Netflix UK stand-up comedy review: Reggie Watts: Spatial
Nathanael Smith | On 10, Dec 2016Reading time: 3 mins
Michael Gove recently described Helen Marten’s Turner Prize-winning work as “modish crap”. The abstract ideas and formation of Marten’s sculptures were, to Gove’s eyes, not as good as Turner, Ruskin or even Holman Hunt. Gove’s familiar sentiment can be boiled down to this: why have disconnected detritus organised into sculptures when you could have a pretty painting? There is an irony in Gove citing Ruskin, an art critic, as in doing so, Michael Gove reveals that he himself is no Ruskin. One wonders what Gove would make of Reggie Watts’ utterly surreal Netflix stand-up special, Spatial. He would probably think that it’s no Michael McIntyre.
What Marten and Watts have in common is that both of them understand, at a deep level, the medium they are working in, even if, at first glance, their work seems nonsensical or meaningless. Watts, for those unfamiliar with his work – or those who have only seen him as James Corden’s sidekick – does sort-of stand-up comedy, while doing sort-of beatboxing and vocal music routines using loop tech. He clearly understands the rhythms and subjects of stand-up comedy, while his musical prowess and improvisational skill are never in question. Yet his songs rarely have lyrics and his jokes don’t really have punchlines. Watts is a man who understands what a musical stand-up act looks like, then decides to do something that looks almost entirely different.
In any medium, abstraction and surrealism only works when you know what it is you are abstracting. Watts’ modus operandi involves a lot muttering, gibberish sentences that rarely end and “singing” where it only sounds like an approximation of words. Yet somehow, he manages to weave actual ideas throughout all of this, throwing in surreal asides that have the impression of being a witty observation or funny joke. Astonishingly, this is all incredibly funny. There’s a natural flow to all of the nonsense; clear method in the madness. Each non-sequitur leaves you guffawing, almost at the absurdity of stand-up as a medium. The music is, like the whole special itself, upbeat, immensely enjoyable and delivered with real energy and talent.
Given a full hour, Watts manages to throw in a couple of formal curveballs, including a series of surreal episodes from an anti-sitcom called Crowe’s Nest. Even the opening makes the most of a bigger budget, with a Star Wars-esque costume and the ostensible premise of some intergalactic communication. These more polished additions to Watts’ style don’t always hit the mark but they rarely last long enough for you to notice you’ve stopped laughing. It won’t be long before Reggie is back pontificating the scientific basis for ghosts.
Towards the end of Spatial, Watts’ improvisational style begins to fade. A sequence on weed, followed by a long song of almost-satirical jokes both feel nearly conventional in their delivery. The song, however, feels like a new string in his already formidable bow, a profound rumination on the purpose of existence emerging out of a parody about men “owning” women. The dizzying amount of ideas thrown into one song makes it feel far more rehearsed than his usual nonsense, coming across like Tim Minchin mixed with Camus.
Eventually, all of this coheres into something that actually makes some kind of sense. Watts’ style is neither the tired one-liners of Tim Vine, the dull observational tosh of McIntyre nor even the enjoyable, random raconteur shtick of Ross Noble. His career has been an act of deconstruction and in Spatial, he’s given more room than ever to pick apart stand-up and put it back together as something utterly unique. The result is gleefully absurd and deceptively deep. It’s comedy as a piece of postmodern art, where there is as much meaning in it as the viewer brings to it. You may not fully understand, but you can’t tear your eyes away. Michael Gove would hate it.
Reggie Watts: Spatial is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.