They don’t wrestle, and they aren’t in Heaven, but it’s a better title than “The Wind and the Lion, or: Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, an Essay That Gets a Little Dark and Political at the End.”
At the end of The Wind and the Lion, a mid-seventies orientalist extravaganza of a film, a Barbary pirate king played by Sean Connery writes to a distant Teddy Roosevelt, whose warships and Marines—representatives of modernity and the budding American empire—threaten to destroy him and his people. “I, like the lion, must stay in my place,” intones Connery in voiceover, not quite managing to get the Scotland out of his voice, “while you, like the wind, will never know yours.”
There are many ways to understand comedy. There’s Hobbes’ way, which is all about feeling superior to the schmuck who took a pie to the face; Kant’s way, which is about the unexpectedness of using a pie as a projectile; and Freud’s, which says we’re just giggling with relief when we stop suppressing our forbidden aggressions and smash a pie into some fool’s face. But if you want to understand two of the most striking figures of contemporary comedy, Reggie Watts and Karl Pilkington, you could do worse than to start with the words of a fictional Barbary pirate.
To be clear: Pilkington’s the lion in this scenario. The bald, Mancunian lion. And Reggie Watts, whose voluminous afro differentiates him from Pilkington as much as his apparent cosmopolitan placelessness, is the wind. Let’s start with the lion.
Everyone who stumbled through graduate school in the humanities knows Kant credited David Hume with awakening him from his dogmatic slumber, but few know that he cribbed from another Scottish philosopher, James Beattie, when he put together his theory of the comic as the incongruous. Laughter, Beattie says, arises when things that don’t belong together unite—and Kant said much the same, more prominently and with far less clarity. And incongruity does explain a great deal of comedy, from Steve Martin wearing an arrow through his head while playing banjo in old Saturday Night Live episodes, to any solemn cleric or public speaker letting loose with a burst of surprisingly audible flatulence. It would seem to explain much of the comic effect of watching Karl Pilkington travel the world in the Sky TV series An Idiot Abroad. When, for example, Karl Pilkington stands on the Great Wall of China, looking out over the vast, venerable, and sublime fortification as it snakes away over the mountains of the Chinese north, we’d expect something like awe from him. He even seems, for a moment, to provide it, saying “It goes on for miles, over hills and such,” before deflating it all: “but so does the M6” (a perpetually traffic-clogged British motorway). The reaction is incongruous in a way Beattie and Kant would understand. And it involves something like the special kind of incongruity Mikhail Bakhtin saw as central to comedy—the “transcoding” in which something grand or sacred is juxtaposed to something banal or (in the most powerful cases) obscene. But if we understand Karl Pilkington merely as a producer of incongruous comments, we miss what’s special to him. We miss what makes him a lion.
You want to understand Karl Pilkington? Then you want to understand the power of narrowness. You want to understand the brilliance of narrowness.
It was Ricky Gervais, who produced and hosted An Idiot Abroad, who designated Pilkington as the titular idiot. Indeed, he labored, in the first episode, to get at the exact nature of Pilkington’s putative idiocy. “I don’t know the politically correct term,” says Gervais, brow furrowed, “A moron? He is a round, empty-headed chimp-like Manc moron . . . a buffoon.” But Gervais couldn’t be more wrong. His collaborator and co-host, Stephen Merchant, comes closer to the truth when he calls Pilkington “a typical Little Englander,” a man who prefers things as they are at home, and ignores the larger world. The Little Englander takes a narrow view of things, and it’s narrowness, not idiocy, which conditions Pilkington’s perceptions.
Narrowness, we might remember, was much sought after by artists at the peak moment of Western painting. It was in quest of narrowness that they first built the camera obscura; the pinhole that makes the panorama possible.
