Comedian Reggie Watts Talks Touring, Looping, Conan O’Brian, and more!

Original is the word that comes to mind when describing Reggie Watts unique blend of music, comedy, and theater and it might be an understatement.  He became well known for his viral videos and performances that feature humorous songs built a cappella using loop pedals and his improvisational character based comedy and recently landed the opening gig for Conan O’Brian on his The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour. He has two albums under his belt as well as a number of multi-media theater pieces in collaboration with playwright Tommy Smith, and he has been featured on Comedy Central’s The Venture Bros., Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and HBO’s The Yes Men Save The World.  I had a chance to speak with him as he is completing work on his pilot for Comedy Central and preparing for a number of upcoming performances.

So, I read that you were born in Germany and moved to Great Falls, Montana. Now you don’t appear to be the person who would fit in either place, what was your childhood like?

I remember bits and pieces of Europe but I moved to Montana when I was 4, so it was pretty mellow, but fun.  I mean Montana school systems are really kickass and I grew up in the 70’s and the 80’s and that was an awesome period of time in the United States in particular areas and Montana was really fucking dope so growing up there was really great.  I got to experience so many things: nature, city life, and other worlds from television and playing out in the woods, playing Star Wars and lighting fire crackers and blowing things up and lighting things on fire, riding dirt bikes and getting lost in the woods and lakes, ice skating, discos, you know, weird school experiences, drama, football, girls, I mean, that’s pretty dope. Not be like “yeah, I had a pretty dope upbringing,” I just sincerely believe that it was one of the funnest times of my life.

I also read that Alice Walker, the author (of novels such as The Color of Purple) is your second cousin, do you know her well?  What’s your relationship with her like?

I don’t really know her, I’ve met her sister on a few occasions and that’s about it and now I know that she’s my second cousin, that’s good.

Well, I have to ask you, you are a really interesting person and you have multiple talents in all these different ways, I was wondering how you found your unique “voice”?  What was that process like?

I just always remember being this way, you know in hindsight I’m still seeing it through a filter of experience but I don’t really remember being any other way.  I mean I definitely remember thinking about things differently but I always remember being as curious as I am and as fascinated with technology as I am and fascinated with mimicry and then combining those things.  Also, being an only child helped with that you know, spending a lot of time by myself figuring out things, I’m by myself quite a bit so in a weird way it was perfect training for going out in the world and touring way too much.

Did you ever see yourself doing comedy or anything like that?

I mean I’ve always loved comedy and I always used to make kids laugh, that’s what I remember. They might tell you differently, but I remember making classrooms crack up, being the class clown, and then in high school our drama program had a competitive element to it.  I guess some people call them theater Olympics, they were drama meets that end up with state titles for the winner and there are five categories.  The first year I did a humor solo and that was fucking awesome, my teacher was cool with my improvising so I would just improvise this whole thing.  I remember taking underwear and cutting through it so I could fit it around me through my pants and then at one point during the piece [saying] “oh excuse me for a second” and taking my underwear out and tugging, tugging, tugging on it, finally I just made it seem extremely difficult and then they were out.  I would throw them off to the side and then continue with my thing, it was just stupid shit like that.  Then the second year I did a piece with my friend Wally Bossy and he was just a perfect partner and we improvised everything and by the end of the year we had a fully written piece and we won state that year.  That was very “John Hughes high school movie” that entire year, it was perfect.

Wow, that sounds like it could’ve been on your stage show recently.

Yeah, I know, and that’s the weird thing, back then I just loved drama and I did some standup comedy competitions after that and won one, it was like a $500 prize or something like that.  It was at like the Sheridan Hotel and then there was the finals and then I won the whole thing.  Then I did some gigs at some Indian reservations with a couple of Native American comics which, we don’t have a national equivalent for that, and these guys are fucking funny.   Then I just did music mostly, a few comedy dabblings and I was like oh, I miss this and now this is what I’m doing.

Your show seems like it’s really improvised, how much improvisation is there on an average day, is it all stream of consciousness or are you working off some material? How does that work?

Well, it’s mostly improvised although lately I’ve been repeating a few jokes.  I guess on a half hour set I probably will tell the same jokes that I have been [telling] like the last 5 times I performed so that’s sort of a newer thing for me but sometimes they are fully improvised.

That’s amazing, as a standup comic myself and I know how some comics will consider it dangerous to walk out on stage like that.  Does it ever flop? Do you ever have audiences that just don’t get it?

Yeah, absolutely, but there is usually enough other people- it’s really weird, I did a gig recently and a friend of mine commented on this, sometimes only specific groups of people laugh during my show and then others will at other times so it’s really odd.  When they described it I remember I was doing weird shit where I was hiking up my pants so I can sit on the bench and a certain group of the audience will be laughing really loud at that and one way in the back over to the right.  Then I’d say some stupid, zany comment or something  and then most of the audience, except for a few people on the side, it was just really weird.  I think my point is that when I go out on stage at least a few people are enjoying it and that’s enough, you know it’s better than bombing.

From my perspective, you seem like you are on the tipping point, the precipice where you’re about to possibly come upon some larger mainstream success, do you have any sense of that?  How do you see your own career right now?

