'Late Late Show' bandleader Reggie Watts brings improv, chaos to 'crisp' late show model
"Part of the reason why I left 'Comedy Bang Bang,' was the hours. It was like 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and it was just crazy."
Reggie Watts is a musician with a strong connection to the comedy world, creating a name for himself with his vocal looping. He served on IFC TV show "Comedy Bang Bang's" as the show's sidekick and one-man band, and now he's the leader of an actual band on James Corden's "Late Late Show." He also appears in "Pitch Perfect 2."
Watts attended Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and was inspired by one of his teachers who would use effects pedals to build up music into a big soundscape.
"I'd been doing mouth-percussion melody stuff all my life, and then when I went to Seattle I ran into some musicians that were using a Boomerang pedal. One of the first kind of pretty successful, fairly powerful looping devices," Watts says.
Watts was in several different bands before becoming known as a solo act. One of them, Micron 7, had a great deal of potential and Watts says they could have been something big, but the personal dynamics didn't work.
"I had the classic — I'm glad I experienced it, but at the time it was pretty stressful — a classic band fight, like in the rehearsal room. Like, the singer jumping over the drum kit to start attacking the drummer, and the drummer egging her on, and then them getting into a fight, and then me like holding back her, and the drummer, and she's telling me to let go or she's going to hit me, and everyone's yelling and stuff."
That was the end of Micron 7.
Watts eventually developed a relationship with comedian Scott Aukerman, which sparked several of his later projects.
"I met Scott in the early days when I was coming over to L.A. and was doing stuff at UCB," Watts says. "I would stay and watch his programming, and I always thought he was really brilliant, and then he asked me to do the show, and then he asked me to do a theme for the podcast."
They kept in touch through the show changing names to "Comedy Bang Bang," and later Watts was approached by IFC for some other ideas. Nothing happened, but when they were looking at turning Aukerman's show into a TV show, they thought Watts would be a natural addition.
He was already planning to leave the show when he was approached to be the band leader for James Corden's "Late Late Show." Watts had been written out and planned to pursue his own projects when he heard that Corden wanted to meet with him.
"I didn't even know who James Corden was. I sat down with him in a hotel and he told me about the show. And I was like, I don't know," Watts says. "I thought of it as bad timing. I was like, I'm ready to go full Han Solo here and what is this? Why? Why now?"
Watts consulted with friends, other comedians (including Sarah Silverman) and other members of his team.
"My agents were like, 'This'll be a really good opportunity!' Everybody was like, 'It's gonna be a great opportunity!'"
The deciding vote: Watts's mom.
"My mother said, as she always does — 'Well, you don't know unless you try.' So I was like, OK, fine. I thought, well, [Los Angeles] is a little closer to Montana where my mom lives [than New York City]. So, maybe that could be cool? Maybe I could get in shape? Maybe I could... I don't know. I felt like maybe I could increase the health lifestyle and buy an ecological car."
As part of pursuing his L.A. dreams, Watts told "The Late Late Show" what he wanted in order to be a part of it.
"I just said, you know, I'm an improviser, I love improvising, I don't like preparing, I don't like knowing about stuff too much in advance. I want to pick my band, I want to be able to have that band improvise on the show live — or at least learn things just before the show happens."
Beyond the music, Watts had a wardrobe demand: that he could wear whatever he wants.
"I look at all the [late night] bands, and they're just all very crisp. And I don't like that — it's gross to me."
Watts was told that he was welcome to contribute ideas, and that while the show would have the "scaffolding" of a traditional show, they wanted to do something different.
"They were using all the right language," Watts says. What they told him that closed the deal: "'You can roll in at 2 o'clock, and you can leave by 6 p.m.' And I'm like, 'Absolutely.' That was actually part of the reason why I left 'Comedy Bang Bang,' was the hours. It was like 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and it was just crazy."
Sure, he was hired for his musical skills, but Watts says he thinks the show also wanted him to bring some chaos. While the show is starting out in a more traditional way, Watts says that, over time, "we're going to see if they start messing with that structure."
One of Watts's signature bits on the new show is asking guests a random question.
The questions are completely improvised, Watts says.
"It freaks me out too when I'm about to ask the question, because sometimes I'm comfortable and I know who I want to ask, and other times he's saying 'Reggie, do you have a question?' And I'm like, 'I have no question.' And I'm pointing at the drummer for the drum roll, the drum roll happens, and then it stops, and I'm like, 'Do you like apples?'"
There were some concerns with CBS about music licensing, but Watts says that's cool because he wanted to play original music.
"I told them, I don't want to play covers. It's way easier to come up with music than to learn a cover. So that's great, and we just kind of stockpile stuff. And we just name them in the moment."
Watts had the chance to build a dream band for the show.
His first pick was keyboard player Steve Scalfati, who was an expert improviser and could produce anything.
"Anything that you would want, he can reverse engineer it and make it sound exactly [the same]. So I knew that he was a natural first choice that would get rid of some of the burden for pre-production stuff."
Next came guitarist Tim Young.
"Tim Young is one of the most brilliant musicians I've ever met. He's an incredible guitar player, genius, photographic memory, and a great natural kind of... he's like the AD. He kind of can band lead the band when I'm facing forward, he can organize stuff."
Next came drummer Guillermo Brown, who Watts says he connected with over them both being only children. The last member, bass player Hagar Ben-Ari, was a recommendation from Jack White's bass player. Ben-Ari has a "razor-fast ear," Watts says.
"Really, it was about overqualified musicians with incredible ears and creativity. So I wanted, like if the show needed a certain level of music, I wanted to exceed that by 200 percent so that it would reduce the workload for anything that was asked of us," Watts says.
Watts says that his favorite part of moving to L.A. has been driving, along with easy access to healthy food options. But he does miss New York.
"What I miss about New York is the density of things happening, and there's so much that can happen in one day in New York, whereas on the West Coast, generally you've got to choose like two or three things. That's kind of your max."
Watts's girlfriend still lives in New York — he says she can fit a lot more in.
"She'll do like seven things in one day. It's just impossible to do that here in L.A., unless everything happens to be in your neighborhood."
You can see how well Watts is acclimating to his new life weeknights at 12:35 a.m. on CBS.