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Any attempt to describe what Reggie Watts does onstage will inevitably fail to convey the dizzying heights of absurdity the man regularly achieves, but here it goes. First, the Seattle-via-Montana transplant constructs backing tracks via carefully controlled beat-boxing and judicious use of looping pedals and pitch-shifting, weird-noise generating devices. And then things start to get strange. He might use the ramshackle tracks as the bedrock for a startling accurate imitation of a drunk British professor–or of a squirrel. He might sing a song filled with bizarrely right non-sequiturs like “Your ass crack/butter and toast.” Or he might just decide to unleash a wave of distortion that would make TV On The Radio jealous.
Or he might just get real. Like, bizarrely, hilariously, specifically real about the minutia of his life. The highlight of his new CD/DVD combo Why Shit Crazy?, released via Comedy Central Records, is the song “My History Thus Far,” in which Watts sings in detail about how he’s never really paid rent since moving to Brooklyn a few years ago, and also makes a bold proclamation about the location of our city’s finest hamburger. Free of the burdens of rent, Watts quickly found a home on New York’s alt-comedy scene after moving here in 2006. He collaborated with Regina Spektor and gigged with absurdist comedy king Eugene Mirman, and built up enough buzz to land opening duties for Conan O’Brien’s high-profile Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour. (He won the gig a day after one of O’Brien’s writers showed The Once And Future Talk Show King some of Watt’s live videos.)
With a new album, high-profile live gig and a television show in the works, Watts realizes it’s time for him to stop crashing on his friend’s couches, and was a few minutes late to this interview because he was looking for a new place. (Though he insists he’s a thoughtful guest: “I try to give practical things or fix things, you know? Like if they don’t have a good toaster oven.”) Sitting in his manager’s office, dressed in a deep-orange yoga shirt, his hair as wild and untamed as his performances, and fiddling with his over-sized pinkie nails (one black and one pink: “I just like growing them out. I like having girls paint my nails”), Watts talked about his years of slugging it out in Seattle and his dreams of curating a LoopFest. But first he talked about burgers.
Here’s a story I think you might enjoy. When I’m not doing stuff here I work at a different magazine, and I work with a lot of interns and young writers, and I try to give them advice. Recently, I’ve been telling them “You guys need to quit mentioning Brooklyn in every single review. Don’t talk about the Williamsburg sound. It is not the ’60s and Bedford Avenue is not Haight-Ashbury. The whole world does not know what you’re talking about.”
And then I was listening to your album again to get ready for this, and I’m listening to the song [“My History Thus Far”] where you mention specific restaurants in Williamsburg, and you go into detail about which one has the best burger, and then you talk about a place you crash at on Graham Avenue. And I thought to myself “Reggie Watts is totally undermining me. I hope none of my interns hear this.”
I guess you can’t help it if it really is in factual existence. But I hear you. Why that piece of advice?
It just comes up a lot, especially if they’re writing about a younger indie rock band.
Gotcha. Yeah, I understand. Good advice.
No, you do what you want. I’m just telling the kids…
No, I’m going to stop talking about Williamsburg, thanks to you.
So, you really think Relish has the best burgers in New York City?
It has one of them. Or at least it used to. The chef changed, they have a new cook now. So the last time that I was eating meat and had a burger, one of the last ones was Relish. I loved their burger, it was just really well-constructed and the right ingredients and no bullshit. (Makes a burger-grasping gesture with his hands). And then I tried that burger shack (Shake Shack)…it’s alright. It’s fine, it’s a good burger but I don’t like the outdoor, grabbing a burger, it just doesn’t…burgers to me are best eaten in a diner.
I do think Relish has the best shakes. The bourbon-chocolate shake…
…it’s like sin in a glass.
It’s everything. But in the right ratios, so it’s well-constructed decadence.
So after the Conan tour and the new album, have you noticed whether you’ve been starting to get a new fanbase? Do you feel any bigger than you were half a year ago?
Yeah, it’s weird. Definitely people will come up and say things now, in a different way like “how was the tour with Conan?” Yesterday I was introduced at a show at House Of Yes and the MC went on this tirade about the first time he saw me and “now this guy’s really big and he’s been in this and that and he’s on this tour” or whatever and I’m listening to this and I’m like “I guess from the outside perspective, yeah it looks like that,” but for me, the tour was awesome and I felt like lucky that I did it, but it doesn’t necessarily change the way I feel about where I’m at, necessarily.
