Home Star: Nate Bargatze Sets Bridgestone Arena Record

Nate Bargatze had his eye on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway for years.

As a young comic on the come up, it was a natural enough thing to think about.

What if? What if one day it’s not open mics and two-drink mediums at the comedy club? What if it’s me at the big building downtown?

Bargatze, who grew up in the Nashville area and still lives in the enclave of Old Hickory, remembers the first time he went inside the shiny silver building downtown (it was a Nashville Kats arena football game, for those of you keeping score at home). 

All the years he honed his craft on the road — going to Chicago and New York and Los Angeles and back again. Becoming “The Nicest Guy in Stand-Up.” Getting the specials and the headline spots at clubs. 

Somehow, none of that success made it seem any more possible that he’d play his hometown building.

“It was a daydream, it was such a far-off thing,” he tells Pollstar. “Playing at home, coming back home, has always been a big thing for me.”

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NATEVILLE: Nate Bargatze performs in front of a record 19,365 fans at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena April 15. Photo by Studio Moderne

So on his last tour, that meant a few turns at the Grand Ole Opry House across the river and at the Ryman Auditorium across the street. 

When it came time to route his current loop — “The Be Funny Tour” promoted by Outback Presents — he and his team thought this was the time. In addition to larger theaters and a run through Australia and New Zealand and even a night at the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, this would be the time he’d take on his hometown’s premier venue.

“We were aiming to the arena. That was the whole plan,” he says.

There were a few arena dates before he’d come back to Music City. He played Raleigh’s PNC Arena March 30 and PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh the next day. Combined, those shows sold 16,997 tickets with a total gross just north of $1 million, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports.

But the big fish, the white whale, would be Bridgestone Arena on April 15.

“We didn’t know we could get as big as we got,” Bargatze says.

In fairness, neither did the team at the arena. Country star Morgan Wallen set an attendance record for the building with his short-notice album-release show March 3, drawing 19,292.

Finding the top capacity at a building is as much art as science.

Lucky for Bargatze, he likes performing in the round, which affords the potential for a higher capacity than an end-stage configuration.

Bargatze said, as the show grew closer, there was a sort of murmur, a rumble of awareness that the building record could be a possibility.

And, of course, we all have egos and achievements and records are wonderful things for a performer. As deadpan and self-deprecating as Bargatze is, he is still personally proud of what he was able to accomplish at 501 Broadway. But Bargatze is also evangelical about his hometown’s comedy scene. 

Hundreds of thousands of gallons of ink have been spilled in defense of the thesis that Nashville is not just country music. Usually, the writers are extolling the virtues of a rock or pop or hip-hop scene that exists in the orbit of (or in defiance of) Music Row. 

But Nashville has a robust and increasingly successful and visible comedy scene, as well. In addition to Bargatze, there’s Brian Bates and Aaron Weber, his co-hosts on the podcast “Nateland.” There’s his pal Dusty Slay. James Austin Johnson, who portrays both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, wins critical and fan acclaim on “Saturday Night Live.” 

Bargatze often makes a point that because of his success and the success of others from Nashville on a national scale, there’s more attention paid to the scene, which means it’s less necessary for comics to go to the coasts. 

The Bridgestone Arena show was the big opening night splash for the Nashville Comedy Festival and besting the attendance set by Wallen, one of the hottest acts in country, would certainly be a feather in the cap of Nashville comedy.

“Once you hear [you have the chance at the record], you can’t not think about it,” Bargatze said. “You want to make sure if you get close, you break it. You don’t want at the end of the night, someone to come in and be like ‘you could have broke the record if…’.”

No sweat. With Slay, Bates and Weber in support, along with Nate’s dad, Stephen, a long-time Nashville comedy magician, who now often opens for his son (“He kills, he gets bigger laughs than I do,” Bargatze fils tells Pollstar exasperatedly), Bargatze stepped on to the stage at Bridgestone and left it with the arena’s record: 19,365, grossing $1,296,917. 

Less than two weeks later, Amazon announced he’d set the streaming record for a comedy special on the platform with more than 2.9 million views. 

Maybe April ain’t the cruelest month. And maybe, sometimes, nice guys finish first.