The prospect of standing on a stage in front of a live audience to film an hour-long, entirely improvised comedy special would terrify many performers, but not Reggie Watts.
The musician and comedian known for his mastery of improvisation is happily in his element in the new Netflix comedy special Reggie Watts: Spatial, sharing off-the-cuff musings on everything from Kevin Hart to computers; creating original music on the spot using his beatboxing ability, his trusty multitrack looping recorder, and a real knack for pulling lyrics out of his head; and ad-libbing his way through a sitcom parody.
Watts, most famous these days as the band leader for The Late Late Show with James Corden, prefers to work without the safety net—and restrictions—that a script provides. “I don’t have a very good memory, and so even if I wrote things down and I created a script, I would get nervous because I’d be like, ‘Oh, I hope I get it right. I hope that I remember the things that I’m supposed to remember. Oh, I think I’m supposed to say this at this point, and this is supposed to happen.’ [Having a script] puts me in a state where I’m overanalyzing,” explains Watts, who honed his talent in New York City’s underground comedy scene before revealing his gift for spontaneity to a bigger audience as the opening act for Conan O’Brien’s 2010 Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television tour and a subsequent gig as a regular on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!
“Most performers, they like to know what they’re doing, and that gives them confidence to perform,” he continues. “It’s totally the opposite with me. I need to be the least prepared.”
Watts has only two requirements that must be met prior to staging an improvisational show like Spatial. “I just need an environment, and I need some light structures to go to,” he says.
The environment Watts and his crew, including director Benjamin Dickinson, created for Spatial in a Los Angeles soundstage, where the special was shot last summer, is intimate and laid-back and reflects the performer’s roots in rock and roll, performance art, and experimental theater. “I wanted it to feel like an experimental theater, like something you see in downtown Manhattan but with a slight Hollywood flash to it,” Watts says of the space.
He also thought about how the audience should be seated in the theater, deciding it would be best to provide low, casual seating around the stage, creating a living room feel to foster connection. Bleacher seats were built toward the back of the room. “I like being able to know that everybody in the audience is taken care of, that everyone is comfortable, everyone can see clearly,” Watts says.
As for those light structures Watts mentioned as being among the two things he considers before an improv performance, he was referring to some of the planned—but not scripted—segments in Spatial. Watts knew, for example, that he was going to perform scenes in a 1980s-style sitcom with two of his favorite improv actors—Rory Scovel and Kate Berlant–part-way through the show. “Rory Scovel, in my mind, he’s a national treasure. He’s just immediately likeable, and he’s an incredibly gifted improviser. He’s got a beautiful, beautiful mind and a warm heart, and I’ve always gotten along with him. I’ve done a couple of tours with him, done tons and tons of shows and festivals, and we’ve hung out. So I really trust him completely as a performer,” Watts says, “and with Kate Berlant, it’s a very similar thing. She’s another national treasure. I met her in New York, and she just blew me away. Some of the aspects of the way that she performs in her solo shows remind me of my thought process. There’s no one like her in her physicality, her facial expressions, her intuitive nature. I completely trust her 100%.”
Scovel and Berlant placed their trust in Watts, too, because “I told them, really, almost nothing about what they were about to do,” he says.
The day of the taping of Spatial, the actors arrived at the soundstage, were outfitted in wardrobe, and just before the trio got on stage together, Scovel suggested they perform three cycles of improvisation—one standard sitcom take, a dramatic and serious turn, and then a purely physical performance. That’s how loose it was. “So we just did three cycles of improvisation with those vague ideas,” Watts says. “That was it.”
Once Watts takes the stage, whether he is up there alone or collaborating with others, “It’s all about being playful and taking advantage of the moment and reading the moment, reading what people want,” he says.
Watts feeds off the audience, but he doesn’t make too much eye contact. Looking back over his history as a performer, he says, “My relationship with the audience started with the rule in theater, which is look slightly over the heads of the last row of the back of the theater—that creates the illusion that you’re looking at somebody. So I started there, and I felt pretty safe, and in that context, I was more sensitive to the overall energy of the place. It was almost like the audience was an organism, or almost like one being.”
While performing Spatial, Watts sometimes looked at specific people in the audience as part of an effort to become a better communicator. He was inspired to do that by some of his favorite comedians, who directly address audience members, including hecklers. “That really taught me the strength of being specific to certain people in the audience. I’m still weaker on that side,” he says, analyzing his performance style. “But for this special, there are definitely moments where I am looking specifically at people in the audience.”
Watts estimates that 20% of the time he was connecting to specific members of the audience, while the rest of the time he was responding to the totality of the audience, the general vibe of the room. “I don’t want the audience to ever feel bored, or to see that I’m panicking in a moment,” Watts says, which is why he defaults to relaxed when he is on stage. “The demeanor is always to stay relaxed because that’s what keeps the audience relaxed, and that gives me time to receive the next inspired subject or action.”
Are there moments in Spatial when Watts is internally celebrating a joke that goes over well? “I mean, yeah, sometimes there is that,” he says. “The best thing that can happen for me on stage is I’m performing, and suddenly something starts to resonate, and it starts to flow so well that I feel like I’m listening to it, that I’m watching it. I’m like, ‘Oh this, I like this!’ And it doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m responsible for it. It’s happening so easily that now I can almost step outside of myself. I can just feel like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s cool. I really like that. It’s a good show!'”