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Stepping on stage with little more than a loop pedal and an impressive vocal range, Reggie Watts twirls music, comedy, and absurdist theatrics into a dizzying hybrid. His improvised amalgam of beatboxing, snippets of character monologues, medleys of pop songs sung in gibberish, and slow-motion pantomimes might jar audiences if he didn’t make them feel so strangely familiar. For many years, he’s worked up the ladder in New York’s alt-comedy circles while simultaneously producing works of avant-garde theater with playwright Tommy Smith, recording with longtime band mates Maktub, and touring his own act internationally. Watts is poised to receive even more attention, having just released a CD/DVD for Comedy Central Records (Why $#!+ So Crazy?) and caught the eye of Conan O’Brien, for whom Watts is opening the Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour. The A.V. Club caught up with Watts on the tour’s Dallas stop for a chat about communicating with chaos and how he goes about the business of performing what cohort Eugene Mirman once labeled “his psychedelic 20-minute riffs.”
The A.V. Club: Did the Conan gig come as a surprise?
Reggie Watts: I definitely wasn’t expecting it. I’d heard he was going to go on tour and the next thing I know I got a call from my manager, I was like, “What? How’d that happen?”
AVC: And what did your manager say?
RW: It was a very simple thing. They had a meeting discussing openers and Todd Levin, one of Conan’s writers, suggested me; another writer, Andrés du Bouchet, seconded it, and J.P. Buck, one of the producers, said, “Yeah, yeah, he’s great.” Because I’ve known J.P. for a long time, it was just kind of this magical confluence.
AVC: So Conan hadn’t seen you live, but he watched a video and said, “Yeah, that guy.”
RW: Essentially. Conan’s very hands-on. A lot of times, in music especially, it’s producers making a political decision. So it’s good to know that they made this artistic choice to have me open and I’m not just left out in the cold. [Adopts disaffected producer’s tone.] “Here’s this dude. Hope you dig him.” I feel like I’m actually part of the tour as opposed to some weirdo they just stuck in front.
AVC: Are these audiences expecting you?
RW: Definitely not. I’ve made friends with the production crew and some of them look at the audience during my performances. And some people are staring at me not knowing what the fuck is going on. But usually by the end of it, when I do “Fuck Shit Stack” [one of Watts’ few written pieces] they’re into it, unless someone is morally offended by cussing. People find it interesting at the very least. On a couple of occasions, there have been partial standing ovations. For me, my biggest priority on this tour is warming up the audience. I mean, I’m going to perform the best I can, but how can I make it a part of the show? How can I talk about the show, create threads that connect with the other performers? Then, when Conan thanks me at the end or when we have this big encore number where everyone comes out, it creates a whole show.
AVC: When you meet someone at a bar who’s unfamiliar with what you do, how do you explain it?
RW: I usually just say I’m a stand-up comedian, but I use looping machines to create ideas with my voice.
AVC: It sounded simplistic until you said “create ideas.”
RW: [Laughs.] Essentially a joke is creating an idea, whether sonic or visual, whether it’s something musical or a traditional joke.
AVC: When did you discover your affinity for technology?
RW: I always composed music as a little kid. I would always write lyrics and songs on the piano. And I used to do tape recorders and record my stuff but fuck with the speed a bit to change it. Also as a child I was very into gadgets and machines and robots. The idea of experimenting with machines to create art was always something I tinkered with.
AVC: In the Reggie Watts origin story, when did you encounter the loop pedal?
RW: I was working with a composer named Wayne Horvitz, in a project of his called the 4+1 Ensemble. And I was using a Roland [RE-101] Space Echo; it’s an old-school 1970s tape delay, a complicated machine that tends to break down. We were going on a European tour and I was kind of dreading bringing it, but then Line 6 came out with the DL4 pedal, which is something I use all the time. It basically sounded exactly like the Roland Space Echo, but it was more compact. From there it was an evolution of using it in my band.
AVC: When did you start to learn you could fuse the disciplines you were engaged in?
RW: Some comedic performers from film and television, like Abbott and Costello, Carol Burnett, or Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, could entertain in every way. Music, dance, and comedy. So I think that was partially an influence but then when I was in the drama program in high school, my coach knew I was horrible at memorizing lines so she just let me improvise. I would use anything possible: music, imitating voices, and absurd physical gestures. It was very similar to what I’m doing now, actually.
AVC: Given their improvisational nature, how do you structure your performances?
RW: There are three different modes: playing piano, just me at the microphone, and me at my effects units. And I can mix those up in different ways. Basically, I look at how much time I have and just kind of go for it. Sometimes I’ll roam off stage and do dumb shit and interact with the environment, but I am listening to what is hopefully interesting.
AVC: Now that you’ve cultivated this integrated mode of performance, is it difficult to extract one aspect of what you do, for instance if you’re playing with Maktub?
RW: No, I’ve been doing that just as long as I’ve been doing this. It’s like that old adage about riding a unicycle. When I’m back in the studio and am creating with a group of people, like Maktub or anybody, I have that language and that set of skills to step out of the way and make music the priority.
AVC: What is it they say about riding a unicycle?
RW: Once you go back to it, there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll be able to ride it again.
AVC: How does one go about proving one’s 10-octave range?
RW: [Laughs.] I don’t have a 10-octave range. No human being has a 10-octave range. That was just something my former roommate came up with.
AVC: The rumor has circulated on the Internet for so long there are debates about whether or not it’s true.
