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The Mad Liberationist

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Onstage, Watts likes to make fun of observational comedy. He’ll slip into a low, drawling, American voice and say things like: “Women be crazy … Now here’s a scenario. A woman be, like, sittin’ down in the chair and shit? You know what I’m saying? And she might, like, get up at some point, you know? And walk out a door and some shit?” Long pause. “Know what I’m sayin’? That’s fucked up.”

But Watts’s own comedy is actually—in a unique way—hyperobservational. He notices things, the more trivial the better, and plays them for improbable laughs. It’s less a stand-up act than a public report on his decades-long ethnographic study of human behavior. “I like talking about mechanisms,” he told me. “Because it’s kind of absurd. It’s not trying to be noticed, it’s trying to be transparent.” He wrings a lot of humor, for instance, out of the way performers adjust their microphones. He’ll pick one up and start untwirling the cord from the mike stand, and then he’ll keep doing it for twenty seconds, exaggerating the motion until it turns into its own little dance. Or he’ll sit at a piano and, before singing, fall into an almost Chaplinesque struggle with his mike stand’s tension knobs. He recently got onstage after a string of more-traditional stand-up comedians and performed a silent set—moving his lips, mimicking the gestures and rhythms of stand-up, even pausing between silent jokes to wait for the crowd to laugh.

Compared to his topical contemporaries’, Watts’s comedy can seem purely absurd, derived from the world but not of the world. It’s like Richard Pryor with the human content surgically extracted. But Watts’s nonsense actually makes a strange kind of social sense; his incongruity is congruent with the development of American culture over the past ten years. It’s comedy for the Internet era: this infinite fracture that forces us to be fluent in a million discourses, and to speak them one on top of another. Watts parodies that, dropping us in and out of discussions already in progress, never relating or resolving them—showing us all what we’ve done to logic, and how silly it is. He treats knowledge wiki style, feeding the audience false information, as when he recently told a crowd in Seattle that the Space Needle was built in 1993. He assumes a ridiculous intimacy with audiences, talking to them as if they’ve grown up with him: “Do you guys remember when we went on that field trip … Remember when Brian got in trouble?”

Watts described his method to me as “culture sampling.” He picks templates, he says—a scientific lecture, a corporate report, hipster gossip—and then fills them out, off the top of his head, like Mad Libs. When I asked if he’d ever considered writing material in advance, he basically recoiled. “No. That would suck.” He talks about the process of improv in quasi-mystical terms, as a kind of spiritual jazz—a way to honor the world through mindfulness. All his ideas come, he says, from being alert to his environment and opening his mind to something he refers to as “the Source.”

“Improvising music has helped me a lot,” he said. “Music is very similar to comedy: It’s all about texture, timing, context, vocabulary, performance. When someone’s onstage doing a solo, essentially it’s the same thing as what a comedian does. They’re in the moment. They’re listening. The environment is giving you stuff constantly: a woman yelling something, an animal making a weird sound in the forest, a window being rolled up, static on a radio. Someone turns to you and says something in the same key as the radio. If you pay attention to the world, it’s an amazing place. If you don’t, it’s whatever you think it is.” As the world will presumably discover, now that it’s beginning to pay attention to Reggie Watts.


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