Reggie Watts: Weird Scientist

Dean Budnick on February 26, 2024
Reggie Watts: Weird Scientist

Photo: Megan McIsaac

Reggie Watts moved to the United States at the age of four. The son of a Black American father and white French mother, who met when Charles Watts was stationed overseas as an air force serviceman, Reggie lived in Germany, Italy and Spain over the course of his young life. Although initially disorienting and intimidating, his new country would prove to be the keeper, and Watts’ American hometown animates his imagination to this very day.

In his recently published memoir, Watts writes:

This place would lay the foundation for everything I would someday become…even now, after all these years of living in some of our country’s greatest cities, of traveling the globe and performing with massive stars in front of millions of people—even now, this place is still where I always come back to.

At the time though, all I knew about this brand-new place was that it was big and open and wide. It was very white. It was very quiet. And it was called the strangest, most exotic word I had ever heard.

Its name was Montana.

The book—Great Falls, MT: Fast Times, Post-Punk Weirdos and a Tale of Coming Home—shares Watts’ account of growing up in the 1980s and finding a group of like-minded outcasts, who would help shape his identity. This would eventually lead him to Seattle, where he first gained notoriety in the band Maktub, and then on to the comedy clubs of New York City and Hollywood soundstages as the bandleader of IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! and CBS’s The Late Late Show with James Corden.

As befits Watts’ comedic sensibility, his autobiography often turns convention on its head, with ample digressions, interstitial chapters that feel like improvisational comedy bits and bonus QR code content.

Great Falls, MT is a warm and welcoming work that blends a compelling personal narrative with musings on the films of John Hughes and builds to a tender conclusion—be sure to cue the soundtrack while reading the final passages (and don’t miss the inevitable post-credits scenes).

I just listened to an interview with Albert Brooks in which he said that he never allowed himself to get too swayed by audience reactions because he needed to trust in what felt funny to him. Does that idea resonate with you?

Yeah, that’s a perfect way of describing it. That’s exactly what it feels like. I just kind of go for it and hope for the best.

Did that change at all with the book, since you were working in a new medium that people engage in a different way?

To a certain extent. There were things I experiment with in the book where I was like, “I don’t know, maybe people might not like it.” I even heard some criticism from my friends who told me that serious readers might have a problem with the book because of things like the expressive text font or the weird micro chapters with the jokes and things like that. In a way, I’m playing with the form of a memoir, so I hear that.

I think it’s definitely not for everyone, but I think that how I operate is from a place of what would I want to experience and what do I think is going to be entertaining. I also want it to appeal to people who are playful and curious—or maybe people who are playful and curious but are not like that in their everyday life, and things like this give them permission to feel that way.

So it’s definitely a little bit of a risk, in the sense that I didn’t know if people were going to like it or not, but I had to go for it.

In that same interview with Albert Brooks, he recalls taking his future wife to see his office at Paramount. She remarks on the large number of autos in the parking lot and he tells her: “Every one of these cars is someone trying to keep me from doing what I want.” Did you experience that with your publisher given the experimental nature of your book?

They gave barely any notes. It was really cool. There were some notes—structural things or things to delve into a little bit more in detail—but they were just constructive notes. They were a dream to work with. This was my first book, so I don’t have anything else to compare it to. But yeah, they were along for the ride.

At what point in the process did you come up with the idea of adding those intermittent micro chapters?

I always had the idea to mess with the form of a book; that was always in there. Along the way, there would be improvisational ideas like I would do onstage, but in a writing form where I would be like, “Well, let’s just do this” and “This will be funny.” So it was pretty natural. It just occurred to me along the way.

How about the QR codes?

That was something I thought of before writing the book. I thought it would be cool to have that kind of a breakout element— something that existed outside of the book that could be kind of a portal to other experiences.

You reference a number of teen films throughout the book that were important to you during your years in Great Falls. One of these is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Yello’s “Oh Yeah” is a big part of that movie and, to my mind, not dissimilar to some of what you do. Do you think it impacted your musical perspective?

I think there’s definitely something there. Yello and Art of Noise were a major part of my perception of what is possible musically. In the ‘80s, there were a lot of experimental things that made their way into pop culture, whether it was Devo or Art of Noise or Yello. By today’s standards, that music wouldn’t really fly. People wouldn’t know what to do with it because this is not the climate. Everything is based off of cool. Those things weren’t necessarily cool, they were weird, but they were cool because they were weird back then. I think that definitely gave permission to explore things that were strange and weird and different.

