Talking to Nate Bargatze About Standup and Developing an NBC Sitcom with Jimmy Fallon

If you need any validation that Nate Bargatze is a great young comic, just know that notorious crank Marc Maron is one of his biggest fans. And Maron doesn’t like anybody.

Bargazte is a rising star in the standup world known for his clever personal anecdotes and laid-back Southern charm. He’s made multiple late night TV appearances, toured with Jimmy Fallon and others as part of Fallon’s Clean Cut Comedy Tour, and recently sold NBC a pilot based on his act.

I recently had the chance to chat with the Tennessee native about his start in comedy, his relationship with Maron, and the process behind selling his first pilot.

Youʼre on the road a lot now. Do you get up much in LA during the week?

I havenʼt been as much. When I first moved out here, I did. I started going to the Comedy and Magic Club a lot, and Flappers in Burbank, so I found my places to get up if I needed to get up, but itʼs definitely not as much as New York.

Even with all the credits you have, is it hard to crack into the LA club scene as someone who hasn’t been there that long?

Yeah, a little bit. I was already in at the Improv, so itʼs easier having the credits and stuff to get your foot in the door. The other thing is because there aren’t as many spots, I donʼt get a ton of spots. And plus I’m on the road so much more. Iʼm sure if I were in LA just constantly and really going after it – itʼd be nowhere near New York – but I could probably go up a few times a week at least.

Are you on the road a couple of weekends a month for the most part?

It gets to about three weekends a month. Iʼm trying to remember, the whole point of going out here was I was just trying to really be on the road and start figuring out that aspect of my career. Learn how to headline and learn how to do an hour where itʼs not awful. So that was like a new chapter that I was trying to do.

So do you write when youʼre on the road? Do you write on stage and work stuff out?

Yeah, I donʼt write like I should, but you start putting an hour together and you start figuring out new stuff. Whatʼs great is on the road, Iʼve learned I can try newer stuff more often because in New York, youʼd be doing like 12 minutes, 15 minutes, so you canʼt throw too much new stuff and bomb. You gotta have enough time to go back if something didnʼt work. But what Iʼve been enjoying about the road is I can really expand stuff, and you can really take more chances because I have an hour – I can kind of go into jokes, see which bits are working, find new tags. You have more room to play.

Do you miss being able to get up as much as you used to in New York?

I really do, I miss it. Really, I think thereʼs a point where you gotta go on the road, and you just have to learn how to do it. So Iʼm really enjoying the road, Iʼm enjoying being on stage for that long, and putting a set together. Iʼm getting fulfilled with the road. And when I first moved here, I wasnʼt going on the road as much as Iʼm going now, and itʼs a nice break. For eight and half years I was going up every day in New York, so it was a nice breather. I was looking for an out. I used to get burned out, even when I would go on the road from New York because Iʼd already have done six, seven spots before I’d even get to the road. So now I took a break, and then I started getting antsy and thatʼs when I started hitting the clubs and then the road. Now when I get back from being on the road I don’t feel as antsy. I feel like I get my fulfillment. Something you learn with time, I think, doing comedy. Iʼve been doing it for 12 years. If you asked me this seven years ago, I wouldʼve hated it.

You actually got your start in Chicago, right?

Yeah, I moved there first and did probably about a year and a half there. I was brand new so I was barely going up.

What made you decide Chicago?

I remember a buddy of mine, Michael, he wanted to take improv classes at Second City and I was thinking about doing standup, but I wasnʼt doing any open mics. I went to them and watched. He wanted to move to Chicago to take improv classes, so I was just like, “All right, Iʼll go.” And so then we just moved, and I went and took about three weeks of improv classes, and I didnʼt really like that, so then I started taking a standup class from there. It was really him. It was his idea, and I was just like, “All right, Iʼll go.”

I know you were there at the same time as Pete Holmes, T.J. Miller, Kyle Kinane, Kumail Nanjiani, etc. Could you tell early on that those guys had bright futures?

I donʼt know if I thought of it like that. I was so new. But you could tell the guys who, like Pete [Holmes] and those guys – and even some guys now that I donʼt even know what theyʼre doing – were more prominent in the scene so you could definitely see, “Oh, these are the guys.”  When I started was the first I ever heard of Brian Regan. He was my first moment where I was like, “Wait, how is this guy not like the most famous human being on earth?” So funny  – that was the first eye-opening thing. So then when I moved to New York, I really started seeing how funny people are that you donʼt even know; you realize there are really funny people out there. Itʼs not just Seinfeld and Cosby. Itʼs like Bill Burr, Kurt Metzger, Big Jay Oakerson – those are the guys that were right above me. And I would see them and itʼd be like, “Oh, all right, this is another level.”

In hindsight, do you think you were ready when you moved to New York? You said you werenʼt getting up that much in Chicago, was it more a leap of faith?

Yeah, that movie Comedian came out – I remember watching that in the movie theater – and then another buddy, a comic I met in Chicago, just moved to New York, so it was kind of like, “All right, letʼs go.” I think I knew the New York standup scene was better, but I didn’t know much more than that. When youʼre so new, itʼs like, “All right, letʼs just go.” Iʼm 24 years old, Iʼm like, “What the hell?” It wasnʼt calculated.