If Merchant sees more clearly than Gervais the special nature of Pilkington’s perceptions, he fails to understand the durability of Pilkington’s narrowness. Indeed, he hopes that sending Pilkington around the world to gaze on various historical and architectural wonders will put an end to that narrowness. “The experience of other cultures will change his outlook on the world,” says Merchant, “I truly believe travel broadens the mind.” But Pilkington’s narrowness withstands all assaults. His way of viewing the world is unshakable, and—in Egypt, in Jordan, in Mexico and India, and Brazil—remains utterly unchanged. But what is this point of view? It’s the view of working class Manchester where Pilkington grew up. No matter what he sees, no matter how grand or exotic or vast or uplifting the phenomenon, Pilkington sees it in the context of a Mancunian housing estate.
Consider Christ the Redeemer, the enormous, dramatic statue of Jesus set high on a mountain, with Rio de Janeiro sprawling below it, between the mountains and the sea. Pilkington takes one look at the grand, art deco monument, stretching 100 feet above him and thinks on what it could all mean. Finally, in full sincerity, he says “it’s like a big ornament—like something Aunt Nora would have next to the telly.” And he’s right, he’s brilliantly right. It is like a scaled-up ornament Aunt Nora would keep by the telly. Without premeditation, he’s deflated something sacred, in the manner described by Bakhtin. And he’s made the incongruous—Aunt Nora’s telly and the most sacred of Latin American monuments—connect. He hasn’t done it in accord with the dictates of Surrealism, which demanded this kind of thing of its poets. He’s done it because of his relentless narrowness, the fact that he can’t voyage out and embrace new perspectives. No matter where he is, he sees only from the perspective his home place.
That’s how he’s like the lion. He might be in Rio, but he stays in his place.
William Blake, said T. S. Eliot, saw everything “from the center of his own crystal.” There was “nothing of the superior person about him”—and this, Eliot continued, “makes him terrifying.” Pilkington certainly sees everything from the center of his own crystal, and has nothing of the superior person about him. But is he terrifying? We’ll leave that question for the end.
You look for this rootedness, or centeredness, of Pilkington’s, and you see it everywhere.
Consider the Treasury Building, the most impressive structure in Petra. Carved by Romans into the rock wall of a strange valley in what is now Jordan, the Treasury is a true marvel of both history and architecture. Shown a photo of the place, Karl Pilkington struggles to understand why such a building would be constructed. Then it comes to him: “it’s like cladding” (we would say “siding”) “for a cave.” You know: a kind of home improvement project. But, continues Karl,
You be better to be in the cave across from it, where you’re looking at it. You’re getting the nice view. The people living in it are looking at my hole. I always think that about nice homes and stuff: living there, you’re looking at the Council block across the road, they’re looking at the nice view.
He goes on, wondering if perhaps the interiors of the grandest structure of Petra may be deficient. “If I’m an estate agent, you’ll say to me, there’s a reason it hasn’t sold yet—the inside’s not that good.” Travel broadens the mind, Stephen Merchant says, citing an old bromide. But not Pilkington’s mind. He sees structures as he has always seen structures. He sees them as things in need, perhaps of a bit of paint or new boiler. He sees them as places Aunt Nora might put her ornaments and telly.
And here’s where Gervais is right in calling the show An Idiot Abroad: Karl Pilkington, for all of his brilliance, is, after all, an idiot. Not in the sense of being a moron, or an empty-headed chimp-like buffoon, but in the original Greek sense of idiocy. The ἰδιώτης, or idiōtēs was, to the ancient Greeks, simply a person concerned only with his or her private affairs. Like Pilkington, the Greek ἰδιώτης keeps to his own world, his own perspective. Like the lion, he stays in his place.
