So last night, my colleague and friend Amy buzzed me about a free comedy show at Upright Citizens Brigade. She is doing her dissertation research on stand-up comics in New York, so such locales constitute fieldsites for her. There would be other comedians, including Jeffery Joseph relating his experience teaching ‘at-risk youth’ from Riker’s Island, Ron Lynch playing an animatronic comedian of the future, Daniel Kitson on existential loneliness, and surprise heavyweights Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan.
The draw for me, however, was Reggie Watts. The man came out for the final set, when my lungs had already been effectively inverted from hard laughter by the preceding parade of absurdity. Watts burst through the flimsy curtain, his face hidden somewhere between the ‘fro clearly outta contro’ and complementary beard and pot-belly. He looks a bit like Lenny Kravitz if he let himself go, a lot. Only with much more of what the experts call ‘talent,’ no offense to LK or his devoted dozens of followers.
On stage he’s armed with two mics, one of which is plugged into a doo-dad on a stool with little knobs and switches. Mostly his weapon of choice is his voice, which he wields with unpredictable grace. The gizmo is to loop beats and modulate sounds beyond the limits of his larynx, which is expansive as it is. His show is part beat-box concert, with organic renditions of hip-hop- and soul-inspired music, part pastiche theater of impersonations. But not impressions of celebrities or political figures or cultural stereotypes. In rapid-fire, Watts channels the everyday speech patterns and lingo you can put a place but not quite a face to. Then suddenly he’s breaking into song again. It’s a linguistic and musical kaleidoscope that reaches trascendental ground: Watts in some moments seems to turn himself into a pure instrument of sound and vernaculars. I’d say he takes joy in reproducing, like scrambled ethnographic recorder stuck on play, words and beats, if it weren’t for the deadpan delivery that leaves the audience in wonder. I ought to report: while half of the audience giggled in delight at Watt’s virtuosity, the other half stared in bewilderment. I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter were the more intended reaction.
I try to describe this performance, but I honestly don’t know what to make of Reggie Watts. I only sense that an obligation to tell others about him, maybe to warn them maybe to claim that I saw him long before he got famous and sold out or jumped the shark. My first encounter with Watts was this meta-hiphop music video, F*ck Sh*t Stack, where he skewers, in successive verses, rap’s most cherished stereotypes: curse words, the objectification of women, and conspicuous consumption. But satire is not Watts’s modus operandi. It’s too sincere, in a way. (Although musically, he does have his intimate serious side.)
Rather, I direct you towards some of the philosophical and linguistic buffonery, like this clip where Watts opens with an Esperanto-esque gibberish monologue:
or this gig at Google headquarters that seems to go right over the poor egg-head employees:
Or this Max Headroom-esque mix:
In effect, he’s all very -esque. Watts has even faked his own death (and life) as an Exxon ‘maintenance man’ who donates his body to his employer to be turned into fuel (“I, I think I’d like to be a, uh, candle…”)
I suppose I present Watts to the emerging discussion on this site over the relationship between thought and language, content and style. How can language refer to absolutely nothing, yet carry so much meaning? To watch him shape-shift in front of your eyes so jarringly from Queen’s-English professorial cadence into Bed Stuy street slang makes one suddenly aware of the intimate relationship between language as a performed, public activity and cultural identity. It also makes one wonder at how Watts can so effortlessly assume these voices. And finally, there’s the phenomenon of humor at work here: it’s hilarious to speak through the idioms of others, while it’s not funny at all to speak about them, as I have done here.