A Very Long Conversation with Comedian Reggie Watts About Williamsburg, Touring with Conan, and Brian Eno Birthday Parties That Is Totally Worth the Read
Any attempt to describe what Reggie Watts does onstage will inevitably fail to convey the dizzying heights of absurdity the man regularly achieves, but here it goes. First, the Seattle-via-Montana transplant constructs backing tracks via carefully controlled beat-boxing and judicious use of looping pedals and pitch-shifting, weird-noise generating devices. And then things start to get strange. He might use the ramshackle tracks as the bedrock for a startling accurate imitation of a drunk British professor--or of a squirrel. He might sing a song filled with bizarrely right non-sequiturs like "Your ass crack/butter and toast." Or he might just decide to unleash a wave of distortion that would make TV On The Radio jealous.
Or he might just get real. Like, bizarrely, hilariously, specifically real about the minutia of his life. The highlight of his new CD/DVD combo Why Shit Crazy?, released via Comedy Central Records, is the song "My History Thus Far," in which Watts sings in detail about how he's never really paid rent since moving to Brooklyn a few years ago, and also makes a bold proclamation about the location of our city's finest hamburger. Free of the burdens of rent, Watts quickly found a home on New York's alt-comedy scene after moving here in 2006. He collaborated with Regina Spektor and gigged with absurdist comedy king Eugene Mirman, and built up enough buzz to land opening duties for Conan O'Brien's high-profile Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour. (He won the gig a day after one of O'Brien's writers showed The Once And Future Talk Show King some of Watt's live videos.)
With a new album, high-profile live gig and a television show in the works, Watts realizes it's time for him to stop crashing on his friend's couches, and was a few minutes late to this interview because he was looking for a new place. (Though he insists he's a thoughtful guest: "I try to give practical things or fix things, you know? Like if they don't have a good toaster oven.") Sitting in his manager's office, dressed in a deep-orange yoga shirt, his hair as wild and untamed as his performances, and fiddling with his over-sized pinkie nails (one black and one pink: "I just like growing them out. I like having girls paint my nails"), Watts talked about his years of slugging it out in Seattle and his dreams of curating a LoopFest. But first he talked about burgers.
Here's a story I think you might enjoy. When I'm not doing stuff here I work at a different magazine, and I work with a lot of interns and young writers, and I try to give them advice. Recently, I've been telling them "You guys need to quit mentioning Brooklyn in every single review. Don't talk about the Williamsburg sound. It is not the '60s and Bedford Avenue is not Haight-Ashbury. The whole world does not know what you're talking about."
And then I was listening to your album again to get ready for this, and I'm listening to the song ["My History Thus Far"] where you mention specific restaurants in Williamsburg, and you go into detail about which one has the best burger, and then you talk about a place you crash at on Graham Avenue. And I thought to myself "Reggie Watts is totally undermining me. I hope none of my interns hear this."
I guess you can't help it if it really is in factual existence. But I hear you. Why that piece of advice?
It just comes up a lot, especially if they're writing about a younger indie rock band.
Gotcha. Yeah, I understand. Good advice.
No, you do what you want. I'm just telling the kids...
No, I'm going to stop talking about Williamsburg, thanks to you.
So, you really think Relish has the best burgers in New York City?
It has one of them. Or at least it used to. The chef changed, they have a new cook now. So the last time that I was eating meat and had a burger, one of the last ones was Relish. I loved their burger, it was just really well-constructed and the right ingredients and no bullshit. (Makes a burger-grasping gesture with his hands). And then I tried that burger shack (Shake Shack)...it's alright. It's fine, it's a good burger but I don't like the outdoor, grabbing a burger, it just doesn't...burgers to me are best eaten in a diner.
I do think Relish has the best shakes. The bourbon-chocolate shake...
...it's like sin in a glass.
It's everything. But in the right ratios, so it's well-constructed decadence.
So after the Conan tour and the new album, have you noticed whether you've been starting to get a new fanbase? Do you feel any bigger than you were half a year ago?
Yeah, it's weird. Definitely people will come up and say things now, in a different way like "how was the tour with Conan?" Yesterday I was introduced at a show at House Of Yes and the MC went on this tirade about the first time he saw me and "now this guy's really big and he's been in this and that and he's on this tour" or whatever and I'm listening to this and I'm like "I guess from the outside perspective, yeah it looks like that," but for me, the tour was awesome and I felt like lucky that I did it, but it doesn't necessarily change the way I feel about where I'm at, necessarily.
As you get exposed to these larger audiences, do you get a kick out of some people's baffled reactions?
That's my favorite. I love seeing people going "what is going on?" Although I don't really get to see the audience that much when I'm doing it. Which temps me to place a video camera on the audience during one of my shows, especially an audience that may not be totally familiar with me. But I know that I like that feeling of confusion and I know that people are confused, but I haven't actually seen the confusion in the process of it happening.
At least from the outside it's hard to describe you to people. I tried to pitch a story on you to people around the time of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, and I couldn't even describe you to editors. I was like "it's kind of like Aphex Twin or something on Warp Records sample-type stuff, plus jokes and curse words" and I got "ehs?" So once you got Conan it got easier.
[Laughs and claps hands.]
Has that been a problem for you, though, where you can't really describe what you do to a potential general audience? Like, "I kind of do this..."
Right, right. I always just say I'm a comedic performer, because it's a general statement or description, but it's true. I like to make people laugh, and I perform. That might be music, that might be physical humor, it might be jokes or it might be...whathaveyou. But otherwise I'm starting to describe specific things that I do, and that to me doesn't sound like, if I were a person listening to me talking about what I'm doing, would be very interesting.
For a typical live show for you, how much of it is improv? Is the entire thing improv?
I always say it's somewhere anywhere 80 and 100, it just depends on the night. If I'm tired I might not be as game to improvise, I may do things I've done before. Bits.
Are there times, like maybe when you first started out, where you were trying to build a song in front of an audience, where you just bombed? Maybe it wasn't funny or it wasn't working?
What was the worst one?
Oh God, even like, when was it? It was just recently...what day was that...(pauses)...yeah, I can't remember. There was a recent gig that I did where I couldn't figure out the loop length. It was a blues or something like that, and there's always an extra bar at the end of a blues...not an extra bar but there's a bar that goes back to the original key, and then it starts over. So I just started immediately over after the third bar or whatever, so it was an uneven phrase, so I had to stop it and then I tried doing it again, and I couldn't get my brain around it. It was weird, I must have been tired or something. But that really sucks because in those moments I'm like "wow, I'm just not getting this, and this is happening live onstage." So I've had that feeling onstage, but I don't know what the reaction is because I'm not paying attention, because I'm trying to problem solve. But a lot of people are "I didn't notice" or they're being really nice. But I'm like "ehhhhh it was a shitty loop." That's my biggest fear, just really shitty loops. Like, a really shitty one.