Once the limousine door closed, a dozen of Nate Bargatze’s closest friends and family members began reciting their favorite jokes from the sold-out show he’d just finished in Reno, Nevada. There was the one about never asking a fitness junkie for advice on losing weight, lest they warn you about eating too much fruit. (“Let’s get to that point, all right?” Bargatze had said. “I don’t think I’m at where I’m at because I got into some pineapple last night.”) And the one about his hometown of Old Hickory, Tennessee, being named after Andrew Jackson, and a reporter informing him that the seventh president had been a bad person. (“You know, we didn’t know him or anything,” he’d deadpanned.)
As we rode through Reno on a 100-degree July night, I asked Bargatze what moment from the show stood out to him. It was the bit, he said, about the woman at a comedy club in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose siren of a laugh was so distracting that the staff had to ask her to keep silent for the rest of the show. The joke skewered her parents for not correcting this when she was young, then segued into Bargatze’s lament about carrying his own bad habits into adulthood. It was one of the high-decibel points of the show, but that’s not why Bargatze brought it up.
“I just need to be super careful with anything that could be seen as making fun of someone,” Bargatze said. “Maybe she had a disability or something.” In fact, as his joke tactfully made clear, she did not appear to have a disability— just an unbearable laugh. And yet he seemed nervous. “I’ve seen shows where comedians cracked about someone not clapping, then realized they’ve only got one hand, or joked about someone wearing sunglasses inside, then realized they’re blind,” he said. “I never want to put myself in that situation. I never want to be mean.”
Bargatze, 42, who spent years toiling in front of single-digit crowds, had just kicked off the biggest headlining tour of his career. He was on his way to board a chartered plane to Las Vegas for two more sold-out shows. Some of his dates were selling out 10 months in advance, and he and a team of Hollywood writers were in discussions with Netflix about an eponymous sitcom. Yet here he was, spending his post-launch limo ride worrying that he may have inadvertently offended someone who wasn’t there with a story that was meant to highlight his own deficiencies.
The legends of stand-up, from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle, were subversive, antagonistic, troublemaking. Bargatze is none of those things. He worries constantly about alienating his audience or hurting someone’s feelings. His act is slow, almost soothing, as he plods through nonthreatening tales of his own mediocrity. He comes across as a walking Xanax, helping audiences slow down and, as he says, “shut off their brains for an hour.”
If comedy is a proxy for the mood of American society, Bargatze’s sudden popularity suggests that he’s tapped into something powerful: the discontent with our discontent. He insists that stand-up can be a great unifier, bridging the divides that have emerged within families, among friends, between red states and blue states. “People are worn out,” he told me. “It seems like every form of entertainment these days has to have a message, and it’s gotten old.”
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