When it comes to the perception of reality, there are options, says Reggie Watts, the most startlingly imaginative and destabilising comedian of his generation. By Lance Richardson
"Semantic satiation” is the fancy term for when you repeat a word so many times it loses all meaning: toast toast toast toast toast. This is the closest analogy I can find for the experience of watching Reggie Watts, the 50-year-old American comedian, musician, actor and all-round weirdo renaissance man. Things make sense, and then they very much do not make sense.
Watts stands on a stage near a synthesiser and a loop pedal. He has literally climbed over the audience to get there, politely apologising for kicking people, as though this is a perfectly normal way to move through a crowded room. He begins to riff about the cough medicine Benadryl, but then the song (if one could even call it a song) fractures into sounds, disconnected threads of thought. Meaning fritzes like a short-circuiting radio. The effect is insane. Also hypnotic: the audience is rolling in the aisles. Watts describes his approach, which has propelled him to the edge of cult-icon status, as “reformatting reality”.
Most traditional stand-up routines poke fun at reality. A comedian — Ali Wong, Tig Notaro — holds a microphone and makes a series of pithy, sometimes withering, observations about society and their own life experiences, serving up jokes they’ve written and painstakingly polished for maximum laughs. Watts takes a different approach. “I do commentary,” he says, “but I do it in a way that’s very, very silly.”
Recently, Dave Chappelle got into hot water for claiming, on “Saturday Night Live”, that the two words you should never say together are “the” and “Jews”. Watts thought the joke was poor form: Chappelle was being deliberately offensive and “punching down”. So he did an alternative version during his own stand-up show: the forbidden words, for him, were “the juice”, as in: “You can’t say ‘orange juice’. You can’t say ‘cranberry juice’.” In Watts’s surrealist reinterpretation, Chappelle’s offensive joke became ridiculous for all the wrong reasons, like a gun that suddenly turns into a banana. “I like taking, like, a hot-button issue and kind of warping it,” says Watts. “Some comedians substitute controversy for edginess. And it’s really just lazy.”
Reggie Watts is anything but lazy. Over the past decade or so he has created a formidable and very strange assortment of music videos, television shows and comedy sketches, not to mention festival performances and tours with the likes of Conan O’Brien. While he’s not exactly a household name, his face — framed by a forest canopy of untamed hair and partly concealed by a dense shrubbery of beard — would be familiar to anybody who has caught “The Late Late Show with James Corden”, on which Watts has played the role of countercultural bandleader since 2015, the resident Mork to Corden’s straight-man Mindy. A virtuoso beatboxer and singer (four octaves), Watts has shown himself capable of, for example, accompanying a freakishly talented guest like the musician and “Atlanta” star Donald Glover at a moment’s notice, humming and squealing and tsking and howling as he plucks at an invisible guitar.
“I kind of see what I do as a form of benevolent social hacking,” says Watts of his solo act. As humans, we are programmed to look for patterns in everything, but he tries to scramble that organising impulse, unbalancing an audience so people find themselves going, “Oh, that was real. Oh, that wasn’t real — that was a joke! Oh, that was real!” This zone of discomfort, Watts thinks, “is a really cool place to function from”. When the basic reference points of reality are made unfamiliar, the result is a new space for startling creativity and joy. “It’s an opportunity,” insists Watts. “Everything that we see around us is goofy” — words really are just a jumble of guttural sounds, which becomes obvious if you say them too many times in a row — “but it’s not everybody’s inclination to reflect that, to show the funhouse mirror reflection of the world. But for me, I get off on that.”
In this, of course, he is part of a long and eccentric lineage of intellectual goofballs: Abbott and Costello, Monty Python. “Absurdity has been around forever,” says Watts. “I think it’s important for people to be exposed to it because it frees their minds, it allows their imaginations to run free. And I think that is a healthy thing for people to experience because it reminds them that there are options for how to perceive the world around you.”
Before speaking to Watts, I sat down to rewatch his 2016 Netflix special, “Spatial”, which is probably the most deranged hour of unscripted television the streaming service has ever released. Its opening recalls “The Mighty Boosh” or “Red Dwarf” (Watts is a big fan), with a hooded figure beamed to the stage from the Vega Star System on a bolt of purple electricity. “The vestibule has been opened,” the figure announces ominously before making vague, and never explained, references to “the Telothians” and an “intergalactic council”. Then there is an interpretative dance.
By the time Watts finally appears without the robe, wearing a T-shirt that says “Chaotic Good”, the audience is thoroughly baffled. But he is just getting warmed up. Watts stutters over his opening lines then tells “a quick story”, meaning a tale sped up so fast that it becomes impossible to follow, like the squeak of a video tape on fast-forward. The rest of his act is a sublime medley of eerie voices, musical interludes, sudden sounds and non sequitur riffs on Kevin Hart, grits, “pneumatic specialists” and microbial research. Occasionally he is joined by a collaborator for a tap dance routine, or to act out scenes from a fictional 1990s soap opera he calls “Crowe’s Nest”.
