The Magic Balm of Nate Bargatze
The comedian is the antidote to outrageous
With Thanksgiving approaching, I’ve been trying to get out of Eeyore’s Gloomy Place and into the season’s grateful frame of mind. In the Gloomy Place, the news is usually on, and when you turn it off, there is always a newspaper or a new platform where newsmakers and purveyors are re-settling like birds on a line.
Thinking of where I’ve found joy this year, I keep returning to one spot: a seat at Radio City Music Hall from which I saw comedian Nate Bargatze perform.
Many who didn’t previously know Bargatze were introduced to him this month when he hosted Saturday Night Live. I found him on Instagram sometime over the past few years when I tried to lighten up my social media feeds.
Bargatze is “clean” like several of my long-time favorite stand-ups, including Brian Regan (“Take Luck!”) and Jim Gaffigan (“Dad is Fat”). These two comics also share his tendency toward self-deprecation, though they counterbalance theirs with some faux swagger. Bargatze’s self-deprecation is pure and uncut.
His perennial joke set-up, a version of “I am dumb,” often leads to brilliant places but allows him to bring the audience there by putting us at ease (We all say stupid things! We’re all clueless sometimes! It’s okay!). Then he gently holds us by the hand along the way to the punch line. His humor is, of course, not dumb but smart. And though it is smart, it’s never sharp.
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Bargatze is all understatement. If the word deadpan didn’t already exist, his delivery would have forced its invention.
Comedians can become known for using their faces to make us laugh. Lucille Ball and Jim Carrey come first to mind; Iliza Schlesinger, for me, comes second. Then there’s my beloved Martin Short, who the writer of a random hit piece on Slate recently complained “mugs for the audience” (as though giving fans more of what they love is a bad thing). Bargatze has none of the dramatics of these comedians. He uses his face by not using it. His facial expressions are…well, he doesn’t have many, other than the occasional little smile.
Nate Bargatze’s audiences want more of that trademark deadpan and more of his genuine humility, which can be hard to hold onto at the top of one’s field. The surprise and pleasure he expressed at being asked to host SNL (“I’m as shocked as you are that I am here”) were also on display when he performed at Radio City. It was a great show, and the standing ovation he received was a celebration of a good guy making good.
Before he took the stage, Bargatze gave it to his father to warm up. Stephen Bargatze, who has had a long career as a magician and comedian, didn’t have to do much to win over the audience—it was fascinating enough to trace the lineage of his son’s style—but his act was a delight. More than once, he paused and, tearing up, thanked the audience for what he saw as our having brought them to that legendary hall. He was gratitude itself.
Live comedy is one of my joys in good times and bad. I’m grateful that brilliant, talented people choose to devote their lives to the craft of laugh-making. There are different kinds of laughter; not all of it is medicine. In this moment, with cynicism, outrage machinery, and blowhards dominating the public sphere, I can’t think of a better balm than the Bargatze kind.
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