Reggie Watts Interview: "Late Late Show" Bandleader Talks Live Improv Sitcom and James Corden
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Comedians
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Reggie Watts is an iconoclastic comedian/musician/beatboxer who has appeared on Comedy Bang! Bang!, The Electric Company and can currently be seen as the bandleader on The Late Late Show with James Corden. He has teamed up with creative media company Butcher Bird Studios on May 24, 2018, for a one-night-only live performance of the sitcom Crowe’s Nest. Watts, alongside Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant, will recreate the popular characters from his 2016 Netflix special Spatial in a completely improvised and live-streamed half-hour episode.
Butcher Bird Studios will stream the event live from its Glendale studio. Crowe’s Nest will stream through YouTube via Watts’ YouTube page, as well as several other streaming platforms including Super Deluxe, which will also be providing an interactive social media overlay. Digital Domain will also be streaming a VR version live. This will mark the first time a TV episode will be streamed and completely improvised in the digital space.
"My job is to make sure I protect the fun in whatever I do."
Watts and electronic composer John Tejada have come together to form Wajatta, and the duo’s debut album, Casual High Technology, was released May 11, 2018. He’s also the host of Comedy Central’s Taskmaster where contestants compete in a series of incredibly taxing and strange challenges under his harsh judgment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Reggie, whose idea was it to stream a live, improvised television episode?
Reggie Watts: That was my idea. It was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while. It started in my comedy special for Netflix called Spatial. I really loved doing it, so I got with Butcher Bird Studios, and they specialize in streaming, so we kind of decided to stream the show live. We’ll be switching cameras live, and basically it’ll look like an episode on television if it goes right.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The episode only features you, Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant?
Reggie Watts: Yeah. That’s right.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do Rory and Kate bring to the table?
Reggie Watts: They are improvisers that kind of think similarly to the way I do. They’re each unique but incredibly quick. Also they’re very abstract and very absurd, so they can improv in any direction at any moment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You guys appear to have a special chemistry, so have you worked with each other for several years?
Reggie Watts: I’ve known Rory for a while, and we went on tour together and hung out a bunch. He’s a beautiful human being, and he’s one of the funniest guys. He’s from North Carolina, and he’s just got a good vibe. Cool guy. Yes. I met him a while ago, and we worked on some things together.
Kate is someone who lived in New York when I was in New York, and I started seeing her perform. I was like, “Wow! That’s crazy!” She has a similar energy to what I do. So we’ve always hung out. She’s just brilliant. She’s a genius, and she’s got her own thing going on. It’s really fun to work with her.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does improvised mean totally improvised as in no preparation at all for the actors?
Reggie Watts: It’s completely improvised. We haven’t done anything together. The Netflix special was the last time we did something together. It’s always been an idea of mine. I wanted it to be completely improvised with all the structures to be set up, all the cameras and the production to be really tight, but the actors have no clue what’s going to happen. The only thing that might happen is that we might get a general direction just before we go on stage. I might say something like, “Toby’s coming over, but we’re not ready for him yet.” That’s it. Then that’s when we start.
So, yeah. In this format, everything will be timed so that there will be someone to tell us to wrap it up for each section because there’s going to be commercial breaks, and I have Johnny Pemberton manning the laugh track (laughs). He’s another brilliant comedian. All the laugh tracks will be triggered by him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What goes through your mind when you’re doing improv, and have you ever just simply gone blank out there in front of an audience?
Reggie Watts: Well, I mean, there have been times. I think it’s a form of channeling or tuning in like a radio frequency or something like that. At least that’s what it feels like when it’s happening. Because of that, it’s about me remaining open to whatever I do. It’s mainly just about getting out of the way of myself unless I start to lose that signal or whatever, then I have to do something drastic or radical to change where it’s going. But with two other people, it makes it a little easier to do all of that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were studying piano and voice at the age of five?
Reggie Watts: Yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you a child prodigy?
Reggie Watts: I don’t know if I was a prodigy. I think that I was a good student up until age ten or something like that, then I started wanting to change the thesis I was told to work on for the people at the recital. I was starting to improvise. I was probably not that great of a student, but luckily my teacher was cool and would let me do my own thesis at times. I remember writing them and then eventually just kind of improvising them. I really liked it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your love of music came before your interest in comedy?
Reggie Watts: Yeah, for sure. But when I would see Victor Borge on the piano sitting like that or even anything vaudevillian or Carol Burnett, Gene Wilder, The Muppet Show, there were always musical elements in there. I loved the funny music. So I love music, but I also like being funny as well, especially when Weird Al came up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents supportive of your career choices?
Reggie Watts: I’d say so. My mom was really supportive. It was hard to read my dad, but he definitely supported me. He was kind of a quiet guy, but I’m pretty sure he was down with it. He played the saxophone when he was younger.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the music of Casual High Technology and the experience of working with John Tejada on the album.
Reggie Watts: John was great. I’d been a fan of John’s since probably 2006 when I first discovered his music. I thought that he might live somewhere more exotic, but then I found out he lives in Los Angeles and heard that he was playing a show. I went to the club with some friends, and we just kind of hung out. We were waiting for the show to start, and John appeared before us. We exchanged information, kept in touch along the way, then wanted to get in the studio and mess around.
We went in, and he played a groove, and I improvised a bunch of vocals over it. Then we did another groove, and I did the same. We ended up doing three grooves. The next morning, he had the tracks mixed, and it already sounded really amazing. He makes music like I like to make it. All of my projects are super, super fast and fully improvised.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the best thing about working with James Corden?
Reggie Watts: They give me a lot of latitude to be who I am. It’s pretty cool. In doing so, when I show up and I’m with the band on stage, we’re hanging out, goofing around, watching the show and having a good time. We can choose whatever music we want to choose and do it in whatever way we want to. It’s really great. That’s kind of it.
It’s always fun to show up and just watch it, never getting too comfortable with being in it but always appreciative of it. Sometimes I like to stay in different areas for different parts of the show or when I’m not in it because it’s fun just learning how all of the production works.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): James appears to be such a fun-loving guy.
Reggie Watts: He’s really great. I remember once I was late for a rehearsal, and I apologized to him later. He said, “You can do whatever you want,” in a really genuine, warm way. I’ll always remember that moment, for sure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does your gig on the Late Late Show interfere with all of your other projects?
Reggie Watts: Luckily, all the projects that I do I try to make them pretty fast. With the Crowe’s Nest, the maximum hours the actors will put in is maybe three hours or something like that. So I try to make the demands really low on all my projects and make sure they’re really quick in a high quality way. Because I’m not rehearsing in between projects, that does give me a little bit more time to do things.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How’s it going with Taskmaster?
Reggie Watts: It’s great, I think (laughs). I’ve heard people on Twitter and Instagram say they like it. I don’t know if the numbers are enough for Comedy Central to consider renewing it, but the reviews have been pretty good. So it seems to be positive, but that’s all I know (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the next project, Reggie?
Reggie Watts: I’m working on an installation piece for Sundance New Frontier next year called Artificial Intuition, which will be an AI-based Virtual Reality experience. That’s my nextish project right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It seems that you are labeled everything from weird and wonderful to a mad musical genius and a comedy absurdist. What describes you from your point of view?
Reggie Watts: (laughs) Well, I don’t know. I would just say that for me, I call myself an improviser, which means I like to do that in any medium whether it’s a drawing or another art form or theater or music, videos of all kinds, just all the associated ways you make art. I just consider myself an improviser, so all those tools are available to me. So I guess as an improviser, I just want to show the flexibility of creativity, so that you don’t have to be limited. Some say, “Well, I really can’t do that.” Maybe they can’t do that very well, but they could kind of do it, you know? (laughs)
Being able to learn as many skills as you can and being able to learn as many perspectives as you can is the message. You don’t have to do just one thing. You can just have fun, and that’s really the big thing. My job is to make sure I protect the fun in whatever I do because if I’m not having fun, I’ll have to question what I’m doing, or I don’t want to be doing it.
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