In 2003, the last time the Observer spoke with Reggie Watts, he was fronting a jazz-inflected soul-rock combo called Maktub.
The jam-friendly group was known for seriously stirring tracks like the R&B-tinged single “Just Like Murder” and a psychedelic version of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter.”
But in 2004 Watts moved to New York’s Lower East Side to forge a solo career – in comedy.
“The performance part is similar for me, except I’m doing it solo, as far as having a mix of music and banter. I improvised when I was in music. It’s the only way I can really do things. It’s very natural for me,” he says.
Through online videos, appearances at Bonnaroo, then Comedy Central specials and TedX talks, Watts, a 42-year-old Montana native, carved out a second career. He appears at PNC Music Pavilion Saturday as part of the first Oddball Comedy and Curiosity Festival, alongside Aziz Ansari, Louis CK, Brent Morin, Chris Hardwick, Hannibal Buress, Marc Maron, Jeff Ross, DJ Trauma and Brody Stevens.
Watts will no doubt stand out on the bill.
He makes absurdist comedy that at first confounds crowds and, like Zach Galifianakis’ stand-up, makes audiences a little uncomfortable with the unfamiliarity of it all. Watts shifts accents, personas, even languages, but not in a traditional joke-telling formula – then launches into improvised songs, accompanied only by his keyboard and multitrack loop station.
The wildly Afro’d and bearded Watts is an odd bird whose act is resonating with people – once they get it.
“Both (music and comedy) are pretty open to having a lot of weirdos,” he says. “There are people that stand out with unique points of view and different absurdist styles of comedy. Comedy is very open about that. What we call alt-comedy. There’s a lot of weird people in that. It’s an open environment.”
With the improvisational style, Watts doesn’t often know where he’s going onstage.
“I guess it starts with if your friends are laughing or if I’m laughing at certain things while I’m watching a movie or TV, joking around with friends. You get a gauge of what people will find funny,” he says. “If you have a good sense of humor and you’re laughing, you already know what is funny. Then there is the trick of ... translating that from the observed experience to something onstage.
“But as soon as people start laughing, you start heading in that direction.”