Reggie Watts On His Comedy Special, Doing His Own Thing, And Making Music With Donald Glover

During the opening scene of Spatial, Late Late Show bandleader Reggie Watts‘ new Netflix comedy special, a hooded figure talking about a “vestibule” and an “intergalactic council” addresses the audience. The smokey, darkened, effects-filled bit amuses just as many people as it confuses, though everyone in the room begins to break when the figure stops talking nonsense long enough to deliver a word joke.

“I know many of you, and some of you I do not,” says the figure. “But at some point, you will know someone who knows of someone that I have met, and at that point we will be vaguely acquainted.”

The beats that follow present viewers with a wide array of equally silly word jokes, musical improvisations, sketches and self-aware parodies that — except for the fact that Watts has combined them into a single viewing titled Spatial — wouldn’t necessarily go together. This is precisely how the “disinformationist” comic’s performances work, and while it may come as a shock to anyone unfamiliar with previous specials like Why Shit So Crazy? or the IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!, Spatial presents it in an easily digestible manner for the surrealist-impaired.

Watts was gracious enough to chat with us about how Spatial came to be. He was especially amused by his fans’ excitement about Crowe’s Nest, a fake sitcom sketch he and fellow improv comedians Kate Berlant and Rory Scovel perform throughout the special.

Your fans seem to love the idea of an actual Crowe’s Nest show.

That was my secret plan all along, get Crowe’s Nest made.

It’s almost like your own take on Too Many Cooks. Was that your intent?

No, not really. I just like the format of the sitcom, and loved the idea of parodying it without any kind of script.

Longtime fans familiar with your surreal comedy won’t have any trouble with Spatial, but I wonder how confused newcomers more familiar with your role as bandleader on The Late Late Show will be.

I think the people who have seen my work before definitely are more accepting of my stuff when it gets weird, so I don’t think anything in Spatial was too surprising for them. I think it’s more surprising for the new people, or anyone who came across it that first heard about me from leading the band on The Late Late Show, or heard about my work from others who’ve known of me much longer. I haven’t heard too much in the way of total confoundment.

There are a few shots of the audience that seem to include both reactions: knowing acceptance and utter confusion.

That’s my favorite! I love it when people are totally confused and don’t know what the fuck is going on. I think it’s awesome. It gets people into a kind of uncertainty, which lets me introduce more strange elements into the mix.

How long have you been working on Spatial?

I’ve had ideas, or elements I’ve wanted to put into another special. Some of the ideas were kind of stand-alone ideas that I incorporated into the mix anyways. But I didn’t really develop Spatial as a comedy special. Like the idea of the Don Cornelius element or the alien monologue in the beginning… The alien monologue and the dancer that appears after that were both things I had in my head for a long time. I never thought of them as part of this special, or any special, but I wasn’t sure I’d have any other chance to use them so I put them in the show.

Then Crowe’s Nest is just something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, whether in a special like this or in its own standalone thing. I really wanted that to happen. It was all mostly a bunch of different elements that were floating out there, so I kind of sowed together a few things I dug. As the production designer came on board with my friend Benjamin Dickinson, who was directing, I talked about what I saw and they interpreted that.

When you got the Late Late Show offer, you joked about being “annoyed” because of the assumed time commitment. Did it end up stalling Spatial‘s development?

That was definitely a big consideration, but the hours I have for The Late Late Show are totally workable so that I can do my thing. Also, it creates a little bit more value, so that was kind of advantage. I guess, to a certain degree. I figured the setup I had could be useful, and fun, which was great. First of all, I like the people at The Late Late Show and I liked what they were saying about my ideas, which is why I took the job. Secondly, it gave me the opportunity to be creative in my own way and work on the things I wanted to keep working on. Spatial is very important to me because I need to make sure I keep doing my own thing while also doing The Late Late Show. But yeah, they’ve been great about it.

They even let you do an extended bit about it last week.