As you get exposed to these larger audiences, do you get a kick out of some people’s baffled reactions?
That’s my favorite. I love seeing people going “what is going on?” Although I don’t really get to see the audience that much when I’m doing it. Which temps me to place a video camera on the audience during one of my shows, especially an audience that may not be totally familiar with me. But I know that I like that feeling of confusion and I know that people are confused, but I haven’t actually seen the confusion in the process of it happening.
At least from the outside it’s hard to describe you to people. I tried to pitch a story on you to people around the time of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival, and I couldn’t even describe you to editors. I was like “it’s kind of like Aphex Twin or something on Warp Records sample-type stuff, plus jokes and curse words” and I got “ehs?” So once you got Conan it got easier.
[Laughs and claps hands.]
Has that been a problem for you, though, where you can’t really describe what you do to a potential general audience? Like, “I kind of do this…”
Right, right. I always just say I’m a comedic performer, because it’s a general statement or description, but it’s true. I like to make people laugh, and I perform. That might be music, that might be physical humor, it might be jokes or it might be…whathaveyou. But otherwise I’m starting to describe specific things that I do, and that to me doesn’t sound like, if I were a person listening to me talking about what I’m doing, would be very interesting.
For a typical live show for you, how much of it is improv? Is the entire thing improv?
I always say it’s somewhere anywhere 80 and 100, it just depends on the night. If I’m tired I might not be as game to improvise, I may do things I’ve done before. Bits.
Are there times, like maybe when you first started out, where you were trying to build a song in front of an audience, where you just bombed? Maybe it wasn’t funny or it wasn’t working?
What was the worst one?
Oh God, even like, when was it? It was just recently…what day was that…(pauses)…yeah, I can’t remember. There was a recent gig that I did where I couldn’t figure out the loop length. It was a blues or something like that, and there’s always an extra bar at the end of a blues…not an extra bar but there’s a bar that goes back to the original key, and then it starts over. So I just started immediately over after the third bar or whatever, so it was an uneven phrase, so I had to stop it and then I tried doing it again, and I couldn’t get my brain around it. It was weird, I must have been tired or something. But that really sucks because in those moments I’m like “wow, I’m just not getting this, and this is happening live onstage.” So I’ve had that feeling onstage, but I don’t know what the reaction is because I’m not paying attention, because I’m trying to problem solve. But a lot of people are “I didn’t notice” or they’re being really nice. But I’m like “ehhhhh it was a shitty loop.” That’s my biggest fear, just really shitty loops. Like, a really shitty one.
Do you ever have a hard time thinking of something to say on the spot? Do you ever get up there and go “yeah…uhm…” while the beat is going?
Sometimes, but I always employ the tactic of just “keep talking” so even if it’s not making sense, it doesn’t have to make sense as long as I keep talking. If I start flubbing up on words there’s a couple different tricks to handle that. It’s a little bit easier to keep talking. I don’t know, there have definitely been times where I’m like “what am I saying? I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore.” And then I’ll move to a song or do something to break up the thing, you know?
What are some of the tricks? Are they go-to topics?
Maybe I’ll tell a story that I’ve told before or maybe I’ll tell a joke that I’ve partially written. Or I describe something technically happening onstage or something technical in general. All of those things are ways of still creating something that is still entertaining but buys me a little bit of time to get reconnected again.
How long have you been playing with and experimenting with looper pedals and modulators and samplers and all that?
I mean I’ve been playing with vocal effects probably since 1992, something like that, with my earliest bands. But the looping thing, I remember being exposed to it…my vocal teacher had, I think, a DigiTech 16-second looper–well it’s not a looper but it’s a delay but it basically loops–so she would do these layered vocal performances which were really, really beautiful. Then a friend of mine got a Boomerang, and I remember seeing a lot of musicians using Boomerangs for looping and so forth. I never really screwed around with it too much, I just remember being exposed to it. And then I started playing with this Roland Space Echo which I kind of quasi stole from a friend of mine, which is a tape-loop machine and analogue machine. And I was going on a trip and I didn’t want to bring that because it’s a very delicate piece of equipment, and Line 6 had just released that delay modulator, so I bought that and it totally solved my problem of having an echo machine, but then there was also a loop mode on it. So basically from that point of discovering the loop mode on that effect pedal, it was just a slow organic evolution of using that more as my main ax, so to speak.
