It seems like the entertainment industry was calling Nate Bargatze’s name when he was a kid.
Don’t be jealous, the same thing would happen to you if your dad was a professional clown slash magician.
Bargatze has been performing comedy for the past decade and has quickly become one of the most favored among his peers in the industry. He’s been praised by the likes of Marc Maron and Jim Gaffigan as the next big thing, and his debut album – “Yelled at by a Clown” – was released to high acclaim.
Bargatze recently spoke to TSJ about his early days, his album, his move out to LA, and how thinking negative really isn’t so bad.
The Smoking Jacket: You grew up in Tennessee. Is there much of a comedy scene there?
Nate Bargatze: There is a scene there. I didn’t start there, though.
NATE BARGATZE ON CONAN
TSJ: You actually started in Chicago, right?
NB: Yep, started in Chicago. But Nashville, near where I grew up, there’s a pretty decent scene. I went to a couple of open mics and just watched when I was younger. Now I think it’s a better scene but it’s just a place that’s got a good feeling, but it’s not New York or LA or anything. Nothing crazy.
TSJ: I read that you started in Chicago improv but didn’t like it?
NB: Yeah, I took some classes at Second City. I did like eight weeks of it but didn’t really care for it. I realized that I wanted to do what I wanted to do. Maybe I’m just bad at it, you know? But I remember thinking I didn’t like that I could start one thing being funny and someone else could come in and completely change the direction I was going in.
TSJ: I think a lot of stand ups would agree with you. You want to be able to do your own thing and hold your own on the stage.
NB: Yeah! You can do your own stuff. You can write and be like, I think this is funny and not have to worry about some other guy in the group. We’re very selfish people.
TSJ: Why did you initially choose improv over stand up?
NB: I think at the beginning it was just because I had a buddy that wanted to go and do improv. I wanted to do stand up but I was going just to see what it was like. It turns out I didn’t like it. I’m not animated; I’m very much in my own thing. I like that. I was never going to be one of those animated guys.
TSJ: Animated is a good word. I’d imagine if you’re not then it’s probably difficult.
NB: Exactly. So I jumped in for eight weeks and then did my own thing. I’d probably get more out of it if I did it now, honestly.
TSJ: So when you finally got onstage alone and were able to be you, was it a feeling of, This is the place for me? I imagine not instantly.
NB: It definitely wasn’t instantly, but I remember liking it. It was a slow process. I also know I was completely terrified. I used to actually wish that the place would burn down. I knew I would always go, no matter how terrified I was, but I had this thought that it’d be great it the place just burned so I could be like, Well, I tried to go but the place was on fire! I was so terrified but I loved it.
TSJ: It’s funny, many comics share that fear of getting up on stage but they power through because they have to do it.
NB: It takes a lot to get up there. It takes confidence. Now when I go on I know I can at least get a laugh. It’s such a long process though, to get over that feeling where you’re terrified of going up and turn it into you being excited to get up there.
TSJ: Is there any amount of fear now?
NB: There’s always a little bit. It’s always a little nerve-wracking where I think this isn’t going to be good at all. I kind of have the mindset that every time I go on stage it’s just not going to go well. But then it can only be uphill from there.
TSJ: That’s exactly how I think about things.
NB: Oh, really? A lot of people think it’s a bad thing, like, You should be more confident. But you do have confidence; you just don’t want to get your expectations up. I remember being crushed at stuff that I thought would be perfect. I never want to feel that.
TSJ: There’s nothing worse than being completely high and then having it all come tumbling down.
NB: Exactly! And it’s not like I don’t enjoy being up there, I do. I just want things to be in the bag before I get excited.
TSJ: That makes perfect sense to me.
NB: It’s just me and you who think this. Everyone else doesn’t.
TSJ: I think so. Everyone tells me I don’t show enough excitement for certain things. And the truth is I am excited, but when you think the world of something it can easily go down hill.
NB: You get it. We just want to keep focus. And when people say no, which is what you and I probably think they will say, we can be like, There you go!
TSJ: [laughs] I know you’ve spoken about your dad being a professional clown and a magician. Do you think that at all helped push you into wanting to do something in entertainment?
NB: I think it did without me even knowing it. I really didn’t think it was weird growing up. I didn’t write a joke about him being a clown until a couple of years ago. It was so normal to me. I think just because I grew up with it my entire life. I thought everybody’s dad was a clown.
TSJ: How did he – and your mother – react when you said you wanted to be a comedian?
NB: They couldn’t have been more supportive. They helped me a ton. There’s been plenty of things I’ve gotten involved with that didn’t pan out and they have paid for it. I was very lucky in that sense. They were very happy I did it and so supportive.
TSJ: They must be very excited about your successes.
NB: Oh, yeah, extremely. And I got some stuff somewhat early on which helped. I was lucky. I did a CMT thing, which was my first TV gig, and that was in Nashville right around where I grew up. So I got a couple of things early on that helped me think okay, maybe this is working out. They were very happy.
TSJ: You mentioned before that you didn’t write a clown joke until a couple of years ago, you also didn’t release an album until a year or so ago, almost ten years into comedy. Can I ask why you waited?
