Reggie Watts on stage at Yuk Yuk’s Wednesday night.
Reggie Watts was the opening act for Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.” The exposure from that gig led to New York Magazine publishing a profile of him last year, in which writer Sam Anderson speculated that “we might be witnessing the birth of Reggie Watts as a national phenomenon: Galifianakis 2010.”
It’s now a year later, and Williamsburg-based Watts’ national breakout moment still hasn’t arrived. And so on Wednesday night, as part of Jazz Fest, he played two shows at Yuk Yuk’s, on Richmond Street, to an appreciative but not-quite-sold-out room. There, in surroundings that would have been comfortable for Jerry Seinfeld (not Jerry Seinfeld the legendary comic, but Jerry Seinfeld the early-’90s sitcom character), he did his unique mix of improvisational deadpan comedy and hip-hop musical pastiche while the audience ate chicken fingers.
Here is something Watts told me the day before the show, over the phone, about his attempt to land a series on Comedy Central:
“They passed on it,” he said. “No, but that’s fine. It was kind of 60 per cent of the idea that I wanted to do. I mean, I’m never married to anything idea-wise, necessarily, because anything that I generally offer up to TV is flexible enough that I’m not gonna, you know, cry if it doesn’t get made.”
The show was going to be a variety show, with him hosting.
“It was an interesting idea, but it kind of felt like it wasn’t gonna work anyways,” he added.
“Networks are kind of like—with no means to be offensive at all—but they’re just kind of like mentally challenged. You know? It’s like someone walking with a 300-pound weight dragging behind them. They’re very handicapped in how they can make their decisions.”
10:30 PM: My decision to wear a hooded sweatshirt was a good one. Half the audience is dressed the same way. I am one of them.
10:35 PM: Watts had one of his first viral hits on College Humor, but is probably currently most famous for another video, called “Fuck Shit Stack.” It seems like he’s still drawing mainly on the audience he attracted with those efforts. Three bros behind me are having a critical discussion about Soundgarden.
10:45 PM: Watts takes the stage, and he’s wearing a hoodie, too! A Dartmouth one, over a T-shirt and suspenders. He does a long run of stream-of-consciousness almost-jokes, first in a kind of Austrian accent. Then he transitions smoothly to a Spanish one, then Jamaican, then Arnold Schwarzenegger, then different English accents: Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, T.S. Eliot.
10:46 PM: Listening to Watts is kind of like turning the dial on a shortwave radio that only picks up the thoughts of schizophrenic geniuses.
10:52 PM: Watts slips back into his normal speaking voice and tells a story that may or may not be a joke: “Twenty-two years ago, when I was sailing through Alaska, people thought that was impossible.” The crowd laughs.
11:00 PM: At last, it’s time for a song. Watts makes music by beat-boxing and using effects pedals to loop the sound of his voice into multi-track arrangements. He lays down a backbeat of grunts and glottal stops. The lyrics are the names of the days of the week, repeated with weird intonations that somehow eventually become hilarious.
11:15 PM: Watts sits down at his keyboard and starts singing a ditty about ordering fries and chicken wings—which many members of the audience are doing—before transitioning into a song in which he summarizes the plotline of The Breakfast Club in detail, as though he’d just finished watching it backstage. Then he sings about the new Transformers movie and comes up with a memorable couplet: “Fuck Michael Bay / Make Transformers go away.”
11:28 PM: He stops the set dead, takes out a smartphone, and then makes what may have been an actual phone call. He puts it on speaker. The voice on the other end is female and sounds sleepy.
11:50 PM: It’s time for another beatbox number. Watts uses his effects gear to loop a backbeat with a vocal riff that is actually, no joke, kind of haunting. He sings his heart out, with nonsensical lyrics, and does a little dance. Heads are bobbing. One guy starts adjusting his baseball cap to the music. A drunk girl, there with a date, keeps yelling out: “YEAH!”
12:05 AM: It’s curtain-call time. Watts takes the stage again and someone in the back cries out: “FUCK SHIT STACK!”
12:06 AM: “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Watts.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.