Victor Borge, the Smothers Brothers, and Pete Barbutti were all talented musicians who went for a life of laughs over a career in song. The fact that they could legitimately play their instruments lent weight to their routines, making them more than mere novelty acts.
Now it’s hip-hop’s turn. Reggie Watts started out in the rock and soul band Maktub, but traded it in for a life making beats on the comedy circuit. The 37-year-old former Seattle resident, whose voice ranges anywhere from four to four-and-a-half octaves, opened for indie diva and pal Regina Spektor in Cologne, Paris, and London this summer.
“The cool thing about what I get to do is I can change and modulate to whatever’s necessary,” he says. “If it’s a music audience, I can rely more on music. If it’s a comedy audience, I can be more wordy. If it’s a hip-hop audience, I can do bigger beats. If it’s a dance-oriented thing, then I just do more technolike stuff. I can comment on all those things because I generally like to notice and learn about all the different forms of human culture.”
It is, indeed, cool. But as Canadian comic John Wing, himself a musician, says, comedy’s better. Watts knows that. It was an obvious choice for him.
“First of all, comedy is way more interesting to me,” he says, sitting on a plane at LAX, waiting to go home to New York before heading here to perform six shows at the Global Comedy Fest at the Vogue Theatre, Yuk Yuk’s, and the Media Club from Thursday to Saturday (September 24 to 26). “And I think it’s more sustainable in the long run. Music is a beautiful thing and I’ll definitely create more serious music. But comedy is just something I adore. I love to laugh and I love hearing people laugh and making people laugh and laughing with friends. That’s something that’s such an ingrained part of who I am. That’s closest to my natural state.”
When he performs a one-man show for an hour, he gets the best of both worlds, throwing in a little serious music followed immediately by an absurd turn. Watts doesn’t perform song parodies or write funny lyrics. Rather, he plays with the form. There’s no denying his musical chops. On the surface, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might not even get that it’s comedy. He’s that good. His serious demeanour helps string along an unsuspecting crowd, too.
“I call it stupid humour,” he says. “Just absurd. You set something up and it seems like it’s going to be really important and it ends up being something really dumb. That’s my favourite. That’s what comedy does best. It sets up kind of idealistic expectations and then it explodes those expectations. That’s what I look for”¦ I enjoy the art of confusion and always have. When an audience is in a confused state is one of the best times to introduce interesting concepts to people.”
As good as he is at mimicking a hip-hop artist, Watts claims he hears that form of music but doesn’t actively listen to it, which no doubt confuses some of the music’s die-hard fans.
“A lot of hip-hoppers will come up and go, ”˜Hey, do you know this guy or this guy?’ And I’m like, ”˜I have no idea. Sorry.’ They often are very surprised that I don’t listen to it,” he says. “Hip-hop’s got a lot of dope beats. There’s a lot of amazing production, but oftentimes for me the content is really not that interesting.”
So who does he listen to? He throws out a list of names: the Carpenters, Elton John, Michael Jackson, the Smiths, Yo La Tengo, and Goldfrapp.
Back up there a second. Did he say the Carpenters? “Oh, yeah, man. The Carpenters were incredible,” he says. “That music just puts you in this amazing zone.”
There goes his street cred. But in comedy, he’s got all the cred in the world.