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."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
He's a one-man show. He beat boxes, imitates, impersonates. On stage, he's equipped with just a keyboard, looping pedals and a microphone.
REGGIE WATTS: Hi, how are you? My name is Reggie Watts, and I'm a person who entertains other people.
RATH: He calls his style of entertainment disinformationist. He disorients his audience, sometimes talking nonsense and switching seamlessly between accents all improvised on the spot. Here's his TED Talk from 2012.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
WATTS: It's hard to imagine or measure the background radiation is simply too static to be able to be seen under the normal spectral analysis. But we feel as though there are times when a lot of us...
WATTS: ...You know what I'm saying? But like, you know what I'm saying 'cause, like...
When I get on stage, I really just like to listen to what's happening in the moment. And because I've been doing it long enough, I definitely have structures that I can kind of lean on. I know that I can make a beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
If I make a beat, then I can create a baseline.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
WATTS: (Singing) And I've been trying to be the one that you believe in. And even more than I want to be so saucy (ph). And everyone, I want to (unintelligible). And you can do anything as long as you don't hurt along the way.
RATH: So how did Reggie Watts find his voice - sorry voices - and get his big break? It all started on "Sesame Street."
WATTS: I can remember Victor Borge being a guest on "Sesame Street," I think. And Victor Borge being this legendary musical comedian. He was a virtuosic piano player.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)
WATTS: And he would do these, like, popping sounds with his mouth.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
VICTOR BORGE: A period sounds like this (makes noise), and an exclamation point is a straight line with a period underneath (makes noise).
WATTS: And then I would see him perform, you know, playing piano and a brainiac of a musician, but using it to an absurd scale. And I think that seeing him do that, and then of course Michael Winslow from "Police Academy."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POLICE ACADEMY")
MICHAEL WINSLOW: (Makes noises) Game over.
WATTS: I heard the human voice is capable of imitating machines and other people's voices and accents and also music. And that's really kind of where it came from. And I would practice incessantly, as I still do. I'm just always doing it. I don't sit and go I'm practicing now. It's mostly just me walking around making noises, oftentimes annoying other people.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Or maybe more of a...
WATTS: And I pay close attention to the details - the sounds of doors closing or unnecessary sounds even, like in so many spy shows or any show that has - shows a computer screen of a graphic coming up. It always has these like (makes noises). I've just sent an email. It's like computers don't make those dumb sounds (laughter). It's so annoying every time I see it. It's like, oh, wow. That's the future. Or, like, the dumb preview sound where it's like (makes noise), and then there will be a split second of no sound, and then there will be kind of a realization by a character, and then you'll hear (makes noise). (Laughter) It's, like, it's so annoying.
I'd say my big break, in a noticeable way by many, many people, I think it would have been Conan O'Brien. He was going to start touring because he couldn't do any broadcasting, but he could do live performances. So I heard about it, and then, like, maybe a day later, my manager calls up and says, like, oh, Conan O'Brien is interested in having you open for the tour. And I just was like what? Like, why? But I remember me running into Conan for the first time. He came into my dressing room, and he was, like, the sweetest guy. He was just like thanks so much for being a part of this. So they were very, very generous. And things changed from that point on.
When I think about how I was as a little kid and how I am now, it's not really that different. It's still me just screwing around, having a fun, super imaginative time. 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 (laughter).
RATH: That's Reggie Watts. Catch him on "The Late Late Show With James Corden" on CBS.
WATTS: (Beat-boxing). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.