I don’t know about you, but this last year has been pretty tough.
We’ve all been desperate for some kind of relief during the pandemic, anything that can take our minds off the seclusion and the loneliness and the fear of what had once been everyday activities. Comedy would be an ideal way to help with that, but due to the nature of the virus and how it spreads, stand-up isn’t safe right now. Laughs come out of the same hole as the coronavirus, after all, and a stand-up show without laughs is basically just a speech—as Nate Bargatze points out in his new Netflix special, The Greatest Average American.
To their credit, Bargatze and Netflix take precautions. The special was shot outdoors, at Universal Studios Hollywood, which leads to a recurring riff on the number of helicopters that fly overhead during the taping. The audience is small and masked, and tables are spread out. The only unmasked person on camera is Bargatze, and the nearest tables are set well back from the stage. His style of comedy should survive these precautions better than other comics, as he doesn’t really do crowd work or interact with the audience that much. He’s able to stand there and tell his shaggy, self-deprecating, dryly hilarious stories about his life and his family, and as a viewer I didn’t find myself that worried or concerned about the safety of his audience.
Still, Bargatze’s set points out some of the challenges posed to comedians by the general state of pandemic-era stand-up shows. The Greatest Average American, while very funny at times, can feel a little too shaggy at others. Bargatze has been doing outdoor and drive-in shows throughout the shutdown, but between less opportunities to perform and a less direct connection to the audience, I wonder if he wasn’t able to refine his current set as much as he would have in normal times. He’s always been a low-key, conversational comic, but never as loose as he might appear, whereas there’s a shambolic, off-the-cuff vibe here that wasn’t quite present in his previous specials.
That doesn’t sink the show, though. This hour is full of sharp observations and hilarious insights into regularly life, from what it’s like to watch your parents age, to the depressing, lawless land that is a Chuck E. Cheese. Bargatze’s understated mockery of lax Covid protocols will land for anybody who’s ever had to get their temperature taken by an indifferent teenager making minimum wage, and he nicely taps into that curious sense of relief felt by those born in the two-year gap between Generation X and Millennials.
In normal times, if Bargatze had been able to thoroughly work this material in front of larger audiences in traditional venues, The Greatest Average American might’ve been the equal of his last special, The Tennessee Kid—or even better. It’s not quite up to that level, but it’s still a refreshing break from the doom and gloom that persists, even as we seem to finally be approaching the finish line. And although it might be a little too loose, at least it’ll serve as a weird curio of this particular moment of time, which should give it some unique historical interest.
Nate Bargatze’s The Greatest Average American is now streaming on Netflix.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.