“Who is Reggie Watts?” is a perfectly valid question. That’s not because the formerly Seattle-based keyboardist, singer, comedian, impressionist, rapper, and show-biz philosopher is unknown, however. Although he hasn’t yet hit A-list celebrity status, his gig as bandleader on The Late Late Show With James Corden beams him into millions of homes across North America on a daily basis. It’s more that whatever flows through his fingers and comes out of his mouth is both frequently brilliant and stunningly varied.
If Watts isn’t a man of a million voices, he’s got at least a few dozen at his ready disposal. He can rap at speed in Spanish, French, and something that sounds very eastern European, although it could just as easily be entirely made-up. He’s got a soul-man falsetto that rivals Al Green’s, and he can also shift it an octave higher to imitate the sound of a sped-up tape recording, complete with authentic wow and flutter. TED Talks and standup performances find him eNUNciating in perfect BBC English, although often what he’s saying is intentionally nonsensical, more Peter Sellers than David Attenborough. And his beat-boxing skills are unparalleled.
All of these things rush out of him at speed; it’s almost like there’s some kind of button that can be pushed to produce Joycean text-storms, Compton rap, post-Wittgenstein philosophy, or pixellated wordplay at will. And, once upon a time, there was.
“When I was a little kid, primarily mimicry was what got me into sound, or at least playing with sound vocally,” Watts tells the Straight, checking in from a Los Angeles freeway en route to the Corden show. “Just hearing songs—and not only learning the songs, but trying to sound like the singer that sang the song.
“I especially gravitated to female voices,” he continues. “I remember learning Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’, and being able to sing at that range. Of course, as a kid that wasn’t that hard, but trying to mimic her breathiness and all of that, and then acting kind of like a radio station at times.…In elementary school, in the playground I’d have people press a fake button on me to get this fake radio station, so there was a lot of mimicry.”
Watts could likely make a career out of any one of his vocal talents. But there’s a point to his diversity: in addition to mirroring his mixed-race heritage, it reflects an essentially absurdist world-view. That isn’t unusual in music, comedy, or musical comedy, but Watts delivers his unsettling insights with uncanny charm and compassion.
Part of his shtick is to play a genuinely nice person—which is not, for Watts, a stretch—wrestling with genuinely bad taste. (See his tear-inducingly hilarious video for “Fuck Shit Stack” on YouTube.) Part is to deliver real insights that at first make sense, then don’t, and then come into sharper relief after a moment’s contemplation. (“Tomorrow is a day that is always never going to be here,” he intones in one especially Zen TED-type presentation.) And, increasingly, Watts sees some value in offering absurdist balm to a world that, every day, makes him feel like he’s “living inside one of my own stupid setups”.
“Applying the principles of alchemy, I try to take whatever is coming my way—whatever’s annoying me, whatever’s annoying the people around me or stressing them out—and transform it,” he says. “In a way it’s a form of relief, so you’re not held hostage by the constant, 24-hour crisis cycle.…That’s really important: to remind people of the broader aspects of life.”
Reggie Watts plays the Vogue Theatre on Sunday (April 9).