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Reggie Watts Works for Weirdo High School Kids Everywhere

The virtuoso comedian-cum-actor-cum-musician-cum-bandleader opens up about his desire to help shape the future of technology and the world we live in.

by Sam Fragoso
04 February 2016, 12:00am

Reggie Watts in 'Waves.' Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Every weeknight, at the oddly specific hour of 12:37 AM EST, Reggie Watts can be found on The Late Late Show with James Corden. And on most evenings, Watts, who serves as the program's bandleader, is given the brief opportunity to pose one question to Corden's guests, most of whom are unassuming celebrities eager to promote their latest project. To break through the banality of late-night chatter, Watts routinely constructs spiritual and existential inquiries. In one of his segments—now lovingly labeled "Reggie's Question"—Watts asks Jeff Goldblum about the ineffability of sensuality. On another night, he asks Susan Sarandon about the existence of vampires. No matter the response offered up, Reggie cordially responds, "That's correct."

The multi-talented Watts was at Sundance recently to present Waves, a virtual-reality narrative about a man who does VR in VR. The project is part of the festival's New Frontier program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month. In the meta excursion, directed by Benjamin Dickinson, Watts brings along his familiar comedic touches (philosophical musings, probing insights into humanity, generally uproarious non-sequiturs). The plot, if we're even to call it that, presents a man plunging into the digital ether, dazed and confused while also joining a cult.

During a wide-ranging conversation with Watts over dinner, we spoke about the future of VR entertainment, his sincere desire to join a think tank, and what it's like to go on a road trip in a Tesla.

VICE: You've managed to build a career by doing pretty much everything.
Reggie Watts: I like to follow my creative instincts and just create a good dialogue with my intuition, and do what it takes to get out of the way of that as much as possible. I'm pretty flexible with how something gets made. I don't really fixate on it not being exactly the way I need to because, for me, it's more important to just get something out rather than be disappointed by a technological glitch or someone not being available for a project. I have a certain amount of a window where I'll try to make it happen as I see it, but if it doesn't, I'll keep moving. It's about fine tuning and honing a production technique, essentially. I want to make things, but I want to make them quickly and well.

That's hard to do, no?
It's really hard to do, because you're trying to close the gap between the idea and the actualization of that idea, and it gets more complicated with different mediums. If it's film, it just requires a lot of people. Even if it's a small-scale film, you're dealing with five, six people, so it's a lot to orchestrate. It's really about creating a production process that erases the middle ground of, "Oh, I have an idea," and "Oh, we made it."

It seems like you're just this ball of creativity where ideas are constantly coming from.
Yeah, it feels that way. I try to be inspired by the smallest and the largest stuff.

Does that ever get overwhelming?
I think it's only overwhelming if I have a lot of ideas and they're not getting made. If I'm not getting to make stuff semi-regularly, I start to get bummed because it starts to back up.

When was the last time that happened to you?
I mean, kind of now a little bit, because I do The Late Late Show, but it's just real-time performance and it's not really making anything, necessarily. I mean there are bits we do that you can view online later, but that's me in the show, and it's not my project.

Are you happy with the show?
I think that they write stuff that's in my voice, and they let me improvise within the structure, which is great, and I definitely have fun doing it. But it's not the deeply enriching, philosophical, "Oh, this is the idea I want to make and I'm not sure if people will like it, and it's experimental, but I want to make it" type of work.

What's the next project that's going to fulfill that?
I'm on the verge. I'm doing a comedy special with possibly Netflix, so that'll be a weird thing, and it'll be something I'm gonna make and stand behind. And I'm working on an album, a solo album this year.

What's your approach in the studio? Is it all improvisational?
I write in real-time. I'll just show up at the studio and we'll write there. I don't like wasting my time contemplating and thinking about things over and over. Not to belittle anybody's process—because obviously their process is their process—but my process is I like to show up and do stuff and I like it to be as quick as possible.

Is that because you need constant (and different) stimulation, or you just don't have a lot of patience?
I think it's just about staleness. I want the maximum freshness of a creative idea. I don't want to think of something, and then all of a sudden have it dragged through all these bureaucratic creative decisions.

And where does comedy fit into all of this?
Well, I love comedy—I always have—and I can't not be a joker. I was always fucking around. I was the class clown.

What age did that start?
Hmm, I don't know. It's kind of all additive. You keep doing it and suddenly someone's like, "Do you wanna do that at this thing?" And someone else sees you. I can't really point to anything that started it. It just grew out of being a kid and loving what I loved. I didn't think too much about my career, I just went with what I could do.

That seems to be a trend in success: people just doing what they loved, then recognition—if they have talent—inevitably follows.
You just live your life and do what you do, and you run into all these different people throughout your life, and you find community, and you make friends and you play shows, and you talk about shit, and it all just feeds off of one another. Before you know it, your friend is like, "I'm booking this festival," and you're like, "Oh, that's crazy," and they're like, "Can you play it?" If you have talent, community, and some modesty, everything works out.

Whatever happened with you and Comedy Bang Bang?
Well I was doing it, and I guess it was the fourth season, and basically I just didn't like getting up early to film. Even though it was only like two or three months of filming a year, getting up at 6:30 AM, I just couldn't do it. And it was like 12-hour days, and I didn't think the production was that efficient, and that bothered me. I loved everybody working on it, and I love Scott, but it really started to make me bummed out, and then I started being grumpy.

Did you end up viewing the job as a hindrance?
After a while it is, because it's not my project. I'm capable of generating my own stuff, and if I'm not doing that for a while, it really starts to bum me out.