When did you realize that your looper could be your band and you could actually perform with this and it wasn’t just a fun party trick?
I mean, I started doing shows, like solo piano stuff, at this place called the Baltic Room in Seattle. So I’d play piano and talk about the history of Star Wars or whatever and just sing this made up song. And with the looper I just started using that in different ways. I was messing around with it in-between breaks…we would have these improv nights with full bands and at the end of the night I would do this really long looping set. And it was just a mishmash of that, getting it in here and there and a couple of theater shows, variety shows I would show up and do an act of that. I guess then. But I always knew I could do something solo wise, if it was just playing piano and inventing songs or using the looper or playing the synthesizer. I guess I always knew I could. I view it as the evolution of my performance.
Are you a real tech head? Can you talk about which model can do what, or are you one of those guys who goes “eh, it’s just this stuff I have.”
Ah no, I’m definitely into the tech, but I’m also aware of how boring it can be for people who are not into the tech so I tend to not indulge too much. I am excited about explaining a piece of technology to a person who is not into technology but explaining it in a way that is simple so that they get it, I do enjoy that. I like when people can be made to understand something that they thought was very complicated.
There’s been a recent wave of artists like Jamie Lidell, Owen Pallett, tUnE-yArDs, among others, who are one or two-person acts that build whole songs out of loops onstage, along the lines of what you do. Do you feel any sort of kinship with those artists?
I do, I definitely do but we don’t really know each other. Jamie Lidell I’ve seen live once. He seems like a very odd man, so I don’t know if I’ll ever get to meet him. I see videos of him looping, I see videos of what’s her name…Zoë Keating, she’s a cellist, she’s played with Amanda Palmer and a few other artists, she’s also a solo artist and she does cello and she’s also a little bit of a techhead and she wrote a program where she spliced together Midi information and a looping program, SuperLooper I think, and she has it running on a laptop and she has a foot-controller and she designed her whole system herself, but anyways she’s amazing and I really like what she’s doing. Imogen Heap is one of my favorites of all time, one of our best and greatest producer-writer-artists of our time, maybe she’ll be more recognized later on down the road. She’s amazing with a four-track looper. But it’s hard to get those people together. If there was a LoopFest and everyone could share knowledge…but I’ve never shared knowledge with another looping artist, which is really odd.
Make it happen. Make it happen at The Bell House. LoopFest.
I want to. I talk to Imogen, I talk to Battles. Jamie Lidell would be great. I talked to a bunch of different loopers that I know, and then threw in some other cats, and was working with PS 122 at one point to try to do this LoopFest right here, but it’s a matter of timing. But I do want it to happen because I think it’s very interesting. But it’s very easy to do, and just because you have a looping pedal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be interesting. There’s definitely an art form to it, and it’s great to watch people like Imogen…she has that song “Just For Now” and there’s this video where she’s at this studio and she has an electric repeater, which is an old-school four track looper that doesn’t exist anymore, and she was using that and she composed her whole song with an alternate bassline and an alternate track and she can switch between them, and she built her whole song. And that’s incredible, people who do that and pull tracks in and out. Live production, but self-generated loops in real time. That’s hot. There’s not a lot of people that do it where I’ve been made aware of it where I’m like “someone is saying something. There’s something artistic.” It doesn’t matter whether they use loops or if they had a band, what they’re doing is great. It just happens to be that they make things by themselves using looping equipment.
It’s hilarious to hear that r&b song [“Whatcha Say”] that samples her song “Hide And Seek.”
It’s so weird.
Jason DeRulo, I believe, is the young man’s name.
Yes. It’s right. It’s hilarious. It’s bank for her.
I hope she has a since of humor about it.
I know, I know. When I first heard it, I was like “oh…oh…oh…okay.” I mean Imogen and I text briefly, but I haven’t asked her about that. I want to see her in-person and ask her about that, because I feel like she probably made a shitload of money. And if she did, good on her. Because whatever, it’s a tune that’s going to last for a little bit, and it definitely made the tune way cooler than it could have possibly been on its own. Because it’s real musicianship.
