Some artists might be insulted by the idea that their art is ephemeral, but not Reggie Watts. The category-defiant comedian had already made tons of improvised tunes on concert stages and in TV studios over the years before he made a lasting impression playing some of the most ephemeral music of his career: the bumper music on The Late Late Show With James Corden. For the past eight years, you could find the stylishly bespectacled house-band leader every Monday through Thursday making syncopated loops of freestyle vocalizing when he wasn’t doing sketches with the host or chopping it up with the guests. Prior to this show, Watts had performed a funhouse-mirror version of the same role on Scott Aukerman’s IFC series Comedy Bang! Bang!, a satire of late-night talk shows. It’s hard to imagine anyone else sliding so seamlessly between these two poles, but Watts was a natural fit in either setting. The sounds he makes live in their own heightened reality, but he’s so casual about making them, you’d think he was merely adding drumrolls to monologue zingers.
Outside of the show, Watts has kept busy lately writing his memoir, Great Falls, MT: Fast Times, Post-Punk Weirdos, and a Tale of Coming Home Again, which will be out in October. By the time the book becomes available, though, he may have found a new steady gig, since The Late Late Show comes to its end on April 27. As he prepared to tape his final episode, Watts spoke about collaborating with musical guests, what’s next, and his resemblance to The Muppet Show’s Dr. Teeth.
What were the early conversations like about how you would be integrated into the show beyond your duties as band leader, and did it end up playing out that way?
It ended up being pretty much exactly what James said in the initial meeting. He said to choose your own band and run it like you want to, and everything I asked for, I got. I wasn’t really looking for this job— I was looking forward to doing my own solo thing — but it actually got offered to me a few weeks after I quit Comedy Bang! Bang!, so it was unexpected.
Was there much of a learning curve going from being the musical sidekick on a fake talk show with Comedy Bang! Bang! to the musical sidekick on a real one?
Not really, other than using in-ear systems — having producers tell you when to play the bumps and whatnot. Other than that, it was pretty easy. All the bumps we played in the first year were pretty much improvised. I would send a voice note of something I’d been humming to myself that day to the band, and they would learn it by the time I got to the show. It was groovy. I viewed my position as somewhere between Paul Shaffer and Andy Richter. It was kind of similar to Comedy Bang! Bang! They even took the “Reggie’s Question” thing from Comedy Bang! Bang!, where Scott would be like, “Reggie, do you have anything you want to ask the guest?” and I would make up some shit.
Did you have any model in mind for how you wanted the band to be on the show?
I wanted to be unlike any other band. I told them in the beginning, “I don’t want to wear suits, and I don’t want to be the backing band for solo artists.” There was one band I wanted us to be like, actually: My goal was to become a real-world version of the Muppet Show band, and I think we nailed it. I’m Dr. Teeth, and we’ve got Janice on bass.
Over the course of the show’s run, you’ve gotten to jam out live with guests like Donald Glover and Dave Grohl. Did you ever consider following up with anyone afterward about exploring the collaboration further?
Donald, yes, to an extent, but never explicitly. Donald’s a busy guy, but if he wants to work with me, he’ll reach out — he knows that I’m interested. But surprisingly: Noah Centineo. We’re gonna be doing something together. He’s starting this production company, and I met him when he was a guest on the show. He came up to me after and was super-sweet, and we’ve been hanging out. I’m super-stoked to do something with him.
You did some Star Wars–related bits on the show, and now you have a credit as an “Additional Voice” on the most recent Star Wars movie. Is there any correlation there?
That was my own connection. I had met with J.J. Abrams a few years before I started with the show, when he was working on Super 8. He just liked what I did and wanted to meet me. So we kept in touch, and one night, he’d been working on Star Wars [Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker], and I just reached out to see if he wanted to hang out, and he was like, “Maybe after the Star Wars movie is done.” Then he texted me back 20 minutes later and was like, “Do you want to be in it?”
