It’s hard to say what Reggie Watts is. He’s not a comedian—at least not in the traditional sense of someone who stands on a stage and tells jokes. He’s also not a musician in the traditional sense. He is, however, both of those things when he performs. He creates symphonies from scratch on stage, using nothing but a loop pedal and his own voice. He plays with language, often spewing out nonsensical run-on sentences while shifting accents and languages—he might start as a valley girl, slowly meld it into a British accent, then, seamlessly, begin speaking German. There is rarely a punch line, but that’s kind of his thing.
Watts recently talked to Paste about opening for Conan O’Brien on the “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour, hosting Team Coco Presents Conan’s Writers Live, which will air on TBS June 27 and making an album of serious music with Brian Eno.
You just finished touring with Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour. What was that experience like?
Reggie Watts: It was very surreal, but at the same time, I adjusted to it probably about halfway through in a way that made me feel a little more comfortable. It was very much like a huge family, and the whole crew was just incredible. Every crew member was like, “This is the best tour I’ve ever been on,” and some of these guys have been touring for 31 years.
Obviously, Conan has been part of some hugely influential comedy, from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons to Late Night and The Tonight Show. Were there any moments on the tour where you two just discussed comedy?
Watts: Not really. We talked in little chunks, little bursts here and there, but we didn’t get to talk philosophically or anything like that. I think he’s under the weight of so many possibilities right now; it never got to a point where he was so relaxed. Andy Richter, on the other hand—totally awesome conversations. Sometimes we’d share a dressing room together, although we just talked about stuff. We didn’t talk about the industry so much.
I’m always interested in the connection between comedy and music, and
music seems to be the backbone of your comedy. What is the connection for you?
Watts: I think that music can be funny in so many ways. Music, in a way, is an advanced form of communication because it’s not dependent on language so much. It is a language, but it’s not dependent on national languages or spoken language. You can make people laugh with the tempo of a song, you can make people laugh with the texture of a song, you can make people laugh by cutting it off or just hitting notes at the wrong times, you can make people laugh by alluding to a familiar melody that doesn’t seem to make sense with what’s going on musically. Music can definitely be completely comedic, along with being very moving. That’s what I love about artists like Victor Borge. Back in the day, [he] was a virtuosic piano player, kicked ass, but he also had these goofy ideas and these crazy shticky things. He’d just throw away the fact that he was such an amazing pianist. Or even Steve Martin to a certain extent with his banjo. He’s a really accomplished banjo player, but he’d just kind of fuck around on it, and you
wouldn’t quite notice it. In a way, it’s kind of an old-school vaudeville thing. There were a lot of really virtuosic performers that did goofy, stupid, silly things in contrast to their proficiency.
You’ve also made several albums of serious music. When you also
make comedic music, is it hard to get people to take the serious music seriously?
Watts: It can be a little confusing, but I’ve been doing the comedy thing most recently, so most people will say something like, “Wow, you sound really great. Have you ever thought about just doing music?” I really can’t explain to them that I’ve done music all my life. The comedy thing is a newer thing. Most people know me for that. I haven’t released a music-music album in a long time, so I don’t know how that will be received after being perceived as a comedian for so long.
Do you think you’ll make an album of serious music again?
Watts: Yeah, I hope so. I’ve been talking to Brian Eno about doing something. We might do an all-vocal record. It’s one of those things where it’s just a matter of time, but I definitely want to make a serious music album again.
Even though the tour is over, your Conan journey isn’t yet complete. You are going to host Team Coco Presents Conan’s Writers Live. What is that going to be?
Watts: Conan’s writers are doing stand-up sets, and I’m basically the Paul Shaffer. So, I’m playing people on and off, and I also wrote the theme song, and I’m doing a five-minute set in both tapings, and they take those tapings and edit them together into one 45-minute show.
How will you condense everything you do into five minutes?
Watts: I just kind of basically turn up the speed, so it will probably be me talking a bunch of bullshit, and then I’ll go into some bit, a musical thing, but it will be really quick, intense and short. It’s going to be like a quick-edit remix of what I do in five minutes. I like that challenge, because I can essentially just attack.