Applying minimal labels to Great Falls native Reginald Lucien Frank Roger Watts is troublesome. His parents ran into the problem naming him, and those who attempt to pigeonhole him professionally are similarly frustrated. He's a comedian, sure, but he's also a musician. Then when you get into the sub-categories—the staggering range of comic and musical genres that combine to form his act—he's even harder to pin down.
Reggie Watts' brand of improvisation is as unpredictable as the movements of his tremulous afro. If nothing else, the man is a performer—and a dynamic one—no matter if he's doing beatbox or crafting wild lyrics on piano.
"I guess I think of myself as a comedic musician," says Watts. "I usually bring both elements to whatever performance I might be doing, so it can be tough to distinguish."
Watts' manic approach to live comedy paid off big-time this year when Conan O'Brien selected Watts as the opening act on his "Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television" tour. Watts scored the gig, he says, because his routine was distinctive from O'Brien's. But then, it's distinctive from most in the business, a mixture of musical astuteness, bleary disorientation and an absurdity you can't help but laugh at.
Watts' started his stand-up career with his move to New York City in 2004. Shortly afterward, comedians Eugene Mirman and Bobby Tisdale encouraged him to perform on their variety show, "Invite Them Up." Inspired by the experience, Watts began working the New York comedy club circuit.
"I'd get on stage and I didn't really have any idea what I was doing," he says. "It was an additive process of figuring out what worked and what didn't."
Watts also scored some hits with comedic Internet shorts. "Fuck Shit Stack," a profane, gratuitous comment on the profane gratuitousness of hip-hop culture, was reposted on music sites across the blogosphere from the A.V. Club to The Stranger. His College Humor music video "What About Blowjobs?" has garnered more than 500,000 views on YouTube. Television performances and guest spots on shows like "Michael and Michael Have Issues" and "The Venture Brothers" became regular occurrences rather than career coups.
If any of Watts' recent endeavors carries that kind of significance, it's opening for O'Brien. Watts' friend Todd Levine, one of O'Brien's writers, recommended him as the opening act, and the production staff sealed the arrangement within 24 hours. From mid-April to mid-June, Watts traveled with O'Brien, Andy Richter and their crew for a 40-show tour where he performed in front of thousands. One of the shows was televised nationally on TBS.
"The whole experience was amazing, awesome, perfect," he says. "There was always something interesting happening all the time."
Throughout the tour, Watts spent as much time with his collaborators as possible. He says O'Brien and Richter turned out to be easy-going and down-to-earth. Everyone had their own quirks, like the trombone player La Bamba, who Watts claims would make out with random girls in line. Plus, there were plenty of fringe benefits, like celebrity meetings.
"Meeting Craig Robinson from Hot Tub Time Machine was great," Watts says. "I saw him at an L.A. show after I got off stage, and he was like, 'Yo, man, that was awesome!' And I was like, 'Fuck, that's crazy.'"
With that kind of national exposure, another label that easily fits Watts is "rising star." "Great Falls graduate" is the unexpected accompaniment. It's doubtful that Watts knew the craziness of high school would contribute so much to his career. But even today, his Montana years make a major contribution to his stage material.
"I'm constantly promoting the idea of Montana in my shows," Watts says.
Most Montanans, for example, hold a childhood camping trip close to their heart, and Watts is no exception. Sure, his cherry-flavored benders involving Robitussin chugging and ghost stories probably deviate from the traditional experience, but they certainly make better comedic routines.
Then there are the Montana idiosyncrasies that the rest of the world can't quite understand. Take hunting. Montana residents, even those who don't directly participate, can't help but acquire an intimate knowledge of the sport. For some urbanites, however, it's a bizarre holdover from the days of coonskin caps and muzzleloaders.
"I've never really hunted, but of course, living in Montana, you know people who do," Watts says. "Just describing the act of killing and gutting and skinning an animal and not even throwing in any real jokes is enough for some audiences."
No word on whether Watts plans to hunt or abuse Robitussin (or—here's an idea—attempt both at once) when he returns to Montana next week on tour, in part to promote his new DVD Why Shit So Crazy. He will, however, bring his innovative blend of improv stand-up and musical comedy to the Palace for a discount price.
"Missoula's the shit," he says. "I'm really looking forward to being back home in Montana."
Reggie Watts performs at the Palace Wednesday, Aug. 18, at 9 PM. $5.This story was corrected Aug. 13.