Backstage at Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre, Reggie Watts is pondering what it means to be weird. Or, perhaps, more accurately, how to stay weird. To call Watts a comedian is a vast understatement, if only because he wears so many creative hats. “Performance artist” is fair, as is “musician.” During live shows, he grabs and discards from all of these piles, throwing things up against a wall to see what sticks. The vast majority of it is improvised, and the vast majority of it is often awe-inspiring. It’s why Conan O’Brien asked him on as tour support, why Brian Eno and Hot Chip wanted to collaborate, why Louis C.K. asked him to do the music for his television show early on. And now, Watts is sitting here, backstage before another show where he’ll do his weird thing for a crowd of people, wondering how to stay weird in the face of increased attention, adoration, acceptance.
“Being weird, to me, the idea of viewing the world in a different way, or viewing it strangely, or having weird mannerisms, it’s mostly an honesty issue,” he says, letting the thought unfurl aloud. “If someone’s being weird, then there’s something that rings false about it. Unless it’s a setup. They’re acting weird. It’s a conscious decision to be weird. It’s a totally different feeling than someone who just has a different way of looking at the world and yeah, at times will go, ‘I’m gonna wear this stupid fucking scarf and see if people notice.’ But those are bits, those are conscious exercises that people are doing, and it’s fun to recognize when people are doing it. So if people are just being weird to be weird, it’s fine. It’s interesting. But I feel that all I have to do is stay on it and hopefully it’s true to what I want to do.”
Define it however you like, but Watts definitely sees the world differently from his fellow man. Born an Air Force brat in Germany, Reginald Lucien Frank Roger Watts has lived in Spain, Montana and Seattle; is classically trained in piano and violin (11 years of lessons total); has played in numerous bands; and currently stars in Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! series on IFC. Entry points for his art are equally ridiculous. People discover him from his crass and hilarious videos with titles like “What About Blowjobs?” and “Fuck Shit Stack,” as well as the gorgeous and complicated music he’s created. His most recent special, A Live at Central Park, is a mixture of his usual live performance and a chopped-up sketch with an intentionally weak/confusing story arc involving hobos, park rangers, a tiny television and a squirrel named Parsons. Toward the end of one of the bits, as someone off camera yells “Cut!” Watts breaks character, shaking his head at how ridiculous and bizarre his life is in times like these. Hearing him describe his ambitions is enough to induce some head shaking as well.
“I just know that I want to create something very immersive and have a quality of being transported to another way of thinking, and another reality in a really interesting, subtle way,” he says, closing his eyes for a moment and really digging in. “I think it’s just about freedom and not having rules about not having rules. It’s about creating the most natural situations possible, so that people are speaking in a natural tone, a natural voice, and it feels like there’s a reason behind everything they’re doing in that. They’re just being natural and communicating a situation. But the situation is just slightly stupid. But they’re completely 100% committed to it. That’s the reality, and that’s what they need to deal with. I really want to direct these. I just want to have these experiments. They’re kind of generalizations, mechanism, and then if I’m working with specific people, we can talk about something specific, we can condense something using that idea, but in general, they’re just always floating around.”
Listening to Watts speak about such aspirational projects is equally overwhelming and borderline nonsensical. On one hand, it’s easy to lose track of his thought process as it wanders off like one of his trademark improvisations. But it’s also otherworldly in its own weird—there’s that word again—way. You get the sense that Watts is ahead of his time, and that the folks who are smart enough to pay attention to him and attempt to keep up, get dragged along for the ride. Avant garde by proxy, as it were. He says he wants to be remembered for “accessing pure creativity,” which, if he were to die tomorrow, that legacy would be set. But like any other restless genius, he keeps pushing forward. By the time this story is published, he may have given up on creating immersive things that transport people to other ways of thinking. But maybe not. Maybe he’ll just be doing it differently—like he’s always done it.
“It’ll never, ever, ever be done,” Watts says about his work. “Sometimes you hear annoying stories of stars, like, going into painting. You know, like, really? I’ve never heard of you as a painter at all. People are like, whatever. But for some people, it’s something they’ve always done. You never knew that someone was such a great photographer, or you never knew that someone was so good at, you know, like, Jack White loves upholstery. He’s upholstering still, and that’s a thing he likes to do. He practices, and it’s a craft. So, you know, people like this generally tend to have several things going on and are known for maybe one thing. I like to be as flexible as possible so that I’m known to be able to fit into multiple situations, because I like to be included in all the various forms because I’m interested in how it works. I’m a fan of it as well. I’d like to be a part of it in that way.”