‘The industry is predictable – there’s a lot of control’: Reggie Watts is TV’s latest crackpot | Reggie Watts

Iif it hadn’t been for “the slap in the face heard around the world,” this awards season would have been remembered as the year of the late-night bandleader. First, The Tonight Show’s Questlove won the Best Documentary Oscar for his directorial debut, Summer of Soul. A week later, Jon Batiste of The Late Show cleaned up the Grammys – winning, among other things, album of the year for his fifth studio album, We Are.

Where’s the love for The Late Late Show bandleader Reggie Watts? “I mean, I haven’t produced anything,” he jokes, “so it’s not that shocking.”

Over the past decade, the role of bandleader has been essential for late-night talk shows, a place where they can project inclusivity without having to cut out the middle-aged white male host – “three of them are different versions of the name Jimmy,” Watts rightly notes. But even so, it was a bold move for CBS to pair host James Corden with Watts — the 50-year-old Air Force brat born in Stuttgart and raised in Montana with the leonine mane. A man who describes himself without irony as a sonic “disinformationist”, surprising his audience with sound.

Where the other two prominent late-night music makers are at least firmly embedded – Batiste, a 35-year-old crossover R&B crooner; and Questlove, the hyper-erudite 51-year-old drummer from esteemed rap group The Roots – Watts is here, man. He is both a master of the synth, an improvisational comic – a whole art of performance. Among other things, he builds tracks on the fly with a synthesizer, loop pedal, reverb pedal, and prolific beatboxing skills. Non-sequences and fun accents are must-have basics, which amaze the mainstream reaction. Throughout, Watts remains fiercely engaged and deadpan in his performances. He is adorably sui generis – a beautiful weirdo. Like something out of an Alice Walker novel – which, by the way, is Watts’ second cousin (although they never met).

Reggie Watts, right, with James Corden, who has announced he will be leaving The Late Late Show next year. Photography: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

For decades, the late-night bandleader was the ultimate facilitator, the phantom host who helped break the uncomfortable silences between show segments. Jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen headlined the NBC Orchestra which performed with Johnny Carson. Paul Shaffer, a most ironic and colorful keyboard player, was even more aware of David Letterman’s jokes. Jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks was Jay Leno’s eternal laugh track.

And despite their debauched talents and vital responsibilities, none of these legendary bandleaders approached anything approaching the weight of their hosts because, well, that was the deal. They could either string together gigs in pursuit of wider fame and fortune, knowing full well that it may never come. Or they could swallow their pride and resume pop hits and TV theme songs in exchange for regular hours, an absurdly high salary, and plenty of free time to pursue other interests. But aside from Max Weinberg, who saved time for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band when he wasn’t peddling off-the-wall jokes with Conan O’Brien, bandleaders didn’t really have their breaks and played in and out too. .

The critical triumphs of Questlove and Batiste appear to mark a new frontier for late-night bandleaders. “When you have two men of color who are really talented and hard working, ultimately the industry is like, yeah, let’s just give them the price. Because it’s like we need that kind of representation. The work is really great. It is obvious. But Watts says it’s a shame they had to jump through so many hoops to get there. “The industry is kind of predictable in a lot of ways,” he says. “If someone like [Questlove or Batiste] has a good idea, it is more likely to be recognized. It’s absolutely no disrespect to their business, but there’s a lot of control. Lots of amazing things that are as good as these things probably exist, but they just aren’t in the mix.

Surely no one who had followed Watts when he was playing in Seattle in the late 90s with his prog rock band, Maktub, or who experimented with synth pop humor on improv comedy stages would have foreshadowed him. as a spiritual successor to Shaffer, Letterman’s longtime funky sidekick. Watts seemed to have too much fun doing College Humor skits like the 2007 viral hit What About Blowjobs?, Harmonizing Phonics on the PBS Kids program The Electric Company, and touring with O’Brien when Leno’s successor was banned from appearing. on television in 2010.

