Plato described rhetoric as the art of ruling the minds of men. Reggie Watts uses rhetoric as a tactic of disorientation—his stand up sets combine a mesmerizing display of nonsensical verbiage with improvised vocal beatboxes.
Imagine a bilingual, psychedelic George Carlin with a massive fro, an intimidating lexicon, and an affinity for hip hop. In order to get a sense of his dizzying on-the-spot routines, below is an improvised monologue Watts told me over the phone.
There is always the fable of the once-forgotten person who was actually the last person to remember who they were, which was kind of an insignificant blip in the history of these types of people. Initially, their responses were often times weaker than the outcome. In that particular case, this person, who I would never reveal the identity of, is oftentimes left relegated to figuring out whatever it is that they are disinterested in.
Onstage, he ends his nonsensical speeches with a warbling groan and hiss, and with the twist of a knob on his handy loop machine, his voice transforms into a rhythmic beat he is able to croon overtop of, his lyrics containing whatever spontaneous topic jumps into his oversized brain.
But beneath his improvised soundscapes and incomprehensible monologues lies an abstract yet profound layer of meaning. Watts purposefully plays with sound and language as a means of satirizing corporate and oppressive rhetoric.
“What I employ onstage is very much a use of Orwellian doublespeak. It is language that people use on a TED Talk or by technological and corporate leaders—lots of buzzwords and hip jargon—phrases that we have become used to, that seem to mean something [they] actually [don’t].”
Considering one of his most watched sets is a TED Talk, the irony is not lost on me.
Watts is known to wear many hats. The multifaceted German-born, Brooklyn-based comedian is a musician, beatboxer, and actor, making his way onto television in 2012 on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang! after two successful rounds of nationally syndicated stand up specials. To get an idea of the absurd nature of Watts’ career, he played a one-man bandleader on a fake talk show on Comedy Bang! Bang! Today, he is the real bandleader on The Late Late Show with James Corden where he even has his own segment where he asks the celebrity guests a variety of bizarre questions about philosophy.
“If there is proof that we are living in a simulation, amongst many other extraordinary things that have happened in my life, that would be a huge wink.”
When I called Watts, he was in California stepping foot into his first legal dispensary, a more than fitting place to discuss his surrealist brand of humor. Unlike the numerous accents and languages Watts utilizes onstage, his actual voice is playful yet grounded and thoughtful, certainly the type of person whom I might expect to find in a headshop in the middle of the day.
Describe yourself as a child. What were your hobbies and friends like? I was a weirdo. An only child, biracial and bicultural. I just kind of gravitated towards goofiness and entertainment. I was always interested in making art or some kind of music.
Was there a sharp cultural juxtaposition moving from Montana to Seattle when you graduated high school? There kinda was. When I moved there in 1990, it was still pretty small. The grunge scene had been brewing since the late 80’s and just about the time I got there it was about to go supernova. People knew something was happening, but it hadn’t got so crazy where The Gap was selling the look.
Did you get the sense that you were to be a part of significant cultural event? We felt like we were someplace historical. The moment that really marked it was when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. When that moment hit and all of the kids in the neighborhood started walking towards the Seattle Center for an impromptu vigil, I remember thinking that there would never be another moment like this, that this is the last movement in rock n’ roll history. With the internet, it has become hard to measure what a scene is anymore. We can definitely look at aggregation. I mean, there must be an algorithm out there or something for that. It’s like we need artificial intelligence to tell us what is hip anymore.
Why do you think the obfuscation of language makes for a successful comedic device? What are you trying to convey? Language is great because it enables us to get through mundane tasks—to transmit ideas. It is a form of communicative compression. With language, we have kind of come to expect it to be used in a mundane way, but for entertainment purposes, we like to play with language. In the tradition of comedy, all the way back to court jesters, language was used in order to create an artful turn of phrase or a twist. In my particular case, I use some of that, because I am kind of channelling language in a stream of consciousness type way. I am more using language to subvert language itself. The sound of language. The timing of language. Words that sound like other words. It is all fair game. I like to pick it apart or reconstruct it.
I have also been interested in language and its various uses, especially in interrogative ways and as a means of control. Language can be a bit of a con—using five words when one could do, to make yourself seem more intellectual. It is a form of hacking. Although hacking does imply more consciousness—I think some of the people that do this are just hacks.
I read that you once described yourself as a disinformationist. Could you unpack that for me? Having a tradition in performance art, it always reflects back to the different methods of troll. We know what they were doing with language, so I can take that and turn it into a form of entertainment. This information is mixing truth and fabrication and finding the gradient between the two and employing it in an extreme way that feels like entertainment.
In a way, that reminds me of absurdism. What are your thoughts on that? Do you believe that humans live in a purposeless, chaotic universe? I believe that we live in a universe that allows us to interpret it anyway we want to. It is up to us to define our own existence. You can take advantage of that because many people are resigned to the idea that things exist in one certain way. That is why art is so great, because it takes advantage of the fact that people take reality for granted. When they are presented with an alternate view of the same thing, it shows them that there is actually a myriad of ways to interpret a situation. For me, absurdism is the pressure reliever for taking things too seriously. The one thing the Trump administration lacks is a sense of humor. And they wonder why they are hated so much. Because they have no sense of joy. Absurdism is a way of forcing that perspective that is antagonizing.
Inspired by the ‘90s and Todd Oldham’s recent splashdown at the Wexner, this year’s Off the Grid fundraiser (3.10) will not only feature Watts, but also Canadian DJ phenom Jacques Greene and local spinster Kenny Lectro. Your ticket not only supports Wex Education programs, but will get you samples of some of the finest bites in the city. Tickets are $60-$75 (members) through March 9 and $75-90 day-of. For more visit wexarts.org.