It’s funny, I first saw your live videos a few years ago, and then I went on eMusic and saw that album [Simplified] you did in 2003, and like a lot of people I didn’t know that you had a whole music career before you started doing this. What was the deal with that, were you doing the more relatively straightforward thing at the same time you were doing the loop stuff back in Seattle, and how did you make that transition into putting that aside and focusing solely on this?
When I was in Seattle I was mainly involved in, I guess, serious music, anything from fusion, heavy metal, punk rock, world music, to disco cover bands to electronic music. I had a live, improvised drum and bass band, it was all electronic musicians, improvising drum and bass in real time, about ’98, I think. And improvising was always a big part of it. Then I released a solo record (Simplified), and I released five records with my band MakTub. I mean, all that stuff was great, but I always had a sense of humor about what I was doing, and I was doing some loop stuff here and there in-between still having my band. But at a certain point it just didn’t seem like I was going to make a living in music. Music wasn’t enough anymore. And I loved comedy, and like I’ve said before to other people, a friend of mine showed me Stella, the shorts that they made and it totally reignited my passion for comedy again. I thought it was just the most out, crazy shit that I had ever seen. And then I got into Mr. Show and that was inspirational. It just reminded me that there’s a whole world of creative, funny people in New York doing interesting things, and then I was afforded the opportunity to work with a band called Soullive for a year and a half and they would fly me over and I would stay in a friend’s townhouse. So I got to stay there in Chelsea. And while I was there…I had met Eugene (Mirmam) earlier in Seattle when he was on tour with Stella, and I would start doing (Mirman’s former variety showcase) Invite Them Up, and I would do other comedy nights too. And people didn’t hate me, so I kept doing it. And I thought to myself “I could move here. I could move here and focus on comedy. I don’t what’s going to happen, but I think I could do it and I could at least make money playing shows, somehow.” And then of course it turns out that you don’t really make money playing shows in New York. Not in the comedy scene because mostly you’re performing for free. But then opportunities started to come in, I got to go to Europe and I got picked up for some festivals and I got to do interesting tech festivals like PopTech and things like that. Things started snowballing, and what I was doing not a lot of people were doing, I guess the combo that I’m doing, so it was easy to stick out. And I just loved the community of comedians here, they’re really good, lovely, loving, appreciative, smart people.
I think if you follow comedy in New York, you have two central beliefs. That Eugene Mirman knows everyone, and that he’s the nicest guy in the world. Is that true?
Oh, definitely. He’s kind of an impresario. He’s just a man about town, and knows a lot. And is a really great conversationalist. Once you start talking with him about socialism or something he’s interested in, it’s amazing. You feel like you’re speaking to Kafka or something. He’s someone who’s very studied, and you learn things from him. Plus he’s got a great voice, that deep, rich voice. He’s a cool dude, man. Thanks to him, I’m here.
When you were in Seattle and you were making music, was there ever a time when you realized “This just isn’t working, I’m not getting over.”
Oh, definitely, definitely. My band MakTub we had like…it was successful regionally, but there was a moment in the aftermath of the grunge movement where record labels were kind of hovering around in town, trying to see if there was another Nirvana. And there just wasn’t, and they kind of left. But during that time, towards the end of it, they were interested in the band. I remember the President of Sony Work, which doesn’t exist anymore, coming out and watching our shit. [Interscope Records head] Jimmy Iovine came out and saw one of our shows. We had all of these bigwigs. What’s the name of the producer who did a lot of the Beastie Boys stuff…Rick Rubin, we played one of our tracks in his office, and he was headbanging to it. He seemed to really like it. We went to some really crazy places as a band and a lot of almosts and coulda-woulda-shouldas and no one really bit. Because the band was very unusual, and had disparate elements, we were just doing what we were doing. But we also tried hard, we tried working with Black Eyed Peas’ producer. We made a four-song EP with him, and tried to go down that road and nothing happened. And the industry was really timid at that time, especially towards the later ’90s. Things were just falling apart, no one knew what was happening and there was massive downsizing. For me I was like “how the fuck does anybody survive? I’m not going to be a road dog with a band. I’m not doing that.” We started doing the jam band scene because you could get paid and there was lots of fans that come out to the festivals. We did that for a while and that was okay. And sometimes I would do sets on my own while I was there. But I just had so much more being fun on my own and not worrying about four other guys. And I love those guys and we had an amazing time together, but it was ten years. I gave it ten years and I think that’s a pretty good shot. Definitely the last four years of those ten years, I was like, “What the fuck?”
