Reggie Watts! What? Exactly!
Reggie Watts! What? Exactly!
By Eugene S. Robinson
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because funny sounds like a pretty fun job to have.
By Eugene S. Robinson
If you have to be an “accidental” something, much better to be an accidental comedian than an accidental homicide, and so it is that the German-born Reggie Watts, a musician by “trade,” ended up figuring out that getting people to laugh at his songs was a whole hell of a lot easier than getting them to listen to them. When he stopped by The Carlos Watson Show, we were all ears. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.
Straight Outta Montana
Carlos Watson: So now Montana is one of the few states I haven’t been to. What was it like in general? And then obviously, being Black in Montana — what was that like?
Reggie Watts: Yeah, it was weird. We moved there in 1976, and my dad obviously dealt with racism in all its presentations being in Vietnam and coming from Cleveland and Shaker Heights. So being in the Army, with transferring to the Air Force. Yeah. But when we came to Montana, I mean, obviously he chose my mom, who’s white and French, and met her in the north of France, at a bar called the Charlie Bar — and his name is Charles Watts. Which I thought was pretty great.
Watson: Must’ve been a good pickup line. Welcome to my place. I’m Rick, welcome to Rick’s. I love that.
Watts: Yeah. “I’m Jim Charles, but some people call me Charlie.” Wink, wink. “I still don’t get it.” Yeah. So he dealt with it a bit in Europe. Europe wasn’t as bad as the United States . . . just because of more integration with African culture. So, he’d experienced the European version of that with my mom and then dealing with it in other ways when they moved to different places.
But then when we made our final move in 1976 to Montana, there was definitely . . . My mom’s very protective over the way people treat my dad or myself, and so she was very fierce and got into people’s faces a lot. She just kind of noticed that there were people like him just not communicating with him. They didn’t know how to talk to him and he was a war vet, went to Vietnam twice. So he was already kind of a quiet guy, and so it was a little bit tough I think for him, but he figured out a way.
I mean, I remember him being in good spirits and we had friends over, other Air Force buddies and stuff like that. I think we integrated pretty well. I definitely had a couple of bouts of racism, just neighbors telling me to get off their property and calling me the N-word and stuff like that.
But when my mom heard about it, she called the police and the police came over, and they had to come across the street and apologize to me and it was like, “Wow, Montana’s supposed to be kind of like Mississippi or something like that or Alabama” . . . is I think the perception. But at least when I was growing up, and because of my mom being white obviously, I think people around there were like, “Oh, she just stood her ground and she just let us know how she feels; therefore, we’re not going to mess with these people anymore.” Then I just became a very likable kid and all the kids liked me and their parents thought I was fine. So, I don’t know.
It was weird. I liked being different, but I just made friends with people and that usually saved me a lot of hassle.
She still to this day, she’s still that same person. If she feels that someone’s being disrespectful or anything. She will speak up immediately. It’s insane sometimes, I get like, “Please don’t.” I’m trying to mitigate someone offending her by like, “Oh, we’ll . . .” I’m the guy trying to calmly disarm the situation before it gets worse.
But I remember the guys used to spit on her because she was dating my dad or whatever. . . . They would call her a nigger-lover or whatever. But then she would just get up in their face and basically threaten to physically harm them. She’s just kind of like a thug.
My whole family [really]: My dad’s dad ran the numbers in Cleveland and died from two lovers finding him. The two lovers that he was cheating on my grandma with killed him. My whole family, whether it’s that, my dad’s dad running the numbers. Then my mom coming from France and coming from the north of France that got German occupation and then her aunt going to Auschwitz and getting moved around to five different concentration camps.
Then most of the family is military police. Then my dad was in the military. There’s just a lot of our living, survivalist stuff going on that, maybe, I think I’m pretty thankful for inheriting. I can be a happy-go-lucky guy that wants to make friends with people, but coming from that, it’s like, wow.
Music vs. Comedy: Discuss
Watson: How obvious was it that you were going to do comedy? If I had talked to your parents when you were in junior high, high school, were they, “Here’s what young Reggie’s going to do”?
Watts: I think they wanted me to get an education. They wanted me to find something to better myself, for sure. But nothing specific. I think when I was pretty young, I showed musical inclination. Both my parents loved music, and my dad loved jazz and soul, and my mom loved soul and some European folk music and stuff like that. But I grew up listening to a lot of great music, and my dad was a cool dude and my mom was pretty hip. They both love fashion and they love . . . that ’60s kind of . . . jet set, martinis, and gin and tonics. Whatever that whole thing.
I think they just wanted to make sure that I grew up in a situation where I got to exercise whatever my curiosities were and they really supported it. My mom noticed I was playing on piano, toy pianos a lot. Then when we got to Great Falls, Montana, she was like, “Oh, well, are you interested in piano lessons?”
I was like, “Yeah, I’d love that.”
Watson: Did you go to college, or did you have enough confidence to try and make it as a performer right out of the gate?
