Reggie Watts ambles into our interview wearing a t-shirt announcing “Good Morning” and the disarming, wide-eyed wonder of an otherworldly being just fallen to earth. A fiercely intelligent yet uncommonly warm man, Watts is a ludicrously talented musician, versatile vocalist and famously 420-friendly surrealist comedian—often simultaneously. Over the past quarter-century Watts has sung, played, rambled, rapped and beat-boxed his way to becoming a one-man genre of eccentric, often disinformation-based comedy punctuated with multi-layered musical compositions created live on stage using a digital looper. Between tunes, his restless, easily-distracted wordplay and absurdist life view—exploring everything from the intuitive interface of Mexican mapping systems to the Happy Mondays in ever-changing accents and languages—is equal parts psychedelic, stimulating and flat-out funny.
Born in Germany to a French mother and an African-American airman father, Watts spent his infancy in Europe before the family settled in Great Falls, Montana. A veteran of Seattle’s music scene, most notably as frontman for soulful rock/hip-hop collision Maktub, he moved to New York’s Lower East Side and shifted his creative emphasis to comedy (albeit often musical comedy) in 2004.
His intrinsic cuddliness enhanced by a heroically explosive ‘fro and beard, Watts makes eye contact easily and palpably relishes the stimulation of meeting strangers. His career ark has been slow and steady yet not without significant landmarks. Following two Comedy Central specials (2010’s Why Shit So Crazy? and 2012’s A Live in Central Park) and appearances on the likes of Conan, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live, the admirably-uncompromising comic earned a co-starring spot on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! series, a role he recently relinquished to become bandleader and announcer for The Late Late Show with James Corden.
With his hard-earned, YouTube-ubiquitous hipness now percolating the mainstream, the eternally-curious comic is currently staying in Los Angeles (where the Late Late Show is recorded) while frequently returning to New York to visit his girlfriend. We caught up with him somewhere between the two to chat.
You’re known as a “dis-informationist.” Does that mean that everything you say during this interview could be untruths?
It could be. Although I would say, with interviews, I tend to probably go towards 98 percent truth. And even my untruths are kind of highlighted and have quotes around them.
So is your stage persona a character or is it you? Or are you always in character? Are you in character right now?
I don’t think it is [a character]. I mean, I think people think it’s a character because it’s ridiculous. I definitely go into a mode where I’m like “how ridiculous can I be?,” but I never really think of it as a character.
Your stage show has been billed as 100 percent improvised? Is that literally the case?
Oh definitely, yeah. I mean, I could try to have a structure, but I would most likely forget about it. It’s easier for me to not have anything in my mind and go on stage. Obviously, I’ve been doing it enough times that I that I have, like, six different ways that I could start—I could start loud or I can start soft, or I can mess with the microphone or I can go straight to the keyboard. There’s these types of things . . . but, the content itself is improvised.
A few years ago you said that you like to pretend you’re living in a starship. Has that starship landed yet—or is it likely to anytime soon?
We’re on a planet, in space, so we are all on a spaceship. So, in a way, the analogy of a starship is just to recognize the fact that we’re alive and the fact that we’re able to do what we do is amazing—and that’s a thing that I never want to lose sight of.
New York Magazine described your performances as “comedy for the Internet Era.” What influence has the internet had on your work and how different might your performances be without it?
When I think about how performed when I was in high school, in the ‘80s, pre-internet . . . during that time I was very influenced by Monty Python. Monty Python had the ability of turning on a dime realities and contextualizing things instantaneously—or doing a slow cross-fade from one idea to the other, so it’s very psychedelic. So, I was inspired by that and when I would do my comedy I would improvise. Whatever came into my head, I would do—I wouldn’t be afraid that it didn’t make sense.
Fast forward to the internet age, [my performances] actually came into resonance with the internet, because the internet allows you to follow your whims and things suddenly changes or it glitches-out . . . So, what I do on stage is very similar to how you would navigate the internet, just based off of your curiosity and the availability of choices. So, I think that I just kind of lined up when that happened.