Looking back, do you ever thank God that the Black Eyed Peas thing didn’t work out?
Yes. I’m very glad. You know, I’m glad I got to work with Printz…Printz Board is his name, the music director. I had a fun time with him, really fun adventures. And we see each other from time to time, because Black Eyed Peas will do the same festival, and I know Will.I.Am to a certain extent, and I’m friendly with Fergie, but I wouldn’t want to have their career. At all. It’s really important for me to be connected to the underground, because that’s where I came from. All the fucking freaks and weirdos, you know, that turn out to be some of the most interesting people that I know, they all come from that scene. That’s an important thing for me. If I get too big, and I lose that connection, I’ll feel really bad. I’ll fight to maintain that connection.
At the same time, do you ever miss making more straightforward music? Do you feel like you couldn’t make a sincere love song without people thinking your joking these days?
You know, it’s funny. If it’s an hour long performance, I’ve gotten better about being less fearful about just playing a piece of music sincerely. Obviously if I’m at Caroline’s or The Improv I’m definitely going to focus on the funny, but if it’s my own show at a theater or wherever and I have an hour or more, I will just do a piece of music that I’m just into in that moment that I’m building, and I’ll just sing it sincerely. And sometimes kind of veer into funny a little bit and come back serious again. If I ever release a solo record again and it’s not funny, if it’s just a musical record, it’ll be interesting to see what people think.
It’s funny, when reading about you people say things like “anti-comedy” or “upending of traditional expectations of performance” or “genius of improvisation” and all these intellectual conceits. But to a lot of people online, you are known for a blowjob song you did for College Humor. Is that something you’re trying to live down, or are you still kind of proud of it?
[Laughs] I’m really proud of that video. It was a song that I started doing a long time ago when I was playing the Jazz Café in London when I supporting my last solo record. I just thought it would be really stupid to sing about blowjobs, to clinically go step by step and describe, just pragmatically, what a blowjob is. It started in London and over time it evolved into more of a song. It’s not as written as “Fuck Shit Stack.” Actually, the track that you hear in the video, I ended up improvising it, and I had to learn what I improvised, so that’s why the lip synching is a little bit off at times, because I didn’t remember what the fuck I did. And then we did that song, and College Humor was the perfect place for it, and it was great to have it directed by my writing partner Tommy Smith, who is (adopts old English accent) “one of the most powerful playwrights in the world.” He directed it, and we wrote it together and we were making tons of stupid videos together before then, and it was nice to have a budget. We wrote the treatment on pot cookies in a café in, like, 15 minutes. That whole video was just 15 minutes of me ranting “This would be cool, this would be cool, this would be cool” and Tommy going “Mmhm, mmmh, that’s great let’s just modularly put this together, okay cool we’re done” and that was it. And we were really high, and we presented it to College Humor and they were like “cool, sounds great,” and we were like “even the future mutants scene?” and they were like “yeah.” It was great that College Humor had the moxie and the, I don’t want to say it’s courage because it’s not really that, but they were just open. It was just all of our friends and College Humor’s resources and we came together and we did this video, and I love it. It’s so stupid. And it also has some elements of Whitesnake in it, too. Just a little bit. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” yes but also a little bit of…
Of the Coverdale flavor.
…yeah, just a little bit of it. I’m just looking at the camera…and I love the ending of just disappearing into the smoke. It was a fun time. I love that video, man. I’ll stand behind it until the day I die.
So how many accents can you do?
You know, I’ve never counted. Sometimes certain things will pop out and I didn’t even know I could do it. But I have a few different New York or North East dialects, I have some Southern dialects, I have some, like, I guess you could say characters which have voices, like New Age, Yoga kind of voice. I probably have four, maybe five British dialects. Voices are weird because there’s accents and there are voices and there are characters, so it’s kind of a three-dimensional equation. I don’t know, I would say I definitely have ten solid ones, but I probably have more that I don’t realize I have.
Are any of them based on people you know or on characters from movies? One of your Cockney ones reminds me of Michael Caine.
