Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Reggie Watts on Gene Wilder and why cats “embody a gateway into psychedelic chaos”

(Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
(Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Reggie Watts is one of a kind. The comedian, musician, and bandleader blends electronic tunes with vocal loops to make art that’s both wryly funny and occasionally beautiful. Though he has standard material in his repertoire, a lot of what he does live is improvised, something that’s all the more impressive after you actually see his show. That’ll be easy enough to do if you’re in Chicago, where Watts will be playing at our 3rd Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival on Saturday, June 4, accompanied by his Late Late Show With James Corden band, Karen.


In anticipation of that show, The A.V. Club talked to Watts about what pieces of comedy, art, and life never fail to make him laugh, from the casual malaise of a cat to one of Gene Wilder’s more obscure works.

The Wrong Guy (1997)

The A.V. Club: How did you find The Wrong Guy?

Reggie Watts: I ran into it obscurely. I was in a random video store, I think, and I always liked Kids In The Hall. When I saw it, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was going to be funny, but I didn’t know it was going to be about.

The whole idea that the guy thinks that people have wrongly accused him of murdering someone but the police immediately figure it out and he just runs around for no reason is the most ridiculous thing. The whole premise, all of his actions, all the extremes he was going through, and everybody else was like, “Yeah, we got him. Case solved.” He just continues on acting like a fugitive, and it’s just really, really amazing.

The A.V. Club: Why this movie more than other movies? Is it just that the premise is so different and interesting?

RW: Yeah, it’s just really super smart. It subverts the classic storyline and is about someone trying to resolve something that has some dire consequences, even if it’s comedic.

It’s just stuff that I enjoy, which is when things are anti-climactic very quickly, or when things being solved super quickly and it becomes unnecessary to even tell the story anymore. That kind of stuff is just great. I wish that all movies would start to get to a point where there was some dramatic tension, and someone would just be like, “Okay, here you go.” Then they just give in, and they’re like, “Oh, okay. Great.” And that’s the end of the movie. I love that idea.

AVC: Movies always create problems where there are none, like a chatty villain who lets his captive hero escape.


RW: Exactly. Things that would be solved very, very quickly in the real world. And yet, you get an entire movie around it.

Angie Tribeca

AVC: How’s this for a segue? Angie Tribeca is another kind of crime story.

RW: It could be anything, really. To me, it’s one of the most brilliant TV comedies ever made. It annihilates almost every comedy. I would prefer to watch endless amounts of Angie Tribeca over any of the celebrated shows like The Office, Parks And Rec, all of that stuff.


It really hits me in a nice, intellectual place. It’s not really character-driven. No one’s really a character, really. There are these stereotypes, but they’re just very vague. It’s the police chief who’s very loud all the time and stuff like that. But every one is working on the same logic and they never recognize that they’re joking. Everything is serious in that world. It’s very much like the Zucker brothers’ Airplane! and Police Story, those types of movies. But on steroids.

I just love it. When I saw it, I was like, “Thank you. Finally, a comedy I can watch.” I don’t really watch comedy. Kimmy Schmidt is one that I like. And Angie Tribeca. That’s kind of it for comedies for me.


AVC: That’s pretty high praise for Angie Tribeca then. And it’s a relatively new show.

RW: Yeah! It was what I was waiting for all my life.

AVC: How did you find it?

RW: I think I saw it online. There was some online picture or poster or whatever. There was also a billboard, I think, somewhere. I saw Rashida Jones, and I was like, “there’s something off about this.” I know Rashida a little bit, and I’m a fan of hers. Then I watched it, I was like, “Oh my god.” It’s just the best thing ever.


Rick And Morty

AVC: Rick And Morty is another one of those shows that’s a little bit off.

RW: There are amazing animated series out there like Adventure Time. But when I saw Rick And Morty… that is my show. It’s everything I love.


I like that it’s about not time travel, but interdimensional travel. I always had a problem with time travel. This show deals with that problem, which is that you can’t affect any change in time. There’s no such thing as going back in time and erasing, like killing your mother and disappearing, at least according to physics or theoretical physics. All possibilities are infinite and exist simultaneously, so it doesn’t matter what you do. Everything has already happened and always will happen, so you can never erase anything. I love that they deal with that.

The whole thing about watching interdimensional television and watching shows like Ball Fondlers? It’s just the best ever. And yet, it still has some heart to it. It’s great. It’s unrelenting and uncompromised, and it’s truly genius-level brilliant. To me, another humorous cartoon doesn’t really need to be made. They kind of did it.


