If it hadn’t been for “the slap heard round the world”, this award season would be remembered as the year of the late night band leader. First, The Tonight Show’s Questlove took the best documentary Oscar for his directorial debut, Summer of Soul. A week later The Late Show’s Jon Batiste cleaned up at the Grammys – winning, among others, album of the year for his fifth studio record, We Are.
Where’s the love for The Late Late Show’s bandleader, Reggie Watts? “I mean, I haven’t produced anything,” he jokes, “so it’s not all that shocking.”
For the past decade the bandleader role has been critical to late-night talkshows, a place where they can project inclusiveness without having to scrap the white, middle-aged male host – “three of them are different versions of the name Jimmy”, Watts rightly notes. But even so, it was a bold move for CBS to pair host James Corden with Watts – the 50-year-old Stuttgart-born, Montana-raised air force brat with the leonine mane. A man who unironically refers to himself as a sonic “disinformationist”, surprising his audiences with sound.
Where the other two prominent late-night music makers are at least firmly mainstream – Batiste, a 35-year-old crossover R&B crooner; and Questlove, the hyper-scholarly, 51-year-old drummer for the esteemed rap band the Roots – Watts is out there, man. He’s part synth lord, part improv comic – all performance art. Among other things, he builds tunes on the fly with a synthesizer, a loop pedal, a reverb pedal and prolific beatboxing skills. Non sequiturs and funny accents are go-to building blocks, bemusement the prevailing reaction. Throughout, Watts remains fiercely committed and deadpan in his performances. He’s adorably sui generis – a beautiful weirdo. Like something out of a novel by Alice Walker – who, incidentally, is Watts’s second cousin (although they’ve never met).
For decades the late-night bandleader was the ultimate facilitator, the shadow host who helped break up the uncomfortable silences between show segments. Jazz trumpeter Doc Severinsen was the workman NBC Orchestra headliner who gamely played along with Johnny Carson. Paul Shaffer, a most wry and colorful keyboardist, was even more in on David Letterman’s jokes. Jazz guitarist Kevin Eubanks was Jay Leno’s perennial laugh track.
And despite their profligate talents and vital responsibilities, none of those legendary bandleaders came close to anything approaching the heft of their hosts because, well, that was the deal. They could either string together gigs in pursuit of a wider fame and fortune, with full understanding that it may never come. Or they could swallow their pride and cover pop hits and TV theme songs in exchange for regular hours, absurdly large pay and swathes of free time to pursue other interests. But besides Max Weinberg, who kept time for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band when he wasn’t trafficking in offbeat jokes with Conan O’Brien, bandleaders didn’t really have their breaks and play in and out of them, too.
The critical triumphs of Questlove and Batiste would appear to mark a new frontier for late-night band leaders. “When you get two men of color who are really talented and work hard, eventually the industry is like, yes, let’s just give them the award. Because it’s like we need that kind of representation. The work is really great. This is a no-brainer.” But Watts says it’s a shame they had to jump through so many hoops to get there. “The industry is a little bit predictable in many ways,” he says. “If someone like [Questlove or Batiste] has a great idea, there’s a higher likelihood they’ll be recognized. It’s completely not to disrespect their stuff at all, but there’s a lot of gatekeeping. A lot of incredible stuff that is just as good as those things probably exists but they just are not in the mix.”
Surely, no one who had been following Watts when he was gigging around Seattle in the late 90s with his prog-rock band, Maktub, or conducting synth pop humor experiments on improv comedy stages would have prefigured him as a spiritual successor to Shaffer, Letterman’s funky longtime sidekick. Watts seemed to be having too much fun making College Humor sketches like the 2007 viral hit What About Blowjobs?, harmonizing about phonics on the PBS Kids program The Electric Company and touring with O’Brien when the on-again off-again Leno successor was barred from appearing on TV in 2010.
