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Abstract Notions

Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

Reggie Watts and the Comedy of Disruption

Reggie Watts

Comedian Reggie Watts uses disorienting performances to make his mark on the avant-garde branch of comedy known as anti-comedy.  

Like any other art form, comedy has its own version of the avant-garde, and it’s a bizarre, but fascinating style of comedy where the traditional formula of “set up / punchline / laughter / repeat” is twisted and manipulated beyond recognition. Some have dubbed it anti-comedy for the simple fact that the punchline—that traditional trigger for making people laugh—is often absent from the joke, which can last an entire performance, and sometimes even wear the disguise of a performance. As such, the confusion and discomfort of the audience contributes to the joke, and the cues for laughter disappear. What’s hilarious to one individual might be seriously baffling to another. Consider it the funny form of Dada.

It’s hard to pinpoint who started anti-comedy, but the pioneers of the form include Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, and, as Martin Schneider points out in a recent post on off-beat culture blog Dangerous Minds, Albert Brooks. These comics set the stage for a whole host of contemporary, “alternative” comics to blow up the parameters of conventional comedy and expand the possibilities of the art form.  

One such comedian is Reggie Watts. Aside from his slightly askew sense of humor, Watts’ weapon of choice is an electronic looping pedal and an arsenal of vocal effects. Using only his voice and an impressive amount of coordination, Watts creates complex songs that impress as much as they amuse.

What really makes his act work, though, is the fact that audiences have no idea where he’s going next. Watts described his comedy in a recent podcast with VICE as “a certain form of disruption or discomfort, but it’s done [with] a benevolent feeling. It’s about disrupting a certain thought process or the ways that we go about doing things and kind of reframing or decontextualizing [them].”

I had the opportunity to catch Watts open Conan O’Brien’s “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television” tour a few years ago, and I honestly didn’t know what I was watching at first. For a while, I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be funny or if he was legitimately trying to be a serious musical act. Others around me were equally confused as to how we were supposed to react, and consequently, it made a lot of folks uncomfortable; that is, until everyone stopped trying to figure him out and just went with the flow. In other words, it was a stellar show, and Watts gained a lot of new fans that night.

Watts’ public profile is a lot bigger now, and he’s currently juggling several projects; he’s the musical sidekick to fellow comedian Scott Aukerman on the IFC sketch show “Comedy Bang! Bang!”, and he’s also one of four comedic entities involved in a joint YouTube venture called Jash along with Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, and the comic duo of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. But if you’re not familiar with his work, perhaps the best introduction to Watts’ style of anti-comedy is his TED performance from last year in which he wows the crowd with his music while poking fun at some TED speaker’s tendency to come across as too smart for their own good: 


Image courtesy of CleftClips, licensed under Creative Commons.

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.