Originally, this here piece on Reggie Watts was going to be written in the style Reggie Watts performs in: free form, improvisational, off the cuff, many twists filled with many characters taking many turns.
The first paragraph was going to be in the voice of a pirate. He’d just discovered a treasure; treasure that contained—you guessed it—Reggie Watts, an unlikely comic success, a rare gem.
The second was to be written in the voice of a cowboy waxing rhapsodic about Watts’ trailblazing performances.
From there, I would switch to a stodgy entertainment lawyer explaining to his colleagues why Watts was destined for obscurity, and why they shouldn’t represent him: “There are no punch lines!”
The first draft of this article was experimental. It was avant-garde. It was creative. But, mostly, it was just fucking terrible. Because I can’t do what Reggie Watts does. No one can.
In fact, I can’t really even describe what he does. So I ask him to do it. “I say it’s a kind of nonlinear, musically oriented comedic performance,” he says.
Typically, Watts comes out on stage in character: an elderly black man, a British aristocrat, a—I don’t know—leprechaun with leprosy (I told you, I can’t do this), flowing between each without breaks or explanation. He then might beat box into a series of loop pedals, sing over said loops in an impressive falsetto and craft an original composition before your very eyes. From there, he might sing “Fuck Shit Stack,” his song about stacking the word “fuck” on top of the word “shit” for the purposes of full curse maximization and effeciency, which also serves as a send-up of hardcore gangsta rap that’s equal parts low- and high-brow. (“Where my gerunds at?”)
So, yes, “typically” was the wrong word to use up there. Because there’s nothing typical about what Watts does in front of an audience. Nothing traditional. It changes every night.
“I use everything I come in contact with as inspiration,” Watts, 40, says over the phone from his Brooklyn apartment while, it sounds like, washing dishes. “Every day I’m scanning everything I come in contact with, taking it all in in bits and pieces, anything that strikes me as odd or funny. I might have a conversation or an interaction with a friend or stranger, and parts of it will end up on stage a week later or that night. When I started, some audiences were just kind of confused.”
Watts’ act is funny, but not in the same way, say, a Chris Rock or Louis C.K. standup special is funny. There are no traditional set ups, and, hence, no traditional pay offs. As a result, the audience doesn’t have the laugh cues they’re accustomed to when watching a guy tell jokes and funny anecdotes into a mic from a stage. That’s where the early confusion came in.
“I don’t consider what I do standup, necessarily,” says Watts. “But there are elements of standup in it.”
Watts is the conductor of a train that rarely stays on track. Only the train is a rollercoaster. And that rollercoaster is in the dark. You never know what’s coming next. Audiences at Watts’ performances laugh out of sync and at different times. They come in spurts from different parts of the room. They’re sporadic.
Some comedians begrudge him for what he does on stage. They are old-school traditionalists who see Watts breaking from the pack with his funny voices that go nowhere and fancy loop pedals and beat boxing. To them, he’s not a joke writer or a comedy craftsman, but a clown. They see his uniquness as a crutch.
Add to Watts’ unique performance his equally unique appearance—a rotund man of mixed ethnicity hovering around 6 feet with the world’s most impressive and impressively teased afro—and, early on at least, there were lots of hardboiled cynics.
“Luckily,” Watts says of the inevitable blowback, “[comedian] Paul Provenza saw what I was doing at the beginning and loved it. He introduced me to other comedians who appreciated the more disparate elements of comedy, and so I had a bit of a built in support group, for lack of a better term. A lot of those guys told me I reminded them of Andy Kaufman. There was a precedent already set for what I was doing. Now, I’ve been doing it for so long that people are just like ‘Well, he does what he does and that’s fine.’”
Among the lovers of the disparate elements of comedy, fans of Watts’ doing what he does, was Conan O’Brien, who tapped him as an opener for his wildly successful and instantly sold-out Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour in 2010. Watts has also appeared on O’Brien’s show several times.
Now, as the big man with the funny hair and funny voices rambling in a stream of conciousness and rapping about fuck-shit stacks gains exposure, he’s no longer confusing audiences. They’re growing with him, becoming accustomed to his “kind of nonlinear, musically oriented comedic performance,” which he’s been working on since high school in one form or another.
“It’s surreal,” says Watts of his success, now putting away those dishes. “I can’t say I envisioned being able to make a living doing this when I started back then.”
Q&A With Comedian Dave Hill