In his 2021 Netflix special, “The Greatest Average American,” Nate Bargatze tells a story about his marital spat over the meaning of the phrase “one fell swoop.” He admits it was a meaningless argument with his wife, but the type of thing that can go nuclear.
She wanted to visit her parents, who live apart. “And then when she went to describe this ‘one fell swoop’ trip, she goes, ‘We’ll go to my mom’s, come home, then go to my dad’s.’” Nonplussed, Bargatze pointed out “that’s not what one fell swoop means.” Both dug in, she insisting she had used the phrase correctly, and Bargatze sure he was finally going to win an argument. “What do you think two birds/one stone means?” he says. “Let’s just go through them all.”
Bargatze has been doing comedy for roughly as long as he’s been married, and he’s come to recognize the moments that inspire new material. “I could drive you to a spot where that [argument] happened,” he says, speaking by phone from Nashville, where he lives. “I remember the fight. And I remember thinking: This is very funny.”
Don’t worry: All is well with the marriage. It pains Bargatze to think of being mean onstage to anyone, let alone his family, so he’ll work it out before he tells that kind of story to an audience. “I get out of a lot of fights because after I apologize and make everything OK, I’m like, ‘I think I’m gonna tell that,’” he says. “And my wife’s always really great about it. She’s like, ‘All right, yeah, that’s funny.’”
That brand of humor has made Bargatze, a co-winner of the Boston Comedy Festival’s stand-up competition a dozen years ago, more popular than ever. He has recorded two one-hour Netflix specials, which followed his appearance on that streamer’s “The Standups” showcase. His shows happen mostly at large theaters these days — he plays a two-night stand at the Boch Center Wang Theatre Nov. 5-6. The album accompanying “Greatest Average American” was nominated for a Grammy this year. And his fans are dedicated — when he vaguely describes an old routine about iced coffee in the Netflix special, the mention elicits applause. “The fact that they know it, yeah, it’s wild,” he says.
Boston has played a part in Bargatze’s comic evolution. When he won the Boston Comedy Festival contest along with a comic named Saleem in 2010, he had already taped an episode of “Comedy Central Presents,” which would debut a few months later. “It made me realize, like, all right, I think I am doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing,” he says.
In New York, where the Tennessee native had moved in 2004 to pursue stand-up, he fell in with a crowd that included Boston transplants Bill Burr, Patrice O’Neal, and Robert Kelly, and Harvard grad Greg Giraldo. Those were the comics that Bargatze looked up to as he was starting out, and he still feels a sense of the old pecking order. “If Bobby told me to go get him a Diet Coke, I would just go get it,” he says of Kelly. “Because it’s like he was here. He was, you know, he’s the older comic.”
His act, with no profanity and a reluctance to mix it up with the crowd, was in contrast to those of many of the comedians he befriended. “There was a conscious effort to be clean,” he says. “And then the other effort was to be clean and hopefully no one notices.”
Bargatze will make himself the heel in his material. He’ll say he’s dumb, that he doesn’t know how rain works, or that he bought two of the same reversible jacket because he wanted it in both colors. He’s a smart writer at the height of his comic powers. But tell him that a dumb guy couldn’t write the way he does, and he deflects.
“Yeah, well,” he says, “I’ll come see you in Boston. I’ll show you around.”
Bargatze relents slightly. “I’m very good at my world, as far as the comedy. I’m not college-educated. I don’t know a lot of big words. You know, there’s a lot of stuff like that — it does not make you dumb at all.” But he stands by an old routine about traveling back in time and not being able to convince the locals he was from the future. “I don’t think I could,” he says. “I don’t know what I would tell them.”
When comparing Bargatze’s act 10 years ago to now, he almost seems like a different person. The more jokey material has blossomed into structured stories. His rhythms are stronger, the deadpan sharper. He’s drawing laughs from his life rather than looking for a quick one-two punch. “You just learn your voice, and [the] stuff that won’t really feel like something funny, you can make it funny,” he says. “And [I] just have more access to material than I would have 10 years ago.”
At the Boch Center Wang Theatre, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m., Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets from $39. www.bochcenter.org
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.