In his great study of laughter, the philosopher Henri Bergson tells us that rigidity is the essence of comedy. Incongruity is funny only because it highlights rigidity of one kind or another: the public speaker’s flatulence underlines the rigid formality of the occasion of public speech, and the unbending dictates of the flesh over our will. We could say laughter is a way of policing ourselves against excessive rigidity of body or of mind. We seek, Bergson says, an ideal of flexibility and adaptability, and the pratfall, the imitable-because-predictable mannerism, the literal-minded, are laughable to us because at some level we seek to mark them as expressions of an undesirable rigidity. We want to enforce the kind of flexibility we think of as necessary to life by demeaning the rigid—which is exactly what Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais do when they meet with Karl Pilkington for a post-show wrap-up.
We see this when Stephen Merchant sits Pilkington down and confronts him about his meeting with a Brazilian female impersonator. Pilkington had met the man in his masculine street wear and had no idea about his profession. So when the man comes out after changing into feminine clothing and makeup, Pilkington is taken by surprise, and says it’s like the man pulled a Worzel Gummidge (Worzel Gummidge was a character in British children’s television and literature—a scarecrow who could change heads). Reflecting on this instance, Merchant asks Pilkington:
Why were you referring to Worzel Gummidge? Why do you make no effort to speak to people in terms they might understand? What’s the chance of some guy in Brazil knowing who Worzel Gummidge is? There’s people watching this who won’t remember who Worzel Gummidge is!
The question isn’t so much a question as a harangue, a scolding of Pilkington for the very narrowness and rigidity of perspective that constitutes the rocket fuel powering the show’s comedy. I like to imagine that Pilkington replied by saying “Because I, like the lion, must stay in my place,” perhaps in Sean Connery’s accent and the robes of a Barbary pirate chief.
The first time I saw Reggie Watts perform on television, I was so utterly bewildered I couldn’t even decide whether the question I needed answered was “what kind of thing am I seeing?” or “what kind of person is this?” It was on Conan O’Brien’s show, and it seemed to be a challenge even for his relatively hip late night audience. Watts stood there, an African-American man with a wild afro and a nerdish sweatshirt, and played music on a small sound mixer, looping his own vocal tracks into complex rhythms and singing over it—sometimes gibberish, sometimes scat jazz, sometimes soul. He then started to speak, first in one accent, then another. Each time I thought I was finally seeing the big reveal, that the man who had seemed Jamaican was actually English, or an inner-city African-American, or . . . well, the ground kept shifting. Was it comedy? A lecture on ethnomusicology? A deliberate attempt to keep pulling the rug out from under the viewer? This last option—Watts likes to call himself a “disinformationist”—came closest to the truth. None of the “revelations” about who this man really was, what he was really doing, was a revelation at all: it was just a further metamorphosis. No dance of the seven veils, this act, but a perpetual transmogrification machine.
The opening of Reggie Watts’ television special Why Shit So Crazy? serves as a kind of poetics of Watts’ metamorphoses. We open on Watts and a group of actors playing his friends as they sit in a 1970s wood-paneled basement, playing some sort of role-playing game, the rules of which are in dispute. Both the fact of the game and the disputed rules matter: what we’re about to see, in the program that follows, will be Watts assuming a variety of different roles (beat boxer, rapper, ska singer, stand up comic, faux lecturer, parodist, Ebonics speaker, Englishman, and so forth); and we will see him continually bend or break the rules of performance he sets for himself, and the contexts for interpretation he sets for his audience.
The transformations begin as soon as the role-playing game scene ends. Reggie gets up from the game table, walks out a door, and suddenly stands in a featureless space, the wind blowing back his ample hair as he looks up at a booming voice—a god or demon—that speaks to him from above. But this lasts for only a moment before he turns and, speaking in a perfect English accent, accepts a microphone offered by a formally dressed woman, who whispers in his ear, “Have a good show,” pausing a moment before she adds, “your life depends upon it.” What are the rules of this world? Are we in a nerd’s basement? Are we speaking to a god? Has the staged world ended at last, so that we can see Watts in propria persona as he accepts the microphone to take the stage? No! Wait! We’re in some kind of Hunger Games of comedy, right? No revelation is at hand, though. The rules keep changing, and won’t let up until the credits roll.