The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother

RW: I’m a huge Gene Wilder fan and a huge Madeline Kahn fan. I was always trying to find everything he’d ever done. This is kind of a lesser-known movie, but he wrote, directed, and starred in it.


It’s just so brilliant, and so funny. Gene Wilder at his best, really. Madeline Kahn is wonderful. The premise is that Sherlock Holmes has a brother who’s smarter but kind of an idiot at the same time. I’m a Sherlock Holmes fan, too, so it hits everything for me.

I just love when Madeline Kahn comes into the room, and he asks her to sit down, and she’s like, “No, thank you,” and then she immediately sits down. It’s just so good. She’s always saying no, and then doing it anyway like immediately.


I love the humor. I love the way he does some stretched-out, pent-up energy, or yell. He’ll just break. There’s no explanation for why he’s so angry. He’ll try to hold his temper, and suddenly he’ll just scream, and just start shaking. That whole movie, I’ll always enjoy watching. I saw it a long time ago, and I haven’t seen it recently, but it always sticks in my mind as one of my favorites.

AVC: Gene Wilder hasn’t worked very much recently.

RW: I know that he wrote a book recently. Well, within the last seven or eight years or something. I think it might have been fiction, I’m not sure.


After [his wife] Gilda Radner died, he kind of disappeared. He just stopped working. And yeah, no one had seen him in a long time.

It was a big deal at SketchFest maybe five years ago because he did a talk. Everyone was so ecstatic because no one had seen him or heard from him in over a decade or maybe even more. I think he just went into seclusion when Gilda Radner died, and kind of got out of the business.


Eddie Murphy Raw

RW: I put Raw on there because of the context around when I heard that whole album. I think I would have been in high school. I was on an orchestra trip, and we stayed in hosts’ houses, like other players in other cities. It might have been Billings, or something like that, or Bozeman, and we were staying at some host kid’s house and he had synthesizers. He was kind of a rich kid, because synthesizers back then would have cost an arm and a leg.


Anyway, we were staying at his house, and we went up into his shag-carpet entertainment room. It was me and maybe two other people from my orchestra and this kid and his friend, and we put Raw in the tape player and listened to it front to back. I lost it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t catch my breath, we were laughing so hard.

I didn’t see the live performance. I heard the tape. I know it looked cool, and the way it was filmed was cool, but I heard it first. I freaked out over it—all the Bill Cosby impressions, and hash—it sparked my imagination in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. Up until then, I was laughing at all kinds of things like sitcoms, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin. I was really into Monty Python, a lot of British humor, and then when that came along, it was like, “Wow, what is this? This is awesome!”

It was the perfect era. There was break-dancing and really cool early electronic music and early hip-hop, and it was an amazing time. All these iconic people, like Michael Jackson. So much was happening in pop culture, so many quality things happening. And then to hear Raw, it was like, “Wow, this is incredible. This is a new way of looking at the world.”


It was very him. Even though he was a black comedian, he was totally himself, and that was his interpretation of his culture, bringing in his experience. It was great.

Chelsea Peretti

RW: She’s uncompromisingly ruthless in her humor. She has this super-original unique kind of observation through her perspective. There’s no one like her. Her demeanor on stage, her self-awareness, and the things that she points out… I just think she’s one of the sharpest comedians out there. She’s great.


My favorite things are comedians who look a certain way but don’t really use that. I’m a black guy, but it’s not like I’m going to go onstage and be like, “You know, I’m half-black, and boy is it tough. Perception is really difficult, and people behave differently.” That’s already been covered. With Chelsea, she doesn’t really talk about being a female comedian or whatever. She just gets on stage and she attacks, because she needs to.

It’s just great. She’s super classy, super low-key, and doesn’t give a fuck, but at the same time, you know she’s got a heart of gold. She’s also one of the most compassionate people I know. She’s a great human being. I really like her.


AVC: Is there anything she’s done that particularly stands out to you?

RW: The thing that always sticks in my mind about her is when she talks about being able to close cabinets with her nose. [Laughs] It’s so good. She’s like, “I can close cabinets with this thing.” I’m really into that. That kind of summarizes her whole thing. She talks about politics and social things as well, but it just kind of shows you her self-awareness. She doesn’t care.



AVC: Why did cats make your list?

RW: I usually like cats more than dogs. I like them because they don’t seem to need anybody. They’re slinky, floppy, and stretchy, and when they fuck up, they’re the biggest idiots. They’re just so dumb, in a good way.


