Reggie Watts JFL42 Preview: Why HBO’s Barry is a Real Breakthrough, and How Absurdism Can Create Change

 

It’s never worthwhile to ask what to expect from his performances.

The highly innovative comedian/musician/bandleader/actor’s success hinges on his ability to continually subvert those expectations, and he uses that freedom to surprise his audiences. He’s looking especially forward to the crowds at JFL 42 in Toronto, where he’ll be on two shows.

“Canadians have always had a great sense of humor, [they] produce such great comedic talent and comedic shows,” Watts shared ahead of his travels to Toronto. “It’s a little more mature, a little more robust, and also more world-inclusive.” Watts’ history of the festival goes all the way back to 2011, and he always treasures the opportunity to not just perform for such appreciative audiences, but to see his friends from all over the world who also perform, “to see friends of mine from the US or from the UK or Australia or Europe.” He sees the festival as an opportunity to not only share his craft, but to observe the craft as it evolves.

In a year where there’s been so much conversation about what is and isn’t comedy, I couldn’t help but ask Watts, whose influences are necessarily highly varied, what he finds funny. At the top of his list? HBO’s (recently award winning) Barry. “I love that it’s a hybrid piece. It’s comedy, but it’s dark and tactical and kind of crime boss-y, but also about actors which is ridiculous in Los Angeles. I think that that’s an example of a breakthrough in comedy that is kind of rare.” As you might expect, Watts prefers comedy that upends or challenges our expectations about what comedy can be; other current favorites he cited include Baron Vaughn, Baroness von Sketch, Middleditch and Schwartz, Kate Berlant, and Lauren Lapkus. He recognizes that these sorts of acts may never get the airtime of more “mainstream” comedy, but he also acknowledges “it’s nice for it to stay in a spot that’s a little under the radar.”

At the same time, he’d love to see more of that absurdity in the state of comedy—especially at a moment where things can often feel so dire or tense. “I think that what’s needed more than anything these days is comedy that’s not so directly political, or so overtly political. I think there’s enough of that going on.” It’s not to say that Watts doesn’t think there’s a place for politics in comedy; in fact, he hopes the topic comes up during his “In Conversation” event at JFL, where he’ll be part of a more structured talk at Second City. However, he does appreciate the comedians who are able to address it in a way that moves beyond a binary. Citing Canadian sketch troupe Kids in the Hall as an example, he notes, “Obviously Kids in the Hall had some political things to say about gender identity and orientation and thinks like that, but it was still absurd.” As he sees it, absurdist comedy—particularly as a tool to make a larger statement—works because:

“When people deal with human nature and they show the absurdity of people trying to divide human beings into different categories, that’s really important because it’s not a direct assault on what your belief is. It’s just showing how it’s all everything. Everything is everything…so just lighten up!”

It’s easy to see how Watts’ work embodies that final statement, and he’s managed to carry that attitude into a staggering number of formats – TV, stage work, music, and even the TED stage once. I asked him if he hopes to impact these media with the way he reinterprets their boundaries and expectations. His answer?

“I’m definitely looking to put my spin on my interpretation or my aesthetic into these various mediums, for sure. It’s a slow process of learning about how it works, designing things for those mediums, and partnering with people who know how to navigate those mediums but also with my vision which will always make it, hopefully, a little bit different or unique.”

He often takes on that spinning with a partner or collaborator, as with his recent music project Wajatta, or with any role he takes as a bandleader (from Comedy Bang! Bang! to The Late Late Show with James Corden). It’s not easy to translate a vision as complicated or challenging as his might be, and he credits collaborators who seek to understand him and appreciate his work as key to driving those projects forward. “They need to be able to see what I’m seeing. If they can do that, then I can allow them to do what they do best and not have to micromanage the situation. A lot of it is smart people, maybe a little overqualified for what I’m asking them to do, and that can see the vision.”

 

See how Watts’ vision will play out for his Just for Laughs experience during JFL42. Seats are still available for both his headlining set, and his ComedyCon “In Conversation” event.

 

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Amma Marfo

Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo
Amma Marfo is a writer, speaker, and podcaster based in Boston, MA. Her writing has appeared in Femsplain, The Good Men Project, Pacific Standard, and Talking Points Memo. Chances are good that as you're reading this, she's somewhere laughing.