Reggie Watts' story is much like that of any other comic: He was a class clown, always goofing off and playing jokes on everybody, much to the consternation of his teachers.
But during his youth in Great Falls, Mont., he also was in the school orchestra and starred in school drama productions. He wrote his first play when he was in the fourth grade, working his potential producers perfectly..
"I wrote an anti-drug play because I knew if I made it anti-drug, they'd (teachers) let me do it," says Watts, who played a police officer in the show. "I just wanted to be on stage, so the play was just an excuse to perform before an audience."
These days, the 39-year-old Watts' dream of combining his comedic side with his other interests into a career has come true as he performs frequently on television, in film and on stages around the world in solo performances as a musical comedic performance artist.
"I'm a big fan of the arts and I like doing it all," Watts says. "I don't have a favorite (art form) in terms of what I do, but music is what I started with and at the end of the day, music keeps me going."
In his trademark large afro and thick beard, Watts will bring his eccentric and thought-provoking improvisational comedy to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington Aug. 23 through 26.
Watts mixes music in with his monologues, making instrumental sounds with his voice, scatting and singing over his own looped recorded songs. In addition to his freestyle musical numbers, Watts has mastered several accents that he uses in characters that range from a British gent to a young nerd to a slang-talking kid from the 'hood.
No two Reggie Watts shows are the same, because they are unrehearsed and unscripted. He says he never knows exactly where he'll go with a performance until he's on stage.
Asked if he's thought about the topics he will explore in his upcoming Woolly Mammoth performance, he says, "I'm just going to show up, go for it and see where it goes. I'll be curious to find out myself."
His skillful blend of music and comedy performances drew the attention of talk-show host and comedian Conan O'Brien, who took Watts as the opening act on his "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour" last year.
The big break came as a big surprise.
"I didn't ask for it, I didn't lobby for it, I'd never been on his show, so it was like a dream," Watts says. "It was a rock and roll bus tour. I loved it."
Watts, whose full name is Reginald Lucien Frank Roger Watts, was born in Germany to an African-American father and French mother. Although he's never met her, he's the second cousin of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. His father was in the U.S. Air Force and the family lived in several places before settling down in Montana. When he was only 5 years old, Watts was a big fan of singer and pianist Ray Charles, and at that early age, began taking piano lessons. He later added the violin to his studies.
As a high school student, Watts combined his love of music and being on stage with his sense of humor and entered statewide drama competitions in Montana. He said he mixed music with his dramatic performances then, influenced by Monty Python, among others.
"What I did then is what I do now, minus the loop pedal. I came in third when I was in the 10th grade in the state competition, and the next year I did improv humor with a friend and won the state," Watts recalls. "When I was in high school, I also did comedy in hotels in Great Falls, toured around town and won stand-up comedy competitions."
When he graduated from high school, Watts studied for a time at the Art Institute of Seattle and later jazz at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts. He played with several bands while living in Seattle. In 1999, he performed with the fusion soul, rock, jazz and hip-hop group Maktub, and recorded five albums with the group over an eight-year period.
"In 2003, I decided to go back to comedy because I like the freedom of comedy. With comedy, it's just me on stage, I'm responsible with what happens and I'm in control," Watts says. "I moved to New York in the East Village, hooked up with other comedians there and I did comedy (as an opening act) before a lot of shows. People reacted favorably and the gigs snowballed. I said to myself, 'Maybe I can make a living doing this.' "
Thanks to the Internet and the O'Brien tour gig, Watts is in big demand these days and has done solo performances in Paris, London, Canada, Sydney, Madrid, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Reykjavic, Cape Town and across the United States. He also has performed with other musicians in recent years, including the punk band LCD Soundsystem for their final farewell show atMadison Square Garden.
In addition to appearing on O'Brien's new show, "Conan," Watts has performed on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," appeared in an HBO series and on other cable programs. Also, Watts, who has a strong voice that can sound like jazz, blues or R&B one minute and reggae and country the next, had a stint as the Music Man on PBS' "The Electric Company."
"I performed short videos and did songs about letters for cartoons of the character in chunks of time over a few months. It was awesome," he said. "I loved the original 'Electric Company' and it was great to be part of it. Plus, I was still improvising when I did it."