It’s interesting, because it’s not something I think about, I guess I’m aware of its possibility, you know, to move into a larger scale situation but at the same time I don’t want to romanticize about it.  I just don’t want to be held hostage to accessing to aspire to get some place, I just want to make sure that I’m natural and doing things that I think are really fucking stupid and hanging out with my friends, that’s kind of the most important thing throughout the process because I literally cannot do that.  I can definitely look in hindsight or while I’m in a situation, appreciate what’s happening, but I still feel like a tourist, it’s not like “this is my life, this how I rolled on the tour bus with diamonds in my hand,” it’s never that.  It’s more like whoa, this is crazy, look at this, look at this production, really professional production people and then I go around telling the production people “like you are really professional.”  I’m just a total fucking idiot backstage but you know I always want to be in observational mode no matter how big something gets.  It’s “look where I ended up today” you know, rather than “alright, here’s my career trajectory,” I just can’t do that.  it’s weird when I hear I’ll be in Rolling Stone, I’ll be in GQ, I’ll be in whatever magazine, not like I’ve been in all these.

Well actually soon you have a Rolling Stone piece coming out right?

Well yeah that’s true. Generally when those are happening it’s casual, it’s like what we’re doing right now and everyone seems to be at ease and it never feels like an industry.  Someone calls you up and is like “hey man, I got some interesting questions for you” and it’s like “yeah,” just like right now.  As long as I keep it on that level it’ll scale up maybe and there’ll be some noticeable moments but you know, like hopefully I’ll just keep it groovy.

What’s been the coolest moment for you in your career so far?

I’d say getting invited to some of the technology conferences; it’s a tossup because the Conan tour has been amazing- to go out and be opening and then meeting, really great people, people that I’m fans of, hearing amazing music and a crew that is just too fantastic and too cool and years of experience between all of them and all the great stories you hear from these road dogs and the guests like Jack McBrayer (Kenneth on 30 Rock) [who] is a sweetheart, just really sincerely sweet human being.  Meeting people like that and seeing Conan having a moment of compassion for somebody, you know even though he’s so busy, or Andy just being this crazy dude and having really crazy conversations with him back stage, you know and going out on stage in front of 6,000 people to support this guy who’s been sincere about what’s happened to him and his fans really appreciate that you know.  The fans are great, they are amazing so I guess that is really one of the greatest moments that and Brian Eno inviting me to, well, Brian Eno inviting me to anything, that too.

I wanted to ask you about looping because you are one of the few artists that use it in the way that you do where you’re building your own songs onstage.  I had heard some artists like Imogen Heap and Theresa Andersson do it but it’s really a small group of people that I’m aware of. Where do you see that sort of thing going in your music?  Is it going to catch on in the music industry, is it going to be like autotune in a couple years or is it too difficult?

I don’t know, looping is cool but I don’t know if it’ll ever catch on really huge, I mean, KT Tunstall is a looper and made great loops and then played her guitar and sang over it.  She started out as a loop artist and turned mega, mega pop and she probably still does it maybe at a moment in her live show but it’s kind of moved into a different scale.  I think people kind of end up losing that if you are a song writer, I think if you are just a performer and are just into feeling the moment, just kind of jamming and improvising then that’s a different thing.  I don’t know, I think that always comes off as too arty and not poppy enough because really that moment in pop can only last a few seconds, maybe 5 seconds, so I don’t know if it will scale.  I definitely think it will be in the underground dance culture, in those communities I think we’ll see tons of people looping, fucking around live.  I mean it is happening now and we’ll see more of that for sure but I think as a mainstream thing, I’d be surprised.  I mean, never say never, but I’d be surprised if it evolved into that.

I’ve been following you on twitter and I saw in the last day or so that you’re working on your pilot?

Yeah, that is correct, it’s for Comedy Central, it’s the Reggie Watts Show, it’s filmed on the 15th

Wow, that’s exciting

Yes, it’s a little daunting but yeah, we’ll see what happens

Congratulations, that’s awesome

Thank you, yeah, it’s going to be fun

So aside from that what other things are you working on next?  I know that you’ve done theater works, I know that you’ve done music, you have all this stuff going on. What are you working on next?

Well, I’ll have some theater performances, I’m doing Under the Radar, um, I’m supposed to do Under the Radar so we’ll see what happens.  Let’s see, there’s a couple of other theater things I’m doing PS 122 events and going to I think Budapest to perform, which should be interesting, I’m going to Milan to perform with Michael Portnoy if you remember that guy?  I think he interrupted a show with a soy bomb on his chest, so I’m going there to do some performance art thing and I think that’s it.  There is just that, the pilot, and I’ll be on the Conan show in November which will be really awesome and yeah, I don’t know, that’s kind of it, I got a place, a new place.

Still in Brooklyn?

Yeah in Williamsburg, so I’m stoked about that and that’s kind of it.  I’m just trying to stay still for awhile.

Well that’s actually a whole load of stuff, that’s pretty exciting

Ha, well yeah it’s great, there is a lot of stuff happening, I’m just trying to make sure I simplify as much as possible.

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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