With his massive afro and sprawling beard, Reggie Watts is one of the most recognizable comedic performers today, even though his stage routine includes many masks. Watts, who appeared for several years as the mock bandleader on IFC’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, delivers a unique blend of standup comedy, musical improvisation and outrageous imitations in his live shows that transcend any specific category. At the end of the day, Watts can only perform the roles he creates for himself, which is exactly the opportunity he receives in Benjamin Dickinson’s “Creative Control.”
The black-and-white movie, which premiered in competition at the SXSW Film Festival where it won a Special Jury Award, stars Dickinson as a self-involved technology developer in a semi-futuristic setting where augmented reality glasses — think Google Glass with a more integrated design — have become a reality. In order to test their potential, the character gives the lenses to Watts, who plays himself in a series of amusingly free-ranging scenes that find the performer rambling about the existential possibilities at his disposal.
But even Watts is testing his boundaries these days, as he’s gearing up to be the bandleader for “The Late Late Show” alongside host James Corden when the comedian takes over for Craig Ferguson later this month. Shortly after watching “Creative Control” at its SXSW premiere, Watts sat down with Indiewire to discuss the diversification of his career, as well as its limitations, before dovetailing into a heady prediction of humanity’s technological future.
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How was your premiere?
Man, the premiere was awesome. I’d seen a couple clips of the movie. That was it. I was really happy with it. I was really proud to be part of a groovy movie like that. It’s very close to our world — it’s like a slightly heightened version of it.
So how did you get connected with Ben?
Ben co-directed the video for my track “Fuck Shit Stack” back in the day with Waverly Films. Then when he joined forces with [Dickinson’s production company] Ghost Robot, we did some other stuff together. He shot a film that I created — he was the DP. It’s called “Brasilia.” We just worked together a bunch and he had me in mind for the movie. It was just so much fun. This is my first true film I’ve been in. I was in a movie recently, “Keep in Touch,” where I play the part of a motivation speaker in some kind of pyramid scheme. I thought my performance was just OK. In this one, obviously, I’m playing basically myself in the future.
How much of your dialogue was written?
All my stuff was improvised. He would just tell me things to talk about, like, “Talk about consciousness,” or whatever — or something that needed to be done for the next plot point. But it was pretty much just me being me in a cool, heightened way. I’m a huge lover of technology and augmented reality is very exciting to me. I was into the movie conceptually.
But it’s not the most fawning portrait of the way technology can impact people’s lives.
No, it isn’t. I think they get it right with what will happen. If you give people more control over how they perceive reality — especially something as instantaneous and immersive as what you see here — you can expect some pretty crazy behavior, but it’s just going to magnify what already exists. It’s not creating a new problem, it’s evolving an existing problem.
When did you start thinking about these issues? In the movie, it sounds like second nature to you.
I’ve just always been interested in the implications of technology as a tool in our lives and keeping an eye on what’s being developed, what people think will be the next thing — design and interface. It’s everything from the technical interface to dreaming up an ability you could have to the implementation of it and the manufacturing of it, the marketing and distribution, the implications it has for society. So I like the entire scope of what goes into technology.
Your live performances seem very fluid and improvisatory, but at the same time, consistent with your method of exploring various linguistic constructs. How much of that do you think about as you do it?
A lot. There’s a lot of doublespeak. I’m essentially using technological and linguistic signs that are designed to convince people of things. Mimicking the cadences and the ways things are ordered, there’s something I believe in that I’m talking about. Some of it is bullshit, just meant to be ridiculous, in that people actually talk like this — like in the commercial world, or in business, people who seem to have a lot of importance — and it’s the way that they have to justify their relevance. That’s the language they use, something esoteric and above other people, so others think, “That person knows what they’re talking about.” But it’s a con game to some extent. The point is, I like using that idea of language to then instill things I believe in and think about a lot — from interpersonal relationships to technology to the future of mankind to the nature of consciousness. You can either take it or leave it.
But then you work movies and television, which require much more structure. Are there things about that you find frustrating because they limit you?
