Comedian Reggie Watts Is Performing in Israel Wednesday, and He Won't Shy Away From Politics

The American jokester will try to make Israelis laugh at the Tel Aviv Port, and while he won't talk BDS, he is happy to discuss Louis CK and what it's like to perform in Saudi Arabia

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Reggie Watts. 'I really love taking everyday topics and then making them not about what they are'
Reggie Watts. 'I really love taking everyday topics and then making them not about what they are'Credit: green
Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut

In a phone conversation with Reggie Watts, the listener hears no hint of the fact that Rolling Stones magazine included him on the list of the 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Times. Although Watts, who will perform Wednesday (June 26) at Hangar 11 in the Tel Aviv Port, chuckles quite a lot, he answers the questions seriously. “When I perform – I perform,” the 47-year-old comedian declares.

The punch lines that end every joke in stand-up comedy are not typical of Watts’ performances. The subjects he talks about are more existential than one would expect.

“I really love taking everyday topics and then making them not about what they are,” he explains. “You make them more abstract. So I like the idea of the structure of a traditional stand-up set, but then I turned it into something really weird. That’s fun for me. It’s not like I do that every time. I just like to try everything.”

Aren’t you afraid that this shrinks your audience?

“It’s definitely not for everybody. I try to make it for most people. I mean, my intention is not to necessarily, purposefully exclude people. I want them to feel like I’m trying to convey something to anybody who wants to listen, but the style in which I’m doing that might not appeal to everyone and that’s okay – I don’t worry about it too much.”

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Who do you think wouldn’t enjoy your humor?

“I don’t think there’s a type of person that wouldn’t, necessarily. [Maybe] if I say the wrong things and turn off somebody, like, especially about sports or maybe if I was being political or something – which I don’t really like to do. I love to talk about sports, but I like to talk about it in a really silly, dumb way. Some may think I was being disrespectful and the same goes for politics. I love talking about politics, but I’ll get the candidates wrong, the issues, wrong, time period wrong. Or I’ll sound like I’m about to talk about a very controversial issue, but then I make it about something else. I love all of that [but maybe] someone thinks that’s being disrespectful.”

Watts says he is aware politics plays a central role in daily life in Israel. He adds that he has a lot of Israeli fans who live in the United States, and he’ll come prepared: “I don’t think I’ll avoid [politics]. I think I’ll just do it in a way that’s more about sharing the commonalities between all of us as human beings. I think that’s really the best way to do it because humor is a great unifier, and if you’re talking about compassion and love and unity and art and friendship and understanding and all of those things – I think that’s much more effective than directly attacking anything politically.”

Some years back Watts dealt with more complex audiences, when he performed in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

“I have a friend who brought me to Lebanon. He’s Lebanese and I think he lives in Los Angeles. He was trying to build up comedy in Lebanon and he was doing a pretty good job in a radio show and TV show, so he was building that audience,” he recalls.

“It was amazing because we had to perform in a private club because you’re not allowed to really do stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia. So it was in a private club and there were a lot of Saudis there that spoke excellent English. But then there were all kinds of other people. And it was just amazing to see them defy the law to come see comedy. Then they also had one of Saudi Arabia’s first female comedians go on stage. I remember before she went on, the promoter turned to me and said, ‘You’re watching history in the making.’ It was a very, very powerful moment because I was like, yeah, she’s getting up on stage, she’s doing stand-up, she’s risking her life.”

Donald Glover & Reggie Watts Make Music

Weren’t you afraid?

“Not really. I mean the hosts were great, and I was invited so I wasn’t really too worried about it. I mean, it was definitely more dangerous, but in the end, people kind of had to just enjoy it. In the beginning, the cultural police came and people ran away into the night to escape those guys. We had to wait an hour for the show to start. And then finally people got in and they went away, and we were able to do the show, but we had to hide for a while. So sometimes comedy is dangerous.”

When Watts is asked whether he has already had a call from Roger Waters and supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, he first asks what BDS is. When he heard the word “boycott,” he understood immediately.

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah I know. I’m not really too much of a political person. To me, people are people. So if I get a chance to communicate with people, I will. And again, governments are not representative of the people… I’m glad that there is activism around that and I’m glad that people are trying to hold people in power to some kind of standard. I think that’s a healthy thing to do and I think it’s everybody’s right to do that. I think for me, if I’m invited to do something and I like the people who invited me, and I’m allowed to go there – then I’m going to go there. Because I think I can do more good by going.”

Reggie Watts performs at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in 2018. 'I love talking about politics, but I’ll get the candidates wrong, the issues, wrong, time period wrong'Credit: Amy Harris / Invision / AP

Watts was born in 1972 in Germany to a German mother and an American father who served in the U.S. Air Force. At the age of 5 he began to play piano and violin. At 18 he moved to Seattle to study music. In 1996 he joined the city’s Maktub ensemble, which creates rock, hip-hop and soul music. In the early 2000s he moved to New York and began to record music.

“I’ve always done music and comedy. They both use similar ingredients. Comedy is all about timing, and it’s all about texture, structure, tonality; it’s all related to music, which is a language, and comedy is a language as well. Comedy is interesting because you kind of need a natural love of wanting to make people laugh. That can come from when you’re a little kid and you make your class or your friends laugh, and you love goofy stuff. You can’t stop thinking about really silly things, and you can’t stop saying it out loud. It starts there. It’s hard to teach comedy,” he says, but there is “a language of how you present it.”

Fifteen years ago Watts began to focus on his career as a comedian, when he appeared in video clips on the CollegeHumor website, which went viral. Slowly but surely he became a well-known stand-up comic. Today he leads the house band on James Corden’s “Late Late Show” on CBS, and goes onstage with a looping recorder and a synthesizer.

In 2013 Watts joined forces with comedians including Michael Cera and Sarah Silverman on the YouTube channel Jash, a community where comedians get together and create original content.

Silverman has spoken in the past two years about her close friendship with comedian Louis CK, even after he admitted that he had sexually harassed women.

“I think the #MeToo movement is beautiful. I think it’s super important and I’m glad that people are standing up against that shit cause it’s just been too long. Especially in the entertainment industry.”

What do you think about Louis CK?

“The guy’s in a little bit of a mess. He’s a weirdo who has to deal with some issues. He just couldn’t get his stuff together to fix it, to go get help, to go talk to people. I just wish he would have sought out that help and surrounded himself with people who would’ve encouraged him to do that. So I don’t know if he’s ever going to learn, but still it doesn’t take away from what he’s created. He’s a genius. He’s brilliant. But his personal behavior is on the shady side.”