Yeah, well, it could be. I listened to that show [The Wrong Box] he did with Dudley Moore where he would improvise and they would basically act like they were drunk Cockneys, really fucking hilarious. But there’s also the Monty Python [adopts warbly old English accent] “Oh yes, oh that high pitch, okay.” There was a dialect that [adopts deep, Cookie Monster warble] “this guy taught me to talk like this, and I was but why would anyone talk? How does their voice get to be like that? You’re talking out of the back of your throat.” And hearing a person actually speak like that, I thought he was joking, but my friends were like [whispers] “that’s the way he talks, man.” Oh, whoa. Okay. I guess people do talk like that. Because every time I hear an extreme thing I’m like “oh that person is just putting it on.” Or [adopts Alabama drawl] “when I travel down to the South and they’re like ‘how y’all doing, there was this band the other night and they were just off the chain'” and I’m like “oh! That’s your accent, that’s the way you really speak.” I’m always expecting people to just stop and go [deadpan voice] “Well that was really interesting.” So they’re based off people I run into, voices I hear, movies, TV, radio, anything, really. Or just something in my mind that I hear or I start doing a weird voice and all of a sudden it starts turning into something else and I go “ooh, that’s an interesting tonality.” It’s kind of everything.
Have you always had a good knack for picking accents up?
Yeah, definitely. I think it was having a French mom and an American dad and growing up in Montana and loving TV and being able to speak French. And up until age four we traveled, my dad was in the military, so I was born in Germany and we traveled to Italy and Spain and then went through France so as a young child I heard all these various languages, and then going to Montana, I had tons of time as an only child. I used to watch tons and tons of PBS, I loved PBS when I was a kid especially Mystery Theater or any medieval period pieces. I was just in love with period pieces when I was a kid. So I would watch those and maybe watch Sense And Sensibility or Jane Austin novels turned into BBC productions or The Glass Menagerie. I loved theater and I loved PBS programming. And then I also liked mainstream TV too, I loved The Cosby Show, Eddie Murphy, Stephen Wright, Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, all these voices…George Carlin especially, I heard all these voices and these different ways that people express themselves whether Liza Minelli singing or Dudley Moore being a drunken weirdo dickhead in Arthur or Andy Kaufman in Taxi, all that stuff. I would just listen to it and I would replicate it, or I would replicate singers and pop songs and I would try to do the rhythms and cover all the different parts of the song when I was a kid. Kids would pull on strings on my jacket and I would pretend that I would change radio stations. So I was always interested in mimicry.
Speaking of TV shows, you’re working on a pilot for Comedy Central right now, correct?
What can you tell me about that?
I’m just kidding. I mean, we had a production meeting yesterday. It’s going to be a variety show set in a loft space, hopefully Greenpoint or Williamsburg, to use that name again. And yeah, it’s just me as a host, they’ll be probably three comedians, two people doing set, one person that I’ll probably hang out with collaboratively. We’ll have musical guests, hopefully someone great like LCD Soundsystem. We won’t get that, but hopefully someone like that.
You never know.
Yeah, you never know. But someone local, Santigold or someone like that. Local artists. Just make it feel like a hang, a really cool vibe, without being too forced. Basically a show that I would put on anyways, in a loft. But televised. Multi-camera.
Do you have a name for the show yet?
No, I had a name, but I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about it. I got to figure that out.
Speaking of Comedy Central, you were on Michael & Michael Have Issues last summer.
I didn’t get to see any of the episodes. I like those guys. I love their weird, mean-spirited…it’s funny because David Wain really has become the most successful out of all those guys, as a director and a writer. But also Wainy Days is genius. He seems to have a better handle on how to create consistency. Like, he’s better at just riding a consistent plain where people are like “I’ll follow you,” but for some reason Michael and Michael (Showalter and Ian Black) even though they are brilliant and I think they’re genius as well, I think what they do is insane, but for some reason they get relegated to these weird pockets, as opposed to Wain who’s kind of suspended in the middle. Probably being a good director has a lot to do with it.
I worry about Michael Showalter. He seems so delicate.
He does, but he’s also very strong-headed. He’s very stubborn. I think that great things are going to happen for him. Great things have already happened for Michael Showalter, and being Michael Showalter is almost enough. But I know that he’s hungry to get something on fire. I know that. And any artist would be, and I’m such a fan of his, I have a feeling he’s going to find that right vehicle or movie or directing thing or whatever, and it’s going to explode, because he’s incredibly talented.
