A reputation as a middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-country, middle-class mid-size city has been on the back of Peoria, Illinois, since the days of vaudeville.
The central Illinois city maybe didn’t deserve that burden — for one thing, because in the vaudeville days, it was rather more well known for its licentiousness than its banality — but, to use one cliche to explain another, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, so Peoria entered the lexicon as the first representative market, with the earliest agents asking “Will it play in Peoria?”
America’s demographics have shifted enormously so Peoria isn’t truly the median city these days but don’t expect the old turn of phrase to disappear.
Take Nate Bargatze, for example.
Comedy’s dry, relatable nice guy is as well known for his comedic cleanliness as he is for his jokes — slow-building self-deprecators with punchlines so delicate they don’t deserve the pugilistic nomenclature.
Does Nate Bargatze play in Peoria?
Absolutely he does. Which is exactly where he was when Pollstar caught up with him.
Bargatze was prepping for a weekday date at the Peoria Civic Center, part of a two-night stand Nov. 1-2 as he warms up for the next leg of his Outback Presents-promoted “Be Funny” tour, which is almost exclusively arenas, a first for the Old Hickory, Tennessee, native.
Even into the 1990s, Peoria’s location and famous averageness meant concert tours often launched there, letting artists tweak the show before hitting the bigger markets.
Bargatze has been doing a little adjusting himself, because his gig before Peoria was at the famous Studio 8H at New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza as he hosted “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 28.
For one thing, he’d been in bigger rooms — and the next leg of “Be Funny” will take him to bigger ones still — and the timing for a large theater and the friendly confines of the SNL studio is totally different, thus he gave his monologue a test run at New York comedy clubs in the week before the episode.
Bargatze earned broad praise for that monologue, as well as for his portrayal of George Washington and for “Lake Beach,” a song tribute to the Middle Tennessee pastime of splashing about in lukewarm lake water.
Bargatze doesn’t just play in Peoria — he now plays just about everywhere.
“‘Clean’ doesn’t mean it’s not fun or silly,” he says, unabashed in his admiration for how the often heavily political, bluer writers on SNL crafted jokes and sketches to suit his style.
Bargatze, 43, grew up in a household heavy on wholesome entertainment — his dad is a locally famous magician — and remembers when raunchier comedy erupted in the 1980s and 1990s to the degree that sexually-charged and otherwise envelope-pushing comedy now just seems normal.
“The pendulum is swinging back,” he says “It’s definitely a shift.”
And it’s not that Bargatze is hokey. He’s as funny and modern as anyone on the circuit; it’s just that no one would cringe if their parents caught them watching his set.
And broad appeal means big grosses. Bargatze finished at No. 7 on Pollstar’s comedy charts, grossing nearly $22.5 million (see page 27).
After a year of successes — he set the attendance record at his hometown Bridgestone Arena in April with 19,365 tickets sold (grossing $1.3 million) and set a comedy record at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City to boot with 29,251 tickets sold over two shows Sept. 29-30 (grossing $2.1 million) — Bargatze has proof of concept: there’s an audience for what he and others like him are offering (and money left on the table if it’s not offered).
“It shows that the audience is there that wants to see it. It works,” he says. “To be able to do this at that high of a level … It made me feel like I was on to something.”
Thus: Nateland Presents, a new branch of the Nateland universe (“empire” is a far too aggressive word for anything the understated Bargatze is involved with), which already includes an eponymous podcast with fellow stand-ups Brian Bates, Aaron Weber and Dusty Slay, who all do turns opening for Bargatze on the road.
Through Nateland Presents, Bargatze produced and directed specials from Greg Warren, Mike Vecchione and Joe Zimmerman. In addition, the company is producing “The Showcase,” sets by up-and-comers taped at Nashville’s Zanies and hosted by Bates, Weber and Slay.
Bargatze intends to do more of the same, even as he continues his busy touring schedule, prepping for specials of his own and acting as the top act for Universal Music Group’s new Capitol Comedy label.
“We’ve done three specials. We’ve done ‘The Showcase’ with a bunch of comedians and the idea is that they’re ‘TV clean.’ Stand-up was the easiest way to get started,” he says. “We have plans to expand. It’d be nice to have another podcast that fits into our world and then TV shows and movies eventually, kind of creating its own world. I’ll go as far as the world wants me to.”
For now, that means honing his own act and prepping for a new special and then “gear it up.”
In his SNL monologue, Bargatze alluded to his success being a shock to tastemakers; he’s as surprised as anyone else. Shock or naw, he’ll be in major arenas all year, though a quirk of the routing is illustrative of his rise. In December, two stops at Atlanta’s State Farm Arena sandwich a play at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Before he heads back to Florida for a New Year’s Eve show at Amerant Bank Arena in Sunrise, he has to run up to Iowa real quick to perform at theaters in Ottumwa and Davenport, two shows that had to be rescheduled due to his SNL prep.
He’ll hit big cities on the tour — Toronto and Boston to Anaheim and San Jose, Phoenix to Philadelphia — but he’ll still be there in Ottumwa, the Quad Cities and Poughkeepsie.
Bargatze can still play Peoria and he’s going to show the world there are others who can, too.