We’d talked about me doing that at some point — I thought it would be cool to just hold a laser rifle in the background or whatever — and then he said, “If you want to come in tonight and do V.O., I have the perfect thing for you.” So I went to the soundstage at Paramount, and he directed me doing a really simple voiceover of Lando Calrissian while he was in his mask. Then the next day, I was on Earth to Ned, the Disney+ show, and Billy Dee Williams — the real Lando Calrissian — was the other guest on the show.
I think my favorite bit of yours on The Late Late Show ever was when you kept playing music and refused to let Corden start the show. Do you have any moments over the years that you are either especially proud of or just had a great time making?
I had this idea where … I can’t remember who was with me, maybe Kristen Schaal, but there was a set built for me where I did this music video of an improvised song. And I had a moment when I was in a phone booth having a dramatic emotional phone call with a lover and then sneaking into her bedroom, so they built a bedroom set and got a rain simulator. That was really fun. When I did stand-up recently and when my band played on the show, those are some of my favorite extra-credit moments. Oh, and playing dodgeball with Michelle Obama.
Is there something you haven’t been able to do between the hours of whenever the show is filmed Monday through Thursday that you’re looking forward to doing more of now?
I’m looking forward to doing more random shit. Before, I couldn’t really go off and do stuff. Someone would say, “Hey do you wanna record in Asheville, North Carolina?” I’d have to be like, “Well, I can do it on these three days,” unless we were off for hiatus, and now I can just be like, “Yeah, how’s Tuesday?” So I’m really looking forward to taking advantage of that time.
As confining as this daily gig must have been sometimes, was it helpful having the structured schedule of a daily talk show during the early part of the pandemic?
Not really. It was cool to have this weird surreal world break, and when we started working again, I was a little bummed. It was a mixed vibe, because I appreciated being able to keep working, but also, I like having big swaths of unstructured time. I got that in the beginning and then when work started happening, even though it was only three hours, I was still bitching about it.
What was your initial reaction to finding out the show would be ending this year?
I was stoked. I thought it was exactly the right way to do it. James brought the band into our dressing room and told us in person, which I thought was a very cool way to do it. He said it was going to be a year that he would extend it for, which was great, because that gave us time to prepare for what to do next. He thought we’d only be on for five years, so eight years is perfect. His instinct was to leave on a high note, and I think that’s what we’re doing.
You have a book coming out in the fall, Great Falls, MT: Fast Times, Post-Punk Weirdos, and a Tale of Coming Home Again. But beyond that, what else is next?
I have some shows I’m pitching, and hopefully people will go for them. It would be great if one of them got made. I’m definitely going to be getting into music more, playing with Thundercat and spending some time in Jacksonville and Asheville — where the music scenes are happening right now — discovering more bands and helping local bands with gigs and getting more opportunities. I’m just looking forward to getting out there and collaborating with artists around the world.
You’ve been openly interested in the possibilities of AI for years. Now that it’s well and truly arrived, do you see a place for AI in the late-night talk-show and/or improvised musical-comedy space in the near future?
Oh, 100 percent. AI’s gonna rock and roll. I’m a big fan of it. I want it to fuck people’s lives up. I want people to be threatened by it. I think it’s a good shakeup for people who get too comfortable, myself included. One of the shows I’m pitching is about AI, so if it gets picked up, that will give me a chance to really go in depth and check out some cool interesting people working on crazy shit.
Now that the show is over and you no longer have to be nice to the host, is there anything you’d like to say to James Corden about the time he roasted you for answering a question in French on Celebrity Jeopardy, or about anything else?
“That fucker!” No, you know, it was a roastable moment. I think they took that occurrence and ran with it in a responsible and entertaining way. But more than anything, I want James to know that I’m really thankful that he saw something in me and only had me in mind for the job and asked me and believed in me and gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do for the show. That’s way more than most artists ever get to do on this scale.