Questlove on drums
Questlove performs on The Tonight Show in January. Photography: NBC Photo Bank/NBCU/Getty Images
keyboard shake
Paul Shaffer in Late Night with David Letterman in 1989. Photography: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Just before shooting with O’Brien, in 2009, Watts became a regular on the popular improv podcast Comedy Bang! Slam!. When the show was turned into a scripted television series about a subversive late-night talk show in 2012, Watts was cast as bandleader and sidekick to creator-host Scott Aukerman. As well as providing his usual brand of musical accompaniment atop the dome, Watts jammed with guests and animated the show’s delightfully eccentric sketches.

Truly, the TV series was a deconstruction of the tired late-night formula. Yet Watts never thought it would actually lead to direct employment. (“I was just kinda okay with everything they had,” he says.) But in 2015, Watts left for The Late Late Show, handing over his role as a satirical bandleader to the parodist of GOAT “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Now in her seventh year on The Late Late Show, Watts hasn’t compromised her fringe comedy sensibilities to keep her job at CBS. He’s still playing with guests, swapping bodies with Corden, and bringing up offbeat tracks. But his lasting impression was on the show’s band. It not only features an eclectic mix of performers (bassist Hagar Ben Ari, drummer Guillermo E Brown), but also masterful improvisers like Watts. “I didn’t want the band and myself as a bandleader to follow in the footsteps of all the other bands – people wearing costumes, having a horn section, accompanying the solo artist,” he says. . “I wanted it to be a rock band and not an anti-late night band, but more of a Muppet type band.”

Watts didn’t want to work hard either. So he created a band that can make music in the moment. “The band shows up, plays seven seconds or maybe even less than that on some of the commercial break bumps, and everything we do is improvised,” he says.

In addition to avoiding the need for time-consuming rehearsals, the improvisational format allowed the band to build a library of 4,000 songs and profit from performing them. “We get equal posting. It makes everything super easy and non-competitive.

Stephen Colbert and Jon Batiste sing together
Stephen Colbert and Jon Batiste on set in February. Photography: CBS Photo Archive/CBS/Getty Images

If anything has changed in Watt’s role as conductor, it’s that he has more leeway to get serious. Corden – who has announced plans to leave The Late Late Show next year – regularly makes room for Watts to ask a guest a question or two, which helps them not oversell any show. television or movie they are there to promote. (“We’ve heard that a million times,” he says.)

After the murder of George Floyd, Watts and Corden weren’t shy about ditching jokes altogether for frankly honest conversation, with Watts breaking down when recalling the discrimination he faced growing up in the Midwest. “Entertainment shows are great,” he says. “Part of their function is to keep people in a groovier mood and lighten up their day a bit. But just as important is being able to have heartfelt moments and hear from guests, their views on certain issues.

“And not in an evangelical or classic way like, Here’s a star talking about a children’s hospital that she supports or whatever. I’m just talking about regular, heartfelt things that [viewers] might not hear of otherwise. Little things that unite us all as human beings. I like to think there is an age of sincerity. That’s what I want. I love when our show has those moments.

You’d think a daily spot on network TV would have provided Watts with his pick of opportunities for more meaningful connection through humor. But aside from a one-time hire as DJ for the 2021 Emmys, top studio execs are still unsure what to make of Watts — who’s even struggling to get his comedy specials produced. “I had a really cool idea and the support of Bad Robot [JJ Abrams’s production company],” he says. “They were going to meetings with me. We went to everyone and nobody was biting. A lot of the projects I do are centered on me, none of them were done at exception of three comedy specials.

That’s not to say Watts is expecting a handout. He did a lot of work on his own. Brasilia, Watts’ short about an invented future city that sends an Arnold Schwarznegger wooden travelogue from the 70s that’s almost too good to be true – is an absurdly trippy treat.

“I think sometimes my ideas are a little too much…I don’t know what it’s all about,” Watts says, of his lack of connection to Hollywood C-suiters. “Maybe it’s Generation X in me. Maybe because I like to stay as grounded as possible in the underground and the counterculture. Not having a lot of success in that way makes me maybe allows me to keep my feet on the ground and bring me closer to this area, which is very important for my identity. Who knows. Maybe at some point someone will say, ‘OK, let’s try this kind.’ »

Comments are closed.