One of my favorite images of a cat is an illustration. It’s the cover of a humorous book on cats that’s all illustrated, and it’s this big face of a cat with a catlike expression, which is no expression, because they only really have like three looks. It’s an arrow pointing into one of the ears and it says “command” and then out the other ear is an arrow pointing away from the ear, and it says “command.” It encapsulates a cat. It doesn’t matter whatever you tell them, they’re like, “I don’t care. I’m not really listening. I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.”

I like that they’re always on acid or something, too. They’ll just freak out for no reason. They’ll be hanging out, and suddenly they’re like, “Ahh! Freak out!” You’re like, “What’s going on?,” and they’ll just chill out and start licking their paws. I don’t know what’s going on in there.


I just think they’re great weirdos. To me, they embody a gateway into psychedelic chaos. They’re funny people, those cats.

AVC: I always wonder what makes them decide, “That’s it, I’m done with this freakout now.” Same thing with dogs.


RW: You can’t predict them. Dogs are a lot more predictable, because they want to be. “I’m doing it, is it right? I’m doing it, is it good? Do you like this? Is this good?” They have to have your approval constantly. Cats are totally the opposite. It’s like, “Hey man, how you doing?” They’re like, “Meh, whatever,” and just walk away. “Man, what an asshole!”

They’re also really nice and warm and cuddly, too.

Gasoline-powered cars

AVC: Why gasoline-powered cars?

RW: I drive an electric car. After driving an electric car, gasoline-powered cars are so funny. You step on the gas and there’s always probably half a second delay. Then you hear the engine doing its best to orchestrate 500 moving machine parts to deliver energy to the wheels. It’s just hilarious to me to step on the gas.


It’s loud and it’s the most inefficient. Gasoline engines arguably are an efficient process, but harnessing the power is very inefficient. After driving an electric car, I feel sorry for gasoline cars when I’m driving. I’m like, “Ah, that’s too bad. Keep trying.” It just sounds like they’re really trying to do their best.

Of course, the industry is going to squeeze as much technology as they can out of a gasoline engine, because there’s so much infrastructure that they’ve got to use, but it’s just hilarious to me. If you just give someone an electric car to drive for a week, and you give them back their gas-powered car, they’re a little disappointed, a little depressed.

AVC: People just get so nervous about electric cars. They think, “Where do I plug it in? What if I can’t drive to California from New York in this thing?” Not that anyone really ever does that.


RW: You can. It just takes a lot longer. That’s all. But most of us are just driving in the city, and most of the time we fly if we want to go somewhere. If you want to go out of town, 200 miles is pretty far. I can drive to Palm Springs in my car, and I’m fine. There’s an electric charger there, and I can charge it for free. It’s not that bad. Anything over 200 miles you’re going to have to stop for 15 minutes to charge, and take off again. There’s a little bit of that inconvenience, but the pleasure and the driving experience of an electric car are so great.

The acceleration is unworldly. There are no gears changing. It’s just a constant smooth never-ending source of power. It’s like driving a golf cart, but much more refined. As soon as you hit the pedal, you’re instantly going. There’s no lag at all. It just happens, and that’s such a wonderful feeling.


I have a gas-powered car as a backup, if I want to go out of town or whatever. It’s my old car, and it’s in the driveway with a car cover on it. Sometimes when I’m getting my car serviced or whatever, I have to drive that car, and it’s always like, “This isn’t fun to drive.” It’s just not fun. So, if you’re city driving, there’s just no comparison. It’s amazing.

Australian crosswalk noises

AVC: I didn’t know Australian crosswalk noises were a thing, but lo and behold there are a bunch of videos of them on YouTube.


RW: Yeah, it’s weird. I think that it’s supposed to imitate a kookaburra, but I’m not sure. It’s a national bird of Australia or whatever. It’s just so ridiculous.

It’s good for blind people and it’s certainly recognizable. It’s like, “Okay, you’re safe to cross now.” But it’s just so ridiculous. It’s like a laser machine gun. The first time I heard it, I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought it was so ridiculous. Then I was like, “Oh, that’s the standard. I see. That’s everywhere.” They all decided that was cool. I mean, it is cool. It’s very effective. You definitely know it’s time to cross, for sure. It’s not like ours, which are usually like “doot, doot, doot.” I think that’s all they do.


The first time I heard it when I went to Australia shocked me. I was like, “Ah! What is that?!” “That’s the crosswalk, mate.” It’s like the national standard, that noise. It’s pretty awesome.