Nick of all trades
Vatterott blazes his own trail.
On his cell phone’s voice mail message, stand-up comic Nick Vatterott says, “I’d like you to meet my manatee. His name is Hue.” We hear a muffled voice: “Look, that manatee got hit by a truck!” Then a crushed Vatterott exclaims, “No, my manatee! Oh, Hue…oh, the Hue manatee!”
The 29-year-old’s fearless inclination to be, as fellow comic Jeb Cadwell calls him, “confidently abstract,” has made him a favorite among peers. That, and the fact that he fiddles with bigger-picture stand-up structure, tying bits together by changing TV stations or traveling through time. It speaks to a larger resurgence of framed stand-up, seen recently in Mike Birbiglia’s narrative sets.
He’s finding success with a form we saw him deliver at Chicago Underground Comedy—though that form wasn’t readily apparent at first. He threw out a few zingers then ran around the stage while inexplicably chanting. Later he asked the audience if they were drinking beer, which elicited a mix of applause and whooping. “Shut up! I’m trying to tell jokes here!” he barked back. When he neared the end, Vatterott admitted he’d forgotten his next topic; so he consulted his set list, a novelty-sized poster that provided the delayed punch lines to his antics: “Recreate scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Ask audience a question, and chastise them for responding appropriately.”
Artistic mashing of the three comedy disciplines—improv, sketch and stand-up—has served Vatterott well. As his ChUC show illustrated, his stand-up is a mix of slipshod and sharp, à la improvisation. His sketch, which includes the memorable “Riverdance, but only from the waist up” scene, borrows too: Both Vatterott’s one-man show No Outlet and his itinerant, four-man Heavyweight group link the honed humor of stand-up with sketch’s through-lines.
Vatterott has wanted to blend it all ever since he arrived in Chicago six years ago from Missouri: While taking improv classes and attending stand-up open mikes in his free time, taping every show, he discovered that most comics stick to either the improv/sketch or stand-up world, leaving little room for crossover. “If someone likes comedy, wouldn’t they want to do it in as many ways as possible? I love them all. It’d be like picking a favorite kid.” For a while, he and recent Chicago success story TJ Miller were the only comics pursuing improv and stand-up simultaneously.
Today Vatterott works two distinct kinds of funny: He’s an understudy for the big-name Second City Touring Company, and he joins Klusterphuk for raucous midnight improv at iO. He also crops up all over the North Side stand-up bar circuit, while occasionally opening for out-of-towners at Zanies.
Yet his relationship with that Chicago institution (celebrating its 30th anniversary in November) didn’t get off on the best foot. He showcased a few times for Bert Haas, Zanies’ talent scout, but Haas admittedly didn’t “get” him. It wasn’t until Vatterott was arguably in his element—hosting a raw stand-up competition at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s 2006 Snubfest—that he clicked with Haas, who was seated at the judges’ table.
Vatterott’s club material has to be clear-cut: “People [at Zanies] like tangible things—jokes about holding the door open for people,” he says. He manages to put his own out-there spin on tired topics—a Greyhound bus ride becomes “like being in a moving alley”—but finds that some mainstream audiences get lost in his complexities.
“Recently, I’ve been trying to decide: If I was asked to do a Live at Gotham taping, would I want to do my seven tightest Zanies minutes or would I want to do the set-list thing?” he says. “The Zanies stuff is ‘more money for your bucks per second,’ but the set-list thing is more what I want to do. It sets me apart.”
Regardless of what he chooses, Vatterott’s already proven himself a stand-out stand-up. His commitment to comedy is unwavering, right down to his physical appearance: What ultimately got him to cut his shoulder-length hair (during an onstage bit) wasn’t his mother’s constant pleas. Instead, “I wanted to play more believable characters—to have my mailmen be more believable mailmen.”
Vatterott gets in on the Klusterphuk Saturday 29.