In 2018, comedian Nate Bargatze made a five-minute appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. These mini-slots typically end up being a super-compressed version of a comedian’s greatest hits album. This is to be expected; most comedians play it safe when they’re given just 5-6 minutes to play with on national television. Not so for Nate Bargatze, who used his five minutes to perform one long joke instead of the usual volley of quips—and struck internet gold. That five-minute routine, Bargatze’s now-famous ‘dead horse joke’, is a storytelling masterclass in miniature. It begins with Bargatze finding a dead horse outside a house off the highway (in the middle of a long drive with a friend), but soon makes numerous segues into the etiquette of friendship, the vagaries of a ‘tourism economy’, the value of a non-judgmental family and much else besides. Like a lot of great jokes, it comes full circle at the end.
Most importantly, it is casually brilliant. With Bargatze, looking casual and even unsure of himself is part of the shtick; it cloaks the careful, meticulous way he develops dovetailing themes across an hour of comedy. This signature trait marks his latest Netflix special—The Greatest Average American (released 18 March)—which was shot outdoors at Universal Studios in Hollywood with COVID-19 protocols in place.
That’s one of the first things you notice about the show: Bargatze knows that he cannot dwell on coronavirus themes beyond a point—there’s only so much comedy you should try to squeeze out of an ongoing modern-day tragedy. But when he does, he’s always sensitive and very funny, a combination Kevin Hart failed to achieve.
For example, Bargatze lost a lot of weight during the lockdown but instead of making it a self-congratulatory routine, he talks about how difficult it is to stave off your neighbour who’s also become your “workout buddy”. (“I’m sorry, there’s just so much work, places to be, things to do… and oh crap, you’re not buying this are you?”) He talks about how if you’re “looking to get fat, this is your year”—relatable AF, amirite? Bargatze even makes the most of choppers flying overhead intermittently; at one point he says, “We’re doing the next show at LAX… we’re gonna have a great time.”
His parents are the butt of the joke during a delightful bit about how eating out—an already theatrical endeavor—has now become operatic in its scope, thanks to COVID protocols. The very sight of someone even lightly coughing in public makes people lose their composure, which is unfortunate for Bargatze’s parents, because “that’s all they do outside of the house; cough!”
That Bargatze is one of the most likeable guys in comedy was no secret. With ‘The Greatest Average American‘, he also reminds us that he’s one of the canniest writers in the game.
Bargatze is on top form when it comes to non-coronavirus jokes too. His comedy’s starting point has always been about his bumbling, clueless onstage persona. His grades at school were always perilously close to the failure mark, and in his previous special Full Time Magic, he spoke a fair bit about what that meant experientially, on a class-to-class basis. Here, he speaks about being “a veteran of concussions”. After one of these concussive episodes, Bargatze says, he sat through “three classes before someone figured out something was wrong with me. The first and the second teacher just saw and heard me and went, ‘Yeah that looks about right’. They had no idea!” (Elsewhere, this Dumb-and-Dumber projection also helps him pull off regular pranks on his friends and comedy colleagues; this show is also full of little breather asides, most of which involve practical jokes).
This section also leads into a hilarious bit about ‘common core’ math, which his daughter is studying in primary school, currently. “I thought, it wouldn’t hurt me to do another revision,” Bargatze deadpans before biting into the heart of the matter—are we dumbing our kids down with lowest-common-denominator pedagogy (common core math often takes a longer series of steps to accomplish very basic arithmetic tasks; its strength is the ease with which it can be taught)? Coming from a self-confessed ‘dumb guy’ like Bargatze, that’s an indictment and then some.
The Greatest Average American finishes strongly, too, with Bargatze building off a topic he has discussed before, in his earlier specials—his status as a ‘cusp baby’, born in 1979 and hence somewhere in between the millennials and the Gen X-ers. “I grew up in two worlds,” he says, while joking about being a part of the “Oregon Trail” generation (after the super-popular text-based video game of the 1970s and 80s). The ramifications of this situation play out when Bargatze’s hotel room Chromecast stops working and the only two employees at hand are a Boomer and a Millennial, respectively. The setup is a little bit on the nose, you could argue, but the way it plays out is brutally funny.
That Bargatze is one of the most likeable guys in comedy was no secret. With The Greatest Average American, he also reminds us that he’s one of the canniest writers in the game.