When Watts does allow the same rules to stay in effect for an extended period of time, it is often to perform a kind of pastiche, in which he “does” the style of one or another kind of person or performer, with most or all of the content one typically finds in such an act vacuumed out, leaving only a hollow shell. Here, for example, is Watts pastiching the kind of stand-up one finds in the world of the Def Comedy Jam:
Lotta motherfuckers don’t know why shit be goin’ wrong and shit in the world, you know—how you be reading the news and shit and bad shit be happening all the time, good shit be happenin’ like 10% of the time but the rest of the shit all bad and shit you know what I’m saying, motherfucker, know what I’m saying and shit? You all know what I’m saying, yeah, my problem, you know, people so different, people so different, motherfuckers like men and women and shit, you know what I’m saying, like mens and shit and womens know what I’m saying? Girls, like girls be crazy and shit—now let me set this up. Now this is why there be so many problems between the womens and the miz-nens, aight? Like the womens and shit they be like, “Amo do this shit over here,’ you know what I’m saying? Motherfucked up—you gotta change that shit, you know? No wonder men think you crazy—and men you too, man, you ain’t getting off scot free, know what I’m sayin’, you be like ‘Ahtingahmondruh do this thing over here.’ How you expect to get respect from women when you be doing that shit?
The content-free gibberish (“Ahtingahmondruh”) at the point that might be the punch-line is just an extreme version of the syntax that delays meaning and the gestures that signal a recognizable form of comedy and a familiar type of speaker without delivering denotative significance. We’re reminded that there is a specific kind of African-American comedic delivery that we usually know what to do with—but we’re not given enough content to do anything but be reminded of the existence of the genre. The real message, I suppose, is that in this era of media saturation, we all have many familiar interpretive frames, but that we shouldn’t get too locked in to applying them when we pick up signals (“motherfuckers,” “know what I’m saying?” “womens,” “miz-nens”) to do so.
If you’ve read the poetry of John Ashbery, you’ll understand exactly what’s happening in the opening speech from Spatial, another of Watts’ comedy specials. Here, we begin with ominous music, and Watts emerges on stage, concealed in dark robes, no facial features visible except for what appears to be a single, glowing eye. It’s not a very Ashberrian image, but listen to the tone and syntax as they glide around:
The vestibule has been opened, and all of us continue to act as though nothing will occur. The intergalactic council wishes you to know that all dangers are being dealt with in all quadrants. I know many of you… and some of you I do not, but at some point you will know someone who has met me, and at that point we will be vaguely acquainted. The Telorians would have you believe you are weak, that you are made of nothing, that there is nothing worth fighting for, that you have already lost. But I guarantee you that this can be no further from the truth than from the centers of Andromeda, to the black hole of the Vega system. These weapons shipments have to be intercepted and it is up to you to remain vigilant against these . . . eeeerrrrgh, eeerrgmn [here Watts wrings his hands like a befuddled, Annie Hall era Woody Allen, pauses, and shrugs]. I now defer the remainder of my time to Senator Dethathuhagagh . . . [Watts walks from the stage, his robe trailing, to reveal a dancer who’d been hiding under it the whole time, who now performs a routine for the crowd].
We begin with a warning—foreboding, yes, but from an ally, who seeks to shake us from our complacency. But then the phrase “I know many of you” doesn’t resolve the way we think it will—into something like “refuse to acknowledge the threat, and wish to remain with your loved ones.” Instead, it becomes a parsing out of how close we and the speaker may be in our social networks—pedantic, picayune, and far from the ominous scene we’ve been in. Ashbery warps syntactic and tonal expectations in exactly the same way in his more adventurous long poems. In the passage that follows, about the distance between the truth and the centers of Andromeda, the better literary parallel is probably Milton, and those passages of Paradise Lost that depict infernal and cosmic space in terms that we simply can’t assimilate to our terrestrial understanding. The juxtaposition of this with the speaker’s sudden inability to know what to call those things against which we must remain vigilant is jarring: is this truly an authoritative speaker? And the sudden turn to the language of civic bureaucracy is no easier to assimilate than is the sudden, arbitrary appearance of the dancer from beneath Watts’ character’s robes.