In your everyday life, do you switch between accents and languages?
Oftentimes I do, yeah. It’s a bad habit and people sometimes think it’s annoying.
Your style of comedy is far from traditional, yet your career is flourishing. Do you feel that you’re having to earn acceptance not just of yourself but also of a whole new genre?
That was a fear I had when I first moved to New York and I made a conscious decision to focus on comedy instead of doing music . . . I wasn’t sure how they were going to receive me the first time I went up [on stage, but] they just loved it! They saw that I was a silly human doing really dumb shit and people were like “we know where you’re coming from.” Even though what I’m doing is different than what they do, we all share that, like, “this is the maximum dumbest thing you could be doing on stage right now.”
So, I found my “family” very quickly and I would worry at times that I was leaning on music as a crutch too much, but I never worried about what I was doing verbally on stage.
You’re now the bandleader and announcer for The Late Late Show with James Corden. What are the joys and challenges of that role, compared to those of your solo live performances?
It’s kind of funny . . . I show up [at The Late Late Show] and always I’m aware of the fact that I’m like “Where am I right now? How did I get this gig?” And then I’m like “Live from blah, blah, blah,” and “Give it up for . . . !” So, all these instincts kick in where I have the awareness of the fact that what I’m doing this is ridiculous and I kind of play into that and try to make it different, try to make it fun.
You’re performing at the Teragram Ballroom in L.A. on September 25. What should Angelenos who perhaps haven’t seen you live before expect?
I don’t know what to expect . . . I know I’m going to show up and I’m going to soundcheck for 15 minutes and then hopefully people will turn up and I’ll get to perform for them. These are the only ingredients I know—always the case [and] better that way.
Your first EP was called Pot Cookies and you’ve talked on stage about using “the doobage application” every day. What role does cannabis play in your life and creativity?
It plays a pretty major role in that, for me, THC and creativity has a lot to do about shifting my perspective and also kind of reducing the obsessiveness that I tend to have about, like, efficiency or problems. It puts me in a zone that’s more momentous and so, in that case I’m allowed to kind of relax and see things from a little bit more of a childish perspective or pure curiosity.
I mean, it would happen without cannabis, for sure, but the nature of how much stuff is coming at me constantly, it really does help to kind of throw me off and kind of destabilize me so I can actually really feel something as much as possible.
So you welcome that destabilization?
Definitely. I tend to prefer edibles more than smoking. Lately I’ve had some “unknown” edibles—that I’m not sure what the quantity is, so, I’ve gotten way, way, way, way out into space. [But] if that does happen, I’m just going to look at it as a challenge—to, like, try to keep my thoughts together. It’s almost like wearing a weighted backpack and running up stairs . . . It’s like added resistance to my training regimen—mental training regimen.
How do you time your cannabis ingestion relative to your performance?
I’d say it’s about 60/40—60 percent I’ll have some form of THC and 40 percent I’ll go on [stage] without it.
I don’t notice a difference too much in the beginning. Generally, what I do if I’m going to plan on having an edible, I will eat it just before I go out on stage or I’ll eat it when I get on stage, in front of everybody. So when I do that, it comes on slowly, as we all know, and that kind of affects the performance towards the back end and that’s kind of interesting to me. Because sometimes I’ll be on stage and . . . it’s nice to be confused and a little bit worried about how I’m going to come up with something, because that weirdly causes me to focus and generate different possibilities than I would sometimes if I weren’t on it.
Do audiences find Reggie Watts funnier if they’re high? Is this “stoner humor”?
I mean, for sure. But, in so far as Monty Python was stoner humor . . . [although] a lot of those guys weren’t really big stoners—they just loved sully, psychedelic stuff. They were probably more fans of Salvador Dali—and Dali wasn’t a drug guy either.
My goal, no matter what I’m doing, I think of it as I want to create experiences that are amazing when you’re high, but also make you feel like you’re high if you’re not high. I’m trying to get to a place where it really makes you feel like you’re somewhere else or you’re inside your own mind kind of on your own journey . . . I want everybody to feel some kind of a high.