RW: I know, so it’s funny. It goes along with how I like to be confusing, so it’s fine. But no, it’s impossible. I think the maximum is five.
AVC: Why is disorienting, or, as it is in your bio, “disorientating” an audience important to you?
RW: I like that feeling of discombobulation that comes in creating an absurd world that doesn’t make sense. Monty Python does a good job of it; Bugs Bunny, too. Bugs is all over the place, doing this, doing that. It’s my favorite kind of humor: something that you can’t count on. It’s fun for an audience because you just have to stop expecting and go along for the ride.
AVC: Thematically, there’s a lot in your act about paradigm shifts and mutating realities; does this sense of destabilizing an audience connect to these ideas in some way?
RW: Very much so. There are things I believe in to a certain extent, as much as a scientist would. And I like, through the means of entertainment, to explore those ideas. Good comedians are great philosophers. You can either just have fun with the joke or you can have fun with the joke and think about the implication of it. It’s totally up to the listener.
AVC: What’s the most important tenet of improvisation for you?
RW: Listening. When you’re improvising, you’re relying on this connection to creativity.
AVC: Do you mean the connection between you and the audience? Or listening to yourself?
RW: Essentially, it’s both of those things. An improv artist’s best instrument is their ability keep their antennae clean so they’re able to receive what I call the connection to creativity. It’s the thing that you see in any amazing moment that any human being is performing. Whether it’s watching Michael Jordan navigating through all these attackers and then suddenly rising up and putting the ball in the most amazing way, or watching an actor on stage playing Shakespeare, but not thinking about the actor anymore or the stage or you or the chair, any of these kinds of moments of transcendence. It’s the performer connecting to this chaotic, creative force: listening to it, shaping it, exuding it from stage, and then the audience hearing that, feeling that and giving it back. Forming a kind of creative ecosystem.
AVC: But it boils down to listening?
RW: It’s really the only instrument you have on stage. Whether you’re with a group of people, whether you’re playing music or whether you’re by yourself, even if it’s written material, you have to be listening. If I’m improvising and I’m not doing well it’s because I’m not listening very well. Either I’m overly concerned with something or I’m drifting or maybe I’m too stoned but I’m not getting a clear signal.
AVC: There’s a lot of mimicry in your music, but how satirical is your intent?
RW: I like to ride the line between absurd and sincere. So it goes in and out. When I’m at the piano, and I’m improvising some song about something, it usually oscillates between factual, absurd, and sincere.
AVC: You seem to utilize our general, accumulated pop cultural knowledge as the set-up for your humor.
RW: I consider myself something of a self-taught anthropologist. I try not to talk about something unless it’s something I love. But if it’s something that really annoys me, I fixate on it, learn something about it and then, when I’m onstage, it comes out. I’m always trying to see things from different peoples’ perspectives, to understand why they love something. So when I’m performing, I hope my research and my experience with those things I’m talking about rings true.
AVC: You rarely wink at the audience to ensure they’re in on the joke. If you’re mimicking the tone of, say, ’80s pop or some kind of stuffy British commentator, how important is maintaining that original tone?
RW: One of my favorite things is acting like a speaker or a professor or a CEO of a company and addressing the audience like a group of engineers or designers or marketers. I like sincerely talking about market analysis and how marketing is ahead of design and design needs to catch up to fulfill the promise of the marketing. We’ve all been to a lecture; whenever I’ve been in those situations I’m laughing on the inside, that there’s actually a huge group of people listening to this one person talk about whatever they’re talking about. It’s funny that that’s the way human culture can organize itself and sometimes the absurdity comes from simply re-creating it.
AVC: You do a lot of touring. What makes your act work internationally?
RW: The stuff that I’m saying, they’re not really traditional, structured jokes. It’s not like I’m talking about growing up in Chicago or anything remotely close to that. It’s basically me juggling words and concepts and phrases and being stupid. So whether I go to English-speaking countries or non-English-speaking countries I can just modulate to what works for them. If I can learn a couple of phrases in Italian but do mostly weird, absurd music things, people will like it. Everyone speaks stupid.
AVC: With such a unique performance style, how do you measure your own growth? It’s almost as though you’ve got to create your own yardstick.
RW: I get outside comments from my friends, especially my collaborator Tommy Smith. Also, just a level of confidence on stage that I feel. Now some of the things I always imagined I’d do on stage, I’ll do. For instance, what I’m doing on stage right now with the looper and samplers is pretty rudimentary. If I’m fucking around by myself in my room, I’ll come up with stuff that’s really crazy and way cooler than what I’m doing. But sometimes in performance I’ll start to implement these complicated things. And I’ve always wanted to do a Shakespearean soliloquy, or a fake Shakespearean soliloquy, and now I’m doing that more often in shows. Things I’ve always wanted to do starting to happen.
AVC: Do you ever think, “I have no idea what the entertainment industry is going to do with me?”
RW: I tend not to worry about those things. What I’m doing on stage now is just the tip of the iceberg. I want to be able to make a movie. I also want to mimic commercials to a T: high-budget, helicopter-shot commercials. I’m working on performance technologies—stereoscopic point-of-view camera stuff and live, augmented reality applications. I call it “Starking It,” like Tony Stark. It’s creating things that make enough money to create resources to generate new technologies to have those technologies to generate more resources so I can make more things happen. Ultimately I want to be able to create whatever I want whenever I want. And if that doesn’t work, I don’t mind just doing weird plays.