Cleanin’ Up! Nate Bargatze’s Breaking Arena Records His Way

Nate Bargatze at the Paycom Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, October 22, 2023 (Photo by Mike Lavin)

Let him cook.

When a basketball player can’t miss, you let him cook. You let him keep doing what he’s doing. You don’t mess with a streak.

Such advice, rendered in various ways, has been standard in sports for eons. Comedian Nate Bargatze is no doubt aware of the instruction, being a big sports fan himself — he’s a long-suffering Vanderbilt Commodores fan; there is no other way to be a Vandy fan as supporting the ‘Dores is one of the greatest character-building exercises known to man.

And yet…

“I was in Oklahoma City before ‘Saturday Night Live’ and I had a story pop up that I thought I could tell and I was gonna try to close on it,” Bargatze tells Pollstar. “In my head I’m like, ‘If I close on this new joke I might be the best comic that’s ever lived,’ and so I try it and it gets nothing,” he says.

It turned out fine, ultimately. Bargatze had a back-up joke lined up just in case, made fun of himself for botching the new bit, got a big laugh and headed off to New York City for “SNL” rehearsals.

Some people just can’t miss and Bargatze is on an enviable run.

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NASHVILLE IS NATELAND: Nate Bargatze performs at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena April 15, 2023, drawing 19,365, a record crowd at the 27-year-old building, breaking the previous mark of 19,292 set by Morgan Wallen for his short-notice album-release show March 3. Photo by Studio Moderne

In April 2023, Bargatze set the attendance record at his hometown building, Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, drawing 19,365 and grossing $1.3 million. On the (still-ongoing) “Be Funny” tour, produced by Outback Presents, he set the comedy record at Salt Lake City’s Delta Center (29,251 over two shows, grossing $2.1 million) in September and at Columbus, Ohio’s Nationwide Arena in January 2024 (26,793 tickets over two shows; combined gross: $2.1 million).

The next day, he set the comedy record in Cincinnati at the Heritage Bank Center. Another two shows, another 28,226 tickets; another $2.1 million. To sum up, in Ohio in January, he played four shows, set two records, drew more than 55,000 people and grossed more than $4.2 million, in three days.

The day after those Cincinnati shows? Literally the next day: two performances at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center. A record 24,588, grossing more than $1.5 million. Jan. 19, a record at Santander Arena in Reading, Pennsylvania, his 8,896 tickets breaking an 11-year-old mark set by Phish. And then he drew 19,006 for two shows in one day at Everett, Washington’s Angel of the Winds Arena, a record single-day for the building.

In February, he set the single-day record at Kansas City’s TMobile Arena (besting Kevin Hart), the comedy record at Estero, Florida’s Hertz Arena and wrapped it all up Feb. 23 by breaking the 30-year-old attendance record at Fairfax, Virginia’s Eagle Bank Arena.
And during all that, yes, he hosted “SNL” Oct. 28 with a well-received monologue and some memorable sketches. And it was the highest-rated episode of the season. Oh, and he tried that joke in Oklahoma City.

Bargatze’s on-stage demeanor of an aw-shucks, oft-flummoxed naif plays very authentically. It’s cozy and comfortable, like the lifelong buddy who is a guaranteed good hang and tells relatable stories in the funniest, low-key way. And Bargatze is that guy, but there’s a lot of work and preparation that goes into that.

“He loves the art of stand up,” Brillstein Entertainment Partners’ Alex Murray, who along with Tim Sarkes, manages Bargatze, says. “He’s a real student of the craft and he takes it seriously. He makes it look effortless. Every pause is worked out but the authenticity still comes through.”

Bargatze spends a lot of time thinking about comedy so that it comes off naturally spontaneous.

“Everybody is funny,” Bargatze insists. “Everybody’s made someone laugh. It’s being able to do that in front of people who don’t know you is the difference between being just funny and being professionally funny and that’s something that you have to learn.”

Bargatze knew from an early age that it was possible to make a living on stage, making people laugh. His father, Stephen, is a locally famous magician in Nashville and had an influence on his son that the latter didn’t really grasp until he got older.

“I think my timing inherently comes from that,” Nate says. “I did not realize at the beginning but then the longer I’ve done it I can tell how much my rhythm has come from him and being around him and being funny and trying to make people laugh.”

In a year where Bargatze can’t stop setting records at arenas all over the country, in a year where he hosted the highest-rated episode of “SNL” of the season, in a year where he’ll play the Hollywood Bowl with some of the biggest names in comedy of the last three decades, he still works hard. He still goes down to Zanies in Nashville on random Tuesday nights to try out jokes for 15 minutes.

