Reggie Watts, the weirdest guy on late night TV: How "The Late Late Show" bandleader is redefining the sidekick role

The charismatic comic spoke to Salon about late night's viral obsession, celebrity interviews and the sidekick role

Published June 5, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

Reggie Watts on "The Late Late Show with James Corden"     (CBS/Sonja Flemming)
Reggie Watts on "The Late Late Show with James Corden" (CBS/Sonja Flemming)

No performer is better suited for a late night sidekick gig than Reggie Watts, a musician-comedian with ideas as weird as his hair is huge. And he's putting his idiosyncratic skills to good use as bandleader on "The Late Late Show," serving up improvisational banter with guests and sparking comedic chemistry with new host James Corden. Watts' toothy smile and stoned stage presence are the perfect foil for Corden's polite British silliness. From the hilarious "Reggie's Question" segment to his soulful title theme and quirky musical interludes (with hilariously named house band Karen), he's the show's not-so-secret weapon – it's easy to wish Watts was hosting himself.

And It's possible he will someday, although with an entirely different format. Watts – a Seattle native and veteran of New York's alternative comedy scene – took the bandleader job mainly out of curiosity, hoping to gain insight on the inner workings of late night TV. He considers himself an "interactive tourist" on the "Late Late Show" set, observing the writing and hosting from a side-stage view.

That experience has been invaluable – only problem with the opportunity is that it's forced him to leave a brilliant one behind. For the last three years, he's played musical emcee on Scott Aukerman's IFC series "Comedy Bang! Bang!," a talk show parody that plays to Watts' improv-heavy strengths with deadpan asides and surreal non-sequiturs. But Watts can't be everywhere at once: His final "Bang! Bang!" episode airs June 5th, and rapper Kid Cudi will take over the gig the following month.

It's a busy, bittersweet transition for Watts – and it's also the perfect time to step back and survey his winding career path. The comedian spoke to Salon about the constraints (and rewards) of his new job, the current state of late night comedy, and many other suitably random topics.

Just curious – are you a "Mad Men" fan? Did you watch the finale?

Oh yeah, yeah. It was amazing. I loved it. It was a little bit of a downer with [Betty], but it's kind of grounding in a way. It's kind of fast — it's strange that all that stuff happened in one episode. But I loved how everyone ended up. [Joan] chooses her career over seeing this guy, which is kind of a cool statement for women of that time period.

You recently did an interview with Larry King? That pairing makes me laugh just thinking about it. Was that weird?

It wasn't that weird. I guess the weird thing was that, "Oh, this is Larry King." But I played in a band called Soulive about 10 years ago, and we played Larry King's 70th birthday party, so that was the first time I saw him. So it was like seeing him again. He looked pretty much the same. He's an intense dude. I wouldn't say I was intimidated, but I was a little nervous for the interview. He's a cool cat.

Did you have any involvement in picking Kid Cudi as your replacement on "Comedy Bang! Bang!"? How do you feel about him taking over your definitive role?

They worked pretty hard at trying to find some replacements early on. I let them know quite a bit in advance. They were looking at a lot of people like Joanna Newsom — I think she would have been an awesome choice, personally. If it had worked out, I think that would have been the way to go, just to get more female energy on the show, too. But I will say that when Kid Cudi came on as a guest, he was kind of crazy, very physical, and he had tons of energy. He took advantage of being where he was, which was nice. He's a very well-respected musician and producer, so in thinking of "Who can be the next cat?," it made sense, and he was down to do it. Kid called me and was like, "Should I do it?" And I was like, "This is what it's going to be like. Be prepared for some long hours. You're surrounded by some pretty amazing people, but you have to get up early. [laughs]" But he was down for it. I'm glad they made an interesting choice.

The "Reggie's Question" segment on "The Late Late Show" is hilarious, occasionally insightful, and occasionally awkward — my favorite ones are where the guests look bewildered and don't know how to respond. Do you ever aim for that intentional awkwardness?

I wouldn't say I'm specifically looking for that kind of reaction. I try to think of some things that that person might be interested in answering. You just never know — some people are incredible and will hear a question and really go for it in a really awesome way. Other times, I think people get intimidated by the moment, and if the questions aren't straightforward enough, they freak out. I'm not really purposely looking for that, but it does happen. And I like all the reactions — whether it's awkward or eloquent.

One of the weirdest "Late Late Show" moments so far was when Justin Bieber randomly dropped by and "sat in" with the band on drums during the credit music. How the hell did that come about? And he was clearly miming, correct?

I think it came about because they'd done the "Carpool Karaoke" with him. They shot that and probably Ben [Winston], the show-runner, or James had the idea. It was just [Bieber's] willingness and their thinking of that idea to just randomly put him in there. That's my style of humor: put random things for no reason into some kind of thing that doesn't need it. [laughs] I didn't really talk to him at all. He just left. He was out of there. I'm interested in talking with him, though. I think James is really good with younger guys in general, and I think he would have gotten a lot more out of him just by being relaxed and mellow.

So much of the host/bandleader-sidekick relationship in late night is based on camaraderie and vibe — it's impossible to imagine Conan without Andy or Letterman without Paul. But I also know that you and James didn't have a super long time to get to know each other beforehand — it's not like you came into the show as friends. Do you feel like you're still figuring each other out comedically?