How to make sense of Reggie Watts? Clearly he wants us to ask that question, and making us ask it is an important part of the act. But we still wonder—how did he come to be such an unusual performer? We usually turn to biography to answer questions like this, and Watts is happy to play with that genre. Google “Reggie Watts interview” sometime, and you’ll find several fake interviews in which he ‘reveals’ nonsensical biographical information as an incomprehensible key to his aesthetic. Me, I like the one about the YMCA gym instructor and the shampoo.
There is one interview in which Watts conforms to the conventions and tells us about his background, which is, in fact, revealing. In contrast to Karl Pilkington, who is very much the product of a single, established community, Watts is something of an exotic—no matter what context you put him in. His mother was French, his father African-American, and he spent his childhood in Germany and Spain before settling in Great Falls, Montana, where he was one of very few people who weren’t white. He found that people’s only way to understand him came from representations of African-Americans on television and in the movies—a fact that made the artificiality and inaccuracy of those interpretive frameworks plain to him.
Not fitting into any group in high school, Watts decided to enter into the spirit of many groups, getting involved with the band geeks, and joining the football team—not to become a jock, but in order to see what the world of football was like. He continued this kind of behavior after completing school: he spent the 1990s playing in a huge number of bands in and around Seattle. To this day he is convincing as a musician in almost any genre: reggae, rap, heavy metal, classical, jazz. His background has never allowed him to simply be one thing, but it has allowed him to be many things, and, like his acts, to shift around among them. No lion, he, no Pilkington. Reggie Watts (I can almost hear him chuckling at the solemnity of this) is the wind.
As different as Watts is from Pilkington, we can still make sense of him with reference to Henri Bergson’s theory of comedy as rigidity. Of course Watts’ act isn’t rigid at all—it’s Heraclitan fluidity all the way through. But that’s the point, really, at which it intersects with Bergson: Watts shows us the rigidity of any genre, of any mode of speech, and of any set of conventions—even of any identity. And this is a challenge to us. We need to be flexible to keep up. Watts has said his act is a kind of disruption, a matter of recontextualizing. “I look at things this way,” said one interviewer, Reihan Salam, as he tried to summarize Watts’ position. “I look at things this way, or the way my community looks at them . . . and suddenly I see Reggie Watts.”
Watts agrees, and tells us that what he values is a kind of openness. “To be flexible, to be able to move freely . . . that’s the thing I have to protect” Watts says. It matters, too, adds Watts, because it’s essential to what human beings are—“they’re explorers.”
When The Wind and the Lion came out in 1975, it spoke to a post-Vietnam America that was rethinking its role as a global imperial power. Did our global role do some damage to our souls, depriving us of a sense of our identity? Ought we not to step back from local cultures—those noble lions—and let them roar? But everything looks different four decades later. Now, we’re in a time of worldwide backlash against globalization, cosmopolitanism, and internationalism. Everywhere the lions roar—in a hyper-nationalist Russia, in a strong China that feels restricted by global institutions it didn’t make, in a radicalized Middle East, and in the post-industrial rustbelt of an America that blames immigrants and international commerce for its woes. Eliot found Blake terrifying for seeing things only from his own particular perspective, for refusing to try to see from viewpoints alien to his own. Is Karl Pilkington terrifying? No one who looks at the soft, slightly confused eyes peering out from his bald, round head would think so. And I’m sure he’s entirely humane. After all, despite his resistance to the wonders and cultures he encounters in his travels, he means, and does, no harm. But not all lions are tame and friendly, and we don’t know how long, how strong, or in what direction, the wind will blow.
It’s dark out there, people. We could all use a laugh.