Watts: I tried out for American Musical and Dramatic Academy. I tried out for that in Chicago, ’cause I did drama in high school, competitive drama. I did three years of that and I felt like, “Oh, yeah, I could get into drama, into comedy.” I also did a stand-up comedy competition at a Sheraton Hotel. I won it and I won the money prize. Then I got two gigs in state. I went to two small towns to do stand-up comedy with a thin group of comedians. So there were indicators of things I wanted to do, a direction, but I wasn’t totally, totally sure.
I didn’t get into AMDA ’cause I improvised my audition monologue. So I went to the Art Institute of Seattle. I decided to go to Seattle and yeah, I started doing music production and then kind of fell off from there.
Watson: But it’s a miracle that you get to do what you love. You get paid for it. Why did you break through?
Watts: Yeah. I mean, it’s a funny thing. I think it’s somewhere between, I don’t want to say luck, but . . . I’ve had the good fortune of having a lot of good times in my life. I feel I was born at just the right time. It’s 1970, early ’70s. I got to grow up with the advent of the home computer, the advent of, I mean you had a leftover from Soul Train and American Bandstand music shows on TV, on prime-time TV that people were just watching people dance and stuff. Then disco and then the post-punk movement and MTV and the whole John Hughes phenomenon.
It was a crazy time to grow up and then no cellphones and no interconnected technology and video games. Everything, the curve was perfect for me to have a ton of early developmental space without a lot of distraction and people-based human stuff and mixed with the right amount of media influence coming in that inspired me.
Then you move on to me being a mixed-race kid having kind of like, “Am I Black? Am I white? Am I Black? Is he Black? Oh, white.” That kind of weird thing. Then growing up in a mostly white upbringing, aside from visiting my dad’s side of the family during summers. You take all of that and you then move it into Seattle in the ’90s, which was just before the grunge explosion hits.
Then I was in music there, and comedy kind of was a little bit lesser of what I was doing. Then in the mid-’90s, meeting some kids. Then the second generation, doing sketch comedy and then second generation of comedy kind of happening from Janeane Garofalo and all those people and me going, “Oh, weirdos, that reminds me of what I was doing in high school,” I think, and then me just kind of being someone who, I like making friends. I like being an important member of whatever project I’m in, but I was also in a gazillion bands; I’d be in four or five bands simultaneously. Always wanting to be where something is happening. Then also having these weird instincts of moving to cities at the right time to have these opportunities.
It was a good balance of, and it still continues to be the case where I’m like, “Oh, it’d be really cool . . . It’d be really cool to do something on TV sometime.”
“Hey, Reggie, I got this great deal for you to want to be on TV.” “Oh, well, that’s crazy. You know, it’d be really cool. It’d be cool to tour with a badass community.” “Oh. Oh, Conan. We left The Tonight Show.” “Oh, he’s got a tour?” “Oh, that’s cool.”
That stuff just started to snowball and kind of repeat how high school was for me, where I felt I was a different kid and people knew who I was because I did so much. I love doing what I do. I had enough talent that people were like, “Ah, I like what this guy’s doing.” It’s a long answer. Sorry.
Which Way’s the North Star?
Watson: Who do you admire as either a leader in the arts or a leader outside of the arts, when you talk about wanting to use your platform for good, making good decisions?
Watts: I mean, I really like James Brown. I think . . . I was trying to run down a list with some friends the other day about people who have the same kind of effect that James Brown would have had, or Tina Turner would have had, or especially Stevie Wonder would have had. I think Stevie Wonder also is someone where, he’s not necessarily outwardly vocally ambassadorial. But he definitely, I mean, he has interviews where he’s supported obviously civil rights, and he’s commented on these things that were the plight of where he came from. But I don’t really think of Stevie Wonder as like an activist in the outright sense. . . . He is an activist through his music. Which to me is almost more powerful.
When I saw him finally live at Bonnaroo many, many years ago, I remember just scanning the audience and everybody, I mean, everybody —white bikers, all kinds of different, various forms of white folks, different forms of brown folks, different forms of Black folks, men, women, queer, straight — they were all there singing their songs together.
I just got a little emotional because I’m like, “What other artists do we have right now, he’s kind of the last that hit us on a multigenerational level and also just crossed over all the lines and was beloved by so many people because the music was undeniable and his talent was undeniable.”
That, to me, is someone I look up to, even though it’s really his music that does all the heavy lifting, I think. That’s really beautiful. For me, Conan is, who I always call, a good king. He’s the king of his universe and you don’t see him traveling around with a bodyguard.
You see him walk into work like a normal person. He gets out of his car and he walks through the studio parking lot, just like anybody else does. He’s walking down the street people are like, “Hey, Conan.” He’s like, “Oh, hey, what’s up?” He’s really grounded. He has a lot of love for people. Anyways, that’s like a person that I kind of emulate who has power and who’s using it in a way that seems to be at the very least giving energy to people.