How was it when you first moved there? Was it overwhelming?

Yeah, I remember New York being big. Moving to Chicago was like a perfect warmup to moving to a big city. So, I just remember it being crazy. I remember trying to go out and do every open mic and every show. This was before – like now thereʼs so many bar shows and stuff like that. Back then, there were hardly any shows, and most of them were just terrible. Like, none of them were good. So you would just go and check out as many as you could, and then I started barking, you know, like flyers for Boston Comedy Club, and Pete Holmes got me in there. So I just started doing that, and I couldnʼt have been happier. And Iʼm so happy I went to that club because thatʼs where I saw Big Jay and Judah Friedlander and Patrice [O’Neal].

I remember the first time I saw someone go to another show. It was like, “Wait, youʼre doing another show tonight?” And then we just followed him to his other show. I began seeing that people are doing multiple spots and it was just like, “Oh wow, this is a whole new thing.” And then when I started barking at the Boston, thatʼs where I really started to learn. I would just see everybody. I wouldnʼt go up until two [AM]. I was seeing Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Metzger. Youʼre seeing different styles, different levels, like, “This guyʼs fifteen years in; this guyʼs five.” Bill Burr is a big one for me. I didnʼt get to see the beginning, but I saw right when he was about to take off. I was a huge Burr fan. Heʼs also one of the best comics ever, but just seeing him grow, seeing him get his fan base, thatʼs the kind of thing with New York, you get to see the path. You need to see it happen.

When youʼre in other towns, New York City guys get half-hours, and it seems very unattainable because no one around you is getting this stuff. In New York, I went to Bill Burr’s One Night Stand, the HBO thing. And then when Pete Holmes got Premium Blend, I went to his Premium Blend thing. I remember that. So once you see that stuff, Iʼm not saying that you can get them, but at least you see a path Like, youʼre seeing, “All right, this stuff happens to people.” New York is like dog years. Because you can just get up and do in a month what some people do in a year. So you just get so much better, faster. When youʼre doing shows with all these guys, theyʼre coming in and destroying, and then when you go up itʼs late, so you I guess you learn how to bomb and youʼre not doing packed shows. I was regularly performing in front of six people. And I go on the road now, and theyʼre like, “Oh, the crowdʼs pretty light,” and youʼre like, “Oh God, you have no idea.” Thereʼs like 50.

How long did it take for you to start doing really well on a regular basis when you moved to New York? And what would you say is accounted for that? What was the shift? Was your writing getting tighter? Your presence?

It was being at the Boston and getting in front of actual real people. Open mics are – you have to do them, and I understand – but the sooner you can get in front of real people, the better, because thatʼs when you get to work on the jokes. I donʼt think itʼs about putting out any new material as much as learning how to make your jokes really work. The thing that made me try it was I had five minutes that was real tight, and then when I just did five minutes, I could do really well, but if I did 10 or if I did another five, it was way different from my first five. When youʼre doing really well with one five, and another five youʼre not, then youʼre like, “All right, I gotta make this other five as good as this first five.” So those were was my big things. So I think the most important thing is you gotta learn how to murder, what it sounds like to do good, and always try to get a joke to that point. Some guys donʼt do that.

Thatʼs the thing about open mics, if you do too many. Itʼs the same comics, usually; youʼre always trying to write new stuff ‘cause it’s the same comics watching. And if you canʼt do it for anyone else, you never learn how to make a joke good. So if you do five new minutes and itʼs whatever, and then next week youʼre doing another five minutes, itʼs not like youʼre gonna get better. You need to learn how to make those first five minutes really good and how to make the new stuff as good as that first five.

Thatʼs a really good point. What would you say was your first big break in New York?

Itʼs funny, my first TV credit was CMT, Country Music Television. It was from Pete Holmes actually. They were looking for somebody with clean material, and Pete mentioned my name. The reason I got it was because the producer watched a tape that I taped at the Comic Strip, and I didnʼt get passed at the Comic Strip – they were like “No” – but that same tape got me on television. It couldnʼt get me into the club, but it did work for television. [Laughs.]

So how did you and Marc Maron get to know each other? I know heʼs one of your biggest fans.

The first time I met him was at a midnight show at the Improv, and it was real briefly. And then when we really met was at Laughfest in Michigan, I was in a contest and he was doing his podcast, and he came and watched the contest. This was a couple years ago, maybe 2011, 2012, and he came to the shows and saw me and then just, I donʼt know, I just had a really good set. I ended up doing four shows, and he ended up coming to all of them and just was super nice to me, super complimentary. I hung out with him that weekend, and then he tweeted about me and from there, that was a huge – I jumped up like five hundred followers and I did his podcast, and then it just ended up building from there.

You’ve said being on his podcast was better for your career than doing a late night TV set. Crazy how times have changed.

Yeah, I mean you got a hundred million outlets, you know? And the late night set is like you do it once. You do a set where the podcast is an hour, you get to expand and itʼs on there forever. Iʼll have people come out to shows, and they come from hearing me on his podcast. Heʼs been a huge, huge help for me. Not only saying nice things about me, but he actually gives me work.