NB: When you start middling in comedy you start to do the road a lot. And I think a lot of guys then feel they have to do a CD because that’s how they make money. They get paid garbage so they need to sell CDs. I would see these guys who are selling CDs throughout their whole career. I just didn’t want that.
Luckily, I was in New York and was performing so I didn’t need to have stuff to sell. But I knew what I wanted, and I almost didn’t even do it then. I wanted my first CD to be really good. I didn’t want it to be something three years in where I didn’t know what I was doing.
I ended up just waiting and saving material, almost ten years worth, to the point where I thought, I think this is good enough to put on a CD. And all the while be able to write new stuff. I wanted to make an impression with the first one.
TSJ: I think ultimately it was a good move. There’s so many comics who release an album just a couple of years in, then ten years down the line they realize they would never write that stuff or don’t even enjoy it. But with this album, it’s been really well taken. You “started off” strong.
NB: Yeah, and the picture that I used, I would never have used that when I started. Once I remembered about the picture and then got the name, I felt that it was time.
TSJ: I know you lived in New York for quite some time and now are in LA. In talking to comics I’ve realized that New York has a certain feeling to it as far as comedy, which is sort of incomparable. How are you enjoying the difference?
NB: I’m enjoying it a lot, actually. I love New York, but I was going out every night for eight years. I think the longest time I went without going up was four days or something. I got to the point where I was just burnt out. And I was only doing 15-minute spots, you know? So I wanted to go on the road.
I thought it was time for change. There’s a quote by Elvis’ manager or someone that said something like, “I knew anytime I started to feel comfortable it was time to make a change.” That really hit me. I was comfortable in New York. I didn’t have to fight for spots like I used it. It was so great, but I got worried about just being that comfortable guy in New York. I didn’t want to get stuck and turn fifty years old still doing 15-minute spots. I needed to move to LA and then go on the road.
TSJ: I can see that. There’s so many comics in New York that I imagine it’s hard to build anything outside of 15 minutes.
NB: It is. And that was all I was doing. Plus I hated going on the road because I had to do more than 15 minutes. I think I was just burnt out. Now that I’m out in LA I’m not going up as often but when I go out on the road I am so much more excited.
TSJ: Are the crowd there harder to perform for considering they see some of the biggest names?
NB: Maybe sometimes, but most are really great crowds. They have big names but I think the drop-off is pretty big too. In New York, I think guys there are focused on just stand up but here they’re focused on a lot of other stuff as well.
TSJ: I’ve heard that from other people too.
NB: When you go up in LA, having come from New York, it’s not easier, but you feel like you can kind of shine.
TSJ: There’s a lot of respect from coming up in New York.
NB: It’s true. I’m sure everyone in LA hates it because comics can be like, I’m a New York guy. But it’s like a credit, to a degree. People know the best tend to come from New York.
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TSJ: You’ve performed overseas in Kuwait and Iraq. What was your experience like?
NB: It was unbelievable, probably one of the best things I’ve ever done. They really appreciate it. They’re thanking you but it’s like no, thank you. But aside from that, the fact that I’ve been to Baghdad is crazy. Like, you can’t go to Baghdad; it’s not a place you go to. [laughs] It’s pretty wild, getting to travel and see those places.
TSJ: Is it a tough crowd or are they just appreciative that someone is there?
NB: They’re totally appreciative. And in Iraq and Kuwait, they can’t drink, so you’re really all they have. But other places, where the troops are either coming or going, sometimes you can drink there. So those crowds could be tougher because they are either about to not drink for a year or haven’t drunk for a year. So it can get crazy, rightfully so. That can be tough but it isn’t that bad. But really, it’s not about the comic, it’s about them.
TSJ: I was listening one of Maron’s WTF episodes and he was promoting your album. During that, he had mentioned that you’re one of his favorite stand ups coming up. That must be very cool for you.
NB: Oh, man, yeah! I owe that dude a lot. I was very fortunate; he randomly saw me in Michigan at Gilda’s Laugh Festival and ended up watching everything. Then I did a WTF and then a live one, and to have him vouch for me like that has been probably one of the bigger things that has happened to me in my career. He tweeted about me and I immediately got 500 followers. You can just see the power.
TSJ: So with people like him and other comics speaking your praise, what are the hopes for the future?
NB: Everything is done in order to do more stand up, no matter what. I’ve always liked the older route of being a comic: doing a sitcom and then doing comedy again. I’d love that. Like, I love Seinfeld’s career. I think it’s a perfect career. You do stand up, then you do your own sitcom about you, and then you do stand up the rest of your life. Everything is just about doing more stand up, really.
TSJ: I’ve had a lot of comics say that to me. If they do a TV show, that’s great, but the end is always going to be stand up.
NB: That’s the great thing about it man. You see actors and I feel like they have to wait around for a phone call to do a TV show or a movie. As a comedian, I have something you can’t take from me. So if nothing works out I will keep trying to get better on that stage.
Nate’s website: www.natebargatze.com
Nate on Twitter: @natebargetze