I think it's an ongoing thing. The basic elements of how we relate to one another are there. We like each other, respect each other and what we do. And we're just interested in having a good time. I think those are the basic elements. Comedically, there's definitely a ton more that can happen, but the show has to build in the way that it's building. I'm a bandleader, and I have some crossover stuff, and he's the host. But that's how you build the show, and there will probably be more things evolving in the future.

You've been given a lot of freedom on the show to follow your unique style. But I wonder if the improvised aspect of your work ever clashes with a major network like CBS. Have you ever been given a note from the network? Do you ever have to mentally censor yourself during a show?

I've never gotten a note about anything other than the obvious — if I'm asking a guest a question, I try not to ask something that's negative or puts them in a bad light intentionally, but that's something I wouldn't do anyway. Last night, I was eating a salad, and Ben Winston told me, "Don't eat the salad while James is doing his opening monologue," which I wasn't going to do anyway. But he knows I have continued to eat a salad during a monologue before, which he encouraged me to do. [laughs] Those are little tweaks that are just common sense things that I really agree with. But I've never really gotten a note.

Obviously there are a lot of differences between "Comedy Bang! Bang!" and "Late Late Show" – specifically with the format and your level of involvement.

It's different structurally – I don't have a lot of time [to do other things on the show]. But when we're hanging out, mostly we're just watching the show and enjoying it and getting ready to play at the end. It's mainly the nature of the structure. I don't really think of doing different comedic things – I just think of how I can use that format and inject my brand of whatever it is I do into it.

There's been a lot of debate lately about the state of late night shows, the evolution that's taking place toward a more meme-friendly, viral video-friendly format. One of Conan's writers, Andrés du Bouchet, even wrote a series of pissed-off tweets that referenced this topic, specifically Fallon's "Tonight Show" and "Lip Sync Battle." Some people think it's great — it's a natural evolution, tapping into a new audience. Other people think it's dumbing down real comedy. What's your opinion?

I agree with what [du Bouchet] was saying. I understand where he was coming from. There becomes an over-obsession [with viral content], and the internet provides a really intense influence. But the problem with the internet is you can't necessarily create a viral video. It's really based on when it hits and the honesty of what it is, so people will respond. It's a combination of the zeitgeist, timing, and the authenticity of the content. I understood what he was talking about. I totally got it and agree with it.

I think the difference is there's definitely a focus on celebrities doing things people are going to talk about, but [it should be done] from a place of authenticity first and not worrying what the numbers are going to be online and leaving that in the background. Have confidence that what you're doing is going to be fun and that people are going to enjoy it. That's really all you have to do. But you can really smell the calculation when people are doing bits with celebrities and there's something weird and off about it. They're trying to create something to have people react to online.

I imagine it would be odd being a comedian yourself but not being a writer for the show in the traditional sense. Do you ever find yourself listening to a monologue or a bit and think, "I wish I could do that differently?"

In the beginning, we talked with the writers. They have some amazing writers on the staff. This one Canadian comedian, David Dineen-Porter, is amazing – he's a crazy abstraction cat. I've known him for a long time. I was really shocked when they hired him. [laughs] I was like, "Really? Cool. Awesome!" He's pretty out there. They have a lot of brilliant writers onboard – a lot of people I know. But I don't work with writers. I haven't worked with writers in that sense. "Comedy Bang! Bang!" had scripts that were written, but that's a narrative thing. They allowed me to do my own takes on them, but that's more like traditional acting in a way.

In the beginning [with "The Late Late Show"], I tried working with the writers, but I'm not a writer guy in that I'm not a cat who sits in with a bunch of people and comes up with ideas. But they know they can set up a framework for something to happen, and I can do something within that. On one hand, I'm like, "It would be cool to do more." But at the same time, I don't want to create more work for myself. [laughs] So I kind of like where I am with the workload right now. If something really comes down the pipeline and hits me where I really want to do it, I'm sure they'll be completely receptive to it. In the meantime, I like watching the writing process. One of the reasons I took the job was to observe how a television show gets made. I would consider myself an "interactive tourist." I'm definitely part of the show, but I'm also watching the show and seeing how it evolves. I'm OK with where things are, and I'm sure if I have an idea I can share it. But in the meantime, I get to enjoy watching the writing and its relationship to the rest of the show.

Is there anything you've observed from that process that you could apply toward your own work or a future project?

If I made my own show, I wouldn't use that format at all. If I made my own show, it would be a different thing and very improvisational-based. A lot less preparation would happen, at least on my end, with guests and things like that. But I've learned, "Oh, this is how this works! There's a group of writers, and they confer with the head writer, and the head writer confers with the show runner and the host and other producers." It's still pretty quick, and they're cranking out stuff all the time. That's not how I would do a show, but I really appreciate that's what it takes to do this kind of show. I haven't taken anything for my own process, other than now I have some more information about how television is made. Maybe I can use that in an improvisation or something.

What can we expect from your final "Comedy Bang! Bang!" episode [airing tonight]? Did you plan anything extra special and surreal? 

They did a good job, and it's something I agree with in terms of the concept. I didn't add much — they did a good job writing it. I just played it like they wrote it. I will say there should have been a little more of a Bill Bixby moment at the end — but hey, you can't win every day.

By Ryan Reed


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Bandleader Comedy James Corden Late Late Show Late Night Tv Reggie Watts