He's an improv-loving singer-rapper-beatboxer. Confused? You should be.
On a sunny October morning on Manhattan's far west side, a hundred or so trim new-media mavens sit in the curved glass and steel lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed IAC building. They've come for the opening of a festival organized by online video site Vimeo. After some bland corporate hellos, the MC calls on Dr. Reginald Watts, who will deliver a State of the Internet address.
A bearish man with a bushy beard and massive messy afro assumes the podium. "Vimeo is the essence of life from Mesopotamian culture,"says Watts, 38, adopting the snooty accent of an Oxbridge intellectual. (He grew up in GreatFalls, Montana -- and is not a doctor, but briefly studied jazz in college.) "It comes from cuneiform writing seen on cylinders in the great library of Alexandria."
Watts is bullshitting, riffing on the idea of a tech prophet's talk, though the folks looking to see why others are laughing don't yet know it.
"Vimeo is a fourth-dimensional concept that wraps itself around the beginning and end of who you are in your life cycle. Here's a song about that. Hope you like it."
The doctor punches buttons on a Line 6 effects pedal on the lectern and starts wailing a quasi-Arabic melody. Suddenly, he begins beatboxing, hits more buttons, and creates a rhythm loop over which he freestyles about digital interfacing. Then Watts stops rapping and starts discussing how eggs become omelets. The audience -- more of it anyway -- goes nuts.
"I'm looking for the ridiculous," says Watts, seated in the backyard garden of his condo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, three days after the Vimeo gig. Due to his performance schedule, he'd been without his own home for two years before moving here in September. "I've done this thing in my act where I describe an owl hunting for a mouse with a song underneath. There's no joke, but the idea is absurd. Why would someone talk about that? I'm always taking people to that place of uncertainty."
That place is getting crowded. Last spring, Conan O'Brien picked Watts to open his Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour. Louis C.K. asked him to compose music for his FX sitcom. May brought a Comedy Central special -- there's been rumors of another -- and the accompanying CD/DVD release of Why $#!+So Crazy? Among other mind-benders, the album features "Rainbows," a gorgeous soul ballad "about" -- a weird word when discussing Watts' work -- micro-motor eye movement and "Fuck Shit Stack," a squiggly rap number that begins "Word / Adjective / Pronoun / Adverb," ends "Fuck / Shit / Fuck / Shit," and seems to make perfect sense. (The official video has earned almost a million YouTube views.)
Also in May, at Brian Eno's request, Watts performed at the Brighton Comedy Festival. "Reggie is a man of towering genius," says Eno, "with a very weird haircut." The first part of that sentence is extra nice for Watts, since he cites the brainy musician and superproducer as a key influence. ("Weird Al" Yankovic is another.) And despite the new digs, Watts will see a lot of the road in 2011.
Pretty good for a comedian who avoids punch lines, ad-libs his act, and set out to be a singer. Watts, who was born in Germany and lived in Spain and Italy before his Army sergeant dad and French mom moved the family to the U.S., only devoted himself fully to comedy in 2004. That's when he moved to New York City from Seattle, where he'd spent 14 years singing in bands -- even opening for the Rolling Stones as a member of jazzbos Soulive -- and goofing between songs. "I'd be kidding around onstage and the other guys would be, like, 'Stop! This is serious music!'?" he says. "But after it was obvious the industry was failing, I wondered how I'd make money. I didn't want to be a burned-out musician. I've always been good at getting laughs. As a kid, I'd ask, 'Anyone got a toothbrush?' and people would crack up. So I said, 'Fuck it. I'll give comedy a shot.'?"
"Reggie's act transcends comedy," says comedian and writer Michael Showalter, a member of the New York City alt-comedy scene of which Watts quickly became a part. "He's doing cool music at the same time as making meta-commentary. It's fresh -- even if you don't know what he's talking about."
Which brings us back to Dr. Watts. Having finished fake-explaining the alkaloidal properties of eggs, he mimics DJ scratches over a loop of himself singing "Vimeo / It's my flow" in a deep baritone. A man in the crowd waves his arm to the beat; another shoots Flip footage while laughing.