Do you ever worry that you're falling into that same cycle again?
Well, a little with The Late Late Show, but it's not a huge demand on my time. It's only like four hours every day, or Monday through Thursday at least. It's manageable. I just have to push myself a little bit and put my nose to the grindstone.

To me, it's a transition. I can take advantage of the access I have of the Hollywood talent that comes through there. I know like almost 30 percent of the guests that go through there, we'd run into each other through some capacity or another. I think it's an interesting place to be because you're very visible, and it's on network television, which has a certain thing to it, it adds a little value.

Seems like a good deal.
It is. Ben, the showrunner, is a great guy. Rob Crabb's a great guy. I mean, everybody involved in it—my band, they're really awesome. There's nothing I can really complain about. The only thing I can say is that I've got plans to do bigger things. I want to be part of think tanks, work on user-interface design, work on surround sound.

I'm familiar with those terms, but what exactly are you talking about?
User interface meaning how you interact with technology. It should be something that's intuitive, not esoteric and has a steep learning curve. I also have a lot of thoughts about where I'd like technology to head in ten, 20 years, what we should focus on and green technology and all that stuff. And I want to be involved with some of those thought leaders, helping steer ourselves to a better future.

You're certainly in prime position to potentially make a difference.
Well, it's cool that you can choose how you wanna do things in life, you know? For me, I want to be as conscious as possible, and I want to have a good time, and I want to treat myself well, I wanna try stuff that's just stupid and fun for myself.

Like what?
I got a Tesla, and I love driving it—it's so much fun to drive. I love going on a crazy trip with a cool girlfriend of mine where we say, "OK, let's just go hang out in Morocco," or something. Just do random things, acquire experience in life, and surround myself with good people.

I think that's all this is.
Yeah. That is all life is, isn't it?

"I try to be inclusive to the general human in my art, especially for some weirdo high school kid who doesn't have any friends who runs across this weird experimental video I did on YouTube. I'm writing for that kid."

How do you stay level-headed about all this? Most people can't just travel cross country.
Well, I mean, a lot of that is allowing myself to indulge a little bit. If I have the resources, I should use them to a point. The rest of it is I like being generous. I like taking care of my mom, I like being responsible with what I have. I like to speak my mind when I have the opportunity to speak my mind, I like to keep everyone's best interests at heart, and taking care of myself, and makings sure that I'm healthy, all of that. So it's an ongoing balancing act, but it's easy to keep in balance as long as you have good people around you and a good sense about yourself.

It's an ongoing process. A lot of it is never losing sight of the goal, and the goal, to quote the Beastie Boys, is "You gotta fight for your right to party." If you want to live a certain way, or if you want life to be a certain way, independent of what that means materialistically, then you need to stay on track in the process. I try to be inclusive to the general human in my art, especially for some weirdo high school kid who doesn't have any friends who runs across this weird experimental video I did on YouTube. I'm writing for that kid.

Would you say that your best work has come out of darkness?
I include a lot of darkness in what I do because I find it's really important and it grounds people, but humor is the only thing that will save you. People talk about Jesus saving you. It's not really very accurate.

Are you religious?
Not really. I grew up a Catholic. I like the ritual. My mom's French, and in France we'd visit cathedrals. And I love that ancient kind of ritualistic traditionalism, but the spiritual teachings of things... certainly there are useful humanistic teachings. Anything more than that I couldn't get with. It didn't make sense.

I do appreciate the communal aspect of it, which is really beautiful. I just don't like religion when people use it to differentiate themselves from others. That's the danger. It's fine to believe whatever the fuck you want to believe, if that makes your world make sense to you. Great. But if you're open to other people, and hearing how they like to interpret the world, that's really the only way you're going to make the world a better place. We have no shortage of divisions. It is possible to move into another age of enlightenment.

Does VR fit into that age of enlightenment?
On this panel today [on virtual reality], there were questions like that. VR is a very isolationist experience. However, I was talking about synchronization, when several people are on headsets, but they're collectively synchronized. Then that changes the whole stakes, because now it's immediately as social as being in reality. Really, what's going to change everything are two things: one thing is communication chatrooms, being on Skype. Imagine having depth-of-field-sensing cameras and when you put on the goggles and your friend calls you, you can actually see them in the room. And then you're just sitting in chairs talking, and they're thousands of miles away.

And you're OK with that?
Oh, I love that. I think it's beautiful. But I'm not saying it as a replacement, I'm saying it as a supplement.

I can't help but think it's going to replace human interaction, like in Her.
It puts a premium on organic interaction. The benefits are it connects people over vast distances to be able to experience each other, in a way that's more empathic. And we're just talking electronics. It's not trying to replace reality. That supplement is your grandma is in fucking Turkey, and you're traveling in Germany, and you decide you want to talk to your grandma. She's sick. She's ailing. I'm going to fly back in a couple days, but I want to check in on her, and you have her put on goggles—which are a really easy thing to understand—and suddenly your grandson is there, and she feels closer to you. Closer than a telephone call. Closer than a Skype call. What that does is put a premium on "I really miss you. I want to see you. I want to be able to touch you." The ability of VR, to allow you to experience something from a different person's perspective, is really powerful. Many people will never travel that far, and they might not know what it's like to see the devastation of a flood. To be able to be in the middle of the experience and have someone guide you—it's an opportunity.

Sam Fragoso is a writer and editor based in San Francisco, where he serves as the creative director at the Roxie Theater and the founder of Movie Mezzanine. In 2017, the Critical Press will publish his debut book titled Talk Easy, a collection of interviews with filmmakers that represent the future of cinema.

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Sam Fragoso
Sundance 2016