Reggie Watts: Master of the absurd

By | May 17, 2010 at 10:12 am | 2 comments | Features | Tags: , ,

Nobody’s quite sure what to make of Reggie Watts— not even Reggie Watts.

This happens when you’ve never done the same show twice. Watts, the New York-via-Seattle absurdist-via-music, is doing what hardly anybody dares in the world of stand-up comedy — making it all up as he goes. Armed with a loop machine and a willingness to let his mind wander far from the dock, Watts creates sprawling, ear-tickling songs that are punctuated by laughter but typically only after untying a pretzel of deep thought. Nothing is ever repeated — he creates each beat and lyric in the moment, and his upcoming CD/DVD from Comedy Central, Why Shit So Crazy?, is an amalgam of tracks hatched at different shows.

These things are certain: It’s fascinating, it’s made him a cult hero among fellow performers and it’s chewing up audiences like brushfire. Watts, a veteran of Bonnaroo, SXSW, Bumbershoot and stages throughout Europe, Australia and Africa, was hand-picked as the opening act for Conan O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited from Being Funny On Television Tour, which continues through June 14; the tour found him in Dallas when he chatted with Punchline Magazine about how he operates.

The most astonishing track on this new album is “My History Thus Far,” a 15-minute ballad that progresses in gravity from a story of growing up in Idaho to New York friendships “of the druggish variety” to life as a performing nomad to our human endowment to choose our own reality; it’s a seamless and beautiful stream of consciousness that’s punctuated with someone from the crowd yelling with a sincerity not typically heard on comedy albums: “You’re a genius, Reggie Watts!”

“Thank you, sir,” he replies cheerily. “We’re all geniuses. Let’s go out and destroy the world!”

Were you a fan of comedy growing up?
Yeah, I loved comedy at all levels — cartoons, Abbott and Costello, slapstick like Sanford and Son. With HBO, I fell in love with George Carlin, Steven Wright, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby. Gilda Radner, comedic actresses like Carol Burnett. I loved it. I was a big fan, and I was always looking for a way to make people laugh.

How does your style fit into what people traditionally expect from comedians like that?
It works to my advantage, I think. People don’t know what to expect, and I just kind of go for it. It works like that. People who know what I do, they don’t necessarily know what I’m going to do. And then people that haven’t seen me, get to let that unfold for them however they want it, whether they think it’s ridiculous or they love it for an hour and a half, so at least it’s interesting.

Have you ever tried to work with a script?
I’ve always been improvised. The thought of writing down my solo performances is just horrifying to me.

Why is that?
I don’t like having to think about structure when I go up. I don’t want to think about specific things like a set list. I like to have the flexibility of saying whatever comes to mind.

How has that process evolved? Do you ever do a show and feel like you didn’t really get to anything?
It’s one of those shows where you want to do the best you can, but still, with improvisation, it’s a give and take type of element where sometimes something is working and sometimes it’s not, but you just have to keep moving and try different things. Not every night will be something that you’re proud of.

Is that the beauty of it, that the next show is always a new start?
Exactly. Someone’s going to find something entertaining about it, so it’s never a total loss.

Have there ever been crowds that just couldn’t follow along?
Sometimes you read the audience wrong and you feel like they’re not into it, and some audiences are quieter than others. There have been times where I thought, these people hate me. But for the most part, audiences seem to like it. But you know, I always hear back from people or I have a Google alert that says, ‘I didn’t get it. That guy was lame. That guy wasn’t funny.’ Which is fine, but I always get a little … I wish I could talk to that person and say, well, this is why you thought this was this. But you can’t do that. You can’t explain why someone doesn’t like you. You can’t explain someone into liking something necessarily.

How did you hook up with the Conan tour?
A couple friends of mine were writers for the Tonight Show, so when Conan and his crew were determining what they wanted for the show and they started talking about the opening act, they recommended me and then Conan went and checked it out on YouTube and asked me to be part of the tour.

It’s been amazing. Everybody in the crew and all the performers are all just great people. The level of production, I’ve definitely experienced in one-off shows but not as consistently. It’s an amazing thing to be part of because it’s definitely not something I can afford at this point in my life. So it’s great to see how it’s done.

Have all the stories you use on the album really happened?
No, it’s a mixture of both. Sometimes I tell a story that actually happened, but I’d say more often than not I just make up things that could be real.

Have you encountered other comedians who are trying something similar?
Not exactly. But my friend Rory Scovel, an amazing comedian, we kind of share a similar thing. He usually riffs at the beginning of his sets, and I love when he does that, and I totally get it. His jokes are amazing but they still have that fresh, experimental quality to them. People like them or Baron Vaughn or T.J. Miller, he riffs a lot. We definitely connect on that level.

It’s harder to find someone who does music. Most people that do musical comedy, they sit down and write jokes and write music and then perform it. I don’t know anybody else that goes and improvises. The closest guy I’d say is a guy named Beardyman from the UK. He definitely has a flair for the absurd and the ridiculous, but I wouldn’t necessarily call him a comedian comedian. That’s coming from me, so take that with a grain of salt. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that evolves for him, because he’s mainly a beatboxer and has these amazing machines that he’s rigged himself.

