Nate Bargatze on Recording His Special and Playing Baseball With Pizza Boxes
Nate Bargatze has been on the cusp of stardom for a few years now. For a comic whose fanbase includes luminaries such as Marc Maron, Bargatze's act is much more approachable than his reputation might suggest. Affable and generally TV-clean, Bargatze has a playfully dark sensibility that's buoyed by innate comic timing and a Southern accent. He's appeared on Conan, Maron and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, who also featured Bargatze on his Clean Cut Comedy Tour. His debut album, Yelled at by a Clown, made it to the Billboard Top Ten Comedy Charts and he's toured extensively with the USO, performing for deployed troops in Iraq and Kuwait. Bargatze has already endeared himself to Denver crowds with a strong showing at last year's High Plains Comedy Festival; in advance of his upcoming headlining gig at the downtown Comedy Works, we caught up with Bargatze to discuss comedy festivals, his new special, and playing pizza-box baseball at High Plains.
Westword: So, you hail pretty proudly from the Nashville area. Was there any sort of local comedy scene there when you started out?
Nate Bargatze: I started out in Chicago, but there was a local scene. There's a lot Nashville guys, and they're doing pretty good with their scene. I didn't do standup until a buddy of mine wanted to move to Chicago. I don't know why I never did it in Nashvhille. I went to an open mic just to watch. I guess I was still scared to do it there, so I figured I'd go as far away as I could.
But you've been back there since?
Oh, yeah, I performed there. In between moving from Chicago to New York, I lived back in Nashville for about three months. I really got to be part of the scene during that time.
How has it been to watch the scene grow when you come back to visit?
It's been awesome. You see comics change and then people move away, so you see it evolve. It's pretty neat to see it. All these scenes are funny the way they change. Now there's a bunch of newer, younger comics that I don't know, even in New York and Chicago; when I go back there's a whole new group that's already funny.
How long have you been in L.A.?
About two years now.
Your act has a lot of quick, structured jokes interspersed with longer, story-based bits. Has your writing changed since you started out?
I think I've just kind of refined it. I don't know if I ever consciously did it one way or another. I think I'd have jokes that were always about me. Maybe they were tighter, not so much story-based. I don't know. I think they've just gotten longer.
It's a good balance to strike. To have a quick joke get big laughs, but also have some longer bits that give them an idea of who you are.
I know, try to not ever get too far away from a laugh. Even if it's a story, I'll try to have points in the story that get laughs. The farther away you get from a laugh, the bigger the laugh has to be.
What do your wife and your parents tend to think of your material about them?
You know, everybody's been great. No one's said anything bad. My parents are completely just like, "yeah, whatever," and down with it being funny. My wife's been perfect, too, with all of it. Though, sometimes I will tell her the joke before, just to be like, "Hey, just so you know I've been doing this joke..." I ask her if she'll mind.
So they're submitted for her approval?
Yeah, you submit them. But if the joke's working, I'm not going to not do it. I'll just do it when she's not there. So they've all been cool. There's been no complaints. Sometimes, with a joke where there's like a story about me drinking, I'll tell my parents, "Yeah, a lot of that is just made up." So you can use that excuse if anybody ever gets mad at you: "I just made all that stuff up."
In general, where do you weigh in on that? You know how some comics have an ethos about everything being honest and rankling at false premises? Are you more of the persuasion that it sort of doesn't matter?
I don't think it matters. I guess there's really no rules in comedy. I'm starting to get, the longer I've been doing it, I like guys who talk about themselves. Either their opinion or their experiences. Those are the guys I like.
Well, if you're following a comic for a long time, you kind of want to know who they are.
Yes, exactly. I mean, it's all just jokes, but after a while you want to know, "What is this guy even like?" And it helps when you meet the guy when they're kinda like the person they are on stage when you hang out with them. If you see Maron, you know that's who he is. You do have to exaggerate it for the stage, but it's basically the same guy, and that's great.
You're pretty active on the festival circuit, performing on several each year, including High Plains. Do you think they've been productive for your career or are they mainly just a way to hang out with everybody?
No, they've been very productive. They're important to do. Your name has be around out there. You could be doing every show in whatever city you live in, and people know who you are because you've been on every show they've seen. Festivals are doing that for the rest of the country. Your name's out there, and people are seeing it. And once you're there, it's a way to meet all the other comics from all the other different scenes. It's been very important for me, and I'm going to try and keep doing them as much as I can. Because it's a fun time. Comics now go on the road so much that it's hard to really see each other. So festivals are the only time that all of us get together. So now, yeah, they kinda are the best hang in the world, but they're also important.
It is fun to just kind of take over part of a city, and keep running into people you know walking around or you know, all lining up at the same place to get a free burrito.
Yeah, and comics are pretty good about -- well comics can be very lazy. You go on the road by yourself and mostly just stay in your hotel, you don't really get out and go do anything. Because you're by yourself. But when we're together, we go do stuff. We just did the Maui comedy festival, and it was awesome. It was unbelievable. But I was happy to see that all the comics did everything. We went snorkeling. We went on tours. I know that it's Maui and everyone would do that, but you'd think that comics would find a way not to do stuff. So I was very happy that all the comics didn't do what you'd think we'd typically do, which is blow everything off.
Do you have -- I mean, I imagine that one would be hard to beat because Maui rules -- but do you have a favorite comedy festival at this point?