They were cool, man. I came up with that idea like two days before and they were cool with letting me do it for the show. Kate Berlant [who’s in the sketch and Spatial] is a genius and an amazing improviser with an incredible brain. She’s one of those people I trust 100 percent. If I were to go into a situation and didn’t know anything about it, she’s just someone I’d trust implicitly. I know there’s no way anything can be terrible when it involves her. She’s so honest, and it’s amazing.

Berlant’s also in Spatial‘s Crowe’s Nest sketches too, which were fantastic.

My theory was the idea of the sitcom is so incredibly ingrained since everyone watches so much television, that if you’re great improviser and have a good imagination, you should be able to pull off some weird but interesting version of a sitcom. No one watching would necessarily know it wasn’t written. That was my goal, to make it feel like it was written even though it hadn’t been. Most of what you’re seeing is just a final run through during the show itself. But it’s great, and it just worked out. I didn’t tell Kate or Rory Scovel anything. They both asked me about it the day before we filmed Spatial, so I sent them the Crowe’s Nest theme song. After listening to it, they both immediately got it and were on board. [Laughs.] The theme song was all they needed. It was terrific.

The editing process for these comedy specials is always a difficult one, but I imagine editing a show built almost entirely on improvisation is even harder. Was editing Spatial difficult for you?

A lot of the editing process is determining what works — what works collectively and what standalone moments work well enough to keep. The great thing about improvisation is that if you can do it, it’s fine, and you can just choose what you want from the set. You can try and make sense out of it that way, and if it doesn’t make sense then you’ve got plenty to work with to try and tweak it. A lot of the editors I’ve relied on before, especially with Spatial, are amazing people. I trust their sensibilities. Usually when you sit down to edit, you go with the stuff you like and start there. That’s how you shape it up. So it was pretty organic and natural this time around.

And since it’s streaming on Netflix, you don’t have to worry about editing around commercials.

For me, I thought of Spatial as similar to one of my experimental theater shows that I’d done in the past. It’s more of a theatrical experience, in which people there or watching at home want to experience the ins and outs of the show itself, without interruption. I never really thought of it as a commercial thing, and I’m not really a commercial guy. [Laughs.] I know what you were asking, but it’s funny because it never even crossed my mind. Even when I was doing my other specials for Comedy Central, I never saw them aired on Comedy Central. I only saw them as one whole experience online. It’s not even really in my consciousness.

When Donald Glover came on The Late Late Show a few months ago to promote Atlanta, you two performed a fantastic jam session. Any chance we’ll be hearing more new music from you anytime soon? Maybe even an album?

I’ve been trying to. Theoretically I have a record deal, but I haven’t found a way to do music way that preserves the freshness of doing it live. I mad a solo album back in 2003 [Simplified] and I would love to make another record like it, but it’s just been tough because it’s hard to find someone who can work with what I do, and work in the way that I do but be super fast about it. I’ve met a lot of producers, and we’ve hung out and started some things, but it never really takes off because I need to do things very, very quickly. I want to be able to complete a song in basically two days, from deciding it to recording it. Most people don’t really resonate with that — they need more time or they want to be involved in the writing process. For me, I just need to pluck it out of the air, sit down a bunch of ideas and have someone who can tap into those ideas, structure it and finish it. You know, do it and move on. I just haven’t found that, but it’s definitely coming.

I think if I do one-off, or Donald wanted to do a track with me, I think that would be easy. It’s just one track, so all we’d have to do is go into the studio and see what happens. Collaborating is easy, too. I’ve done stuff with electronic producers like Shit Robot and many others. There are plenty of things I’ve been involved with, but for my own project I just need to find a work flow that pushes it as fast as I want, which has been harder than I thought.

No rush, sir!

No worries, man! I’m excited to release stuff. I want to make a track that’s super sick and that people are playing at dance clubs. I love that. I love putting stuff out there for people to enjoy. It’s not like I’ve gone completely into comedy and given up on that. I want to do it, I just haven’t found the right situation. But it’ll happen. I’ll find the right setup for sure. I think that you’ll see a lot more stuff coming out soon.

Reggie Watts: Spatial is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.