The week of June 7, 2015

Reggie Watts is ready to shake up late-night television

By Audra Schroeder

The first time I saw Reggie Watts was the same night the news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I walked out of the show wrapped in an ecstatic fog: Watts’s looped, layered beats and impossible range of voices and octaves had created sonic worlds that shifted my consciousness a bit. As I looked down at news alerts and texts on my phone, I remember feeling a disjointed coming-down feeling. I just wanted to be back inside that big-ass purse.

Watts is a consciousness-shifting kind of guy, and he wears many hats. He’s the left brain to comedian Scott Aukerman’s right on IFC’s hit show Comedy Bang! Bang!, which Watts is leaving this week. As Aukerman’s musical director and partner in crime, he set the mood and provided a gonzo element. He’s now transitioning to the role of bandleader for The Late Late Show With James Corden, where Watts helms the band—simply named Karen—and interviews the guests on occasion. He also stars in a new movie called Creative Control, in which he plays a visionary trying to find a purpose for Google Glass-like tech called Augmenta.

When I speak to him by phone a few days before his last Comedy Bang! Bang! show, he’s struggling with the app that opens his Tesla. Once Watts syncs with his technology and the car finally starts, he and I go for a little ride around Los Angeles.  

You’re leaving Comedy Bang! Bang! this week. Are you feeling emotional?

[Adopts a Southern accent] I feel so emotional right now. Y’all don’t know. I feel like there’s a lot of emotion in my life. No, I don’t know if I feel emotional about it. It’s the end of an era, and I feel emotional in that I really love the crew that I worked with and I had really good times there, but I think it’s probably more emotional from a fan’s point of view.

How did you and Aukerman meet?

At UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) in L.A., the one by the Beverly Center. I used to do a show there called See You Next Tuesday, and he booked the show Comedy Death Ray, and I think he saw me on See You Next Tuesday and wanted to be on the show, and he asked me to do a theme song, and it was just kind of an ongoing evolution.

“I can’t really say I’m a fan of late night talk shows, insofar as I just don’t watch them. I’ve never watched them.”

Were you a fan of Mr. Show?

Oh, yeah. Huge. It was just like a very important show for me, inspirationally, for comedy. It’s the closest thing I’d equate to, like, an American Monty Python. So yeah, when I found out he was part of that show, it blew me away.

And so how were you approached for the Corden gig? Was James a fan?

I think James got the gig and he wanted a real band and was looking for a bandleader, and I think someone just recommended me. I think he saw a video and got interested and his producer pitched a meeting and we met in Beverly Hills and hit it off. He’s a really cool, personable guy. It was a weird offer to consider for sure. It happened out of the blue and relatively quickly.

Are you a fan of late night? What do you think about the late-night landscape right now?

I can’t really say I’m a fan of late night talk shows, insofar as I just don’t watch them. I’ve never watched them. But I understand what they are. I understand how they function. And I’ve seen clips from them. But I don’t really have an opinion of it. I remember, I think [Conan writer] Andrés du Bouchet kind of went on a rant on Twitter [about late-night hosts’ “prom king comedy”]. And he wrote about it and obviously the reaction was kind of strong because he’s a writer on the show and Conan responded to it.

But I think basically the sentiment of what he was saying was very accurate and very true. It’s a ratings thing—and talk shows are basically promotional vehicles for larger entities. And they have fun things and they try to get a little bit out of it, and mostly it’s just entertainment. So it’s really based on how you can get more people to watch the show, and so in that climate where attentions are waning and are split and bifurcated by things like the Internet, people kind of get a little desperate. “Well, how do we create viral content? More celebrity stuff. Make sure we’re on every single meme that’s out there.” All that stuff.

I get what he was talking about, and I completely agree with it, but the reality of it is that the way it functions right now is kind of the way it functions. And I think with the Late Late Show, I do appreciate that James is interested in getting more out there than just the stuff that they’re pitching. And I like that they’re inventing ways to put guests in strange positions to further expose who they are a little bit more. I mean, in a good way—they’re trying to have something along the lines of how to, I don’t know, I guess discovering something new about your guest that’s not related to what they’re plugging or advertising.

You ask questions of the guests and get them to think outside the typical late-night banter.

I think that they recognized that I’m kind of a chaotic force. And so my thing is, how do I keep myself excited and interested? Having more of a voice on a show than a normal musician would on a talk show is a nice thing. You know, I’m constantly saying things when the guests are being introduced or I’m singing about random things or things I care about or things I think are ridiculous. And they never edit it. It’s really cool.

“I think technology is like training wheels. And eventually the training wheels will come off.”

When you were first doing comedy, was it music or standup or both?

I did comedy in high school, which is kind of what I do now, basically. It’s improvised and sometimes I do music and sometimes I do impressions and sometimes I do weird voices. I can do weird voices, I can make sounds, I can do rhythms, I can do music and talk about philosophy—and I mix all of that together as I do when I’m improvising onstage. So there’s a bunch of different ingredients I throw together.

Do you remember the first impression you ever did?

Probably Ray Charles. When I was like 4 or something like that.

You were doing Ray Charles at 4?

Yeah, I had a toy piano and I would put on sunglasses and rock back and forth and bang on the piano and try to sing.

I’m curious, since you’re very technology-savvy: Do you think technology will just keep getting smaller and smaller and once day we’re just going to be the computer?

I mean that’s definitely the trajectory. We want to kind of live inside the virtual world, the synthesized world, to a certain extent. The synthesized world and the real world, like in Creative Control. I think it’s a human desire to be able to control the reality that you live in, to escape it, to a certain extent.

So, yeah, it’s a weird conundrum. I think people are going to become more and more integrated with technology, provided we don’t completely exterminate ourselves with our stupidity. My hope is that we pass through it. I’m fascinated with technology only in that I think that it’s possible that we reach a certain apex where we decide that, oh, we don’t really need technology because we already are the technology and we’re already doing the things we say technology can do better.

That’s the evolved timeline, and at this point, I don’t know, it depends on what we choose. We’re either going to become so dependent on technology that we lose our ability to take care of ourselves and machines have to take care of [us], and people want to upload themselves and their consciousnesses into other computers or live in telepresence robots and go to different parts of the planet and experience reality in different ways. But that’s not the most ideal thing for humanity.

I think technology is like training wheels. And eventually the training wheels will come off.

And then the aliens come.

I hope so; that would be kind of fun.

That’s what I’m waiting for.

I’m waiting for it too. I think it would be a big unifier for humanity. It’d really fuck us up. All the religious bullshit and wars over division, all the divisions that we have that we do ourselves will just evaporate, basically.

Illustration by J. Longo