Reggie Watts isn’t just a one-man band – he’s a one man universe.
The comedian-musician hybrid is originally from Great Falls, Montana, where he found a love for the absurd through a variety of influences. Recognizable for his mountain of hair and trusty suspenders, Watts has become a leading figure in the art of abstract comedy. Asked to name some of the artists that helped shape both his humor and his sound, Watts cites parody king “Weird” Al Yankovic and sound effects maestro Michael Winslow (of Police Academy fame).
“He was the guy that showed me that you can do a lot with your voice other than just singing or speaking,” Watts says of Winslow. “Being able to imitate objects and machines and sound effects and create ambiance was a novel concept for me as a kid. To me, he was kind of like a super hero. I’m happy that he existed at the right time for me.”
Watching Watts, one can see his claim to their lineage in his performances, which feature improvised songs built from organic loops and non-sequitur segments that riff on the constructs of modern stand-up comedy.
What sets Watts apart from many other notable artists working in the comedy field is his stand-alone talents as a musician. Armed with a microphone, a reverb pedal, a delay modeler, and a multi-track looper, he layers vocal patterns over syncopated sounds until a song begins to form.
In Spatial, Watts’ new special out this week on Netflix, all of the material is improvised, a bold stroke that imbues his act with a giddy, raw energy. There is an outer space prelude, jokes told at fast-forward speeds, plenty of songs, and even a fake sitcom called Crowe’s Nest.
“They pretty much let me do exactly what I wanted to do,” Watts says of working with Netflix, “which is incredible. They trusted us to make what we wanted to make.”
As for the improvised sitcom in his special, which also features the equally hilarious Kate Berlant and Rory Scovel, Watts calls getting to do the Crowe’s Nest bits “a dream come true.”
“I’ve always wanted to do an improvised sitcom. I’ve been interested in doing some kind of improvised television show for a long time, but a sitcom sounded especially funny.”
In fact, it is from television that many know Watts best. After serving as the bandleader for IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang during the show’s first three and half seasons, he left to fill the same role for James Corden’s The Late Late Show. During his time with Comedy Bang Bang, which aired its final episode on Dec. 2, Watts would frequently improvise music and join host Scott Aukerman for bizarre sketches. In many ways a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse for adults, Comedy Bang Bang developed a cult following that has embraced Watts through his departure and into the next phase of his career.
At the time we spoke, Watts had yet to see the final episode – “I’m terrible at keeping up with up television schedules” – he says he’s excited to revisit the strange world he helped Aukerman create one more time.
Meanwhile, he has plenty to keep him busy. While Watts can often be found at comedy spaces in the Los Angeles area like The Meltdown and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre when he isn’t taping The Late Late Show, he is also often asked to appear with artists from the musical mainstream.
On Friday night, Watts will join Yasiin Bey, the rapper formerly known as Mos Def. Watts says that after jumping between comedy and musical spaces for so long, it’s almost become routine for him.
“I’ve been working in music for so long, and especially when I was in Seattle, there was some comedy but it was mostly music,” he says. ” I was working with hip-hop artists and musicians of all genres and ilks and ranges and abilities. For me, it just feels normal.”
He does confess that occasionally a venue can challenge him.
“Sometimes I get a little nervous, if I’m like in Harlem doing an all-Black show,” he says. “Then I worry the audience might think I’m like some fucking weirdo jerk or whatever, but I just figure out what they dig and go for that. I want everybody to have a good time. Even though I might seem like a random weirdo, I do care about the audience. I mean, that’s my job.”
One of the most notable variances to Watts’ standard approach came in 2013, when he joined his hero Michael Winslow for a San Francisco Sketchfest show dubbed “The Sound Effects Summit.” There was plenty of humor, especially during the segments where Winslow offered unreal impressions of car horns, electronic bleeps, and a world of other inanimate objects. Then the real magic came. As Winslow started to beatbox, Watts sampled and looped his collaborator’s voice into the basis of a stunning, winding opus of sound.
It was a comedy show. Both men on stage were unquestionably capable of being very funny. Yet in that moment, people weren’t laughing. They were in awe, transported to the surreal kingdom of Watt’s immersive artistry.
It’s a place everyone should visit.
Reggie Watts plays with Yasiin Bey and Jallal at 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 9, at The Fox. More info here.