Are club bookers aware of the podcast stuff? Is that a selling point?

Yeah, Iʼll have some clubs that will put it in my credits when Iʼm booked. Itʼs funny, sometimes the clubs have younger bookers, and they get it and get how important podcasts are. Some of the older ones, I donʼt know if they completely understand it. The new, up and coming clubs, many are booking younger, newer guys, guys without followings, where they understand that thatʼs a thing. Thatʼs it. D.C. was a big place where I think I had the most people come up that have listened to that podcast. So, itʼs definitely like bookers are recognizing that you can get a career out of it. I got a TV show because of that podcast.

Moving on to your pilot, now that youʼre in LA, are you doing the whole audition thing? Taking meetings? Have you dove right in?

Somewhat. Last year I didnʼt, but this year I’m starting to. Itʼs my first time – I never really did auditions. I never went out for auditions in New York. Iʼd never come out here for pilot season before.

Tell me more about your pilot with Jimmy Fallon.

How I met Fallon was Fallon came into The Stand a little over a year ago. And I had already moved to LA but was back in New York to do New Year’s shows there. He just randomly came in one night, and he stayed and watched the show, saw my set, and then left, and I didnʼt think anything really about it. I thought the best I could do was get on his show. So in like April, I got a call, and that was an offer to do his show. And then the next day they called and wanted to meet with me to try and develop a show. And then I went back to New York and went and did his show, and it went well and then we developed a deal with NBC Universal. We started writing the show, sold it, and unfortunately it did not get picked up.

Iʼm sorry to hear that.

Thanks. Yeah, but whatʼs positive is that it did not get picked up, but weʼre still going to do something.

Cool. And Fallon will still be involved with it?

Yeah. I mean, as of now. Stuff changes. But as of now, I am under the impression that we’ll retool and do it again. Figure out another plan and write a new show, and itʼll be a multi-cam show. At first NBC told us – I donʼt think they wanted a new multi-cam show, but now they picked up a few. So who knows?

And itʼs primarily about you, right?

Yeah, itʼs my act. We use a lot of my jokes in it. And I was really happy with it. I was proud of the script, it was funny, and for whatever reason it didnʼt work out, but weʼre still going to do it. It just might just be next year or later this year. It definitely was a bummer, but at least I know Iʼm not just out. My biggest fear would be like, “All right man, good try, see ya, peace.” We were just like, “All right, what did we learn from this? Weʼll figure it out and do it again.”

How was the experience of writing it? Did you have experience in writing specs prior to that?

No, I didnʼt. I wrote a script in college once before, but it was a completely different thing. This time, I got teamed up with a writer, and it was definitely one of the harder things Iʼve worked on. I was coming back from gigs driving straight to the guyʼs house. It was nice to be like, “I have somewhere to go.” Instead of just coming home and being like, “All right I have nothing ‘til next Thursday when I go out of town.” I was definitely learning how to write a show and just seeing everything, and pitching to NBC was crazy, but luckily we had Fallon in the room with us when we pitched it. It was surreal, and itʼs all happening, and youʼre just nervous pitching it – I learned a lot from it. I look forward to getting back at it again.

And you play yourself? You play a standup comic on the show?

No, Iʼm not a comic, I had a regular job. We thought about that. I think [John] Mulaneyʼs a comic too now, like theyʼre all playing comics. So maybe next time I can be a comic, but I donʼt know. But on this one, the show was taking place in Nashville. So, I definitely liked that. I liked having it Nashville and my dadʼs a magician and a clown, so he was doing that and it was pretty much my act.

I hope it works out.

Itʼd be life-changing.

Do you ever think about going back out to Nashville? Do you get homesick? I know you have to be in LA at this point in your career.

At this point, yeah. I mean the ultimate goal is to – if I can get a successful show on the air, then I could move back to Nashville. That would be a goal, and I would love to, obviously, be a successful as I can, so yeah, thereʼs a point that I would love to make it to where I donʼt have to be here, and I could live in Nashville and just come out here whenever. And itʼs funny, itʼs getting like that more, because people audition on tape, stuff like that, and Nashville is a pretty big entertainment town. I would definitely love to. If Iʼve moved back to Nashville, itʼs really worked out. [Laughs.]

I know you were touring with Fallon, is that over?

Itʼs over right now; I donʼt know if theyʼll do more. Theyʼve talked about doing more, but who knows? Heʼs so busy. It worked out where we timed it out when he was traveling to NBC affiliates promoting The Tonight Show. I think he does enjoy performing live, but he definitely needs a break from it. I hope he gets to go back out, but itʼs really up to him.

Would you have any interest in trying to work on the show? Have you ever done any late night writing or anything like that? 

I havenʼt. I thought about it. I like doing standup, and everything I do is to set me up so I can do standup for the rest of my life. And I want to do all these other things, like having a sitcom or being in a movie or something crazy. That would all be unbelievable and I would love to do that, but the end goal is to build that fan base so I can tour the rest of my life. I love standup.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Talking to Nate Bargatze About Standup and Developing […]