There are no shortcuts with Bargatze, but the path he’s on is all his own. When he decided to do comedy, he tried it the traditional way, heading to Chicago (he had a buddy who wanted to catch on with Second City) and New York and Los Angeles.

Bargatze had been a guest on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show, but was still primarily a club comedian, working five to seven sets a night around New York, as Joe Schwartz, comedy touring agent at United Talent Agency, remembers, but Nate had a big fan who was about to get a big gig himself.

2023 NHL Awards Show
THE (N)ICEMAN COMETH: Nate Bargatze speaks onstage at the 2023 NHL Awards at Bridgestone Arena on June 26, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo by Dave Sandford / NHLI / Getty Images

“He was known out there and then when Jimmy Fallon got ‘The Tonight Show,’ he started bringing him on all the time,” Schwartz says. “He was actually the third comedian on ‘The Tonight Show’ once he got it after only Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. … I don’t think he was even selling out comedy clubs yet.”

As part of the roll out for Fallon’s “Tonight Show” takeover in 2013, he and Lorne Michaels wanted to do a “whistlestop tour,” as UTA Partner and Head of Comedy Touring Nick Nuciforo says, and Fallon had to have Bargatze.

“He was absolutely gushing about Nate. Nate was a must-have for that tour,” Nuciforo says. “It’s the first time I’d ever really spent any time with him, and he was really, really special. And I knew that right away.”

When Schwartz came over to UTA in 2017, he brought Bargatze with him. Though Bargatze had two successful comedy albums under his belt — 2014’s Yelled At By A Clown and Full Time Magic a year later — it was his first hour special on Netflix, 2017’s “The Tennessee Kid,” that really showcased his everyman brand of curse-free comedy, spreading the news off the coasts and into the heartland where he’d find his audience.

“We knew the power of his clean comedy and the opportunity that opens for somebody because it gives you more places you can play. It plays to a larger audience, a multi-generational audience,” Nuciforo says. “There was a massive opportunity, and I had seen that throughout my career, working with comedians like Jim Gaffigan and the Blue Collar guys, understanding the power of playing all of America, and he has that ability.”


Nuciforo and Schwartz worked to transition Bargatze to theaters, in large part because his audience was hesitant to go to clubs.

COVID put the brakes on his ascension in 2020, though he, like other comics, found some success with drive-in tours and similar set-ups.

“I don’t think he looks fondly on those shows, like any comedian,” Schwartz said. T

he timing was difficult, for starters, because of the delay between the joke, piping the joke into a car radio and the audience’s reaction, which may not be apparent to the comedian at all if, for example, the laugher has their car windows rolled up.

That can be especially challenging for a comic like Bargatze, whose punchlines often live in the quiet parts of the joke and whose expert timing is a big factor in the humor. It’s something he’s had to deal with as he moved from clubs to theaters to arenas (and sometimes, because of scheduling quirks and his fairly quick move from theaters to arenas, back again).

“Your rhythm is a little different. If you’re in a club — not that I’m ever super fast — but for my own timing it can be quicker versus arenas, where you can let stuff breathe. I’m still learning more and more about that. I know I can wait a second in an arena and I might need to be more on top of it in a club,” Bargatze says.

And if transitioning to different venue types is an adjustment, imagine what he had to go through for the taping of “The Greatest Average American,” his 2021 Netflix special.

“It was at Universal Studios theme park (in California) right adjacent to Harry Potter and The Simpsons. It was wedged in between the two of them. They built an outdoor stage, and the producer came in and put round-top tables so that people could socially distance,” Nuciforo remembers. “And what we didn’t know is the number of helicopters that would be going overhead that night, even culminating in a police chase during the second show.”

That’s Hollywood, baby.

Bargatze’s team focuses on inflection points — moments like Fallon’s “Clean Cut Comedy Tour” or the Netflix specials — that acted like turbo boosters for Bargatze’s career, pushing him up another level. “Greatest Average American” moved him into larger theaters and then his Amazon Prime Video special — “Hello World,” released in January 2023 — was such a resounding success that it made it clear that he wouldn’t be long in theaters either.

“After the Amazon special aired, it resonated with an audience and he couldn’t keep up with the bookings. He was outgrowing venues. We couldn’t keep him there,” Murray said.
And while picking Amazon to release the special raised a few eyebrows inside comedy — Netflix’s hold on the specials market is strong — Schwartz says that decision was a recognition of where Nate’s audience is.

