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February 23, 2010

Reggie Watts walks the line between hip-hop and stand-up

Part beatboxer, part comedian, Reggie Watts mixes improvised vocals and layered music tracks to create a groovy new kind of “comedic performance.” He’s brought his blended brand of musical comedy to the stages of Bonnaroo and South By Southwest and to the comedy websites CollegeHumor and Funny or Die. Watts will be heading to Chicago this weekend along with his trusty loop-pedal to mash together hip-hop, soul, and stand-up at the Lakeshore Theater. The Maroon sat down with Watts to discuss his improv influences, voice experimentation, and the life of a touring comedian.

Chicago Maroon: What can fans expect at your upcoming shows?

Reggie Watts: They’re happening next weekend, and…I’m looking forward to them. [Laughs] I don’t really have anything planned. I don’t really plan for shows.

CM: So they’re mostly improvised?

RW: They’re all improvised, yeah.

CM: Since your act is so varied and unique, I was wondering where you draw your influence.

RW: I see a lot of stuff all over the Internet, in cafes, stuff like that. Probably my love of the absurd, the illogical, and the surreal comes anywhere from Monty Python to, well, mostly British humor. Comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor, shows like Mr. Show, anything that’s just absurd, stuff that’s just weird or crazy and I think is funny.

CM: Do you consider your act primarily a comedy show or musical performance?

RW: I always call it a comedic performance. It’s just me performing up there using different music tools, different monologue styles, different stand-up styles. I just mix them all together into a ‘ha-ha’ show.

CM: I’ve noticed that you can create an incredible range of vocal sounds. I imagine it takes daily exercises to maintain such a repertoire.

RW: No, I don’t really rehearse. But I am kinda just fucking around all day, singing, beatboxing, and I usually have a gig almost every day. So that kind of keeps me in shape as well.

CM: So you’re on the road doing shows everyday?

RW: Yeah. I usually have one to two spots every night, either on the road or at home in New York.

CM: Is there a “beatbox community” of sorts?

RW: Yeah, there’s this crew out here called Beatbox Entertainment. I’m not really affiliated with them per se, but I am friends with a few of them and have done gigs with them. I guess I’m just a part of a community of people who use their voices in different ways. It’s like a community of voice experimenters.

CM: Do you prefer any particular size or type of venue?

RW: Not really. I’ve played everything from stadiums to people’s living rooms. I think festivals are really fun, because generally if they’re really well run they’ll have good rooms and good sound systems, and I find myself in a lineup of all sorts of goofs from all over the country and all over the world. I get a chance to meet other artists, see other shows, and the audience is a part of the whole event. As for types of venues, I just prefer any one that has a good sound system, good sight lines for the audience, and good lighting. But ultimately, if I’m in someone’s living room doing a gig or in a stadium with ramps and a gazillion lights and a 50,000-watt sound system, you know, you just make the best of it and rock it the best way that you can.

CM: Do you frequent other comedy shows or keep up with your local comedy scene?

RW: I keep up with it insofar as I see that stuff when I do shows. I don’t generally go to shows just to go to shows; I see other performers at the shows I’m playing in.

CM: Have you noticed any trends in comedy, something a lot of comedians are doing now?

RW: I guess in the alternative community maybe, you’ll see people messing around— they’ve been doing this for years—messing around with different forms of media, video, sound gags, or messing with people planted in the audience…just being more theatrical. I don’t know if that’s a trend per se; I think that comedy functions the same way throughout the ages. It just depends on what’s going on in the main culture, or just culture in general. There’s nothing I can really point out and say, ‘yes, this is happening.’ It’s mostly people doing their things, and constructing jokes in different ways.

CM: Offbeat musical comedy acts like Flight of the Conchords are popular among many students here. Would you consider your show in the same vein?

RW: I’d say it’s related in that when I do songs, they’re meant to be funny and comment on tropes of styles that exist in popular music. But for me, it’s up in the air; I’m always trying to look for something different. I definitely have structures and ideas that I tend to use over and over again, but if I’m having a really good show I don’t use anything that I’ve used before other than the structure of how I deliver things, which you can’t really erase as a comedian. There’s no limit to how I view myself in what I express.

CM: Do you find yourself tailoring your show to the local audience? Are certain things more popular in the South as opposed to New York City?

RW: For sure. Whenever I come to a town, I try to listen to the radio, look at how people are interacting on the streets, listen to accents, just notice everything around me as much as possible, and talk to people to get a sense of what’s going on. I’m naturally curious about that anyway, so whenever I come to a region I listen to environment and hope to reflect that on stage.