There are so many great riffs in the book. Sticking with Bueller, I really enjoy your take on breaking the fourth wall. You write, “So Ferris, thanks for being the first. A pioneer. A true innovator. Me and Shakespeare and all the great Greek tragedies would be lost without you.” I mean, “Save Ferris” and all, but it turns out he may not have been quite the trailblazer in that context.

Yeah, not at all. [Laughs.] Shakespeare was definitely way ahead on the fourth wall stuff.

There’s a moment where you ask yourself: “Is my life in Great Falls actually a teen comedy that someone somewhere is watching alone in a strip mall matinee?” Later, you share an account of the day when you and your competitive drama partner defied the odds to defeat your rivals and win the state championship, much to the chagrin of their aggressive, adversarial coach. That feels like an ‘80s film trope.

Oh man, I think that there is a movie there. My friend Wally, who won it with me, he’s a writer and he’s been slowly working on it. I think that is its own movie onto itself, for sure. Competitive drama. I mean, come on. It’s there and the way it went down, it’s a full movie.

During that era, did you ever have the experience of walking out of a film that connected with you so deeply it felt like you were living in a movie?

I think that probably happened with Weird Science and definitely Breakfast Club—it was just so relevant to my life at the time. Both of those definitely felt like I was living in that reality. I could see myself in that way.

As I juxtapose those Breakfast Club stereotypes and the description of your own high school cliques with my kids’ recent experiences, it seems like a fair amount of bullying and bluster has dissipated. That’s certainly a good thing, although perhaps a certain bonding that comes from a sense of collective otherness has been lost?

Like you say, it would be better if people weren’t bullies to one another and didn’t judge each other based on superficial factors. However, if you have the skill set to be able to differentiate between what is an actual threat and what is a projection by someone’s insecurity, how you choose to deal with those things is incredibly character-building. It teaches you how to stand up for yourself and others who are affected by people who are treating other people terribly.

While something is gained in a utopian society where there’s no conflict, we continue to still live in what I call a binary reality. Sometimes that puts people at a disadvantage if they don’t develop skills to be able to handle that, but generally those skills can be taught by people who have experienced those things. So it can be transmitted, but there’s also no substitute for experience.

I don’t think you have to go through a dark tragedy to make that discovery, but because it is a binary reality, at least socially, there’s always going to be popular kids and there’s going to be not popular kids. That’s always going to exist—maybe not the exact cliques that existed when we were growing up, the clear differentiations like The Breakfast Club provided, but there are micro cliques now. There are tiny, subtle differences on things, and there’s more self-awareness.

So I think it’s still there, and there’s definitely going to be “This person’s popular” and “This person sucks.” There’s always going to be that. That means there’s still something to work through, but I think there’s a finer social resolution now.

You mention Dungeons & Dragons in the book, which is something that was once a source of derision but has since become much more socially accepted even prior to the first season of Stranger Things. What’s your reaction to the mainstreaming of D&D?

The 2000s were kind of the time when geek culture began to be celebrated, and we’re seeing the evolution of that. So video gaming is popular along with all the nerdy things. Some people still get hassled for it a little bit, but it’s not really enough to put people in psychosis—it’s more readily accepted. That’s a natural product of the internet growing in popularity and people spending so much more time in their digital life.

As a result, there are games and concepts in the digital life that are more normalized. That’s just kind of a natural evolution. I think Dungeons & Dragons is great. I think it’s a wonderful thing to play, and it’s imaginative—especially tabletop. If people are getting together with friends and physically playing with one another, that’s a really wonderful thing.

I don’t really have a problem with that. Some things I might not want to be popular because then they’re not cool anymore, but that’s definitely not one of them. I think anything that brings people together and has them exercise their free will, critical thinking and imagination is totally encouraged.

At one point during a micro chapter, you describe someone who says, “Andie better not end up with Duckie” [referencing Pretty in Pink]. Do you have any opinion in the matter?

I’m pretty undecided about that. Duckie is so desperate that I don’t know if it would even work out. Generally, his disposition was that he was totally infatuated with her. If they had been together for a little bit, his insecurity would have flared up and that would’ve been unattractive, so they probably would’ve broken up. That was always my theory with him.

When I was in high school, I had crushes on people and knew it wouldn’t work out, but I was friends with them. It’s such a common trope. You can identify with it so easily. In Not Another Teen Movie, there’s a Duckie-style character, and he explodes the idea of Duckie very well. It’s pretty amazing.

Have you ever crossed paths with any of the actors from the John Hughes universe?

No Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald or Anthony Michael Hall. I did meet the actor who played Long Duk Dong [in 16 Candles—Gary “Gedde” Watanabe].

That character has its detractors.

