Reggie Watts entertains and fascinates huge audiences with performances that are almost impossible to describe. The musician/comedian/beatboxer goes from singing to creating music on his looper and keyboard, to speaking, often in unexpected accents or languages, or no language at all. Watts performs frequently, all over the world, and each appearance, including a 2012 TED Talk, is completely improvisational and one-of-a-kind.
Watts has had a spectacular career so far, going from a pick-up keyboard artist for Seattle bands to the bandleader on The Late, Late Show With James Corden. He did it by listening to his intuition and ignoring just about every rule there is for becoming successful.
Here are a few of the rules for success Watts didn't follow.
1. Have a vision of what you want to accomplish.
Career experts say you should start with definite career goals, then take steps that will lead toward your objective. They also say you should focus on your greatest passion to the exclusion of all else.
Watts didn't do any of that. Although he did standup comedy in high school, when he moved from Great Falls, Montana to Seattle after graduation, he offered himself as a keyboard player to local bands simply because there were a lot of bands looking for one. "I just gravitate to whatever's available," he says.
During gigs, he did brief bits of comedy and sketches in between songs, and he began getting offers of keyboard/comedy gigs. Though he played in several successful bands, most notably Maktub, he decided to focus on these solo gigs and comedy work because it seemed like an easier way to make a living.
2. Work really, really hard and do whatever it takes.
Watts got a chance to perform in the Invite Them Up comedy show in New York City. That led to more exposure for Watts' comedy, and to collaboration with comedian Scott Aukerman. When Aukerman was hired to create the late-night talk show spoof Comedy Bang! Bang! on the IFC channel he invited Watts to be the show's bandleader, even though the show didn't have a band. (Watts, with his skills at looping, overdubbing, keyboard, beat boxing, and vocalization is probably as close to a one-person band as any human being can get.)
It was a great leap forward in Watts' career, but he quit after two and a half seasons. "I didn't like getting up early anymore," he says. "That sounds like a lame thing to say these days." But, he says, "I don't want to be grumpy on set. I want to have fun, whatever project I'm doing. I started feeling that I was getting more negative than I wanted to be and I didn't like that."
3. When you see an opportunity, grab it.
Technically, Watts did follow this rule, but just barely. After leaving Comedy Bang! Bang!, he figured his Hollywood career was over and planned to move back to New York. Then his agent called to say that James Corden, who was taking over as host of The Late Late Show wanted to talk. Corden had heard about Watts feeling overworked on Comedy Bang! Bang! and promised a short workday that would start in the afternoon.
Watts knew it was a rare opportunity, yet he hesitated. "A lot of my friends thought I was crazy for thinking about it," he says. "They're like, 'Just take the gig!'" But, Watts says, "The most important thing for me is to be happy doing what I'm doing. And if I'm not having fun, then there's no point in me being involved in something."
Sarah Silverman, a friend from his Invite Them Up days offered some advice: "Make a list of all the things you want to be part of the deal, and if they agree to it, consider doing it." So Watts made a list of all the things he wanted, including the right to choose his own band members and work improvisationally with little rehearsal. "They agreed to all of it," he says. "So that was kind of it for me." Five years in, he's still glad he said yes.
Watts' contrarian approach to success may not work for everyone. But it comes from following his intuition, which is something most of us should do more often. "It leads you where you need to go," Watts says. "It's like you have a feeling about the world you want to live in or the way that you'd like to feel. You hold on to that feeling."