Reggie Watts on his dream project: “I’d like to make commercials”
Reggie Watts is a performer who truly defies categorization. A brilliant stand-up comic and an impressive actor, he’s best recognized for live sets that showcase the convergence of his improv experience and beatboxing skills, made-up-on-the-spot songs with glitchy, looped and layered hip-hop beats under absurd lyrics about whatever’s on his mind — like pancakes or Avatar or more serious, thoughtful fare.
His music has soundtracked staples from Louie to podcast segment intros, but his work extends far beyond the comedic realm; while his debut album, 2010’s Why S#!+ So Crazy, was released on Comedy Central Records, his more recent live album came out (on vinyl!) through Jack White’s Third Man label, and Watts has appeared and recorded with artists like LCD Soundsystem and Regina Spektor. Die-hard fans even covet releases from Maktub, the hip hop band Watts has fronted since 1996.
Though Watts is known for his widely varied interests — and his mastery of them all — it’s his improvised, effect-heavy live show that’s earned him considerable attention in recent years, landing him on late night stages and best-of lists left and right. And on Saturday, May 26 and Sunday, May 27, you can see him in Austin at the Scottish Rite Theater. (FYI: If you’ve never caught a live Watts show, this round-up of his 30 best videos is an excellent introduction to his eclectic style.)
(FYI: If you’ve never caught a live Watts show, this round-up of his 30 best videos is an excellent introduction to his eclectic style.)
CultureMap caught up with Watts to talk about his commercial aspirations, his tour setup and why being the king of podcast theme songs is kind of weird.
A clip from Watts’ latest special, A Live At Central Park (available on CD/DVDand digital download):
We’re excited to see you in Austin! How have you been getting ready for your upcoming tour?
I don’t have any preparation — I just kind of make sure I’m at the airport on time and make sure I get to the venue and go onstage. But I definitely observe things throughout the day, and have conversations with people, and usually that makes for a good show.
Have you been writing any material, or will it all be improvised?
I don’t write anything. I mostly hope that good stuff happens onstage — I don’t really have a setlist or anything like that, I just kind of go for it. Usually a structure emerges, or it kind of shapes itself as I’m going down the line; sometimes I know things, like I know I can go to the piano and do a certain thing, but I try to make it as new as possible.
What was the first instrument you picked up?
I started with piano.
How did traditional training evolve into improvised, effect-heavy style you’re known for now?
I just like absurd things, and I think you can really do absurd things with topics like sex, or violence, ignorance, things like that — you can go to extremes. I don’t know what it is, but it’s really funny. If you approach things from a different angle, if you approach sex as this mechanical, clinical thing, or biological thing, just basically explaining how it happens matter-of-factly — weirdly enough, it’s kind of funny. You’re just reciting information or facts about something, and it’s just so dumb that someone’s actually doing it that it becomes entertaining, in a weird way.
"If you approach things from a different angle, if you approach sex as this mechanical, clinical thing, or biological thing, just basically explaining how it happens matter-of-factly — weirdly enough, it’s kind of funny."
Well, there’s truth in comedy, right?
Yeah, it’s like hyper-truth, definitely.
Do you try out new equipment and effects a lot?
Yeah, for sure. But the thing is, I rarely add something for the road; I used to just have the Line 6 DL4 [delay modeler], the green pedal, and then I ran into the Electro-Harmonix 2880 — I got that because we could record four tracks, and take them in and out and stuff like that, but it was a different kind of looping machine so I had two looping machines. And then I recently added reverb, to sound like I’m in a big hall or a big room or something, as another effect. So I have delay, reverb and then two samplers, two sample loopers. It’s still really small, and it fits my rule of, I want my show to never be larger than my backpack.
At SXSW, I saw a screening of Legend accompanied by the score you recorded — do you have any other similar projects you’re working on?
I’d like to make commercials for different companies and products that I like, but not sanctioned by the companies. That’s definitely not a new thing, but I would like to do commercials that look like a real commercial, almost all the way through, with just one tiny piece of slightly exaggerated piece of information — really really subtle. The rest of the commercial is exactly how, you know, a Ford F150 ad would look — the sun going down over a hill, you can see the dust trailing off, there’s the sound of doors slamming, the tailgate slamming, and there’s a helicopter shot of a truck going down a country road or through a construction site. That kind of stuff, find a way to do it cheaply but like a high-end truck commercial. So, if you see something that looks slightly wrong from a company in the future, it might be my crew, I don’t know.
Commercials always exist in a slightly weird reality to begin with.
They are, but it’s kind of a weird thing to like, do a commercial for a company but do it seriously, at their level — there’s no reason why anyone should do that, it’s just ridiculous. I just really love it. It’s almost like a private joke, for six people and me to go, “Oh, that’s hilarious!”
Watts live at Funny or Die:
You’re also on the upcoming IFC seriesComedy Bang! Bang!; was filming the scripted show very different from the experience of recording the podcast version?
I wasn’t really too involved in the writing of it, just because they had a really small window to make it happen — Scott [Aukerman], Leo Allen and a couple other writers. They know I’m an improviser, so they left a lot of stuff open for me to interpret. There were definitely strong guidelines, but I could still kind of read the situation in real-time and go for it. I guess they wrote in advance, but in the heat of the moment, as far as improvising, if they liked something I did they’d keep it.
You also recorded the theme for the show; you’ve kind of got a corner on the comedy show theme song market.
It’s such a weird thing.
Have you done any others recently?
I haven’t done a theme song lately — I re-did the theme song to for Comedy Bang! Bang!, it’s still the same song but it’s more hi-fi and has new instruments in it. I guess the last theme song I wrote was Key & Peele. I do like doing that kind of stuff, and I think it would be fun in the future to do something that was a little more well-funded so I could do something really cool. I’m always interested in it. People just ask real quick, because it’s just so easy to improvise something, come up with a catchy way to frame the show.
Your latest special, A Live At Central Park, was just released; what can viewers expect?
It’s one gig that I did at Central Park right after a really heavy rainstorm, so we kind of lost half the audience — but half of them stayed through the rain to see the show, so good on them for sticking with it. It’s a nice open, outdoor experience, with good camera coverage — directed by Duncan Skiles, the same guy who directed my first special — and there’s this is kind of weird story told in little video vignettes. That’s what you can mechanically expect.
Catch Reggie Watts live in Austin at the Scottish Rite Theater on Saturday, May 26 and Sunday, May 27. Tickets are still available online.