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Turns out people really do have room in their brains for comedy experimentation. At least, they do in Reggie Watts’ case. In the last few years, Watts has toured with Conan O’Brien, put out a comedy album (Why S#!+ So Crazy?), worked with Jack White, gave a TED talk, and has done shows all over the world. Just this week he put out his Comedy Central special, A Live At Central Park. He’ll also be appearing as the Ed McMahon to Scott Aukerman’s Johnny Carson on the new IFC series Comedy Bang Bang this summer. But before that, he talked to The A.V. Club about his upbringing, Björk, and how to work a dildo into a scene.
The A.V. Club: You recently performed at the Secret Policeman’s Ball in New York, which is a benefit for Amnesty International attended by tons of big names like Coldplay and Jon Stewart. With your profile getting higher and higher, do you worry about who you’re performing to? Do you try to shape what you’re doing to an audience, or do you just think, “Well if they don’t get it, fuck ’em”?
Reggie Watts: [Laughs.] I usually try not to worry about that. One reason is that it’s not a good idea to worry about that. If you’re doing something unique, if you’re doing your own thing, you shouldn’t worry about that. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but the idea is not to worry about it. The other thing is if I’m doing improvisation, I don’t really have time to worry about that onstage, because I’m more worried about having a good connection to the idea stream, so it kind of by default negates that. There are definitely times where I’ve been onstage and I’ve felt where I’m at in that moment and it kind of throws me off, but most of the time I’m not able to think about other things when I’m onstage.
AVC: When you’re doing something like your new Comedy Central special, does the network give you free reign or do you get notes back?
RW: No, not at all. Usually I just say, “Let’s do a multi-cam shoot at a performance,” in this case, at Central Park. I picked Central Park because it’s an iconic place to do it. It’s still an improvised performance, it just happens to have a lot of cameras there. So yeah, there wasn’t really too much in the way of notes, and there are some video sketches that sort of weave in and out of the performance. Again, with those, we just went for it. They just allowed me to whatever I wanted to do, which was very nice of them.
AVC: Do you have live shows that you think are more successful than others?
RW: Oh yeah, for sure. Absolutely. Sometimes I’ll feel really on—who knows if that means I was on—but internally I’m like, “Yeah, man, you did it!” There are definitely shows where I get done and I’m disappointed in myself that I wasn’t more open in this section, or I fell back on an old habit or something, because I’m always trying to discover at least one new thing when I go up.
AVC: Do you have expectations for your audiences? It’s a good assumption to say that your audiences are more progressive; they’re more open to artistic ideas; they’re more open to actually thinking at a show. Do you try to push them, or do you not think about that?
RW: I do think about it a little bit, not so much of an audience, but more of a space and the type of gig. So if it’s a festival or something like that, and depending on how noisy it is, or the type of room that it is, or if it’s too hot in the room, things like that—that all affects the way I perform. It’s mostly about the space and the context. If it’s a music festival, I’ll probably rely more on music and less talking, because people’s attentions are at a different vocal length. If it’s a small theater, if it’s like 300 people at a performing arts center, then I can change it up and be a lot more subtle and rely on subtle tricks that I would never do in the music festival scene. It really depends on the environment; I assume that the environment informs the audience, so I never really think about the audience directly in that way.
AVC: Some blog post about your TED performance said that audiences like you because they “have no idea quite what’s funny or quite why we’re moved by it.” Do you think that’s true?
RW: [Laughs.] Yeah, for sure. I mean, the type of art that I enjoy is art that—I enjoy a very broad spectrum, but I especially like art that leaves me a little confused and uncertain as to what just happened. I never try to limit myself so that people can understand. If an audience is unstable or off-balance, then that’s a great space for them to be in, because when they’re done with the performance, they’re not quite sure what occurred, but they have an overall feeling or sensibility, and I think that that is a nice space to put people in. It’s more like the feeling you get when you have a good massage or something like that. Like when the masseuse tells you to take your time and then come out when it’s over. And you’re like, “I don’t know what just happened, but that was really good.” That’s kind of the feeling audiences have when it’s over, hopefully.
AVC: Do you think about your career with an end goal in mind, like, “Okay, what I want to do eventually is I want to be an actor. Here’s how I get there.”
RW: I’ve always been this way since I was a kid, always doing dumb shit. [Laughs.] Just constantly doing dumb things and saying dumb things to people and people either laughing or being like, “Uh, whatever.” So I think I’m always going to be that way. I don’t think there’s any way for me to not be creative in some fashion. If I was getting paid or not paid, I would still be doing this. I think the end goal, hopefully, is to take advantage of the attention I’ve gotten along the way and use it for good and build some communities, and as I get older I can continue to do things and be surrounded by things that are inspirational to me.
AVC: What kind of things do you think you want to do? When The A.V. Club last talked to you back in 2010, you were talking about making point-of-view cameras and reality applications. Are those still things you’re trying to do?
