Unfortunately for television producers, it’s impossible for a stand-up comedian to make an audience laugh without making them at least a little uncomfortable. To spark the release of tension that produces laughter, the comedian must first create that tension. “I’m a bad lover,” begins a classic Rodney Dangerfield joke. Taken at face value, it’s a discomforting thing to hear someone admit, but without it, “I once caught a Peeping Tom booing me” won’t get a laugh. The traditional approach to performing stand-up on television is to push the tension just high enough to get laughs but not high enough to alienate anyone. Nick Vatterott’s 2010 television debut proves the conventional strategy is not always the correct one.
The premiere venue for the comedy industry to vet unknown comedians is Montreal’s prestigious Just for Laughs festival. Every time the festival scouts visited Vatterott’s home city of Chicago, he made sure to show them his most accessible, mainstream material — to no success. “After a dozen showcases,” he told me, “I decided if I’m just gonna get rejected anyway, I might as well do a set that makes me happy.” At his next audition. he presented a set he had developed for the alt-comedy showcase, The Elevated. It ended up being exactly what JFL and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon were looking for. It’s a master class in manipulating the tension that exists in every audience and a convincing argument that Vatterott is a stand-up worthy of more attention. Make sure to watch until the end.
For the bit to work, Vatterott must earn and then break his audience’s trust in him, then earn it back and do it all over again. Laughter is a pleasurable reaction, but it’s still an involuntary one. Submitting to it makes you feel vulnerable, and an audience needs to feel confident that they are in capable hands to let it happen. Unlike the absurdity that follows, Vatterott’s first joke, about Americans overpronouncing foreign words, is classic late-night stand-up: set-up, punchline, and three tags, sprinkled through with act-outs and character voices. He needs his audience’s confidence level to start as high as possible if he is going to attack their comfort level like he will have to. At the 1:51 mark, after a high-energy, committed performance of several over-the-top accents that peaks with Vatterott screaming “Margarita!”, the audience gives him an applause break and entrusts him with the keys to their subconsciouses.
Seconds after cementing his authority, Vatterott undermines it. He begins conventionally enough. “Don’t you hate when you’re like … ” he says, but he never finishes the sentence. From 2:06 to 2:11, he scampers around the stage making noises and faces like a lunatic. The audience is confused. What Vatterott’s doing has no context or apparent motivation, but is clearly a deliberate choice from someone they just got done applauding ten seconds ago. “Isn’t that the worst?” concludes Vatterott. The audience manages a polite laugh, but they are still on edge and not quite sure how to process what they just saw. Vatterott presses on anyway. “I don’t know a lot of Spanish,” he says, as if he’s coming out of the “Margarita” bit and the whole running-across-the-stage thing didn’t happen at all.
Knowing he has pushed the crowd’s tolerance of inanity to the breaking point, Vatterott switches gears with a story about buying damaged Rosetta Stone CDs. He gets a quick laugh with “So I stole it” at 2:33, then pounds the skipping noise with gusto, pulling the audience back under his spell. They give him a longer, louder applause break, maybe from relief that after making them worry, Vatterott seems to be back to giving them what they expect from a television comedian. It’s as if the audience got into Sturgill Simpson, got thrown off by his synth-rock album, and hailed his return to country all in three minutes.
At 3:07, Vatterott says “Would’ve been awkward” like a character on Hannah Montana. Then he says it again, his skull bouncing back and forth like a bobblehead, his words melting into gibberish. He gets a light, confused laugh but keeps shaking his head to some internal rhythm, with a weird expression that doesn’t correspond to any recognizable human emotion. He does this for ten seconds to almost no response. It couldn’t have been easy. Comics are acutely aware of the audience’s disposition toward them at all times, much the way Tony Stark can see his armor’s power level inside his helmet. It is painful and detrimental to morale to be met with apprehension even for a short time. Even if Vatterott knows that greater tension here means a bigger payoff at the end, he is also aware that the end might not land at all. He could just be blowing the only TV appearance he’ll ever have, which will soon be clickable everywhere forever.
As anyone who has ever watched a “very special” episode of a sitcom can tell you, acting and stand-up are separate skill sets. Jamie Foxx may happen to have both, but that is by no means a given. Vatterott’s acting here is excellent. At 3:33, all confidence drains from his face. “So … one of the things … I like … to do … is forget my next joke,” he says. His simultaneous confusion, terror, and shame feel genuine. When comedian Brooke Van Poppelen saw Vatterott’s Fallon audition, this part was so awkward she had to leave the theater, and the live audience in Fallon’s studio is just as taken in. At 3:42, with no prompting whatsoever, they throw all their love at Vatterott like the part in Peter Pan where the audience wills Tinkerbell back to life. But he lets them twist nonetheless. At 4:08 he stammers, “Oh, man, um … I — I actually …” At 4:19 he apologizes to Fallon, who plays it dead straight like Johnny Carson. The illusion is complete: The audience believes they are witnessing a disaster. Vatterott has played them to perfection. When Vatterott unfolds his set list to the size where the audience is sure it’s a prop, they laugh with relief that their trust in him was well-placed after all. When he reveals that his running around the stage was actually a one-man recreation of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, they applaud for nine seconds. When he calls back his very first line to bring the set full circle, they applaud once more for the piece as a whole.
When a comedian performs a set on Fallon, for six minutes they are the sole public face of a multibillion-dollar megacorporation. In that moment, Nick Vatterott is NBC. This responsibility is ordinarily left only to people with thousands of hours of broadcast experience. A first-time comedian has zero. The safest route is to do whatever jokes have the smallest chance for error and rack up base hits for a win. The jokes least likely to make a bad impression, however, aren’t always likely to make a memorable one. For a comedian eyeing a long career, that’s the greater prize. Instead of surprising resolutions to six or seven clever setups, Vatterott goes for one ludicrous resolution to the audience’s basic expectation of what a late-night comedy set is. He pushes the dial on the tension meter deep into the red, until the boiler almost explodes, then deftly releases a forceful geyser of laughs. Having tried and failed a dozen times to succeed with small ball, Vatterott swings for the parking lot and hits a grand slam.