Absolutely. Completely. With this movie, it was the opposite, because Ben just let me do my thing. But I was also very attentive because I wanted to make sure he got what he needs from me. In TV, just because you’re dealing with time and you’re dealing with money — they’re interrelated — you can’t do this or that crazy thing. But I definitely get very frustrated if I’m doing one thing too long. After a while, I get bummed. I’d rather just do something that I’m feeling and allow it to run its course. So I have to keep the balance with more of my stuff that I love to do. But it’s a challenge to say the least.
For example, how did production on “Comedy Bang! Bang!” sit with you?
Well, with “Comedy Bang! Bang!” the thing that’s really hard is the hours — you know, it’s like eight to 12 hour days, which I’m just not used to doing. With the new gig, I don’t really know yet, but I’ve done other things where people are like, “Can you write your jokes in advance?” and I’m like, “I don’t want to write my jokes in advance. I’m the guy who’s going to ask my questions during the show.” I don’t like doing something and going, “OK, how am I going to do it?” — then trying to make sure I do it that way. I would rather it be a real discovery with the highest amount of authenticity possible. Sometimes you have to do things different ways depending on what you’re there for.
Sounds like the new gig is more about the musical side of your abilities.
Yeah. It’s more like I’m a bandleader, you know? The real version of what I was doing on “Comedy Bang! Bang!” But I have this great band picked out. They all get along with each other. It’s running really, really well. So far so good. And James is awesome — a very natural host who asks good questions of people.
Do you worry at all that gigs like this could prevent you from performing elsewhere?
Definitely. I think about my ability to do things in other places as being greatly reduced. Before I would find myself going to Australia, then New York for a week, then Holland or something. Just traveling around. Now it’s limited. I have weekends, so I can do stuff on weekends. It’s just something I have to get used to doing. It’s an experiment.
What won’t you do?
I try not to do things that aren’t me, who I am, that don’t speak to my strengths — improvisation — and if people don’t understand or they aren’t thinking about me as an actor, which I love doing in my own way, that can be a problem. I’ve done all sorts of things. I just hope it’s not a company that has too terrible a track record — like, I did this Bud Light commercial for the Super Bowl. I didn’t know how I felt about it. I was like, well, Bud Light…I don’t know. It’s beer. It’s really good money that can fund these other things I want to do, like this short film that I made.
In a perfect world, I would pick things I’m super into, but a lot of those companies don’t have those stupid Super Bowl things, which is only going to happen once in my life. But that one commercial can be amazing. I recognized other artists in the car I was in on set. And they were saying, “Because of this, I get to go make our film,” or whatever. Well, it’s good that this money is going to some people who are following their dreams. If that puts better art in the world, I’m OK with that.
A lot of standup comedians who take on mainstream projects lose some of their original appeal. Zach Galifianakis’ standup was pretty bizarre and experimental, but you can’t really pick up on it from his movie projects.
It’s tough. You have to continue doing your shit no matter what. But being a bandleader on a late night talk show still lets me maintain some mystery to what I am. I can exhume some of that dumb craziness, and we’re still making music and improvising — it’s just a band version of what I do live. It’s a very, very hard thing that I had to think about for a long time — what’s perception? Is it a bad association with a corporation? How bad is the corporate aspect to how I feel I’m going in my life? It was a hard one. But James is a charmer and a sweet guy. Ben Winston, his showrunner, has a great vision. So I was like, “You know what? Let’s see what happens.” What if I’m doing one thing constantly for a year or two? I don’t know what that is. And I don’t know if it will happen again.
So what else do you want to do in the meantime?
My thing is that I want to make short films and weird things, experimental stuff. We’ll be able to do that in L.A. once the show’s running and I know what it is. The hours are not demanding — they’re reasonable. I can actually sleep in.
SXSW opened with “Brand: A Second Coming,” a documentary about Russell Brand’s attempts to rebuild his career with an activist vision, and how the public struggled to deal with that. Do you ever feel like you’re trying to instigate change through perceptions of your work?
I’m hoping that with all these mirrors I’m throwing out, someone catches a reflection and says, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I’m definitely a humanist and believe that everyone can be the best possible version of themselves if they want to be, if they’re cognizant and able to be themselves — why not do that? I hope I encourage people to check out music and encourage younger people to pursue the arts and sciences. Those are the things I’m thinking about when I’m out there. I just want us to be aware that there’s always a choice to how you perceive reality. There are many ways of viewing anything and it’s not just defined by your reality. Your reality is interpreted by yourself and you have the choice to see it however you want to see it. Sometimes, that takes a lot of fucking work. Other times, it’s just a simple fortune cookie piece of wisdom. It happens all kind of ways.