Almost none of this, I should point out, is planned. “The whole show is improvised,” Watts says of his idiosyncratic routines, “so I don’t really know what’s going to happen.” For the faux sitcom, he told the other two actors the theme of the scene just before they went on stage: “no talking, just physical comedy”; or a “false sense of urgency”. Then he let events unfold at random. The result is a stilted conversation about terminal cancer and “the yoghurt farm”, and at one point, Watts upends a coffee table. Watching all this is a little like surfing the internet: the juxtapositions are awkward yet exhilarating as ideas smash together in a hectic stream of overstimulation.
When he’s touring, Watts begins very simply. “I have a piano on stage, I have my looping gear to the side and then I just have a microphone in front of me,” he says. “Those are the three areas that I can go to, and I’ll just kind of go between them and do whatever comes to mind.” Before a show, he might wander around a city and soak up the ambience: Sydney’s “bats”— its flying foxes — have provided inspiration in the past. And then he stands before an audience and sees where the night takes him. All of which is to say that Watts has absolutely no idea what he’s going to do when he appears at Human Kind 2023, a three-day summit at Luna Park, Sydney, this month. “I guess I’m going to figure it out when I get there,” he says. Isn’t the lack of preparation terrifying? What, I ask, if he bombs? “For me, I would be really super nervous if I did have a plan.”
Watts was born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1972, a military brat — his father worked for the U.S. Air Force — until the family finally settled in Great Falls, Montana. The city was about “the size of Woolloomooloo”, Watts jokes. He began taking piano lessons when he was five, along with classical violin, and also performed in the school orchestra. This was the era of “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Watts was “completely blown away” by the possibilities of parody. He began writing his own version of Pat Benatar tracks. “Or friends would come over and I’d make up a song on the piano while they were there. So there was always a natural mixture of comedy and music.”
At 18, he moved to Seattle to continue studying music, joining a series of bands that culminated with Maktub, which mixed elements of hip-hop, jazz, blues and rock. “We would do these jam nights,” Watts says. “And then when we took a break, I would remain on stage and do extra loopy things with the pedal.” At the same time, he began hanging out with actors, doing sketch comedy, which came in handy when he moved to New York and became friends with Jake Lodwick, the web developer of the comedy company CollegeHumor and co-creator of the video platform Vimeo. Watts’s music video for CollegeHumor, “What About Blowjobs?”, was a viral sensation in 2007. A soaring love ballad, with Watts wearing a tuxedo and singing through fog, its lyrics are so purple I cannot quote them here. “It was probably easier to get a viral video going back then,” Watts says. “Nowadays it’s more calculated and designed.”
Watts capitalised on his success with television appearances (including “Good News Week” in Australia), comedy specials and the national tour with Conan O’Brien. He was starring in “Comedy Bang! Bang!” with Scott Aukerman, performing musical interludes in front of a taxidermied deer head, when he came to the attention of James Corden, who needed a co-star for his new late-night talk show.
“My manager told me that this asshole” — a joke — “James Corden, who I’d never really heard of before, wanted to talk to me,” Watts says. “We met at a hotel. And he was really cool, super charming. He really wanted me to be the bandleader. I thought about it, talked to a bunch of people about it, and then said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’” Watts felt that the show’s producer Ben Winston was a little more hesitant. “I think he was kind of uncertain,” Watts says. But Corden wanted somebody unconventional as a wingman to bounce off, somebody who could inject a bit of wildness into a mostly tried-and-true format. “They were counting on my oddball stuff,” says Watts.
Some other examples of his “oddball stuff”: a short film about Brasília, the capital of Brazil, where Watts walks around pointing out made-up buildings like Telepathy College; and his personal “WattsApp”, a free iPhone application that seems to offer nothing, when I tested it, beyond videos of him beatboxing at home and speeding around in a professional race car. Watts describes WattsApp as “an expensive experiment”.
Watts may not have turned “The Late Late Show” avant-garde, but he is reliably the most interesting presence on camera — and not just for his comedic sensibility. In 2020, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he broke down while discussing racial prejudices in America and the racism he faced during his childhood in the overwhelmingly white town of Great Falls. “There’s a lot of pain and emotion there,” he told Corden.
When I ask Watts whether he would ever want to take over the main job on “The Late Late Show”, perhaps after James Corden steps down at the end of the current season, he considers the idea and then suggests he would need full control to implement a few things: “a zero-waste set” and a lightened workload “so that people aren’t overworked and stressed out”. But if the network could guarantee those things? “Yeah, I’d be interested, because I love talking to people.”
Beyond television, though, Watts has even loftier ambitions. “In an ideal world, I would love to have some semblance of a Willy Wonka lifestyle,” he says. “I want to create experiences that blow people away, experiences that blur the line between a dangerous feeling and a silly feeling — kind of oscillating between those things — but also with a dose of something compassionate. I want to run people through the wringer and then deliver them to a feeling of safety. I want to take you through this weird, dark tunnel, you know? It might make you uncomfortable, but it’s a good experience, because you end up maybe learning something.”
Reggie Watts will perform at Human Kind 2023, March 16–18, at Luna Park, Sydney, humankind.sydney
This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 20 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Chaotic Good”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.