Yeah, it hasn’t aged well. The one positive I would give to that role is that he was actually an Asian actor. There were plenty of ‘80s movies where Asian people were played by white actors, and that, to me, is fucked up. Although the worst is probably [1961’s] Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I’ve thought about this a lot, especially after meeting him, because his take on it was he was just playing a character at the time and he didn’t read into it that much. I’m sure he had other thoughts on it later. It’s dumb that generally minorities have to come up as clowns first, and then they start to get taken seriously.

At the end of the movie, he’s cool, he’s got a really hot lady and he’s driving around smoking cigarettes, although it’s still sort of fucked up that he had that particular role in the film.

Can you talk a little bit about the transition from Maktub to comedy?

I was already kind of thinking about leaving because I didn’t know about the future of the band, so I had been doing sketch comedy in Seattle. I was in a few sketch groups and I was doing a little bit of comedy on my own already.

It was a pretty organic transition, especially once I saw Stella perform in Seattle and then got to do comedy in New York. All of that happened organically and fluidly, so it wasn’t too crazy.

Pretty much anytime I got up onstage, if it was a good experience, I’d just kind of mark it as, “Okay, I’ll keep doing that.”

So I guess there wasn’t really a moment where it felt like a formal transition, unless I count performing in New York for the first time doing comedy and people liking it, but even that felt like high school.

It just kind of felt like I was looking for ways to express myself. All the stuff that I do in comedy was stuff I already was doing among my friends and stuff that I had done in high school. So it was about finding an audience that liked what I was doing and just putting myself out there to find that audience.

So there’s not really a lot, other than seeing Wet Hot American Summer or the Stella shorts and going, “Oh, that’s what I want to do, because what they’re doing is similar to what I do.” There was not anything I can think of that was a major sea change per se.

I learned from reading Great Falls that the Jammys, which Peter Shapiro and I created, had an impact on your career path. You were waiting in line at a video store to have the members of Stella sign a DVD and Michael Showalter came up to you and said, “I saw you sing at the Jammys.” [In 2004, Watts appeared at the Jammy Awards with Soulive and the Harlem Gospel Choir.]

Yeah, totally. That was the moment that changed everything. [Laughs.] It was so random. I was like, “Why was Michael Showalter at a Jammys?” I wouldn’t think of him as a jamband guy.

The Jammys collaboration took place at the time when you were working with Soulive. How did that come about?

I think my band opened for them at the Showbox in Seattle. So that’s where I first ran into them. Then they were interested in working with me as a vocalist in their group. I think this was maybe a year after I’d quit Maktub.

I started working with them in New York, and because I was spending time in New York, that’s what gave me the time to do standup comedy while I was there.

I also learned from the book that you toured in Europe with Wayne Horvitz when you were in college. What led to that?

I was in Seattle going to Cornish College of the Arts, and he is from Seattle. He used to get a lot of talent from Cornish. He would go to the performances that students were giving and he would recruit new musicians for his different projects. So he saw me there and recruited me. I’d seen his bands like Zony Mash and maybe something else that he did with his wife, Robin Holcomb. That’s all I knew about him, other than he was a badass who would work with Bill Frisell, Mark Ribot and people like that. So he was a really highlevel musician and he would get people from Cornish to be a part of his groups.

Brian Eno appears in the acknowledgements section at the end of the book. Have you worked with him in any capacity?

He would invite me to perform at a lot of the festivals he was curating. At one of those festivals in Bergen, Norway, he had this idea where, for every band that he had on the main stage, there was a secondary stage in this performance hall. Then whatever band was playing on the main stage would be remixed by some producers in the next room shortly after their performance. He chose to remix me, so he remixed my performance from the main room. That’s about as close as we got to working together.

On the subject of remixing, over a decade ago you did a Nando’s ad, which is just you and a looping machine. It’s quite a spectacle in the best way possible. How did they find you?

I’m not sure. I think it was through the internet where I had a bunch of improv looping videos with this guy BD, who used to record me a lot when I would come to London. I think those videos were out there and they just kind of knew about me. A lot of the gigs I’ve gotten have been from my videos online.

Although most of the book focuses on Great Falls, there are a few pages at the end that accelerate to the future, in which you mention sharing an edible at your first meeting with James Corden, joining Conan O’Brien on his Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television tour and being flown to a private island by Richard Branson. Have you contemplated whether you might have the time, energy, and inclination to pick up the story and write another book?

I’m hoping to do a book off of every city I’ve lived in. So the next one would be Seattle, which would be Seattle in the ‘90s—I think that could be an amazing book. Then it would be New York City, followed by Los Angeles. That’s the plan, at least. I would love to do it.