Nate Bargatze on Standup, Sitcoms and the Cape Fear Serpentarium

Nate Bargatze headlines Denver's Paramount Theatre on Saturday, September 7
Nate Bargatze headlines Denver's Paramount Theatre on Saturday, September 7 Robyn Van Swank
Sired and raised up from boyhood by an actual party clown, Nate Bargatze is gracefully aging into the comedic persona of an affably clueless dad. He hit a career high point following the release of his latest one-hour special, The Tennessee Kid, and sells out clubs and theaters based on the strength of his appearances on Conan, Comedy Central Presents and Netflix's The Standups. Bargatze currently has a network series in development, and his jokes about his extended family's wedding fights are tailor-made for sitcom hijinks.

Local comedy nerds have a chance to see Bargatze's best when the Good Problem to Have tour rolls through Denver's Paramount Theatre on Saturday, September 7, for a pair of performances. We caught up with Bargatze on the phone in advance of those shows, to discuss such topics as the mysteries of television development, coming up with new material in the aftermath of a popular special, and the murder at the Cape Fear Serpentarium.

Westword: Have you already written a whole new hour for the Good Problem to Have tour?

Bargatze: Yes, it's almost all new. I have one old, old story that I throw in, but the rest of it is all new from my last special. For live shows, I'll usually end up doing an encore, and then I'll sometimes tell some old jokes, maybe one or two from the Netflix special, and then some that are even older than that. But, yeah, it's a new hour.

By the way, does the title The Tennessee Kid mean anything special, or is it just a reference that you're from Tennessee?

Yeah, it's something like that. I am from Tennessee. But it wasn't like I decided to give it this name with some big reason behind it. I was going to name it something else; I was going to name it "Nate, Nathan, Nathaniel" and they told me "No." They thought my choices were not good, and then we moved on.

What's your joke-writing process like? Are you coming up with new material faster now that you've recorded a few specials?

Yeah, you definitely have to. Now, once a special comes out, people really do see it. That's the biggest difference I noticed lately: When you go to perform, you know the entire audience is there to see you instead of just, like, four of them. And it's because they've seen the special, so you've gotta write a little bit faster. Usually, when you record a special, you have a little grace period before it comes out. Last time, we recorded in October and it came out in March, I think, so I had those months to at least try and get something going, you know? I think you've got to have at least half of a new hour written by the time it comes out, depending on how quick the turnaround is. But you've gotta get out there more.

For me, my writing process is that I rarely actually write anything down. I'll put bullet points, and I'll write down my set lists, but I don't sit down and write everything down word for word. When I'm in the mode of trying to write for my standup, I try to go and do more things. I try to make myself be very open and just think. When I'm trying to write weird, silly bits, I need to go to weird, silly places and just let my brain wander. If I want to do more wife material, I try to be a little extra aware when I'm talking to my wife, more than I would if it was just a regular day.

That's a pretty good method for jogging ideas loose: go somewhere weird.

Oh, yeah. Or just go do something. You never know. In the latest special, the dead-horse joke came from a family trip to Mount Rainier. I didn't know I'd end up talking about this horse; I just thought we were going to Mount Rainier.

Speaking of weird places, you mentioned the Cape Fear Serpentarium in one of your specials, maybe the half-hour, but I don't remember you talking about the murder. Did you know about the murder?

Yeah, I do a call-back to the Serpentarium in The Tennessee Kid. It's such a crazy story; so many people were messaging me about it that I felt like I needed to say, "I saw the story; I know the snake guy got murdered by his wife, and she went to jail and then got out of jail because she pleaded insanity."

Oh, I didn't know about that last wrinkle!

Yeah, man. She's out now.

Here I am, asking if you know about the murder when I haven't even kept up with the case. The Serpentarium certainly is a weird place, though; I probably wouldn't believe it existed if I hadn't been there myself. I went there the week after the guy died.

Oh, that's when you went there? Wow.

Yeah, it was a weird, weird time.

He had already died?

I read his obituary in the Wilmington newspaper.

