A great Reggie Watts moment came during his live Central Park special, when his patter was suddenly interrupted by “sounds” of the mike breaking up.
Watts made the sounds himself, which morphed into a beat, which he immediately put on a loop to back a song he created on the spot about riding a bike with a chocolate bar in his pocket.
“Sometimes I’ll do a gig, and after I did the show, I go, ‘Wow, there was a lot of random sh-- in there, I hope it wasn’t too weird,’” the wild-haired Watts says. “But people seem to like it.”
People always question the spontaneity of improvisation. Watts insists he is always in the moment.
“It’s completely up in the air. It depends on the moment, and what I’ve been seeing or what I’ve overheard throughout the day or whatever,” says the almost-indefinable musician/comic, who plays Toronto’s Great Hall Friday as part of the North by Northeast festival’s comedy program.
He admits he’s kind of an anomaly among comics. “There are people out there who riff free-style mixed with stuff they’ve written. But I don’t know too many that just 100% go for it?”
A hundred per cent? “Okay, I would say 98%,” he says with a laugh.
Showbiz abhors spontaneity. After all, time is money, and scripted comedy is on time. But there is interest in the TV world in his lightning-in-a-bottle approach. He’s a one-man bandleader on Comedy Bang! Bang!, the surreal podcast-talkshow-turned-IFC-TV-series. And he’s part of the YouTube comedy channel Jash, co-created by Sarah Silverman, Tim & Eric and Michael Cera.
In a Canadian connection, he found a natural home for his prankster streak with the Yes Men (of the doc Yes Men Fix the World). In their doc, the political punkers addressed a Calgary oil conference under false pretenses. One of their pitches: a new fuel made from human remains. Watts portrayed on video a cancer-ridden Exxon janitor who was proud to be donating his body to a cleaner-energy future.
“Basically, I work well with people who are willing to go to a great deal of trouble for something really stupid,” Watts says.
A student of jazz, the Montana-born Watts became part of the Seattle scene with the R&B/hip-hop group Maktub. The band appeared constantly on the verge of breaking big.
But Watts, who’d been taking part in sketch comedy on the side, decided to go solo. “It was really just about doing something I really loved that had less baggage associated with it. In a band, things can get really complicated. You don’t know how it’s going to make money. It was a time where I had to make a decision and decided to go solo. And I happened to be in the right place at the right time for comedy to happen.”
Meanwhile, his management fields calls from Hollywood. He recently agreed to do a sitcom pilot called Bad Advice From My Brother (in which he played, yes, the weird neighbour). It never made it to series. So did he dodge a bullet – seven years of doing something scripted?
“They were really cool about it,” he says. “It would have been a reoccurring role, I could be in it as much as I want to. And I could improvise.”