Reggie Watts has really blown up since we first caught his mesmerizing alt-comedy/performance art/music hybrid as part of the Under the Radar Festival. In the past two years he's performed to increasingly packed rooms, released his first live DVD, and toured as the opening act for Conan O'Brien's comedy tour. And at the end of the summer he'll shoot a pilot for Comedy Central, which he tells us is a sort of "trippy variety show." This is going to be awesome.
Watts's witty, eccentric live act is as impossible to categorize as it is to forget, and you'd be able to experience it for yourself tonight if only his show at Le Poisson Rouge wasn't sold out! (If only you'd subscribed to our events newsletter, you would have known about this in advance!) In lieu of seeing Reggie in the flesh tonight, pick up a copy of his live DVD, Why S#!+ So Crazy?, which was edited together from three different shows at Le Poisson Rouge, Galapagos, and The Bell House. As a primer, check out his short video for "Fuck Shit Stack") below.
So you've been performing in big venues for the Conan tour. How does that affect your performance, as compared to when you're performing at much smaller venues in, say, Williamsburg? The main difference is just sheer size; 50,000 people as opposed to, you know, 50 people, 40 people. But you know audiences, as a collective, can just direct a good place to play. The audience can tend to be a certain way and Philadelphia was a good audience, Boston was an awesome audience, Tulsa was a great audience, Vancouver was awesome. It's like, with some places... it's weird. You can't tell the difference, but they're often quite subtle and there are so many factors that you can't necessarily say for sure whether whether an audience is good or not.
How was Radio City for you? Oh man, that was ridiculous. [Laughs] Yeah, it was fun! It was amazing. And I was like wow, it's Radio City Music Hall! My goal for that night was just to be more aware of where I was while I was performing. And so I kind of took that with me when I got on stage, and it really helped that that was a beautiful, beautiful stage.
Were you daunted or nervous at all about making this jump to such bigger rooms? You know, it's strange. In music, I'd played some large audiences; as part of a band we opened for Dave Matthews, then I was on tour with them, so 5-6 dates with Dave Matthews. So that was around 40,000 people. Then I opened for the Rolling Stones twice, that was about 50,000 people. So after about 4,000 or 5,000 people, it all is kind of the same in a weird way. It all becomes so many people you can't really feel the difference.
But that was with a band. What about what you're doing? Is it a challenge to try to adapt what you've been doing, which has grown with really small audiences, to make this jump to big audiences? No, not really, because I kind of had a feeling for that already. It was really about space. I think people freak about about those giant rooms, especially comedians, they're feeling the size of the room and that's what gets to them. But it wasn't really that crazy for me. I'd just performed so much before to exclusively packed rooms that it didn't really matter what the size of the room was, whether it was someone's living room with 10 people, or a room with 1,000 people. It's really the personal challenges of me on the stage performing and making sure that it's working.
How did it come to pass that you got this gig? I just got lucky, man. You know, my friend Todd Levin is one of Conan's writers, and at a writers' meeting for the tour they were talking about an opening act, and then some other people in the room were like, "yeah, oh yeah, Reggie Watts!" and then one of the producers vouched for me. Then Conan checked out some videos online and liked it. And that's it, I was on the tour!
So then what happens for you when this tour is over? Well, I'm going to Chicago to film this PBS special, during which I'll essentially be the Paul Shaffer bring people on and off. I've also written the theme song for the show. And I'll do a couple of five-minute sets. They're filming two shows and they're gonna mix the shows together as a 45-minute special.
Is that kind of like your DVD that just came out? Because there are three shows on that, edited down into one show. Yeah, yeah, exactly. We chose and shot three locations and I wore the same outfit and there was some editing between all three of the locations.
I really liked it. Oh, thanks, man! I was really proud at the way it turned out.
I love your twist on the standard comedy show DVD that shows the comedian walking to the stage or whatever beforehand. Yeah, I was glad to do that. I kind of wanted to take a lot of elements from classic comedy shows and mix them into a kind of familiar thing. And the title, "Why Shit So Crazy?," it's kind of like an inspirational mixture of Richard Pryor's "That Nigga's Crazy" and David Cross's "Shut Up, You Fucking Baby." I'm kind of inspired by those two albums, so I kind of created a simulated iconic album title.
Do you consider yourself a comedian? Because I first saw you on Under the Radar in 2008, and I don't run around classifying people. I laughed, but I wasn't sure that you would consider yourself in such a specific category as "comedian." What do you think about yourself and what you do? I'm pretty comfortable with "comedic performer" because it covers most of the things that I do. I'm obviously used to playing comic and trying to be entirely funny, when it comes to theater and stuff like that, kind of a mix of different elements, and sometimes emotionally it can go places. For the most part I enjoy people laughing, and I like performing, so yeah, "comedic performer," I think is fairly accurate.
So you've been around a while and doing your solo performance for a while, and now it seems like you're really blowing up. Do you think it's because of the Conan tour that you're getting a lot more publicity? I think so, yeah, absolutely. I mean, the Comedy Central DVD that's coming out definitely helps. And the Conan tour adds an extra later of credibility. I'm not sure how, but it added quite a bit. It's kind of seal of approval from a comedic institution, you know. I'm definitely accepted by my colleagues and the alt-comedy community and people like my stuff, but think the Conan thing really put it in turbo-boost.
How do you create your performance? How much of it is prepared beforehand? How much of it is improvised? Where does it all come from? [Laughs] I don't really prepare for it at all. I just go onstage and hope something good happens other than the beginning. I've always planned out different ways of starting... really, I think the most important thing is starting. But once it's started, I can go to music, and then the music will inform me as to what could come next and then I just lead myself into different situations onstage. If I'm in a really good mood I'll come up with a lot of original stuff, and if I'm not feeling connected I'll rely on what I have. I have about five or six bits that I've written that I can do while I reconnect the punchline.
Do you know how you're going to start?I mean, I'll usually decide whether to start with music or talking. And the kind of talking depends on what character I'm going to do, and what voice or accent. Sometimes I know that, and sometimes I'm really into marching on stage and doing whatever comes to mind.
Can we talk about your appearance? Yes.
Your fingernails. Your pinky fingernails. When did you start growing those out? And why? [Laughs] You know, I think it was back when I was a little kid, playing piano... the teacher would always cut my nails, and she sometimes wouldn't cut my pinky nail. So as I got older I kind of liked leaving them long. And I was probably inspired by Penn and Teller, because Penn Jillette has a long red pinky nail, which I always found really fascinating. I was just a kid in high school, who listened to weird music and kind of found weird things to do... and I just kind of stuck with it. I like it. I like getting manicures and trying different colors and stuff. It's kind of like a weird hobby or something. [Laughs]
Have you ever broken the nail? Oh yeah, yeah, it has to be really long and I'll just look down and it'll be totally broken off. And I'll be like, "Oh wow, I lost that one." And I'll just restart.
And then your hair is very iconic. Yeah.
What's the origin story of it? Have you always had hair like this? Pretty much, I think. As a little kid I had it short but in high school I really grew it out pretty long, and then it was kind of big. But then in high school I also got it straightened, and it had it shaved on one side, and had long tails and lots of earrings and stuff... That New Wave kind of look. And then from there I just sort of left it and it's just been growing and growing and growing. So I'm just kind of stuck with that. A couple of time I've shaved it off, like totally bald, but most of my life I've had it on the largeish, volume-ish side.
There's a lot of volume now, and I actually sat right behind you once, and I noticed you'd brought some kind of rubber bands or something and you parted your hair in the middle so the people behind you wouldn't have their view obstructed. Yeah, I'm kind of neurotic about that. Like when I go into any theater situation with an audience, I'll put my hair back.
That was pretty cool, and it looked good too. My girlfriend said you looked like a Founding Father. [Laughs] That's hilarious, like George Washington. That's awesome.
So you live in Brooklyn, are you planning on staying in Brooklyn for the time being? Or are you going to Hollywood? Yeah, for now, I mean, I'm not a big LA fan. I have a lot of friends there, and a lot of stuff happens there, but I try as much as possible to stay in Brooklyn. I really love living in Williamsburg. It's like my little village, I love it so much. There's just no substitute for New York. In LA, you have a car and you drive everywhere. And there are great parks in LA, and real beaches, and there's a much more tolerant cannabis culture. South California is great. But I find Williamsburg more interesting in some way.
Are you still Jakob Lodwick's roommate? We're still good friends, but we lost the condo we were staying in. The owner sold it and got a new place while I was on tour. And I just didn't bother getting a new place. I still need to find the right place.
So you'll be back in the fall and after this PBS thing, what are you going to be up to?After the PBS thing, I go back to New York for about a week and a half, and then I have my DVD movie release party for Why Shit So Crazy. And on July 2nd I go to Geneva for a performance art festival I'm doing. Then I go to Nice to visit my aunt and my uncle and my mom, and then I fly back to Montreal for the Just for Laughs Festival, to film a special for HBO Canada, with a bunch of other comedians like Garfunkel and Oates. It's going to be a pretty good lineup. Then I fly back to Amsterdam to do a show at BOOM Chicago and hang with some friends. Then I do London, I have three gigs in London and then I have a kind of mini-tour of Ireland. And then I come back in August to New York to film a Comedy Central pilot in the second week of august.
Is this pilot something you co-wrote? Yeah, it's something that was my idea. And I'm co-writing it with my writing partner, Tommy Smith.
He was your collaborator on those Under the Radar shows? Yeah, exactly.
And what's the idea with the Comedy Central show? It's essentially a trippy variety show.
So this seems like a really big, exciting time for you. Are you excited? I think I do, I have a weird way of dealing with it. I just don't get overly excited about stuff. I get excited when I'm making stuff. But I really don't get excited until I'm really going on stage, or I'm actually filming something. I always just assume that it could not happen last minute, and they'll decide, say, that they don't want to film a pilot. I operate under a pessimistic optimism. I think I know where I'm going and I'm not there yet, and I'll know when I get there and until I get there, I can't get too overly excited. I just put in the work and have fun when I'm doing stuff.
Sounds like a healthy philosophy. Thanks, man. You've got to stay sane, man.