“Amazon is an essential lifeline to those that live a little bit outside of a city,” he says. “And it’s free: you get access to Amazon Prime Video with a membership to Amazon Prime. And we understood who they were serving and super-serving. We understood the demographics of Amazon, and collectively, as a team, in conjunction with his managers, Nate made a very deliberate decision to place ‘Hello World’ on their platform.”

The Amazon special, the multi-night theater run and the Bridgestone sellout raised his profile enough that Lorne Michaels & Co. came calling for the “SNL” gig, which led to “Who is Nate Bargatze?” being a top search topic on Google.

People would know soon enough, as Bargatze’s multi-night, record-setting run proved. He does have a little advantage, though. He likes playing in the round, which affords a bigger capacity than end-stage and Nuciforo admits, they’ll get aggressive.

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THE PEOPLE’S CHAMPION: Nate Bargatze walks through the crowd at Everett, Washington’s Angel of the Winds Arena Jan. 27, 2024. Bargatze performed two shows, drawing 19,003 and grossing a total of more than $1.45 million, according to Pollstar Boxoffice reports.
Photo by Mike Lavin

“We definitely have been known to shrink a stage to fit more seats,” he says. “He likes the intimacy of what that means as a performer to the audience, and I think it speaks highly to just how captivating he is as a performer that he’s able to command the stage like that in the round. People really are hanging on his every word.”

But you still have to fill those extra seats and that means seizing the opportunities.

“Joe and I and management very deliberately put the next run of dates up on sale to coincide with “SNL” and that caught fire in a way that we had hoped,” Nuciforo says. “And now he went from being an arena comedian to being a multi-arena, sellout comedian. It just absolutely poured gasoline on it.”

Bargatze opens his shows now with a video of the George Washington sketch from “SNL” — the future president rallies Revolutionary War troops by telling them they are fighting to preserve America’s quixotic system of weights and measures. He says a fan even dressed up like Washington when attending a show. “SNL” supercharged his success in a way the specials don’t, because “SNL” is, of course, live.

“It was the quickest, because it was straight to the air,” he says. “It’s just a mainstream thing to do. It’s been part of the mainstream for almost 50 years and it’s just completely amped up everything.”

The next big tentpole: two nights at the Hollywood Bowl during “Netflix Is A Joke” in May with Jerry Seinfeld, Sebastian Maniscalco and Jim Gaffigan. Nuciforo says the unifying trait is that Seinfeld selected comics he loved to join him. Not a bad endorsement.

“Be Funny” runs through the summer and then Bargatze’s due for some time off. A special is likely to be released at the end of 2024 and that sets up yet another big year, but first: a break.

“I want 2025 to be a big, big tour as well, so it’ll be nice to at least get off the road a little bit,” he says. Bargatze, always thinking about craft, knows his sweet spot is the relatable and everyday, so he has to live that life for awhile.

“You don’t want to end up on stage just talking about travel … so I need to be home and just be living a normal life,” he says.

He’s got Nateland, his company that produces the eponymous podcast and has started producing short specials that are, as he puts it “TV clean.”

“It’s a place where comics can go and put stuff out and hopefully get seen and build comics into where they can start being a draw and they can start headlining and really showing that you can do this without going to LA or New York,” he says.

He’s open to working with anybody so long as they meet that TV-clean standard.

“I hope it helps show them that this audience is still massive and they want to be able to go and see stuff. There’s plenty of dirty standup comedy, so it’s building up the clean side a little bit to have a nice balance,” he says “I honestly think some dirty should probably be a little cleaner, you know?”

Point being: using some restraint might make for better art. Remember Robert Frost’s admonition that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net?

On the business side, Nateland is in the process of hiring a CEO and that opens the doors for more opportunities.

“We’ve got this audience, now what do we do with this audience?” as Nuciforo says.
Basically, whatever Bargatze feels is right.

“He has a clear idea of what he wants to do,” manager Tim Sarkes says, “We are now in the incoming call business, but he has a very calculated vision for himself as to what he wants to do and how he wants to build it. … The great thing about comedy is they control their own distribution. If you are smart, you can forge your own path and he’s really smart. You don’t need to have a viral TikTok if you are smart about it and he’s really smart and he makes it very easy.”

And his 2025 may make this 2024 record run seem quaint, but all the results are borne of a guy who works really hard at an art-form he cares a lot about.

“He built this career brick-by-brick by putting in the time and effort to become a master at the craft of standup comedy,” Nuciforo says. “And what’s launched him more than anything is the incredibly high quality of the comedy that he’s creating and delivering to the world. There’s no shortcuts here. There’s no filler.”

Let him cook.