On the Verge: Nick Vatterott

Welcome to our series On the Verge, where our contributors highlight comedians they feel are ready for their next big break. Whether they’re already working in television or still waiting to land their breakout gig, these are just some of the comedians we’d like to see more of over the coming years – ideally with a show, film, or other comedy project of their very own.

One fine day at the University of Missouri, a young college freshman joined his roommate’s improv team. Not long after, he dropped out of college. This would sound like the beginning to an after-school special about the dangers of improvised comedy if it weren’t for the fact that it led to the singularly eccentric humor of Nick Vatterott.

It wasn’t that Vatterott particularly disliked being at the University of Missouri. On the contrary, he was on track to integrating himself into the campus culture. In addition to joining the improv team, he was writing a humor column called My Humble Opinion for the school paper and even tried his hand at a local standup contest. But after his academic counselor suggested that he reconsider attending college, Vatterott heeded the call for comedy and moved to Chicago. As Vatterott put it, “College is where you’re supposed to figure out what you want to do with your life, and in a weird way it was. I just wish it didn’t cost me $20,000.”

Since then, among other achievements, Vatterott released an album, For Amusement Only, which combines his hallmark outlandish material with one thing that you can routinely expect from him: a tendency to get meta, i.e. making the conversation about the conversation itself. On the album this comes in the form of a sort of “director’s commentary” on his jokes, which is one way of translating a larger theme of his work into something that suits the audio-only context of his album. His love of things that loop back on themselves can also be seen in action in his set on Fallon as well as in a set that he simply calls “Comedian Does Stand-up.”

But this tendency to turn everything back on itself isn’t just some crafty tactic to surprise and delight his audiences; it has an effect beyond that. It unites the audience with the performer. If you’ve ever attended a live performance by great comedians like Brian Regan, Maria Bamford, or Louis C.K., you know the experience of just being completely awash in a sea of laughter, joke after joke after joke. Part of the joy of a great show comes from just letting yourself become a part of the crowd, taking yourself out of your own troubles and whatever thoughts pester you throughout the day. Additionally, when one of the audience members experiences some sort of discomfort at settling into the rest of the crowd, it can often manifest as heckling. “I have unique feelings that must be addressed!” is one valid translation of most heckles.

So along with the all the fun of letting your own laughter merge with that of everyone around you, Vatterott takes an extra step: he joins the crowd. Not literally, of course, but in essence. When Vatterott turns jokes back around to face themselves, he’s joining the audience in thinking about the experience that they’re all sharing. He becomes an observer along with the rest. The power of this is that he can now direct the audience’s attention to things that he himself appreciates about his own experience as the performer, and allow the audience to get a sense of the joy that comes from his own creative pursuits.

In May, Vatterott released No Outlet, which he describes as “stream-of-consciousness, surreal comedy from the mind, body and toes of Nick Vatterott.” Born out of frustration for the notoriously impenetrable world of comedy writing, the series allowed Vatterott to finely craft a sketch show completely in his own style. Rather than drown in a manic pile of sketches with no outlet, Vatterott enlisted director Chris Piazza and producers Shawn Rubin and Michael Cargill to forge his own. The result is a hilarious testament to Vatterott’s ability as a writer to swing freely between frenzied madness and straight-faced absurdity. He never lets our attention span draw thin, skillfully connecting each scene with the next over a bridge as strange as the scenes on either side.

And that’s another one of the enthralling features of Vatterott’s performances: there’s never a dull moment. Watching him perform feels like watching a parade of characters all fighting to perform through the body of Nick Vatterott. What begins as an average guy perplexed by some simple thing might morph into a comically oblivious know-it-all, transform into a hapless dolt, veer into a gratuitously self-assured salesman, and finally merge back into a Nick Vatterott made more intriguingly by their combination. Vatterott goes beyond the already impressive feat of presenting truly original material. He gives each of his premises a depth that contributes to each premise that follows.

Although he has spent considerable time in New York City and now resides in LA, Vatterott says he always prefers a good show in Chicago. “There are amazing shows and audiences all over the country,” he says, “but something about Chicago sort of spoils me every time I go back. They’re down for whatever, you feel like they’re excited to be there. Maybe they’re just happy to be out of the 20-degree weather that overstays its welcome most of the year.” Nearly a decade ago, Vatterott helped start Chicago Underground Comedy, which is where he recorded his debut album. Other favorite shows include Comedians You Should Know and The Lincoln Lodge which, Vatterott says, “always has an extra layer of production and showmanship that most standup shows could benefit from.” In recent years, Vatterott has also enjoyed performing on The Paper Machete, which describes itself as a “free weekly live magazine.”

When asked what he admires most about his favorite performers, Vatterott stressed that, for him, originality always prevails. “I’d rather see someone bomb doing some real weird, outside-the-box bit than someone crush with five tight minutes about Starbucks,” he explained. But when considering the slew of people who have influenced him over the years, he clarified that it’s hard to know for sure if true originality is even possible. “I once posted something online like ‘Is there such thing as true original thought, or are we just an amalgamation of everyone we’ve ever met?’ And someone commented ‘Chuck Palahniuk already said that!’ So even my thought on original thought wasn’t original.” Be that as it may, the amalgamation that we call Nick Vatterott is not to be found anywhere else, and watching all of the elements that comprise him play together makes for a captivating and delightful adventure.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.

On the Verge: Nick Vatterott