RW: Yeah, definitely. But also technologically, those things are kind of emerging now; those ideas are being made by other people. They’re in the idea sphere, I suppose. But yeah, for sure, I would still love to do those things. I have many film ideas that I’d like to accomplish. My thing is, I like to do things as long as they’re relatively fluid or easy. Not to say that there isn’t any effort involved in making something happen, but I don’t like to push things or force things too much. And so when it comes to the idea filmically, I just keep changing my mind about it and when I run into people when I have a show or aftershow and someone’s like, “Oh, you should film, blah blah blah,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I want to.” As long as you keep talking about those things, at least according to my life so far, generally you’ll just end up in a situation that’s pretty close to what you want to do, and in that situation you just have to participate in it. Film can be very, very complicated. Film and video—it is a complicated thing, but also a lot of people who work in film or any kind of video industry tend to view it as a very technical, complicated thing. I like to find people that, as easy it is for me to go up to a Line 6 sampler and make a beat in real time, I want people like that on a technically level filmically. So it’s not a big deal, they’re just like, “Oh yeah, let’s shoot this,” as opposed to, “Well, we’re going to have to find the right lighting and the get cappers…” I need somebody who can see how an end result can be achieved without being technically involved.
AVC: Was working on Comedy Bang Bang like that?
RW: Oh, for sure, actually. Comedy Bang Bang was as close to the way I’d want to do a show, at least structurally, because there were things written, it was essentially point-to-point improv, and there were writers on set—Leo Allen was one—and they would keep things on track like a joke gets put in there, but then there’s tons and tons of leeway for improvisation. Then they had multiple cameras; they had up to five cameras on scene, so they had massive coverage for improvisational moments; they could edit it. It was really easy for the crew, especially once we got into the groove of making these episodes. Everyone knew the routine. I mean, we were ahead of schedule; this team was so incredibly efficient. So yeah, that was a taste of what it could be like with my own idea. It was definitely a taste.
AVC: Who do you admire career-wise, or are you just looking to make your own way?
RW: Well, it’s a little bit of both, but I look at people like Brian Eno or Wayne Coyne, or Jack White, or even Danger Mouse an extent. Those people have all created not necessarily the sentimentality but just the structure or the leeway that somebody like Radiohead or Björk has, where they’re able to maintain an artistic sensibility, and they never really modify anything. Maybe a little bit in their formative years, sure, but there was always a strong sense of themselves in anything they’ve ever done, and you never got the sense that they diverted from that in any way. They now have the resources available to them to work with pretty much whomever they want to work with, and that’s an amazing spot to be in, to have access to not only the money, but to the connections to make things happen. When I look at Eno, he’s got a very simple life; he’s created a simplicity and a minimalism in his life that affords him the space he needs to think, and yet he’s always involved in a project that interests him. Those are the type of people I would aspire to, lifestyle-wise.
AVC: When did you realize that you could do this? You said you were always like this as a kid—when did you realize, “This is possible”? Or have you realized that yet?
RW: [Laughs.] I am somebody. It was Jesse Jackson that really made it happen. [Laughs.] No, I don’t know. I guess as a kid, I was always creative, and I was involved in music, like piano and violin and choir, so I always knew I always knew that I wanted to do something that would allow me to be who I am. Generally, that was creatively, imaginatively. When I moved to Seattle out of high school, I thought, “Oh, I’m in a band,” I got to be in a couple bands, and I was like, “This is cool. I can do this.” Then I started to make a little money here and there, and I was like, “Oh, you can actually make money as a musician.” You can make money more apparently, more readily than you can in any other art form, I think, unless you want to do street performance or something like that. Generally in music, if you can play an instrument or you’re relatively proficient, you can make some money. So I was hustling, making money, and I was like, “Oh, you can make money at this.” Then when I started getting back into comedy a little bit and started hearing about these comedians in New York and so forth, and then got into my heroes like David Cross and Bob Odenkirk and The State. I was like, “Oh, these people are making a living doing really stupid shit on television.” [Laughs.] That’s an avenue I’d always loved, so it was an additive thing—the musical thing I was doing mixed with my interest in comedy, and then taking that idea as a solo concept, thinking, “Wow, if people are interested in what I do, maybe I could make money.” So it’s a) a necessity and b) I had to make it work to facilitate the necessity.
AVC: Sometimes there’s a lot of thought, though, that goes into dumb shit. When you think about The State or Stella, there were dudes putting a lot of thought into the exact right way to put a dildo in a scene.
RW: Well you know, in comedy, it’s like anything that’s stupid or ridiculous or dumb is considered the highest respect, especially when it comes to things like Stella. Sometimes you’ll look at somebody and just have a look on your face like, “What the fuck are we doing?” It’s an amazing feeling, like, “Yes. Now we put a dildo on someone. Mrs. Claus now has a dildo.” Whatever gets you to that moment where people are seriously filming this and going through an effort to make it happen, it’s the best feeling. It’s like this weird coup in a way. Yes, it’s thought-out, but it’s also so instinctual—it’s what these guys have always wanted to do, and that’s the feeling they get. When I saw Wanderlust recently, I was like, “This is brilliant. This is the type of movie that gets made when people do exactly what they want to do.”