The joke Nate Bargatze comes back to throughout his new Netflix special, The Greatest Average American, is that he, Nate Bargatze, isn’t that bright. It’s something he embraces but also something he turns around and uses for his benefit. His grades in school were a joke, and his ability to help his daughter with her schoolwork now is a joke. Early in the special, he makes a crack about buying two of the same reversible jacket because he wanted to own it in both colors: a small, silly joke about benign cluelessness making its way through the world. By happily displaying and goofing on his own ignorance or seeming slowness, though, Bargatze gets to open the door to seeing cluelessness everywhere. He’s not making fun of them, all the dazed and out-of-it people of the world; he can laugh at them because he’s one of them too.
There’s a guy at an airport and a guy at the waffle station of a hotel’s continental-breakfast buffet. (Waffle-station guy is my favorite.) There’s also Bargatze’s own colleague, another comedian whom Bargatze manages to pull a prank on when Bargatze pulls a gag where — what else? Bargatze claims to not know something. It’s a place he either points at or implies in nearly every joke in the special, a “Wow, how did you make it this far without knowing that?” kind of place, and he locates it in his own life and in the lives of others. There’s a collective warmth to it. It’s hard to point out someone’s specific obliviousness without coming off as mean, but in Bargatze’s treatment, there’s an invitation for universal awareness. Sure, we’re going to laugh at the waffle-station guy, but we’re also going to laugh at Bargatze, and we’re going to laugh at ourselves, too. Who among us, after all, has not been the confidently wrong waffle guy at some point in our lives?
That central idea fits nicely with the onstage persona Bargatze has developed. He speaks slowly, casually, with the cadence of someone who just happens to be telling you the story of a thing that happened to him recently. He shrugs and occasionally puts his hands in his pockets. He’s just an average guy who somehow found himself standing up on this stage with a mic in his hand.
All of that belies how well constructed the jokes are, how carefully Bargatze has balanced the hour so that its casual, chill tone seems obvious and natural when it’s something he has built with meticulous attention. It’s the little joke of the special’s title: He’s the greatest of the average Americans. But it’s an idealized averageness because his casualness is supremely relaxed, and there’s an unflappable confidence in Bargatze’s deadpan delivery. He’s a regular dude, and he’s not going to pull out dramatic lighting or big physical acts or stunts because he can’t. And because he doesn’t have to.
The show is filmed in an outdoor space, and Bargatze opens with a short section of material about 2020 and COVID. He has performed at a lot of drive-in shows where it’s embarrassing when someone wants to leave early, and he’s dubious about the temperature-taking strategies of the teenager standing at the door to Buffalo Wild Wings. It’s not much, but it’s a relief to see some acknowledgment of the circumstances, even if the acknowledgment itself is a little perfunctory. Maybe there’s nothing especially elaborate Bargatze wants to say about being a comedian in 2020. It’s not a topic he lingers on for long.