Reggie Watts

Reggie Watts discusses improvisation

Reggie Watts (Photo: Noah Kalina)

Reggie Watts’s comedic-musical performances tend to confound his audiences for long stretches of time, leaving them anchorless as he futzes senselessly with sound equipment, or morphs from one absurdist character to another. Here, Watts muses about his use of abstraction and channeling, providing a glimpse at the freedom inherent in his process of improvisation. The artist performs on July 1 at Le Poisson Rouge in New York, on the occasion of the release of his CD/DVD Why S#!+ So Crazy?

PEOPLE USUALLY END UP THINKING, What the fuck is he doing? At some point in a set I’ll start doing stuff that’s not funny. It’s weird or depressing. Or on the verge of depressing. Or just confusing. Then I do something absurd, and there’s a release––and then we’re back on track again. There isn’t an obvious or logical nature to it. I’m recontextualizing things, or taking two disparate elements and making them clash. And when that happens there’s a reaction. Usually it’s something laugh-y. Or maybe the audience is just laughing because they’re nervous. Or just like, huh? Hopefully it provokes some kind of reaction. But it’s really just about absurdity. I like going down the road and taking people way down this path through the thorns and thickets and then, at a snap of the fingers, they’re in a McDonald’s and wondering, how did I get here? I like humor that really goes somewhere and takes chances. I think every joke is an experiment.

The experience of performing is very similar to channeling. The more open I am, the more these ideas come into mind ahead of time. I’m performing but I can see these options in the future and can continue performing. It’s like in Tetris when you see the preview of the next shape coming. You’re playing the game in real time and you’re placing the block, but you’re also aware of the next one. I’m performing live, and I get a preview of a potential idea. I can use it however I want. I can rotate the shape. I can put it over here or put it over there and create a strategy in real time. When I’m open, I see more pieces ahead of time.

I like abstraction because it frees you from structure. As an audience member listening to or watching Bill Cosby, or any of the masters, like George Carlin, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what they have to say because you feel like you are there with them. But their style also follows a familiar logic. I mean, they throw some curveballs at you because that’s just the nature of the comedy. But when I’m watching Monty Python or Bill Hicks, at times they have this way of creating a psychedelic experience. I think it’s the psychedelic that I’m interested in, because after a while people ask themselves, What’s the joke, where is this leading me? And then I fail to lead them anywhere they expect. And then they let me try it again. And after so many times of being let down, you have to either go “I hate this. I’m leaving,” or just surrender to it. Then you can just go along for the ride.

In a way, I am kind of an audience member too––I’m on the ride myself. I’m listening for signals. I call it a data stream––this stream of information that exists floating all about the ether and there’s my own experience and all of that mixes together. There is chaos: me being onstage, the audience, the venue, the lights, the way it sounds, the way I’m feeling. All of that comes together to create a unique experience on the stage for me, and if it’s going really well, I get to step outside my body and enjoy the show too.

I’m constantly observing, zooming out from a situation and seeing the absurdity out of context. I think of humor as an annihilation of opposites. In particle physics they talk about certain particles existing in two places at the same time. When something comes into space, its opposite is also generated in negative space. When you generate a setup in comedy, you’re also generating its antithesis. If the timing is good, those two sides can annihilate each other. When they annihilate, there is this epiphany that occurs, or a moment of enlightenment. The audience gets it, and then they just laugh. They’re laughing because they see everything. Everything and nothing. And it’s just this beautiful elated feeling and you are just laughing. It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about. When someone’s laughing, they zoom out from the “my life sucks and my girlfriend did this and my friend like backstabbed me” monologue. When you laugh, you forget about all that stuff, and then for a second you say: “That’s how easy it is to let go of things.”