The first time Reggie Watts performed in Chicago, about five years ago, he sold 20 tickets. Chris Ritter, owner of the now-defunct Lakeshore Theater on Broadway, booked him on a tip from comedian Paul Provenza.
But faced with a nearly empty house, Watts performed on the sidewalk out front until a big enough crowd formed to put on a formal show — which, considering Watts' powerfully disorienting, nonlinear quasi-comedy, is a misnomer.
The next time Watts played Chicago, Ritter drove him around town, trying to drum up interest for the unknown comic, swinging by coffeehouses and open-mic nights. The third time, however, the weight was off, the audience certain — Watts' growing reputation within comedy circles, and online videos of his unclassifiable act, had earned him the opening-act gig on Conan O'Brien's comedy tour.
And yet, a year later, despite that hard-to-miss platform — and a chorus of influential fans who don't regard him so much as the next great comedy genius but as the first stand-up who will probably land a MacArthur "genius" grant — there's nothing certain about Watts, who returns to Chicago this weekend, Friday and Saturday at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park. Sporting a massive Afro that explodes outward like a dandelion, he is the cult-star conundrum incarnate — too smart to be ignored, too original to be a bigger star.
Then again, that also was the line on Zach Galifianakis, who also has a live act resistant to quick summary.
"It's very hard to describe Reggie's show," said comedian Eugene Mirman, a friend of Watts' who, like Watts, emerged within the New York alt-comedy scene. "Well, it's not entirely hard. A musical-comedy barrage? Perhaps? I don't know. There isn't anything like it. It's so sincere, with so many elements, all of them improvised — and yet it feels like a coherent thought. Which means, I guess, it feels like a dream."
Imprecise, but accurate.
Watts himself calls it "culture sampling," which seems closer to the truth. Onstage, he uses a keyboard and a looping machine to sample his voice, gliding from improvised songs to beat-boxing to mimicking, oh, a nonsensical technology lecture, to what sounds like a parody of observational stand-up comedy, to strands of Cockney, French and Spanish. He's like a man guided by voices, attempting to harness disparate skills.
A little background here helps make some sense. Watts is 39 and was born in Germany, an Army kid with an African-American father and French mother. He was raised in Montana, played for several years with bands, served as the composer for Louis C.K.'s "Louie" sitcom, and performed with LCD Soundsystem during its farewell shows. But probably the most important thing to know is that Watts seems intent on honoring how fragmented the world feels. Confusion is a reasonable reaction. Or, as Brian Eno, the music producer and creative polymath, wrote about Watts in the program for an Australian arts festival, "Is he a comedian? A singer? A performance artist? ... I still can't decide."
The following is an edited version of a longer chat.
Q: I heard you performed at a birthday party for Brian Eno's daughter.
A: Yeah, I did. Two of his daughters, actually. Two consecutive years, one was turning 17, one was turning 18. I met him at this conference in Maine that's like the TED Conferences (devoted to spreading and discussing ideas). There were different elements — science, culture, literature. Brian was doing this co-speak with Will Wright, the guy who created Sim City. Anyway, when I was in London we were talking and one thing led to another and he asked me to perform, and I'm like, "Hell yes, I will." Weirdly enough, the next year I happened to be in London, so I did it again. It's this massive party, with fireworks, fog machines, a DJ tent.
Q:Do you do Bar Mitzvahs?
A: I wish.
Q: So, how organized is this career?
A: Not that organized. I just put out information and adjust. It's a sonar approach.
Q: And yet, it's enviable — your eccentricity, your willingness to sample, to try whatever, is rare.
A: I definitely analyze what works and what doesn't. I'm constantly monitoring context and content.
Q: Why not settle on a single thing, an identifiable hook — do you know how hard it is to explain you?
A: I do know. But growing up I loved anything artistic. Or mechanistic. Or scientific. Over time I think I gradually saw creativity as not a one-channel thing. Like some people say, "I'm a dancer!" Or, "I'm a writer!" I just saw myself as a creative individual who used various tools. So my style came from the things I was attracted to — technology, music. I'm kind of trying to create a Navy SEAL approach — one mind, any weapon.
Q: In the long term, money buys the freedom for that kind of diversity — money and nerve.
A: Yes, absolutely, but there is a long-term strategy, a visualization my management team is working on.
Q:That's a lot of marketing speak. Doesn't using that kind of language bug you?
A: Some of it does bug me, yeah. But after a while it's about efficiency of communication, so at the end of the day I do hate when people say "content" or "viral" or whatever, but you want to be efficient, too, and if it's more efficient to say "viral" than redefine words you don't want to use, then good. But yes, I am aware of that language. I make fun of it in my act. Which is a way for me to disarm it, but I do use it in a serious way, too.
Q: You performed last year at a Google event, and kind of parodied corporate seminars. It was fascinating to watch the footage later, because you started off sounding very rational, very corporate, but also disjointed, and the employees didn't know whether to laugh, until they kind of figured out that disjointment was the act.
A: That kind of performance, the big Internet corporate speak thing, is one of my favorite things. Because that kind of speak is so utterly ridiculous. It's people just saying random things, trying to sound relevant.
Q: So much of your act centers on mimicry — are you keenly aware of the sound of your own voice?
A: I am aware of how I think it sounds. I remember when I was a kid, recording my voice — we take it for granted that we have so many devices that record our voices now — it used to be shocking to listen to yourself. You thought you knew what you sounded like because you're producing this tone inside your body, but sound vibrations translate that tone differently. I don't mind my voice now. I cringe at my grammar use.
Q: You know, nobody knows how to describe you, but my favorite stab was in New York magazine. They called you a "half man, half astral-funk Muppet," which is terrific. Plus, you really do look like a Muppet.
A: Well, I like the Muppets. How could anyone not? They're pure inspiration.
When: 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Aug. 12-13
Where: Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.
Tickets: $20-$27; 773-381-4554, maynestage.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun