by Robert Latham
I saw Reggie Watts last night, and met up with an old friend afterwards.
“How was it?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I felt silly telling her that Watts was “really good,” because what does it mean to be a really good absurdist? It almost seems like an insult, even when used to describe an actual absurdist. Instead, I tried to tell her about it, so that she could understand why words were failing me.
Fellow-blogger Ryan has already written a great post about the performance, so I won’t rehash it. I’ll just tell you what I told my friend, and maybe you’ll understand why words fail me too.
I sat next to a woman who was kind enough to lend me a pen to take notes. I hope she won’t mind if she becomes a foil in this post–I was really grateful for the pen. She and I talked about other shows she had seen. She was very grounded in what she liked. She had opinions and reasons. I could respect that. I rarely have either.
Then she asked me, possibly in seriousness, whether I thought Reggie’s last name was actually Watts, or had he maybe chosen Watts as an echo of the Watts Riots. I flipped through the playbill, but was thinking to myself this woman has no idea what she’s about to see. She thinks this is going to be some angry black man come down from the mountain to let us all wallow in the self-loathing of race guilt that we liberals flock for like floggings from God.
“It doesn’t say what his real name is,” I told her, and hoped maybe she was just getting into the absurdist mood herself.
She and I chatted some more. I’m not a chatty person, and so this came with great effort.
Where was I from? Texas. A way for her to get me to ask where she was from, and it was Long Island, said with thick accent and awaiting applause.
“Oh, I think I know some people from there. I’ve never been.” I’m from Texas–Long Island is Galveston.
She wanted to know about the logistics of blogging for TBA (she was at first visibly upset that TBA would have its own “press corp”, because whatever happened to integrity). Do they pay you? No. Do they fly you in? No. Put you up somewhere? No. Listen, they gave me a pass so I could see the things I wanted to write about, and I found a map on the bus.
She herself had free tickets too. A friend of hers had extras, and now she was there.
I tell all that for a reason: by the time Reggie Watts stepped onto the stage, me and this woman had built one of those weak social links that would persist only until curtain call, and never be thought of again.
It was, therefore, to my great dismay when, two minutes into the show (and into Reggie’s silent fight with a microphone stand), she declared, “This is going to be unbearable.”
She had effectively cast a spell on me, forbidding me from enjoying myself. No amount of scooting my chair away from her, no amount of leaning, nothing could break that bond that we had formed (I had her pen, for Christ’s sake) and now I could express no sign of appreciation–no laughing, no applause–without knowing that I was doing so right in the face of my new “friend’s” disapproving remark. She had, in other words and with one sentence, stolen all my joy.
And I was joyful clear up until that point. Reggie Watts was fighting with a microphone stand, building up a slap-stick routine. People were laughing, Reggie was contorting, and I was happy.
I leave the story of my new friend for a moment, to say that this was the first hint of what Reggie Watts was doing. His slap-stick had no punchline. The build-up wasn’t for effect or for context, there wasn’t the usual incremental ridiculousness of slap-stick, culminating in some act of great effort and probably pain. Reggie Watts was fighting with a microphone stand in the language of slap-stick, but really Reggie Watts was just fighting with a microphone stand.
And that’s the best summary I can give for the show, and what I took away from it. Here’s how it works–I hate to rob you of figuring it out for yourself, but you can always go and tell me I’m flat wrong.
In every communication, there is medium, container, and message. The medium could be a PowerPoint presentation, the container a chart or graph, the message some bit of corporate information. Or the medium could be music, the container a hip-hop tone of voice or beat, and the message about love or rage or money or home.
Reggie Watts puts you in a world where, in 2012, time will end. It is an unavoidable truth. The second you know when time will end, all messages becomes irrelevant. Yet we continue to send them. Once freed from paying any attention to the message, we’re left to deal with the medium and the container. In the microphone stand fight, there was no message–the punchline never came. And yet the medium and the containers excited those parts of our brain that were ready to receive it, ready to laugh. Some laughed already, but it wasn’t yet funny. The medium and container carry their own meanings, and sometimes those meanings drown out (or intentionally obscure) the actual message.
Reggie Watts plays mostly with sound, because he’s a master of it. He’s adept with voices, sound effects, beatboxing, sampling, anything. He could easily put on a show of “look what I can do” and people would flock to see. But instead he uses those skills to force you to separate the delivery from the message. And in the end you come to recognize that most of what you’ve heard in life has been nonsense–you were just too distracted by the delivery to notice.
My favorite example comes when Reggie begins a story in the voice of a crusty university professor. It begins about living on Lake Huron and then moves into big words and deep analysis of heavy concepts, and if you pay attention it is all complete nonsense. And you are paying attention, because that professor’s voice demands it–if you don’t understand, it’s because you’re not smart enough. That voice is always smarter than you are.
Slowly, over the course of a couple minutes, Reggie morphs his tone and accent and lexicon. He’s inner-city, probably Black, likely female, speaking in a new jargon of swear words and images that (again) don’t make any sense. Yet, now, you have no urge to search for meaning. She’s just some girl on the street, and if you don’t understand her, like you didn’t understand the professor, it’s obviously for completely different reasons.
Maybe the experience was flipped for you. I suppose it depends on where you come from.
The lady next to me, my new “friend,” twenty minutes in, said, “Keep the pen, I can’t take this anymore.” She flew out and never looked back. I knew this would happen, because she thought Reggie Watts was an idiot. I thought Reggie Watts was a genius for exposing the tricks of people who want to seem smart. With her gone, I immediately began to have a lot more fun.