Just before touring with O’Brien, in 2009, Watts became a regular on a popular improv podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!. When the show was spun into a scripted TV series about a subversive late-night talkshow in 2012, Watts was cast as the one-man bandleader and sidekick to creator-host Scott Aukerman. In addition to providing his usual brand of top-of-the-dome musical accompaniment, Watts jammed with guests and enlivened the show’s delightfully oddball sketches.
Really, the TV series was a deconstruction of late-night’s tired formula. Still, Watts never thought it would actually lead to a straight job. (“I was just kinda going along with whatever they had,” he says.) But in 2015, Watts departed for The Late Late Show, ceding his satirical bandleader role to Kid Cudi.
Now in his seventh year at The Late Late Show, Watts hasn’t compromised his fringe comedy sensibilities to keep his job at CBS. He still plays with guests, body-swaps with Corden and elevates off-kilter bits. But his lasting impression has been on the show’s band. It not only features an eclectic mix of performers (bassist Hagar Ben Ari, drummer Guillermo E Brown), they’re also masterful improvisers like Watts. “I didn’t want the band and myself as bandleader to just follow in the footsteps of all the other bands – people wearing suits, having a horn section, accompanying the solo artist,” he says. “I wanted it to be a rock band and, not an anti-late night band, but more of a Muppet kind of band.”
Watts didn’t want to work hard, either. So he created a band that can make music in the moment. “The band shows up, plays seven seconds or maybe even less than that on some of the bumps to commercial break, and the stuff we do is all improvised,” he says.
More than obviating the need for time-consuming rehearsals, the improv format has allowed the band to author a library of 4,000 songs and profit from performing them. “We get equal publishing. It just makes everything super easy and non-competitive.”
If anything has changed about Watt’s bandleader act, it’s that he has more latitude to get serious. Corden – who has announced plans to leave The Late Late Show next year – regularly makes space for Watts to lob a question or two at a guest, which helps get them off overselling whatever TV show or movie they’re there to promote. (“We’ve heard that a million times,” he says.)
After the murder of George Floyd, Watts and Corden didn’t hesitate to ditch the jokes altogether for bracingly honest conversation, with Watts breaking down while recalling the discrimination he faced growing up in the midwest. “Entertainment shows are great,” he says. “Part of their function is to keep people in a groovier mood and kinda lighten their day. But what is as important is being able to have sincere moments and hear from guests, their perspectives on certain issues.
“And not in a way that’s evangelical or classic that’s like, Here’s a star talking about a children’s hospital they support or whatever. I’m talking about just regular, sincere things that [viewers] might not hear about otherwise. Small things that link us all together as human beings. I like to think there’s a coming of an age of sincerity. That’s what I crave. I love when our show has those moments.”
You’d think that a daily spot on network television would have provided Watts his pick of opportunities to more meaningful connection through humor. But besides a one-off hire DJing the 2021 Emmys, major studio execs still aren’t sure quite what to make of Watts – who struggles to even get his comedy specials produced. “I had a really cool idea and backing from Bad Robot [JJ Abrams’s production company],” he says. “They were going to meetings with me. We went to everybody and nobody was biting. A lot of projects I do that are me-centric, none of them have been made except for three comedy specials.”
That’s not to say Watts is waiting for a handout. He’s made plenty of work on his own. Brasilia, Watts’s short film about a made-up city of the future that sends up a wooden, 70s-era, Arnold Schwarznegger travelogue that’s almost too good to be true – is an absurdly trippy treat.
“I think sometimes my ideas are a little bit too … I dunno what it is about it,” says Watts, of his lacking connection with Hollywood C-suiters. “Maybe it’s the Gen X in me. Maybe because I like to remain grounded to the underground and counterculture as much as I can. Having not a lot of success in that way maybe keeps me grounded and closer to that zone, which is very important to my identity. Who knows. Maybe at some point someone’ll be like, ‘OK, let’s give this guy a shot.’”
This article was amended on 29 April 2022. Watts’ successor on Comedy Bang! Bang! was Kid Cudi, not “Weird Al” Yankovic, who took over later.