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Reggie Watts, In Between Songs

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By: Keith Huang

Give Reggie Watts a mic and 10 minutes and he will bring the beat back again and again. The 33-year-old veteran musician, beatbox trainer, improviser and all-around nice guy says his exploration of standup comedy comes from the banter he has long developed as a means to fill time between his solo songs.

Serving more than a decade as frontman for the band Maktub (pronounced "Mock Tube," which translates roughly as "destiny" in Arabic), Watts has logged countless stage hours, opening for the likes of Pharcyde and Soulive. Indeed, on Friday, Dec. 9, Watts will perform with Soulive at Madison Square Garden, appearing with Dave Matthews Band.

But for the rest of the month, Watts will grace considerably smaller stages, digging into the New York comedy trenches with an act that's mostly a gumbo of music, beatboxing and spoken word. In his sets, he often uses a green Line 6 sampler, upon which he twists knobs and punches buttons to create trippy vocal loops and completely unnatural sounds. In his act, Watts, also called The Reggie Watts Tangent, delivers a stream of consciousness layered in beats and commentary on absolutely anything -- except the mundane. "All I can say is, he did a song about a pterodactyl," wrote John van der Put, more than a year ago. "What more do you need?"

The Seattle resident says he plans to sublet his apartment for six months and move to New York to give comedy a try. But given his warm reception at Crash Test and Invite Them Up a few weeks ago, if we're lucky, Watts could be here to stay.

So how and why did you make the switch to comedy?
Basically, back in high school when I first moved up to Seattle, I was doing comedy but then music kind of took over. I'd been doing music all my life, but I was doing comedy only since about junior high -- music is obviously more immediate in payment than the comedy scene per se, so I just went with music. But here and there I'd do some comedy things like sit down at the piano and make up funny songs -- but nothing official. I was involved in a couple sketch-comedy groups and we wrote some sketches and put them on, and then that was kind of it. I started doing solo shows after I released my solo record. And when I would do my solo shows, I would end up doing comedy between songs, so it re-inspired me about a year and a half ago and I thought, "You know, maybe I'll be more serious about it and go for it." So right now things seem to be working out.

In comedy, just like in music, there's a community you have to plug in to for stagetime. Who's helped you in the New York scene?
I'd have to say Eugene Mirman -- I met him through a friend [in Seattle], and I saw his standup and was amazed and impressed, not only at his content, but how he handled crowds. Then I met him in New York when I went out there for a gig with this band I work with called Soulive; I heard about Eugene's show and I asked if I could be on it, and they just put me on and it kinda just worked out. Then, later on, we ended up having the same agent who got us both out to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. So Eugene and I were roommates for the month and we got to know each other, and invariably I got to know Bobby, who's amazing as well. So those two guys are the ones who've been helping me out a lot.

How would you describe your comedy style?
I guess I'm a visual person, so I try to envision what I think will be entertaining to people. In the comedy realm, I'm experimenting with a mixture of improvised banter, storytelling and then also doing beatbox stuff and other strange stuff on top of that. I'm interested in doing something that mixes the elements of music and comedy and bridges the gap between standup comedy and just straight music. So my goal is to be able to open for bands or to do standup-comedy night. But I guess it's kind of the same thing in a weird way -- because I mostly describe myself as an improviser in general, with music or comedy. So with comedy, it's just a new way of improvising. I love to laugh and when I can make people laugh it's just the most amazing thing.

Your influences in music run a broad gamut from Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays to Al Green. Who are your biggest comedy influences?
Monty Python was huge in my life. When I saw Monty Python & The Holy Grail, I think I was eight and I just lost it and I couldn't stop laughing. The sense of humor on The Muppet Show was great. In terms of standup, George Carlin had a huge influence on me. Steven Wright. Richard Pryor. Eddie Murphy. Janeane Garofalo, mainly for the fact that she has the balls to go really political and really mix the genres of politicizing and doing it in a humorous way. Then there's David Cross and Mr. Show -- I only really discovered it a couple of years ago, but I watched every single episode of Mr. Show and thought it was the most brilliant sketch comedy since Monty Python. To me it was the American equivalent. It intrigued me that they mixed all these mediums together with all these stories within stories within stories, much like Monty Python, but doing it in an American-pop culture way. So that inspired me because I'm a big consumer of pop culture and I love reflecting it in a twisted way.

If it came down to music or comedy, which would you choose? Or is that not something you don't really think about?
(Laughing) That's a hard one. I love music so much. Invariably, I guess what I do with my comedy has music in it. But comedy is a little bit more versatile. I can do more things with comedy, and it's not so "This guy is over 30," which is this mentality in the music industry that anyone who's over 30 is past their prime. With comedy it doesn't really matter what age you are. A lot of the best comedians out there right now are in their later-30's and they're still rocking it and are relevant and have young audiences. Whatever I'd go with I'd want to be limitless as possible. If I had to choose I'd have to go with my form of standup comedy.

A key element to your standup involves what you can do with a Line-6. But can you do a show without it?
I did a set once in Seattle without it. I did this quick guest spot on this latenight variety show called "Spin the Bottle" and it went really well. I was kind of scared, but it went really well. I think eventually I want to try mixing it up and doing sets without it and with it. I don't want the Line 6 to become a crutch. I think it's odd enough to come into the standup-comedy environment and perform with people who have been doing standup comedy for like 10 years or more, and show up with a box that does weird noises and kind of make it an obvious crutch. I'd never want the Line 6 to be viewed as making up for the fact that he can't just be up there with a mic like a normal comic. I think that I'm definitely going to be experimenting more with material that's not Line 6-dependent, and actually coming up with material -- because right now I don't really have any material.

Keith is a fan of the comedy and a regular contributor to Gelf Magazine. He most recently wrote about U.K. comedy Green Wing.

Reader Comments (1)

Reggie is the shit! Much Love from the NWest!~"D"
December 9, 2005 | Unregistered Commenter"D"

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