Of all the challenges Conan O’Brien faces on his nationwide “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour (translating his talk-show aesthetic into a live comedy performance; avoiding coming off as a sore loser), the biggest challenge might be self-inflicted: having to step onstage every night in the wake of his opening act, Reggie Watts. Watts, a star of New York’s alt-comedy scene, is the kind of comedian who tends to close shows. His sets are loud, disorienting bouts of improvised anti-comedy. He is, in many ways, the opposite of O’Brien, as both a performer and a being. O’Brien is gangly and pale; Watts is chubby and dark. O’Brien has an ironic post–Tonight Show beard and that signature little flip of orange hair; Watts has a huge asymmetrical Afro that blends into a beard as thick and dark as good-quality garden loam. O’Brien approaches comedy, famously, as a writer, spending hours preparing each moment onstage. Watts improvises his act so thoroughly that, if a hard-core fan were ever to request a favorite old bit, Watts would probably have no idea what he was talking about. Over the past seventeen years, Conan has established himself as one of America’s most stable comic voices. Watts builds his comedy out of radical instability: He switches so fluidly among different accents and personae (soprano, baritone, Californian, Cockney) that it’s hard to tell what the real person even sounds like. Conan, in other words, is a recognizable type of comedian: a subspecies of the genus Letterman. Watts is like a character Conan might have invented—half-man, half-astral-funk Muppet.
Their partnership, however, is neatly symbiotic. Watts lends Conan underground credibility while Conan gives Watts national exposure—he’s probably the highest-profile opening act in the country right now. And it seems to be working out. Through its first month and a half, Conan’s tour has drawn rave reviews, and Watts has inspired thousands of delightedly surprised testimonials on YouTube and Twitter. He embodies the paradox of the cult star: a charismatic, powerfully original performer who probably deserves to be super-famous but whose originality disqualifies him from all the usual channels of super-fame. A fellow comedian recently called him “Black Galifianakis,” mainly because of his beard, but the affinity goes deeper. Zach Galifianakis was also an anti-comedian revered among Brooklynites before he broke out nationally as a star of The Hangover and a host of Saturday Night Live. As the Conan tour nears its end (it hits Radio City Music Hall this week and finishes June 14 in Atlanta), we might be witnessing the birth of Reggie Watts as a national phenomenon: Galifianakis 2010.
I first saw Watts perform last March at MoMA—an unusual comedy venue, but appropriate for someone who pushes so hard against the traditional limits of the form. He was headlining a variety show in one of the museum’s small subterranean theaters, and his twenty-minute set contained as much variety as the rest of the acts combined. Its opening was unpromising: Watts walked onstage in a tight red T-shirt and suspenders and started bumbling, in a refined British accent that I took to be his natural speaking voice, through some awkward small talk. “We’ve come quite a bit of the way here already,” he said, “and we’re just getting started.” He paused. “It’s one of those years, you know? And, uh, I think a lot of us can feel—and agree—to most everything that we’re here, within ourselves, this evening … ” It took a few sentences to figure out that this aimlessness was, in fact, the performance itself. He was building, phrase by phrase, a structure of deliberately failed logic, with each piece related just enough to follow the last but not quite enough to make sense with the whole. It was gourmet word salad—a brilliantly sustained comedy filibuster. Gradually the crowd adjusted, and Watts’s pauses filled with increasing laughter. “We, more than any other time,” he continued, “and I mean this when I say this—more than any other time, we’ve been here, right now. You know?” He spoke, haltingly, about polycarbonates and the landfill system, cited fake authorities (“French and Saunders once said … ”), referred to the MoMA as the Whitney, and snuck in, out of nowhere, a near-perfect impression of Bill Cosby. Occasionally, with a straight face, he’d substitute a bizarre series of noises for a word, or his voice would cut in and out while his mouth kept moving, so it looked like the microphone was malfunctioning. It was like a seminar on public speaking gone wrong. Soon the crowd had fully acclimated, and Watts was officially killing.
The absurd monologuing was an act in itself, and most comedians would have stopped there. But Watts took things to another level. Several times during the set he broke into music—creating songs, layer by layer, using only his voice and a little machine called a loop pedal. He beat-boxed, hummed, clicked, sang, and rapped; he mixed rock, hip-hop, techno, opera, Broadway, church hymns, and soul. The nonsensical talking blended into the music, and the music blended back into the talking, with no connective thread other than that it all seemed to be emanating from the mouth hole at the approximate center of Watts’s wild halo of hair. He looked, at times, like someone suffering a seizure from an overflow of incompatible talents. By the end of his set, he was doing whatever is better than killing—double-homiciding, mass-murdering.