‘The industry is predictable – there’s a lot of gatekeeping’: Reggie Watts is the latest madman on TV | Reggie Watts

lIf it weren’t for “the clap the whole world heard,” this awards season would be remembered as the year of the late night bandleader. First, The Tonight Show’s Questlove won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for its directorial debut Summer of Soul. A week later, Jon Batiste of The Late Show cleared up at the Grammys, winning album of the year, among other things, for his fifth studio record, We Are.

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

For the past decade, the bandleader role has been pivotal to late-night talk shows, a place where they can exude inclusivity without having to ditch the middle-aged white male host — “three of them are different versions of the name Jimmy Watts rightly notes. Still, it was a bold move for CBS to pair host James Corden with Watts — the 50-year-old Stuttgart-born, Montana-raised Air Force brat with the leonine mane. A man who unironically calls himself a sonic “disinformationist” who surprises his audience with sound.

Where the other two prominent late-night music makers are at least firmly mainstream – Batiste, a 35-year-old crossover R&B crooner; and Questlove, the hyper-learned, 51-year-old drummer for esteemed rap band The Roots — Watts is out there, man. He’s part synth Lord, part improvised comic – all performance art. Among other things, he builds tunes on-the-fly with a synthesizer, a loop pedal, a reverb pedal, and prolific beatboxing skills. Non sequiturs and funny accents are go-to building blocks, bewilderment the prevailing response. Throughout his performances, Watts remains fiercely engaged and determined. He’s cute of its own kind – a beautiful madman. Like something out of an Alice Walker novel – which is Watts’ second, by the way cousin (although they never met).

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

For decades, the nighttime bandleader was the ultimate facilitator, the shadow host who helped break the awkward silences between show segments. Jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen was the workman NBC Orchestra headliner who playfully played along with Johnny Carson. Paul Shaffer, a very wry and colorful keyboardist, was even more involved in David Letterman’s jokes. Jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks was Jay Leno’s eternal laugh.

And despite their riotous talents and vital responsibilities, none of those legendary bandleaders came close to approaching the weight of their hosts, because that was the deal. They can string together appearances in pursuit of greater fame and fortune, with the full understanding that it may never come. Or they could swallow their pride and cover pop hits and TV theme songs in exchange for set hours, absurdly high salaries, and parts of free time to pursue other interests. But except for Max Weinberg, who was keeping time for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band when he wasn’t dealing in unconventional jokes with Conan O’Brien, bandleaders didn’t really have their breaks, playing in and out as well.

The critical triumphs of Questlove and Batiste seem to mark a new frontier for nighttime bandleaders. “If you get two men of color who are really talented and hard-working, in the end the industry is like, yeah, let’s just give them the prize. Because it’s like we need that kind of representation. The work is really great. This is a no-brainer.” But Watts says it’s a shame they had to jump through so many hoops to get there. “The industry is a bit predictable in many ways,” he says. “If someone likes it” [Questlove or Batiste] have a great idea, they are more likely to be recognized. It is not at all to despise their stuff, but there is a lot of gatekeepers. A lot of incredible things that are just as good as those things probably exist, but they just aren’t in the mix.

No one who had followed Watts as he performed in Seattle in the late ’90s with his prog-rock band Maktub, or who performed synth-pop humor experiments on improv comedy venues, would certainly have envisioned him as a spiritual successor to Shaffer, Letterman’s funky old sidekick. Watts seemed to have too much fun creating College Humor sketches like the viral hit What About Blowjobs? from 2007, harmonizing over sounds on the PBS Kids show The Electric Company and touring with O’Brien when the on-off-again Leno successor was banned from appearing on TV in 2010.

Questlove on drum set
Questlove will appear on The Tonight Show in January. Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
shaffer on keyboard
Paul Shaffer on Late Night with David Letterman in 1989. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Just before touring with O’Brien, in 2009Watts became a regular on a popular improv podcast Comedy Bang! Pop!. When the show was turned into a scripted TV series about a subversive late night talk show in 2012, Watts was cast as the one-man bandleader and sidekick of creator-host Scott Aukerman. In addition to his usual top-quality musical accompaniment, Watts jammed with guests and enlivened the show’s delightfully eccentric sketches.

Really, the TV series was a deconstruction of the tired late night formula. Still, Watts never thought it would actually lead to a straight track. (“I just kind of went along with whatever they had,” he says.) But in 2015, Watts left for The Late Late Show, handing over his satirical bandleader role to Kid Cudi.

Now in his seventh year on The Late Late Show, Watts hasn’t compromised his edge sensibilities for comedy to keep his job at CBS. He’s still playing with dudes, switching bodies with Corden and raising off-kilter bits. But his lasting impression has been on the band of the show. Not only does it feature an eclectic mix of performers (bassist Hagar Ben Ari, drummer Guillermo E Brown), it also features masterful improvisers like Watts. “I didn’t want the band and myself to follow in the footsteps of all the other bands as a bandleader – people who wear suits, have a horn section, accompany 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 kind of 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 bumps to commercial break, and the stuff we do is all improvised,” he says.

The improv format not only eliminates the need for time-consuming rehearsals, but has enabled the band to write a library of 4,000 songs and benefit from performing them. “We get equal publications. It just makes everything super easy and non-competitive.”

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

If anything has changed about Watt’s bandleader act, 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 few questions, which helps them avoid overselling any TV show or film they are also there to promote. (“We’ve heard that a million times,” he says.)

After George Floyd’s murder, Watts and Corden didn’t hesitate to cut the jokes altogether for an invigoratingly honest conversation, with Watts collapsing while remembering 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 light up their day a little bit. But what’s just as important is to have genuine moments and hear from guests what they think about things.

“And not in a way that’s evangelical or classic, like, Here’s a star talking about a children’s hospital they support or whatever. I’m talking about ordinary, sincere things that [viewers] otherwise you may not hear. Little things that connect us as humans. I like to think that there will be an era of sincerity. That’s what I long for. I love when our show has those moments.”

You would think that a daily spot on network television would have given Watts the opportunity to make a more meaningful connection through humor. But aside from a one-time hire as a DJ for the 2021 Emmys, major studio execs still aren’t quite sure what to make of Watts – who struggles to even get his comedy specials produced. “I had a really cool idea and support from Bad Robot [JJ Abrams’s production company],” he says. “They went to meetings with me. We went to everyone and nobody bit. A lot of the projects I do are focused on me, none of them were made, except for three comedy specials.”

That’s not to say Watts is waiting for a handout. He himself has done a lot of work. Brasilia, Watts’ short film about an imaginary city of the future that sends in a wooden 1970s Arnold Schwarznegger travelogue that’s almost too good to be true – is an absurdly trippy treat.

“I think sometimes my ideas are a little too… I don’t know what it is,” Watts says, of his lack of connection to Hollywood C-suites. “Maybe it’s the Gen X in me. Maybe because I like to stay grounded to the underground and counterculture as much as possible. Not having much success that way might keep me grounded and closer to that zone, which is very important to my identity. Who knows. Maybe at some point someone will say, ‘Okay, let’s give this guy a chance.’”

  • This article was updated on April 29, 2022. Watts’ successor to Comedy Bang! Pop! was Kid Cudi, not “Weird Al” Yankovic, who later took over.

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