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The Stand-Up Who Brought Low-Key Chuckles to ‘SNL’

The announcement that the stand-up comedian Nate Bargatze would be hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend was met in some corners with a bit of confusion. When SNL goes the stand-up route for a host, it usually plucks an alum (John Mulaney, for instance) or a household name (Dave Chappelle, for example) to do the job. Bargatze is certainly popular, well known for specials on Netflix and Amazon that highlight clean jokes about family quirks, but SNL offered him perhaps his biggest platform to date to demonstrate to unfamiliar viewers who he is.

The uninitiated got a show that leaned on the Tennessee-born Bargatze’s folksiness and ability to make wry conclusions about modern life through his average viewpoint. The evening’s best sketches gave him space to deliver understated comedy about everyday topics.

Bargatze established the tone for the night in his monologue—essentially a mini set—which he began by noting how old he felt, as someone from the 1900s. “The world is so future now,” he said. Other bits included a run about his magician dad getting upstaged by a donkey at a county fair and his mom getting lost on the way to pick up his daughter. In her confusion, she knocked on the wrong door and came upon another grandmother, an encounter he described “like two dogs seeing each other through a fence” and getting distracted; he had to go pick up his daughter himself. These are jokes that establish him as an offbeat but essentially relatable dude who finds life a bit exhausting.

That vibe continued in an early sketch that saw Bargatze playing George Washington as he delivered a pep talk to his soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The comedian was essentially still offering up a version of himself, using a quiet delivery that didn’t lean hard on punch lines. As Washington, he expounded on his dream for the United States, where the people could be free to “choose our own systems of weights and measures.”

What followed was an extended riff on the U.S.’s choice to abandon the metric system—and, by extension, a parody of the American vision of liberty. “I dream that one day our proud nation will measure weights in pounds, and that 2,000 pounds shall be called a ‘ton,’” Washington said. When a soldier played by Bowen Yang asked, “And what will 1,000 pounds be called, sir?,” Bargatze deadpanned, “Nothing.” As Bargatze’s Washington waxed poetic about various bizarre American measurements, such as “rulers with two sets of numbers: inches on one side, centimeters on the other,” that “won’t line up and never will,” another soldier (Kenan Thompson) chimed in, asking, “And the slaves, sir, what of them?” Washington ignored the question. The beat landed potently, in part because Bargatze played the general as a slightly dim everyman whose priorities would influence the new nation.

Other sketches leveraged Bargatze’s image as a basic white guy. In one, the show cast him as an affable chef on a cooking competition who kept apologizing to a panel of Black judges for cooking soul food better than his Black opponent (Ego Nwodim). In another, a Halloween parody of Hallmark movies, he was a boy-next-door serial killer whom Chloe Fineman fell for in her hometown. And, along with Dave Grohl of the musical guest Foo Fighters, he appeared in a fake video for a country song about “hangin’ on a lake beach,” singing enthusiastically about the pleasures of “slipping on slimy rocks all day long.”

But Bargatze’s appeal was clearest when there was the least fanfare. In “Airplane,” Fineman portrayed a woman going into labor on a flight. When her partner (Devon Walker) asked if there was a doctor on board, Bargatze stood up and declared, “I’m a lawyer.” After he was told that wasn’t what they needed, he went on, “I’m just saying, pretty good job, you know? If it’s not a doctor, second-best job is lawyer.” The rest of the sketch was a debate about what was actually the second-best job; everyone booed a passenger (Chloe Troast) who announced that she was a teacher. It was a smart little sketch about the hierarchy of respect that applies to professions in this country, with an approval-seeking Bargatze leading the discussion. His character wanted to be applauded for being a lawyer, which is solid work. A teacher? No one cares.

Bargatze’s SNL was always going to be a low-key one, simply because of his level of fame; his appearance was never going to inspire fervent adoration. (Just imagine the Gen Z frenzy that will hit in two weeks when Timothée Chalamet hosts alongside the musical guest boygenius.) But Bargatze and the show’s writers used the lack of expectations to make some chuckle-worthy observations about the world around them. And that was just enough.

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