Speaking of comedy demigods, how were the Conan shows?
They were amazing. I was a little nervous at first, doing what I do. “Ah, I hope they don’t hate me too much” was how it started. But it was great, especially as the tour rolled on there was talk about like “I really enjoyed the opener, you should check him out.” There was talk amongst the fans, the Conan fans. As the tour went on, some people were there early to see me or at least check me out for a second. So the shows were great, the audiences were awesome, the crew was amazing and I did my best to get the crowd going and get off when I was supposed to get off. Leave the crowd in a really amazing place and then walk off, and make room for Conan. It was great. It was kind of emotional the last show that we did. People were getting emotional, it was a nice family from those two months of touring.
A lot of people wonder, because in all the press interviews he done since the kafuffle with NBC, he’s tried to remain positive and not talk a lot of shit. Backstage, is he talking a lot of shit? When you guys played right next to Rockefeller Center did you get any (whispers) “fuck NBC”?
You know, you can sense his disappointment. He never ever, he’s smart about this, he never ever says things too shitty about them. He’s definitely very biting and says enough stuff onstage to get that sense that he’s basically saying, “Fuck you guys, you fucked me over.” He’s never said that, and backstage he doesn’t really talk about it. I think he’s all talked out about it, really. I never heard him say anything. You hear people on occasion yell out “Fuck Jay Leno” or whatever and he’d say [adopts O’Brien voice] “What? Fuck Jay Leno? Okay.” But he’s really good about not saying it. Because it’s a temporary thing, it’s not worth directly saying some really shitty things. Maybe if the TBS thing blows up and he helps to reinvent that channel and everyone starts watching it and ratings go through the roof, maybe he might start saying something. I don’t know, who knows? But he never really said anything negative backstage, he was always talking about the things he was into in the moment.
In addition to albums and performances and the TV show, what are your other career aspirations? Do you have any desire to be in comedic films? Smaller ones? Bigger ones?
I’d love to make an indie comedy film, something that I could contribute to, either writing or be allowed to improvise my character for the movie. I’d really like that because…what was the movie that I really enjoyed recently…Max Fish…
Was that Jesse Eisenberger? No, it’s not Jesse Eisenberger. Who was that actor who was in She’s Out Of League?
Yeah, yeah Jay Baruchel.
Is that his name? The guy that’s in the Lightning Thief that’s coming out… no, The Wizard Apprentice… [Baruchel stars in the upcoming The Sorcerer’s Apprentice]
Yeah, the Undeclared guy.
I’m Reed Fish.
Yeah, I’m Reed Fish. , that’s what it was. I loved that one, loved it. It reminded me of Montana. It was kind of like a Ferris Bueller‘s in the woods. I really like that guy. Of the three, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera and him that are basically of the same archtype, the awkward, tall, thin young guy, I think Jesse Eisenberg and him…I think Cera’s okay but he’s kind of put himself in a corner (makes pushing motion with his hands). But anyways watching She’s Out Of My League or watching I’m Reed Fish. , I like that kind of indie feel, small, weird quirky comedy, almost like Better Off Dead kind of comedy and I long for that style of comedy to come back in a way. Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, those kind of quasi-adolescence…they were adolescence but they were also high concept value, but just silly and abstract and so strange, and I kind of want to see that again. I think the closest thing we had recently was Zombieland, which I thought was fucking genius.
It was really good.
I saw that three times in the movie theater. And Eisenberg was the shit, man.
It’s so upsetting when he shoots Bill Murray.
Oh my God, I know! I know! That was an exciting movie for me, I was just like “holy shit! That is some new shit.” After this movie, no one needs to make another zombie movie. Unless it’s Zombieland 2. But yeah, the long, long answer is I would love to because I just love film. Even the beginning of my DVD with the whole sketch with Kumail Nanjiani and the two extras, that was so fun to just create a structure and work with the director Duncan (Skiles.) I wrote the scene, but I didn’t “write it, write it.” I just wrote points to get to and we improvised, and had so much fun. And that was just a tiny, little thing. I’d love to do a whole movie like that, you know? So yeah, film, short film, experimental film. I definitely want to move into film. Hopefully this pilot gets picked up and hopefully we make it really funny, and they pick it up and that will give me some resources, I think, to leverage more into film. I just want to get to space where I can do something and not have to rely on approval from investors. I’d rather just be able to make something and go “we’re just making this to see what happens.”
