Reggie Watts, Man Of Many Voices, Improvised His Way To Success

Reggie Watts calls his form of entertainment "disinformationist." He disorients his audience, sometimes talking non-sense and switching seamlessly between accents — all improvised on the spot. (Kyle Christy)
Reggie Watts calls his form of entertainment "disinformationist." He disorients his audience, sometimes talking non-sense and switching seamlessly between accents — all improvised on the spot. (Kyle Christy)

As part of a series called My Big Break, All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

Reggie Watts is a one-man show. He beatboxes, imitates and impersonates with incredible accuracy — and, equipped with just a keyboard, looping pedals and a microphone, he crafts one-of-a-kind musical pieces.

Watts calls his style of entertainment "disinformationist." He disorients his audience, sometimes talking nonsense and switching seamlessly between accents — all improvised on the spot.

"When I get on stage, I really just like to listen to what's happening in the moment," Watts says. "And because I've been doing it long enough, I definitely have structures that I can lean on. I know that I can make a beat. And if I make a beat, then I can create a bass line. One thing inspires the next thing, I really just wait until I'm on stage to be inspired to do whatever it is I'm doing."

Watts says a couple of his childhood heroes helped him find his many voices. It all started back when he was a kid watching Sesame Street.

"I can remember Victor Borge being a guest on Sesame Street and Victor Borge being this legendary musical comedian," Watts says. "He was a virtuosic piano player and he would do these popping sounds with his mouth."

Watts says he was transfixed to the television.

"I would see him perform — playing piano, a brainiac of a musician, but using it to an absurd scale," he says.

Then there was the 1984 film Police Academy, featuring Michael Winslow, the so-called "Man of 10,000 Sound Effects."

"I heard the human voice as capable of imitating machines and other people's voices and accents and also music — and that's really where it all came from," he says. "And I would practice incessantly, as I still do ... It's mostly just me walking around, making noises, oftentimes annoying other people."

For Watts, he says his big break is all thanks to comedian Conan O'Brien.

He got an unexpected call from his manager, saying O'Brien wanted him to be the opening act for his 2010 Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.

Watts says he was shocked that O'Brien knew who he was.

"I was just like, 'What? Why?' " Watts says. "But I remember running into Conan for the first time, he came into my dressing room and he was like, the sweetest guy ... Things changed from that point on."

Watts is now the band leader of The Late, Late Show with James Cordon on CBS.

He's mastered his craft of disinformationist entertainment. Yet he still thinks back to his childhood days, growing up as an only child and making up voices for his action figures to pass the time.

He says not that much has changed.

"It's still me just screwing around, having a fun, super-imaginative time," he says. "Really the only thing you have to do is just have a good time and engage with people and don't be a jerk. That's it."

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