A Montana-made, self-proclaimed ‘weirdo’ is revolutionizing improv comedy
By Brian D’Ambrosio EBS CONTRIBUTOR
If John Hughes ever directed a movie in Montana, comedian and musician Reggie Watts would’ve been the star.
Now an entertainer of late night television recognition, Watts grew up and went to high school in Great Falls, an experience rich with the angst-ridden, coming-of-age plot that Hughes based his 1980s American teen movies on.
“It was like ‘Sixteen Candles’ or ‘Weird Science’ or ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ or ‘Better Off Dead,’” said Watts, who penetrated deeper into the pop realm as the Emmys DJ in the fall of 2021. “I feel lucky that those movies were around during that time. I was the exact perfect age when those things came out; I didn’t stand a chance.”
Watts said that he had no trouble finding the rich moments of insight and painful moments of irony in Hughes’ eloquent vignettes, and to this day such films resonate in self-effacing, reverent memories.
“I appreciate some of the characters, because I was definitely sort of a class clown,” Watts said. “With Great Falls, people either hate it or love it, for sure. Watts loved the northern Montana city for a lot of reasons; it’s where he grew up, where he became Reggie Watts, he said.
“While it doesn’t have an obvious artistic culture, it was the perfect time to be there in junior high and high school. Dope music. Listening to weird music on boomboxes and playing records, always riffing all the time. It was the ‘70s and ‘80s, and you didn’t need to worry about cell phones. Good, fun, outdoor activities, like the Boy Scouts. Great Falls allowed me the chance to be who I wanted to be—a weirdo—and there was no bullying, and I met a lot of other weirdos and we had a weirdo club, which did art, dreamt, did music and had free rein.”
Watts said that he overcame self-doubt and the more disorienting moments of his high school years by sampling everything, from participating in sports and band, as well as the drama team and student government, to astronomy and back lawn star-gazing, and even a little bit of modeling.
“I wanted to experience as much I could—it’s a bad habit,” he said.
Watts was born in 1972 in Stuttgart, Germany; his mother is French, and his father was a U.S. Air Force officer. Watts arrived in Great Falls at age 4, and at 18, the 1990 Great Falls High School graduate moved to Seattle and played in bands—punk rock bands, heavy metal groups, you name it—while attending the Art Institute of Seattle before landing in New York in 2004.
“It was a blast to discover being a young adult…and I lived in the classic living-in-a-band house.”
Watts’ free-wheeling personality can be seen on network television Mondays through Fridays as the bandleader on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” who took over the CBS program in 2017 from Craig Ferguson. “The Late Late Show” is filmed several afternoons per week at CBS Television City in Hollywood.
His appeal is mostly one of personality: He’s perhaps the most unrequited, unequivocal face in all of late night television. Familiarity is another part of Watt’s appeal. In a rapidly changing world, he’s something solid, something people can rely on.
Watts plays a jocular, easygoing part on the show, the equivalent to Paul Shaffer, sidekick and musical leader for the entire run of both David Letterman’s Late Night and Late shows. The secret to Watts’ success isn’t elaborate at all: he’s himself.
“James [Corden] was shown a video of mine from a friend of his,” Watts said. “They were looking for a band, a bandleader, a musician type of dude. He said, ‘let’s talk to that guy.’ We had coffee in Beverly Hills. Same thing when I went on [to open nightly] on the Conan [O’Brien] show. It was YouTube videos that did it.”
Watts maintains a busy schedule of entertaining as a musician-comedian-beatboxer, known for his sets that he says are pulled out of thin air. Using only his voice and looping peddles, he interlaces music with a monologue of extended metaphors and one-liners and chameleon-like mood shifts.
A set of Watts’ looped, layered beats resembles a tasty trip across the radio dial, a jumble of melodies and anti-melodies, with his tender, tough voice sizzling a soul-drenched, hip-hop-pop infusion. Minute by minute, he adds droll wordplay and random lyrics like a new suit of clothes; toss in a bit of free association standup comedy, a sly twinkle, and a bunch of startlingly quick and kooky observations, and you’ve got a night with Reggie.
Indeed, Watts is the first to concede that if it doesn’t sound strange than it doesn’t sound like Reggie: his brilliant, idiosyncratic, wandering-around-the-beat phrasing, his distinctive rhythm, the sideways pivots in his arrangements. None of them are developed beforehand. And all that exists are great moments told and sung straight. Indeed, the future of improvisational comedy just might be in real good hands.
“I started riffing learning classical piano at about age 11,” Watts said. “It was hard for me to learn pieces completely, so when I got frustrated with it I’d just riff and improvise. Creating my own pieces in piano class, I became interested in just riffing.”
He almost always adds a gig or two in Montana to his performance load, and he returns to Great Falls frequently to visit his mother, a tough-minded place that still supplies him with plenty of grit, affection, and emotional oomph.
“Great Falls is blue-collar and gritty and rock-and-roll, and I dig it,” Watts said. “Great Falls is a simplistic stereotype, and I keep it to the people who can appreciate it for what it is. It was a fun, open place for me to develop my imagination. I did my thing there and eventually it worked out.”
Reggie Watts performs at The ELM, Saturday, December 18, 2021.