Reggie Watts Q&A: Checking In With Late Night's Weirdest Band Leader

Sonja Flemming/CBS
Reggie Watts on "The Late Late Show with James Corden" on the CBS Television Network.

For decades, late night band leaders weren't supposed to be strange. Paul Shaffer was an affable second banana for Letterman; Max Weinberg played the straight man to Conan. Even on Jimmy Fallon's revamped Tonight Show, The Roots play it straight unless they're doing a sketch. For a moment, it seemed that Fred Armisen would become the late night bastion of oddness on Seth Meyers, but that was before someone at CBS put Reggie Watts on network TV.

A fixture on the underground comedy circuit for years, Watts' idiosyncratic combination of abstract comedy and genre-bending music was fantastic, but hardly for all tastes. Even in a room of comedy nerds, he's more likely to elicit gleeful fascination than belly laughs.

But times change. Thanks to The Late Late Show With James Corden, CBS is now host to perhaps the only genuine comedy outsider on late night TV. After all, Watts' most "establishment" gig prior to Corden was on the willfully bizarre IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!

Billboard caught up with Watts to see what it was like moving from the quirk-loving IFC to CBS, how Corden compares to Scott Aukerman, and why he asked for Jeff Goldblum's thoughts on sensuality. Here's what he had to say.

You guys have been doing The Late Late Show for more than a month now. Are you fairly comfortable on the job at this point?

I'd say I'm about 90 percent comfortable with it -- it's getting there. There was a lot of adjustment in the beginning but now we're settling in. It feels like we've been doing it a long time. There's definitely a learning curve, but nothing where I'd say, 'oh I wish I could have avoided this or that.'

Reggie Watts: The Billboard Photo Shoot

You're going from Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC -- a network that prizes out-of-the-box shows -- to CBS, one of the big networks. Was that a culture shock?

That's what we're playing off of, and that's what makes it fun. We're doing whatever we're doing. I'm sure CBS wanted something that appealed to perhaps a younger audience and in that case, you really have to rely on the taste of the people who have the vision of the show. Which is the showrunner [Ben Winston] and James, and then asking me to be a part of it and seeing what I can bring to it. There's a lot of autonomy – it does feel like we're doing our own show and doing it the way we want to do it. The network so far is cool with it.

Were you and Corden familiar with each other before this?

We didn't know a lot about each other. He had just been introduced to me and I had never really heard of him. I was given some stuff that he'd been involved with, Gavin and Stacey, and got rapidly acquainted with what he did. But I didn't know much, I was going on videos. But meeting him was great -- he's a cool cat, we skyped a lot. It was a long process but in the end I feel he's a trustworthy ally.

You did a 4/20 song -- in your case, a 4/19 song -- not long ago. With songs like that, do they work through the ideas with you or do they pretty much take what you give them?

They're pretty cool about me coming up with ideas. They had a song that was presented by a writer that was a good first attempt. But my thing was, if we're going to write a 4/20 song, then let's make a song that an advocate of 4/20 culture would actually make. So we came up with a groove, improvised and hopefully it was interesting. They're cool about letting me do whatever in moments where they need it.

Ten years ago, it would be unthinkable to have comedy like yours on a network late night show every day. Do you think the comedy scene has changed TV?

Yeah. I think comedy has crept its way into society, at least from an underground level. From the early '00s and then the neo-renaissance of alternative comedy, a lot of those people are on shows in mainstream television, or have written movies that have done well. All my comic heroes and peers are now involved in what's happening culturally, at least in the United States. I think that's just how culture functions. A group of people rise up together, form a coalition and a philosophy, to a certain extent. And that becomes -- or at least bits of it -- mainstream. Or the mainstream copies it, in its own half-baked way.

Each show you do Reggie's Question, where you ask something random to one of the night's guests. Where do those come from?

I don't know. At a certain point, [Corden] will say, "Reggie, do you have a question for one of our guests?" And I'll either say, "I don't have a question" in my head, and as I'm raising the microphone to my lips I'm thinking, "Wow, I should come up with a question" and then I come up with the best thing that I can. They usually let me pick who I ask the question to. But sometimes Ben, the showrunner, he'll say, "Whatever you want, but maybe consider this person, because they haven't been talking that much." Which is my inclination anyway, as an equalizer personality type. But for the most part I pick whoever and go with it. Like Sharon Osbourne. I thought, "She's rock and roll royalty, I want to ask her what she thinks about the state of rock now." And it was nice to hear her align with what I thought. [Sharon's take: "I hate to say it, but I think we have seen the greats in that genre."]

I think the best so far was asking Jeff Goldblum what he thinks about true sensuality.

He's well known for being a man that women find attractive in... not a normal way. He's got an interesting vibe about him that's hard to pinpoint. So thinking along those lines, it was in the moment and I thought, "Eh, it just feels like a sensuality question for him." And I thought he'd have a good answer because he's kind of poetic in the way he speaks.

How does your relationship with James Corden differ from your relationship with Scott Aukerman?

It differs in that Scott is the writer, the inventor -- Comedy Bang! Bang! is his vision. He's on the couch and reviewing things he helped conceptualized each day. And we're shooting all day long from 7am to whenever we get off, which is usually or 8 or 9. With him it was doing take after take, jumping around, him and I joking about music. With James, I know where he's coming from, but the way TV functions in the daytime is such a machine. "Get here at this time, this is how much time we have for this, then we have a break, then we do this, then we tape the show." The time we have to interact is usually outside the show. There's definitely times where he'll come in and tell me a story from over the weekend, and we always find really beautiful moments to connect with each other and see what's going on. But it's a different scene, different pace.

It sounds like the Late Late Show is actually less of a time commitment than Comedy Bang! Bang!

That's correct.

Anyone you're listening to right now that you're excited about?

Man. I'm real excited about the new Van Hunt album [The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets]. I heard a new cut recently. I'm excited about the new Alabama Shakes record. It's refreshingly sincere and awesome. I've been hearing it on KCRW a lot. I didn't know what they looked like, but when I saw them I was like, "Oh, this is an actual band. They're not fucking around. This isn't a bunch of pretty boys." That's encouraging for me.

What about comedians?

Kate Berlant. I mention her a lot, but she's great. And her partner John Early is amazing. There's a crew of comedians that throw a show in L.A. called AN SHO(w) and this guy Justin Cousson. They're a crew of really young guys, mid '20s, living together, throwing comedy nights in their house and bars. They're a really cool crew of cats that do strange, shoddy and abstract comedy. I love it.

What's up next for you on the Late Late Show?

I take it day by day. I plan to have as much fun as possible and contribute as many dumb, weird ideas as possible. So be on the lookout for some dumb, weird ideas.