comedy review

Nate Bargatze Invites You to Be Clueless, Too

Nate Bargatze in The Greatest Average Comedian. Photo: Netflix

The joke Nate Bargatze comes back to throughout his new Netflix special, The Greatest Average American, is that he, Nate Bargatze, isn’t that bright. It’s something he embraces but also something he turns around and uses for his benefit. His grades in school were a joke, and his ability to help his daughter with her schoolwork now is a joke. Early in the special, he makes a crack about buying two of the same reversible jacket because he wanted to own it in both colors: a small, silly joke about benign cluelessness making its way through the world. By happily displaying and goofing on his own ignorance or seeming slowness, though, Bargatze gets to open the door to seeing cluelessness everywhere. He’s not making fun of them, all the dazed and out-of-it people of the world; he can laugh at them because he’s one of them too.

There’s a guy at an airport and a guy at the waffle station of a hotel’s continental-breakfast buffet. (Waffle-station guy is my favorite.) There’s also Bargatze’s own colleague, another comedian whom Bargatze manages to pull a prank on when Bargatze pulls a gag where — what else? Bargatze claims to not know something. It’s a place he either points at or implies in nearly every joke in the special, a “Wow, how did you make it this far without knowing that?” kind of place, and he locates it in his own life and in the lives of others. There’s a collective warmth to it. It’s hard to point out someone’s specific obliviousness without coming off as mean, but in Bargatze’s treatment, there’s an invitation for universal awareness. Sure, we’re going to laugh at the waffle-station guy, but we’re also going to laugh at Bargatze, and we’re going to laugh at ourselves, too. Who among us, after all, has not been the confidently wrong waffle guy at some point in our lives?

That central idea fits nicely with the onstage persona Bargatze has developed. He speaks slowly, casually, with the cadence of someone who just happens to be telling you the story of a thing that happened to him recently. He shrugs and occasionally puts his hands in his pockets. He’s just an average guy who somehow found himself standing up on this stage with a mic in his hand.

All of that belies how well constructed the jokes are, how carefully Bargatze has balanced the hour so that its casual, chill tone seems obvious and natural when it’s something he has built with meticulous attention. It’s the little joke of the special’s title: He’s the greatest of the average Americans. But it’s an idealized averageness because his casualness is supremely relaxed, and there’s an unflappable confidence in Bargatze’s deadpan delivery. He’s a regular dude, and he’s not going to pull out dramatic lighting or big physical acts or stunts because he can’t. And because he doesn’t have to.

The show is filmed in an outdoor space, and Bargatze opens with a short section of material about 2020 and COVID. He has performed at a lot of drive-in shows where it’s embarrassing when someone wants to leave early, and he’s dubious about the temperature-taking strategies of the teenager standing at the door to Buffalo Wild Wings. It’s not much, but it’s a relief to see some acknowledgment of the circumstances, even if the acknowledgment itself is a little perfunctory. Maybe there’s nothing especially elaborate Bargatze wants to say about being a comedian in 2020. It’s not a topic he lingers on for long.

It’s a perfunctory acknowledgment I still feel a need for, though. I want to be in the funny, nice place where I can remember continental-breakfast waffle bars, but it’s hard to get there without at least some bridge between this world and that one. The short section on the pandemic has some promising ideas, a few threads it would have been nice for Bargatze to spend more time developing. The general absurdity of hygiene theater, for instance: His image of a bored teenager in a chain restaurant listlessly holding up a broken thermometer and saying “beep” out loud is one I would have happily spent more time with. But that “mention it, but don’t lean on it too hard” impulse is part of a bigger challenge across entertainment in 2021. What do audiences want at this moment? Escapism is tough to pull off well, but tackling the current mood is a minefield.

Bargatze’s strategy to touch on it and then move on is a bit of a half-measure. It has to be because a special that celebrates benign cluelessness isn’t that well equipped to handle the cluelessness that’s far less benign. Maybe a year from now, two years, that section of the special will feel unnecessary or weirdly underbaked. Right now, I appreciate that it’s at least there in some form.

In bits, The Greatest Average American is a collection of solid Bargatze material, some of which is more memorable than others and all of which passes the simple baseline of being a funny, nice time. As a whole, the special is a solid demonstration of how appealing it is to have a “funny, nice time” — truly, who doesn’t want that right now? But it’s also, at least a little, a demonstration of the limits of that. None of Greatest Average American, even in its strongest sections, has the precision of Bargatze’s glorious dead-horse joke; none of it is going to blow your hair backward. A nice, funny time is a beautiful thing, and it’s not going to change the world. That’s perfectly fine.

There’s a touch of awkwardness to it, though, at least as this hour of material is captured as a filmed special. Because Bargatze is performing outdoors, he has to pause more than once while helicopters buzz overhead. It happens enough that he finally has to turn it into a joke, a little bridge to cover up the rhythm break while he waits for a helicopter to pass before he can deliver his last joke. The annoyance is small; his line about the helicopters is sharp and silly. Still, it’s hard to ignore how obvious the metaphor feels. Here’s a guy just trying to create a nice, funny time for this audience, and there’s the reality of the outside world buzzing by overhead, looming in the sky, ready to interrupt at any moment. Bargatze charges ahead — what else can he do? — and the effort mostly works. The special is a warm, collective embrace of how great it is to watch some anonymous, oblivious dude confidently screw up a simple task and to know that each of us will be that anonymous dude at some point in our lives. It’s a pleasant way to spend an hour, as long as the hovering helicopters don’t intrude.

Nate Bargatze Invites You to Be Clueless, Too