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New 'Late Late Show' Bandleader Reggie Watts: 'Confusion Is the Highest Compliment'
A Reggie Watts set -- part music, part comedy, part performance art -- can be a confounding experience. His hair and beard create a dandelion-puff halo effect around his head. He randomly jumps between voices and vernaculars, from a British accent to American street-corner slang to unintelligible garbles. Using a guitar pedal and a four-track looper, he creates tunes with beat-boxed drums and guttural humming, then croons over them. Sometimes he taps quizzically at the microphone, as if he were an oversize Pomeranian pawing at an iPad. "This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life," was one typical comment on a YouTube video of Watts' 2012 TED Talk. "Does anybody know wtf this dude is talking about?" was another response to a performance video.
"I love those kinds of reactions," says Watts, 42, sitting in a booth at Baby's All Right, a music venue in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section. "Confusion is the highest compliment. Then you have the other side, where people ascribe a lot of meaning to it. They're both valid."
After decades bouncing around the music and comedy circuits, Watts is seeing his own pop-culture validity hit a new peak. In the past few years, he went viral with videos like "What About Blowjobs" (1.4 million YouTube views to date), toured with Conan O'Brien and co-hosted IFC's comedy-variety show Comedy Bang Bang. In December, he was named bandleader for CBS' The Late Late Show, which will relaunch March 23 with Tony-winning Into the Woods actor James Corden replacing long-time host Craig Ferguson. It's a decided step into the mainstream spotlight for Watts' self-described "abstract, nonsensical, weirdo" act, and it might prove a tricky match for network TV (whose conventions, ironically, were satirized regularly on Comedy Bang Bang). "I don't like to do writing," he says. "There's no preparation. I like going on cold."
He plucks ideas from the air (topics have included masturbating at a computer and his love of pie) and unspools them on the fly. His loopy musings are very much stoner humor, and he speaks with reverent familiarity about marijuana ingestibles: Cheeba Chews ("A little bit too strong"), Bhang Bars ("Really amazing, consistent dosage, nice groove"), tinctures ("No calories, you can add it to coffee").
"He is funny in ways that are seldom explored," says Sarah Silverman, who partnered with Watts, duo Tim & Eric and Michael Cera on comedy YouTube channel Jash, which started in 2013. "The speed and freedom of his mind is unparalleled in entertainment -- maybe if you pulled, like, an Elon Musk into it."
Watts was born in Stuttgart, Germany, the son of a French mother and an American serviceman father, and moved to Great Falls, Mont., at age 4. He enjoyed a bucolic childhood of camping and chopping firewood, and later helped his mother clean houses at Malmstrom Air Force base. A mouthy but unmalicious teen, he experimented with weed, mushrooms and Robitussin. "On rare occasions we'd get acid," says Watts. "It was good, but it wasn't, like, Interstellar."
He enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle in 1990, but dropped out after four months. "It was weirdly melancholic and desolate," says Watts of the city -- as a compliment, not criticism. "I'm an only child. I was used to the loneliness."
So he stuck around, entrenching himself in a music scene that was rising to prominence as the epicenter of grunge. Watts estimates he was in 30 bands, ranging from Fishbone-esque punk acts to Maktub, a band that swirled together R&B and electronica en route to modest regional success. But Watts gravitated toward less serious music, and soon discovered Seattle's sketch-comedy scene. He moved to New York's Lower East Side in 2004, became a regular at now-shuttered Rififi and other haunts on the aspirational-comedian's circuit and watched his notoriety grow. Parody music videos like "F-- Shit Stack," in which he bounces across the Williamsburg Bridge like a human bobblehead, racked up millions of views. He performed at LCD Soundsystem's final concert, at Madison Square Garden; recorded with Australian electronic duo Flight Facilities; and made several albums, most recently A Live at Central Park, released shortly before he joined Comedy Bang Bang in 2012.
When approached by Corden about The Late Late Show, Watts initially was hesitant. The time commitment is significant, and the job meant relocating from New York to Los Angeles. "I wasn't super stoked to do it," he admits. Even joining the tradition of respected late-night bandleaders like Questlove and Branford Marsalis, he says, wasn't particularly inspiring to him. "This isn't a diss to any of these people, but the music could really be any band. The music that you hear playing or out from a break is four seconds. It's incredibly easy to do."
Whatever the degree of difficulty, Watts' freewheeling approach will continue on The Late Late Show, where he helms a quintet featuring guitarist Tim Young (Beck, Fiona Apple, Stan Getz), drummer Guillermo Brown (George Lewis), longtime Watts collaborator Steve Scalfati on keys and a yet-to-be-named bassist. "The idea was to hire a band of geniuses, so anything asked of us will be easy," says Watts. "I don't do weird stuff to turn people off -- I want the audience to be excited."
But Watts' role on the show won't be confined to just music when guests strut onstage -- a key difference that won him over. He'll be involved in sketches and asked to integrate his goofy absurdism wherever possible. "If you book Reggie, you've got to know you're booking Reggie," says Corden. "You can't mold that into anything else. You've got to let him be."
This story originally appeared in the March 21st issue of Billboard.