Wow. What a time to see that place. It must have had such a weird vibe.

It was oddly somber. I mean, they still had the chemtrail conspiracy-theory exhibit and deadly snakes on the loose, but there was a real funereal vibe among the staff and the guests.

It's crazy, but I still get a ton of messages about it. Some of them are even from people who were there when she shot him. And the kid I talk about, the one who got bitten by the gaboon viper? I got a message from his doctor at the hospital he got taken to.

He treated the snakebit kid?

Yeah, yeah! It's funny, because this experience showed me that when you do a joke about something, it can reach the doctor. To have someone that official backing up a joke is insane, like "Yeah, that happened. He came in after getting bit by a gaboon viper." I think the kid was sort of troubled ‚ÄĒ I mean, he was stealing a snake out of a zoo, so I doubt he, like, cleaned up and got it together after that. He's not a scholar now. He probably moved on from snakes to steal other things.

So at least he learned that one lesson.

He learned one lesson. Don't try to get into the snake game; it's not worth it.

Was there a huge difference between working for Netflix and working for Comedy Central, which put out your first special, Full Time Magic?

Sure. Comedy Central has always been very, very good to me. From the beginning with Live at Gotham, the same producers I worked with for Comedy Central have been with me through every single thing, and a lot of them are at Netflix now. So I've worked with mostly the same people for every special I've ever done. But the reach that a Netflix special has is much bigger. Standup specials are a thing on Netflix; people really seek them out. And they're easy to find and always available. My first special aired on Comedy Central back in 2015 on the night of the big Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight. You're never going to have that problem with Netflix.

I read that you were working on a sitcom pilot with Jerrod Carmichael. How did that come together, and do you have any updates about its progress?

We've shot the pilot. We have the parents from That 70s Show, Kurtwood Smith and Debbie Jo Rupp, playing my parents on the show. We have Katie Aselton as my wife. But, yeah, we shot the pilot, and now we're waiting to see what happens. We've edited, got everything together and turned it in. Hopefully we'll know by the end of the year, but you never know.

Is it a semi-autobiographical story, or do you play a different character?

It's Everybody Love Raymond, basically, except with me.

It's Everybody Loves Nate?

Everybody Loves Nate
, yeah. Nate Loves Everybody, we just changed the title around. No, right now we're calling it The Nate Bargatze Show, but that could all change. It's based on my life when we moved from L.A. back to my home town of Nashville. The only real difference between the show and my life is that on the show, the character of my wife is from California, but my real wife is from Alabama. That's really the only thing we've changed. I play a comedian. 

You started out in Chicago around the same time that a lot of high-profile comics. like Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes and Hannibal Buress, were coming up. How do you think being part of such a talented scene shaped the comedian you'd ultimately become?

Well, we started there, but it really picked up when we moved to New York. Before, we were all just kind of floating around. But, yeah, when I moved to New York, I started barking on the street for the Boston Comedy Club with Pete, like he does on his show Crashing. New York is really where it all shaped up. Just watching people every day like Bill Burr, Patrice O'Neal and Dave Chappelle come in and go up at like eleven o'clock or midnight in front of three or four people introduced me to guys on that level of comedy. There's something about getting to be around guys who are that good. Amy Schumer was there when I first started coming around, and I remember when she was first blowing up. We had just done a spot at some club, and we were walking along, talking about how excited she was to do her first spot on the Howard Stern show. It was inspiring to see people rise to success, because you start to see how you could move up, too.

Has becoming a father changed your approach to comedy at all?

I don't think it's changed my approach; it's just given me something else to talk about. Right now, I'm not sure how much my daughter even gets comedy. I try to explain jokes to her, but it's basically like any adult trying to explain their job to a six- or seven-year-old. She's just like, "Those are adult jokes, they're not funny." She doesn't think any of my jokes are funny.

Nate Bargatze will do shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 7, at the Paramount Theatre. Tickets are $35 to $96 at Altitude Tickets; see Bargatze's tour calendar for details.
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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham