? Does it feel like now we’re getting back to normal and we’re opening back up? A lot of times people watch the special, they’re like “I don’t want to hear about COVID.” Then I’m like “Well, that’s all I talk about, so you’re not gonna like my special.” You just want to do a little bit up top, address it. I think comedians need to acknowledge that I am in this world, I understand that stuff is going on, and then move on and then get into my stuff that I already had before COVID.
Was there any reason behind wanting to film it at Universal Studios in California?
I mean nothing. That was Netflix. That was just where they had to do it. We were probably going to film it in Minneapolis. Say none of this happens, the plan would’ve been Minneapolis to go film it. But with COVID, you had to do it where they were telling you to do it. And they shot, I think London Hughes, her special was also shot at the same place. And so they had it set up and they could properly do it. So that’s where that came from. Them saying “If you want to tape a special, we can tape it here.” And it ended up being great.
It did help your The Simpsons ride story, though. It suddenly all felt full circle.
Yeah! You know, I never said what the ride was anywhere else. Because it was just too specific of a ride that I never did that. I love how stuff like that happens. After riding that ride, I’m never going to think “Oh. One day I’ll shoot a special here.” It just wouldn’t ever happen. And so for us to end up shooting that special at that ride, I could see it. And it fits in with the joke about having claustrophobia. I did like that. I like stuff like that. It just became funny like “God I can’t believe I’m doing it here. I was walking through this, not having any idea.” Life’s funny turns. It worked out.
It did. And going back to filming it outdoors, I can’t think of too many other instances of a comedian getting heckled by a helicopter. Was that something that was a common occurrence during the drive-in shows? Because it happened a lot during the special.
None during the drive-in shows. But we did have one in Cleveland where there was a train. So where the drive-in was, we’re on a stage, and you’d always perform underneath the big screen. And it’s this great Cleveland drive-in and they’ve got two screens, and the interstate is kind of right about it. What’s funny is the people on the interstate can actually see what movie’s playing. But there was a train that was next to the stage. And it was wasn’t like a slow train. So that’s a time where I got sort of “heckled” or the show would take a hit there.
But for the special, I didn’t even think about it. Like “Alright, there’s a lot of helicopters flying around.” I think there was a police chase, we found out later, during the taping of the special. So that’s why there was so many of them. And that’s why we kept hearing all of them. And so, at first, I wasn’t going to leave that in. But it ended up being pretty funny. It was funny, but then it was also a very real moment. So it was like “Let’s just leave it in.”
And if it just happened once, it’s sort of like “Well whatever.” But by the third time, it becomes almost comical that it keeps happening.
Yeah. That’s the one thing I am kind of curious about, to see if that made sense. Like if someone’s watching this and they have no concept of “Oh, Universal Studios and they’re outside.” So that’s why we left the four in and then the call back at the end with the one. Luckily it worked out. When we got done, I was like “I do want to try to leave those helicopters in if we can.” It just feels very real. You don’t always get to grab a real authentic moment sometimes in specials. But we were with this. And it fit with just the weird COVID times.
Jumping around a bit. Last time we talked, you had just started doing your podcast. How has it evolved since you started doing it last summer?
I think it’s evolved a lot. When we first started doing it, we don’t really know the format. And doing it now, we just recorded one today. [We’re at] 37 episodes, which is nothing in the podcast world. But doing it now, it’s A – Being funny and B – being in the moment. Just trying to make jokes. I love just being silly. That’s why our topics are just giving us something to talk about and something to make jokes off of. So we’re getting to make jokes about things that are not serious. So I’ve enjoyed it.
And I think it’s helping me onstage, too. Like it’s helping me because you get to learn how you are funny. Sometimes you think you’re funny because it’s like “Well, I write these jokes. And these jokes are funny. I know how to write these words.” But also, you need to be a funny person. So on the podcast, it’s all kind of coming off of the top of your head. So you’re kind of reconfirming to yourself “Alright. This is funny.” And then you hope to take that kind of energy to the stage where you can trust the joke and go off on a tangent because you know that you can still make it funny.
And I think we’ve got a good rhythm now on the podcast together. And it just continues to grow. I enjoy it. I didn’t know how long I’d want to do it, but I love doing it now. And it’s fun to do. Who knows what happens when the schedule gets crazy again, but right now, I love it. And I love being able to talk to the audience, too. Like that is one of the things that I like the most. That I can talk to the audience in real time. Whereas sometimes when you’re just doing specials, your relationship with the audience is just through the specials. And so it is nice to have a way to talk to them. Some people get upset about a joke or something and you can explain it and stuff like that. That relationship I like a lot.
I think it’s great that you were able to bring that to your audience, during a time when they needed it. And so, jumping around some more. Tell me where were when you found out that a truck crashed into your mural at Zanies? What is that moment like?
(Laughs). I think I was at a doctor’s appointment or something. I think I was getting a physical and I’m sitting in the waiting room. And someone was like “Have you been to Zanies?” or something. I was like “What?” It was a very weird thing. And then someone called me and was like “Hey, you should go to Zanies. A truck drove through your face.” And then the owner of the club texted it to me. And I just had no idea what was happening. It was unbelievable. It went through my face. It’s such a random funny thing.
And then I went down there. I was on the news. The news, they kept going live from Zanies. There was apparently not that much going on in the news that day. It was like all day. Like “Alright. We’re going to go back to Zanies to show the truck going through Zanies.” It was like a running thing all day. So I went down there and I did an interview with them on the news. But that guy who does it, he’s like so good. And we’re back up. We’re fully back and it looks good. I said “Let’s make me a little bit thinner on this next picture.” But they did shows that weekend, after he went through the wall.
The last thing I wanna talk about is, in your special, I love that you talk about bombing. And you don’t talk about an instance early on in your career, but something more recent. So it kind of shows up and coming comics that it doesn’t matter how good you are, nothing is ever guaranteed and you can still have a bad show.
Yeah. The option of bombing is always there. No matter how much you get known, unless you’re Seinfeld. But I’m sure he even has it. It doesn’t go away. It’s always there. And that’s what the beginning years are all about. Almost preparing you to bomb. You have way more good shows than bad shows. You should, at least. But it outweighs, the good shows you have. You have them so much. But these bombs are tough. You’re just in it and you’re just talking and it’s silent.
Like drive-in’s, you can’t hear them laugh, but you hear some people in the front or you see lights flashing. You know they’re having a good time. So then you can get through it. But when you’re in a room and I can see everybody’s face and they’re not having it, they’re not liking this, and then you’re trying to switch it up, it’s just the worst. So yeah. It can happen at all times. And all you can do is try to put yourself in at least the best situation for it not to happen. Still not guaranteed. But I feel like the older you get, you just get better at not getting put into situations that are bad. No one can not not bomb. That’s never going to happen. It’s where you bomb. That’s how you try to fix it, the older you get.