Reggie Watts

The Entertainer

May 25, 2011 #36 - Music vs. Comedy Bookmark and Share


 

The late Andy Kaufman once bristled at the suggestion that he was a comedian, contending that comedians told jokes while he was simply an entertainer, an artist who would use whatever he had—songs, props, characters—to make you laugh. As the 2006 winner of “The Andy Kaufman Award,” Reggie Watts is also an entertainer for whom the word “comedian” seems insufficient. Armed with a keyboard, a sampler, and loop pedal, Watts doesn’t really tell jokes either, instead creating a largely improvised whirlwind of vocal sounds, stream-of-consciousness absurdities, and surreal character sketches that don’t so much break the rules of comedy as much as ignore them. Like Kaufman, he seems like a man from another planet who happened to fall from the sky and land on a comedy club stage. If every artist carries the sum total of his influences in his creative DNA, who is lurking in Watts’ genetic code?

“I liked Michael Winslow,” Watts says, referencing the human sound effects machine who became an ’80s icon through the Police Academy series. “I liked a lot of different standup comedians, but they weren’t necessarily doing what I’m doing now. Bobby McFerrin wasn’t really a comedian, but that song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy,’ that was huge, because he could do all that with his voice and be musical. So the comedy stuff was always just me being a goofball anyway, but then I started doing more things with my voice. In class, I made kids laugh a lot. I’d do jokes and funny faces. Ever since I remember, I was making people laugh by being an idiot. I had to learn how to turn it off.”

If someone wanted to find a place to create a genuinely original persona, Great Falls, Montana, is probably as good a place as any. It was there that Watts’ early attempts at mimicking Ray Charles convinced his mother to send him to piano and violin lessons. By the time he was a teen, he was playing in an orchestra and studying drama, and despite doing a bit of standup comedy here and there, he ended up migrating to Seattle after high school with the goal of studying jazz and finding a band to join.

Soon enough, Watts was playing keyboards and singing lead for Maktub, an act with whom he would make five albums that deftly mixed soul, funk, electronica, and trip-hop. But despite glowing reviews and a loyal (if small) fanbase, Watts feared Maktub would never provide a steady living, and decided that if he was going to starve, he might as well do it making people laugh. By 2004, he was doing just that in the comedy clubs of New York City, having figured out that he needed little more than a sampler and a loop pedal to translate his music into improvised experimental comedy sets. But, just as Maktub doubtlessly suffered from being too eclectic to make sense for most music fans, Watts’ particularly eccentric combination of music and comedy would place him at the confusing crossroads of multiple genres.

“I was always waiting for comedians to hate what I did, to be like, ‘This isn’t comedy. It’s not fair to be doing music. You’re using it as a crutch,’” he explains. “But people liked it, for the most part. I try to be really respectful of the art form, because people spend a lot of time writing jokes and crafting their style, and I’m just improvising and fucking around with music and stuff. It’s not my instinct to make fun of that process; I would never do that. But it was my fear that people would interpret me doing that. But no one ever did. I still feel it some days when I run into a new crew. If I’m invited on a new show and there are some new comedians that I’ve never met before, I still go back to that sensitivity. It takes a while to get used to the idea that what I’m doing is okay as opposed to something that somebody somewhere hates.”

Far from hating his act, fellow comedians became Watts’ biggest supporters, as Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale made him a regular at their Invite Them Up comedy shows, and old friend and playwright Tommy Smith approached him to collaborate on a multimedia theater project. A series of viral Internet videos and scattered TV appearances would follow. The clips eventually reached two of Conan O’Brien’s writers, who suggested Watts as a possible opening act for O’Brien’s Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour in 2010, the thinking being that Watts could do music and comedy in ways that wouldn’t overlap with O’Brien’s more straightforward performances. By the time the tour reached the end of its 30-city run, Watts’ profile had expanded as much as his Afro.

“It automatically increases your profile and is a stamp of legitimacy that there’s no way to buy,” Watts says. “You have to run into that situation, and I was just really lucky. There’s a perception that ‘This guy is doing something. Conan likes this guy. He’s gotta be okay.’ It definitely shined a light on me, and people who came to the shows—all sorts of producers and directors—now they know a little bit more about me. They don’t know what to do with me,” Watts laughs, “but at least they know of me.”

With both his third comedy album, 2010’s Why Shit So Crazy?, and a Comedy Central special having benefited from his moment on a bigger stage, Watts isn’t likely to have much free time any time soon, and he hopes that his higher profile will translate into more visible video and short film projects. Lately, though, having joined LCD Soundsystem as a backing musician on keyboards for their final shows, the idea of making music—the kind that’s not intended to make people laugh—has been calling him back, leaving him with the itch to record an album that showcases his prodigious musical skills. As always, Watts is happy to follow his muses wherever they lead.

“It might have lyrics. It might not. It’s really not one way in particular. Not necessarily comedic. It’s just music,” he says, adopting a faux-defensive tone, as if he has to assert his right to defy expectations yet again. “It’s just music, man.” (www.reggiewatts.com)

 



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