He’s a lot more technologically refined than me, and he’s technically a lot more proficient than me. He can do some really amazing stuff with the things he has. But he’s not necessarily a comedian, so it’s interesting to see, with us hanging out with each other in New York and London and having conversations on performance, he’s become more interested. So we’ll see. It could be cool.

Do you consider yourself a comedian?
I consider myself a comedic performer.

How do you make that distinction?
I’m definitely not a stand-up comedian per se, although I’m included in that world which is really amazing and an honor. I think of myself more as performer who uses comedic elements.

It takes a certain leap of faith to get up there and do what you do, but also for whoever’s putting on the show. You did Jimmy Fallon, and I’m sure they don’t have many acts like you where they don’t necessarily know what’s going to come. Have there ever been people who don’t want to take that chance?
Of course. There have been many times where I’ve submitted or my manager submitted for even the Conan O’Brien show and they’re like, ‘Ummmmm, I don’t know.’ It was great on Jimmy Fallon, I remember the producer calling me up and saying, ‘You’re not going to do anything not appropriate for TV, right?’ And then it’s me saying, ‘No, no, don’t worry about it,’ and they have to take my word for it. So yeah, it is a leap of faith. I enjoy getting to perform in those situations because my aim is to not be a dick when I get up there.

I want to fall in line with the show. I want people to come up afterward and say, ‘Thanks, that was good. I don’t have to worrry about that anymore.’

How did you enjoy your Fallon performance?
It was my first time improvising in front of a large audience, so I think that it was good. I got all the points I needed to get in. Watching it again, I wish had done things little bit differently. I would’ve just made it a little bit more fluid, kept things moving, sold it a little better. I did the best I could so I’m very forgiving of that.

Do you typically critique yourself like that?
There are people that will mention parts of a show they really liked and I’ll take note of that, or sometimes I’ll look online — there are a lot of videos of the Conan tour, and I’ll watch those and go, that’s right, I remember that thing I did, that was interesting. I’ll watch like that, but I won’t necessarily break it down break it down.

What other accomplishments are you proud of?
I’d say winning the Andy Kaufman Award, which is an award started by Andy Kaufman’s estate. You apply for it and then you get to perform on stage and in front of judges, a peer kind of review. It was a crazy thing to be part of. The best part was getting to see all the different performers, and we still see each other around. It was definitely the closest thing to having a family of people that are close to what I do.

Was there a specific criteria or brand of humor they were looking for?
Sort of odd stuff off the beaten path. I really didn’t think about it too much, I just did what I do and just hoped it would work out.

What are the biggest challenges of life as a performer?
It’s mainly just staying healthy on the road, keeping yourself connected and grounded as much as possible during the whole process. It’s mainly just me making sure I’m not being a complete idiot and treating myself horribly.

I go to the gym in the hotel and work out or do pushups and squats and stuff like that in my room, go out to movies or get a massage or a facial or a manicure. It sounds so stupid, but those things really count. The most important thing is your health. For me, that’s the main challenge. Going on stage and doing what I do is kind of what it is, so I don’t really like to prepare too much. I absorb wherever I’m at and whatever’s happening at the time and just kind of keep that in mind, and maybe it comes up in the performance and maybe it doesn’t.

What are your ambitions now?
I’d like to have access to more resources so I can do more things that I have in my head or that come to mind. Get a TV show or get a chance to be in some films or what have you, or be a spokesperson for some strange technological oddity that I like. Whatever it takes to get access to more resources and have fun.

Have you listened to this album?
I’ve seen the DVD a few times. I really like the way it turned out. I was a little scared to see it, but I think it captured visually what I do live but in an edited way. It was pretty fun to see that.

The moment on there when someone yells out, “You’re a genius!” — how do you handle something like that?
I’m not a big crowd work guy, but that does happen and the only thing you can do is just respond honestly. Other comics are much better at it than I am, but when that happens you just try to absorb it and be creative with something, or choose to let it go. It’s a great thing when someone says something positive to you.

Jokes.com
Reggie Watts – You About To
comedians.comedycentral.com

Do you have a ritual before a show?
Not really. I generally just try to spend some time by myself. Or not — sometimes I’m talking to someone all the way before I have to go on, and we’re screwing around doing random things. Usually I try to keep myself not thinking about the show until the say it’s time to go on, that way I have much more of a blank canvas going in.

What are your greatest joys as a performer?
Getting the opportunity to be on stage in front of people and have them react in a positive way is something that I’ll hopefully never stop enjoying. When I’m out there, it becomes like the audience is part of it as well, and there’s a lot of satisfaction there knowing the audience is part of this thing they’ve never seen and I’m mostly doing things that I haven’t heard yet. In a way, we’re both kind of experiencing the show together.

Keep up with Reggie at reggiewatts.com. And buy his new CD/DVD by clicking the image below. Seriously, do it.

About the Author

Tom Keller

  • metrosonic_ryan

    This really is a fantastic interview. Reggie is the greatest. You got a lot out of him here. We recorded with him at Metrosonic Studio in Brooklyn a few months ago and it was a blast. Check out our post about him – http://www.metrosonic.net/blog/?p=975

    Thanks so much

  • roadside

    Good interview… I’m just discovering Reggie’s stuff. It’s great to see someone doing new things with musical comedy.