This sounds like the conversation you have with Ben’s character in “Creative Control” after using a marijuana dropper to spike his drink. Do you have one of those with you now?
[Laughs] I usually do, actually, have a marijuana tinkster. But I haven’t been rocking it that much lately. It’s definitely a thing I have done. For me, it’s a symbol of buffoonery — like what a court jester does. He has influence in a really subtle way: He’s disguised as an idiot, but poses interesting questions for people that might influence them. The main thing for me is that THC encourages those experiences with destabilization, gets you to embrace chaos. It’s like a social hack. It’s free, open, there’s no control to it. It’s mostly just, “Suggestion! Suggestion! This could be something else.”
To what extent do you actually identify as something more than a comedian or performer? You’ve also been described as an anthropologist.
That’s definitely how it feels. I always call myself a culture sampler. But I’m definitely an anthropologist in the way I approach the stuff I get into. One of the reasons I did the “Late Night” show was to see how it’s run. What’s the culture like in a system like that? How does something so complex come together? Even doing “Creative Control,” that was about seeing how this small-scale independent film could bring people together and produce something really compelling. What’s Ben’s demeanor as actor and director? All that kind of stuff. I love seeing how people work together.
In the movie, you’re asked to toy around with some augmented reality glasses because the developers see you as a creative visionary able to test its capabilities. Has anyone asked you to do something like that in real life?
It’s funny, because I’m going to do this content for a virtual reality experience. I don’t know what they’re calling it now. They made an appearance in Barcelona recently. We’re doing a real version of what the movie represents, which is very odd — a new technology that requires content, but nobody knows how to use it. The reason why we’re doing that is because they want people to understand there’s more to it than just looking around the room and saying, “Whoa, this looks real!” It’s an experience you can fall into. So that’s kind of bizarre. It’s VR instead of AR, but AR’s a little way off and VR’s here.
Why do you think the Google Glass experiment hasn’t panned out yet?
It’s just ugly. It does not do anyone any favors. It doesn’t make someone look cool. It’s like, “I embrace the future of wearable technologies.” They just look dumb. No matter how beautiful the model, it still looks really shitty. The technology shouldn’t be on us anymore. Like in “Creative Control,” we tap on the desktop and the keyboard will be there. We see a screen that floats in the area. We should be able to replace our billboards with Rembrandts and walk around town. When it gets to that level, that’s going to be crazy. I’m into it. I want to see the technology work because I’m into the magic of it.
Given this kind of immersive technology at our doorstep, do you think our cultural experiences will eventually transcend the boundaries of traditional film and television? What’s the new media paradigm right around the corner?
I think about that all the time. I see a lot of TV shows but I don’t necessarily know what studios make them. I just see them on Amazon or on my Apple TV. I don’t pay attention to the studio. I only pay attention to the experience. So in a way I’m very much brand-agnostic in the way that media companies want to brand their products. That, combined with the fact that TV is merging with the internet — and it won’t exist in the way that it has in the last decade — they’re realizing that and investing in that. But if you introduce a piece of technology like virtual reality headsets, you have people produce things that make viewers think, “This is immersive, I really like this,” as opposed to sitting down and watching a screen.
We’re really going into a pretty hardcore stage of simulation within simulation. Hopefully, that leads us to shed that technology. Really, what I think is happening is that we’re generating so much connected technology, utilizing external networks to connect ourselves. But what ends up happening is that even though the population density is high in many urban areas, there’s actually more distance being created by the technology. So all the social media is a very narrow slice of the idea of connection to someone. So we have many, many narrow slices of connections with people, yet there’s more space generated between us.
At a certain point, we’ll have a mass realization, and within that realization, you’ll start to see people shedding the idea of what that is. In essence, we’re just reproducing stuff that’s inherent to us anyway. We already have a connection to one another. People come up with the same ideas on opposite sides of the planet for no reason at the same time. There’s some kind of interconnectedness that we’re trying to approximate by building it outside of ourselves. But they’re really just training wheels. We’ve always had the things we’re trying to create.