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The Mad Liberationist


Watts, in 2008, performing in Tennessee.  

For the record, Watts’s natural speaking voice is pure neutral delocated middle-class American—a little higher than I expected, a little nasal. “I think that when people seek any form of self-education,” he told me, “their accent just kind of neutralizes. It gets closer to a newscaster.” We were speaking in his manager’s office in the Village, the week before he left on the Conan tour. He wore blue-and-red-striped suspenders, a gray T-shirt that read CREATIVE CAPITAL, and black jeans rolled up at the ankles. His mustache curled up inexplicably on one side. Each of his pinkie nails was long and painted—one pink, the other black.

I asked Watts how many different accents and personae he has. He said he’s not sure; it’s an unstable crew. But he estimated that he’s spent half his life speaking in a British accent, of which he has four or five main variations. Then, without prompting, he started to demonstrate them. (Talking with Watts is like watching a mellow version of his stage show.) There was an educated Londoner (“very kind of subtle”), a thick, sludgy working-class voice (“you’re trying to understand the properties of cheese, you want to put it on your biscuits”), a hyper Cockney (“let’s go out like for a pint or wha’ever, catch some o’ them birds, y’know what I mean, we could talk forevah about these birds”). He also has what he calls “European in general,” plus deliberately terrible Irish and Australian accents, sci-fi robots, a range of feminine voices, and a whole crowd of Americans: New Jersey cabbies, effeminate southern men, his grandfather from Cleveland. “They just kind of pop into my head,” he said. “It just happens. Sometimes I’ll be channeling a voice that I heard on the subway. Some of it’s just based on types of people, lifestyles. I don’t really practice at all. I’m always riffing throughout the day, cracking jokes with friends. I kind of fall into it.”

Suddenly he started speaking like a West Coast Wiccan girl, in a voice that oozed patchouli and druid crystals. “You know like the spirit world is so crazy?” he said. “Because Gaia is like a full-being sentience? And we are the stewards of it? And Shilanqua was talking to me yesterday about the burn and our responsibilities to clean up after we’ve been in camp? And base camp was 30 feet away and Trinity was like, ‘How come you didn’t bother to come to the morning temple ritual?’ ” And on and on and on and on.

Reggie Watts’s childhood seems to have been engineered to produce a comedian exactly like Reggie Watts. He was born in Germany, in 1972, to a French mother and an African-American father. His mother spoke little English, so Watts grew up fluent in French. By age 4 he’d also lived in Spain and Italy—his dad was in the Army—which means his brain’s language centers got exposed, at a crucial period, to most of the accents of Europe. (Onstage, he’ll occasionally launch into braided streams of French, Spanish, German, and Italian.) He spent the rest of his childhood in Great Falls, Montana, a place that must have seemed exotic in its mundanity. At 5 he started studying classical piano, adding yet another language—music—to his repertoire. (He studied jazz in college, and has played with several rock bands, opening for Regina Spektor, Dave Matthews Band, and the Rolling Stones.)

Because of his childhood culture-hopping, Watts says, he grew up with anthropological tendencies. He didn’t so much inhabit the world as study it. “I always tried to find the causality of why things are the way they are,” he told me. At home he’d take his toys apart. At school he’d invent backstories to explain why bullies were so mean, or he’d drive his teachers crazy by interrogating them about why they had become teachers. He became a connoisseur of what he calls “in-between” moments—times when he was immersed in a situation but could also see it from the outside. Despite his familiarity with music, for example, he found himself looking around in wonder during school orchestra practice. “Here I am in second violin section—the conductor getting up and tapping the baton,” he said. “And all these people with horsehaired wooden sticks and strings, looking at a bunch of symbols on a piece of paper. And the bass players are tall and look like their instruments, and the cellists have long hair and look like cellists. I’m sitting there like, What is this?”

Watts always felt not of this world. “For most of my life I’ve liked to pretend I live in a starship. Punching in fake codes to get into doorways that obviously are not secure.” (He makes some sci-fi door noises: Bee do do deep. Psshhhh.) “I love that idea of living on a spaceship. Because essentially we are: a gigantic thing floating in some infinite darkness that’s running on principles that we don’t even understand.”

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