“People have to call things something,” said Reggie Watts in response to the question during our recent conversation. “I just want to be as me as possible.”
Comedian is the most likely answer, but there’s also musician, performance artist, spoken word poet and possibly even surrealist rapper. The label dished out may say more about the labeler than the subject, actually. That’s the remarkable thing about Reggie’s work. It’s a reflection of our selves and of our thinking. His act makes us laugh and smile and then— miraculously, refreshingly—makes us think about our own foibles and jaunts into the material realm and the ways we compartmentalize ourselves into tiny superficial boxes.
Reggie Watts was born in 1972 in Germany to “a white French lady and a black dude from Ohio.” He spent much of his childhood in Montana, which he refers to as “one of the best places on earth” (non-ironically, I think, but it’s hard to tell with Reggie) before moving to Seattle and playing in a band. He currently lives in Brooklyn.
This type of hyphenated, bifurcated upbringing and identity—biracial, multinational, city mouse/country mouse—plays out in his work. One of the things Reggie is known for is this live looping of sounds created entirely from his mouth: beats, vocals, melodies… individually recorded and layered together in a digital sampling of his own scats. He uses a keyboard to help out on occasion, but it’s mostly and organically all Reggie. He creates a canvas upon which he paints all of these magnificent and strange voices of people we sort of know but not quite. He’ll shift from a bombastic hip hopper to a pretentious Euro news anchor to a nonsensical valley girl within one bit. It’s these voices that entertain and educate us and ultimately hold up the mirror to our faces. How silly are we? is inextricably tethered to How crazy is this guy? And one thing audiences love is a crazy guy. The entire thing is quite disorienting but in the most fascinating and entertaining way.
The world thinks of him as a comedian because he makes people laugh, but truly the laugh that comes from a Reggie Watts performance is not unlike the laugh that comes after reading Swift or Voltaire. The humor is not without sharp and poignant criticism at what we look at, listen to and ingest as a society.
“Lenny Bruce or ____,” I ask him next. It’s a game. “You know the old question: ‘What kind of person are you…a Beatles guy or a Stones guy?’”
I want to know if he can think of what’s on the other side of Lenny Bruce, another comedian and social satirist who has transcended labels. I’m hoping my prompt will shed some light into his amazing room of invention. He thinks long and hard about it.
“I guess why I’m having so much trouble with it is because I always answer the Beatles vs. Stones question with ‘Led Zeppelin.’”
The first time I saw Reggie Watts do what he does was at the Blender Theater several years ago. This was in 2008, a few years after the Rififi days (time spent honing his craft at the iconic Lower East Side alt-comedy space) and a few years before Conan O’Brien, bazillions of views on YouTube and a standing ovation at a TED conference. After his set at the Blender, I was mesmerized by his wordplay and seamless delivery, which felt completely improvised (and probably was, mostly) but was so full of sophisticated nuanced writing dressed in silly gibberish that it couldn’t possibly be so. I found out later that no two shows are ever the same. The audience was cracking up at both the fun and the profundity of it. I wondered how one can know language and culture so well that the manipulation of the former leads to so much serious contemplation of the latter. I thought he’d be a great study for the classroom. A dissertation on Reggie Watts. No. Reggie Watts as public schoolteacher or artist-in-residence. Yes. That’s what our world needs.
I bring up the idea in our conversation and he quickly talks about what a shame it is that schools are dealing with budget cuts and “dwindling funding.”
“I think kids really only need science, history and math…I think of language as a science, by the way. These things engage curiosity, which is the whole point of education.”
“What about physical education?” I ask.
“Sports are things that people will do anyway.”
Tenants of The Reggie Watts School of Being—more fodder for our initial inquiry.
Before we end our conversation and after he tells me about how Iron Man used to be his favorite superhero (“because of all those gadgets and machines, man”), I ask him for a prophecy for 2014. What will the world look like, Reggie?
“2014 is going to be another one of those years. We’re going to consult glowing rectangles and make decisions about economics based on that.”
I’m not going to say his response isn’t frightening in a weird Orwellian sort of way, but the thought of it tickles me and makes me giggle a bit out loud. And so it goes with Reggie Watts.
Bite-sized Reggie Wisdom
1. In a pseudo-British intellectual voice:
“The future states that there is no time other than the collapsation of that sensation of the mirror of the memories in which we are living…common knowledge but important nonetheless.”
—From a TED Talk in March 2012
2. In the style of a rapper getting ready to throw it down at the beginning of a song:
“Yo…word…adjective…pronoun…run on and on and on…where my gerunds at…parenthetical…uh.”
—From “Fuck Shit Stack”
See, hear, feel Reggie at Irving Plaza on December 11th.