Is the TV show name going to be a play on your name, like 1000 Watts or something?
It’ll be interesting to see if they do that or Watts Happening.
Oh, Watts Happening!
I don’t know, it doesn’t matter to me. If the title resonates that’s good. It’s really just getting into the door, creating something that has the confidence of the network behind and giving it a shot for the season. I would love to just try doing a TV show for a season, I think it would be fun. And I would get to stay here and not travel so much.
Live in your own home for a while.
Yeah. Get a home first.
Get a home. Pay rent.
Pay rent, and have my stuff in it. “Oh ,there’s my computer, still there!”
How do you know Brian Eno? I’ve heard you called his protégé.
Yeah, I met him at PopTech and we became acquaintances there, and I had a show in London that synched up with his daughter’s birthday party, and after I opened for The Dresden Dolls he had a driver drive me to his residence at Oxfordshire, and I did a performance for his daughter’s birthday party. And yeah, we hung out. And he made me breakfast and got me a car the next day because I was flying out to Sweden, I think, and I had to catch a plane at Gatwick. So there was that and he told me “I owe you one,” and he got me a performance at Capetown right after he spoke to an audience of 1,500 design delegates. So I did that, and then he got me another gig…I can’t remember which one first…but he got me a gig in Australia for his Luminous Festival, so it was me and Battles and Ladytron and a bunch of other hard to categorize musical things. And then I was in London again and it just happened to be again in time for his other daughter’s birthday party, so I went out to his house and I played her birthday party, and then he invited me to do the Brighton Festival, and we hung out a little bit there. So that’s our relationship.
So you haven’t hung out with him in the studio.
We haven’t done any studio stuff. We were talking about doing stuff in the studio, and now he’s kinda interested, finally. My whole thing I want to be friends. I didn’t want to necessarily be “hey man would you produce something?” Just because it’s Brian Eno doesn’t mean it’s the right combo for what I do, at all. But hanging out with him and having great conversations with him and going on little micro-adventures with him, and seeing how he lives and meeting his family, that’s really the cool thing for me. I think he’s a great model for any artist to follow because he just does what his muse tells him to do, and he’s perpetually and infinitely curious about life and always has questions, and is therozing about things and trying experiments and working with interesting people and curating events and making installations. He does everything and he’s got a great life. It’s really amazing to see someone do what they want to do and he had no compromises about it.
Did you get to do the Oblique Strategy cards with him?
I did not, no.
Oh God. Damn.
I got that program for the iPhone. It’s really weird, I don’t really know a ton about Brian’s past other than Roxy Music, U2, Talking Heads. I know those things, but that’s it. I’ve seen some footage of him. A friend of mine bought a book about him, but I don’t really read books. So all I know about Brian is what he’s told me. It’s the stories that he tells me and the conversations that we have, which I kind of like. Eventually i’ll dive deeper into what it is that he’s done and Oblique Strategies and coining the term ambient music and all these things. But just getting to know his personality, it makes sense that he would have made something like Oblique Strategies. Anything that he does, it just makes sense knowing who he is.
I like to think that when he’s home he uses the Oblique Strategies Cards all the time. “Salad or sandwich?” [Mimes throwing down card.] “Build A Brick, Not A Wall.” [Mimes stroking beard.]
[Laughs] I think he does, but it’s just in his head. That’s basically how he navigates life, placing arbitrary questions to break out of the monotony of a cyclical problem.
In your day to day life with people who know you, how many people get on your case to get a haircut?
People joke about it. But no one really says anything. At some point I may get a haircut. Who was joking about it? Jimmy Pardo, when I was doing the TBS special in Chicago. (Crusty old man voice) “What, you haven’t heard of a mirror? How about some scissors?” And then he would do callbacks to me and I would feel like Paul Schaffer, just laughing and going (politely nods.) But not too many people. My mom probably, mostly.
When was your last one?
Jesus. Ah…well…I don’t know if a trim counts, that’s just taking a tiny bit off. The last time I had a major haircut probably would have been 1998 or something [laughs].
Reggie Watts plays Le Poisson Rouge tonight. Why Shit So Crazy? is available from Comedy Central Records.