Uh, High Plains? It really was great, though. They're all great. With High Plains, I really loved that you could kinda walk around. My favorite festivals have that where everything's close. You're not staying twenty miles out of wherever you're gonna be. You get done with your show, so you can go to another show close by to hang out and watch. I like High Plains, and I like the way it started. Just some dudes putting it together. Having comics do it is best ,because they know how to run it and they know what they like.
High Plains has more quality control at work because they don't take submissions, they just kind of curate who they want.
Yeah, that also makes for a good hang. And the pressure's not on -- I mean, you always want to do good -- but there's no industry. You're just having fun. This last one, I think we played baseball with rolled-up pizza boxes. That was one of the funnest times I've ever had at a festival. Just a pure moment.
Yeah, everybody just kinda went with it.
Yeah, although maybe everybody shouldn't have. We played for a long time, man.
Comics do have that competitive streak. Sometimes it comes out in weird ways. People got way into that game.
And it's not even a game. But everyone was real into it. I played baseball growing up, so I guess I was re-living that, having my big moment. It was funny to play that game, though, because those are the moments you love. It started out with just a few of us in there, but next thing you know everybody's watching.
Have you performed at Comedy Works before?
Me and Louis Katz came through Comedy Works one time. I think we did one night, one off-night. It was when I was moving from New York to L.A. When you draw that up on a map, there are basically two routes you can take, one that goes south and one that goes through Pennsylvania. We specifically picked a route that went through Denver. I don't know if I'd ever been before then. This will be my first headlining weekend. But I'm excited. My buddy Dan Soder, who's a Denver guy, was telling me that you guys have one of those clubs that has that label of being the best club. There's only a few others in the country on that list of the best clubs. Denver Comedy Works is one of those clubs you dream about headlining. It's like getting passed at the Hollywood Improv, or the Comedy Cellar. Working there is a big deal because it's so good.
So I read that you were looking to shoot another hour soon. Has that happened yet?
Yeah, we shot it in October. We did it at the Gramercy Theatre in New York. I'm guessing it'll come out in March or April, but it's not guaranteed yet. But we did just shoot it, and that was exciting.
Are you at the stage now where you're trying to come up with new material, or are you still doing some of that hour because it hasn't been released yet?
Oh, I'll be doing all that stuff. I think I have like thirty seconds of new. I have some stories, and a little bit that I can do, but the road is where I work that stuff out. But I'm doing stuff that's in the special.
Well, it was only a month ago.
It's exciting because this is the first time I've ever -- you know I've been doing comedy almost twelve years so that special is like twelve years of work. Not that I'm doing twelve-year-old jokes, but it's twelve years of experience to get to this point. And then, it's a big decider in a comedian's careers, your turnover. If you can get a new hour. What kills a lot of comedians, I think, is that they never get a new hour after they release one. It's a point in your career that can decide what kind of path you're going to go down. So it's very exciting.
Was there stuff from your album in this hour?
Yeah. I think I'm cutting out some of it from the TV version, but there's probably about fifteen minutes from the album.
So, not a lot.
No. Not the whole album. That was the debate. "Do I not do anything from the whole album?" I was very proud of my album, my album did very well. But when you look at it numbers-wise, even for an album that's doing well, it's nowhere close to the number of people that would see a special. For a special, I wanted to be like "here's my best."
Yeah, that document of where you're at twelve years in.
Yeah, yeah. So it does have some stuff from the album. I almost wanted to call the special Look, I know There's Some Stuff From my Album, because I worry. Look, I know. Just know that I know.
I think now that comedy fans have more insider knowledge from podcasts, they have that unrealistic expectation that everybody is on that Louis CK model, generating a new hour every year.
Yeah, maybe I can try that, too, when I get like 25 to 30 years into comedy. But I can't do that. I'm not as good of a comic. I think we try to do it, too. It's dumb in a way. Yeah, you do need to change it up. But you realize, no one sees our stuff. If you have fans and you want to change it for your fans, then you should do that. But if you have some good jokes, you can't just throw stuff away because 300 people saw it. To be like, "That's it. Never again. Only those 300." You don't want to ride stuff into the ground either, but there's a balance.
I remember reading something you said about how going to open mics can get defeating after a while because you see the same fifty comics all the time at every mic, so you just focus on generating new stuff and never really get to refine anything.
Yeah, and doing that just kills you. I think that's one of the biggest things that hurts comedians. You need to get five minutes that are good. And it's hard. You have to get up in front of real people. There's nothing bad about open mics, but you need to get up in front of real people so you can learn how to fix your own joke. You're not going to know how to fix a joke if every week you're trying to come up with new stuff. And you don't even know if it's working because you're doing an open mic. Open mics are kind of just there for you to get the words out of your mouth. You've go to get in front of real people, basically, is what I'm saying. Not just other comics.
So, is there anything going on with the pilot you were developing for Fallon?
Yeah, there is, but I can't really talk about it. Not to be a dick, but there's like some exclusivity deal with the story. Who knows, though. Maybe you'll never hear about it again. So, do you have anything else coming up? I mean, there's the special. That's roughly it. Just road work. Building a new hour. There's maybe stuff going on with the show, but building the hour is basically the main focus. That's what's good about comedy. I like that we have something to rely on. If you're an actor you have to sit and wait, but comics have to go out and get that new hour. That's the one thing that no one can take from you.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.