Comedian Christopher Titus on Dana Carvey, Sarah Palin and Killer Klowns
Christopher Titus Facebook
Christopher Titus cut his teeth in comedy clubs in the '80s after having an epiphany as a teenager when he fell into a bonfire. But it wasn't until the late '90s when Titus -- whose comedy focuses on his upbringing in a highly dysfunctional family -- that Titus began to get more widespread traction. In recent years, Titus has been doing a weekly podcast from "The Combustion Lounge," but he still spends most of his time on the road, and you can check out his "Scarred For Life" show at Comedy Works South on June 22 and 23.
We recently had a chance to chat with Titus at length about his early career, his comedy tutelage under Dana Carvey and his highly publicized run-in with Sarah Palin fans.
Westword: Is it true you were in Killer Klowns From Outer Space?
Christopher Titus: Yes. It was my first acting job ever. Talk about screwing up. They asked me to drive into the scene in this jeep. I've got another actor in the car--this girl that's supposed play my girlfriend. I'd never even been on a set before. Nervous as hell. I don't know what I'm doing. I drive on the scene and they say, "Okay, you need to stand on the jeep. Throw a beer to this guy. Then you say your line. Then you look up, say something, and get back in the jeep." So I do that but I'm kind of nervous so when I pull up, I don't put on the emergency break and we're on this cliff in Santa Cruz.
The jeep starts rolling. They had this fence on the edge of the cliff but I didn't realize it was prop fence. So the car hits the fence and the fence bows out about three feet. It was like this balsa wood prop fence. I hear the director go "Cut!" And these teamsters run in and throw me out of the car, put on the emergency break and throw the girl out of the car and everyone is [panting with the panic]. Basically that was my first ever take. I'd almost driven a $14,000 car and another actor off a cliff. I should have quit acting then. That's the Lord going, "Hey, dude, you don't need to do this." But I don't listen well.
How did you even get that part?
I had an agent in San Francisco at the time and they shot it up there in Santa Cruz. It was just a cattle call and I just went in. I kind of had some problems getting parts. Just like every other actor, you think everybody hates you. I went in and it was the first time I really let go in an audition. I just did what I wanted and really didn't give a flying fuck what they wanted me to do. It's funny because I thought it was the best audition I ever did. I walked out and called my agent and said, "I bet you I got this." I didn't hear anything for two weeks and then two weeks later I get a call, "Hey, they've been trying to get a hold of you and a hold of your agent. But you've got the part."
You fell into a bonfire when you were young?
Yeah, I tell the whole story in Norman Rockwell is Bleeding. I got drunk with some friends on the last night of junior year. In the joke I do, I say I was the guy whose friends would give him extra alcohol just to see what he was going to change into. I fell into the bonfire. I was such an outcast my senior year because of that too: "Don't go hang out with Titus, he's a psycho."
You turned your life around after that, right?
I kind of went crazy the other way. I went through this weird phase of...The weirdest thing is when they were cleaning my hands, I literally heard this voice in my head say, "You have to change your life." So I stopped drinking, stopped doing any drugs and I started reading the Bible every night. I went through it twice over a year and a half. I realized that the Bible basically breaks down to, "Hey, don't be a dick." Okay, got it.
I'm not so super psycho-religious at all but that's what I got out of it. I didn't even have another glass of wine at all until I was forty. Then I told my girlfriend at the time, "I don't drink." She asks, "Why?" I told her, "I fell into a bonfire when I was sixteen." "How old are you now? So you maybe are different now." Then it was fine. So I grew up.
What productive things did you decide to do with your life after your post-bonfire epiphany?
I decided to be a stand-up comedian that day. I decided as the doctor was scraping the sand out of my hands because my palms had peeled off. I decided it's a very short life and at any moment it can go away so I decided to do comedy. Now, I decided to do comedy but I didn't do my first stand-up set ever until the senior follies where everyone did a little bit of a show. I did ten minutes of stand-up about the school. It went great, phenomenal.
When I got out of school I started going to open mics. I think I was nineteen. I would drive forty-five minutes to San Francisco and do five minutes on stage and turn around and go home and go to work the next day. It was a nightmare. After a year of that, I decided to move to San Francisco. Then I just started going all the time. It was bad, dude. It was the time before cell phones and you had to pay for long distance. I used to have seven hundred fifty dollar phone bills when I was only making four hundred bucks a month. It was bad.
Why did you want to be a stand-up comedian instead of some other kind of performer like a musician?
Since I was five years old, I wanted to do it. It wasn't like it hit me that one day. My mom, who was mentally ill, used to let me listen Bill Cosby records when I was going to sleep. I'm a little kid and I listened to Bill Cosby every night. I remember when we were staying in this crappy apartment in North Hollywood. We were on the bottom floor and I was in my little bedroom listening to Bill Cosby's My Brother Russell Whom I Slept With. I had this epiphany as a five-year-old, "Wow, this guy's job is to get into a room and make people laugh! How great is that?" I remember laying in bed and saying, "When I'm big, I'm going to be a comedian."
No one helps you with that, by the way. If you say, "I want to be a doctor," they say, "Okay, we'll help you." But when you say, "I want to be a comedian," they say, "Shut up!"
You likely found ways to stay sane in crazy situations across your whole life. What helped you to maintain all that time?
Weirdly enough, the guy who I make the most fun is my dad. You have to imagine my dad. My dad was this dude who got divorced six times. Partied his ass off. Never missed a child support payment, never missed a bill. My dad had like a 900 credit score. But he was really hard on me growing up. But whenever my mom was crazy or we would go visit my mom in the mental hospital after they were divorced--I remember my dad, no matter how dark and weird the situation was, he was always cracking jokes about it. To the point where some people would be, "Kenny, stop it." And all remember is him being funny. And he was always funny in the darkest situations.
So for whatever reason, I developed my humor based on the gallows humor my dad had. He was always in a court battle over divorce or one of his kids so he kept it funny. So that's where I got the ability to find funny in ugly.
It would seem that coping with things that way also gives you a strong sense of yourself.
Yeah. You know what? Living the life I've lived, nobody can fuck with me. Literally, you can't really come up to me and talk shit because I'll laugh in your face and then rip on you. My feelings will be hurt just later inside but I'll destroy you before you walk away. Do you know what I get rattled by? People driving stupidly in traffic but nothing else. I could be sitting on my balcony, watch a bomb fall on Van Nuys and I'd be like, "Alright guys, pack your suitcases. We need to get some food and water." I'm like that guy. I don't even get rattled by it. It just happens because crappy stuff happens. But in traffic I'll flip out on somebody. It's weird.
You briefly went through therapy at one point in your life?
I did. I went for three or four sessions. My therapist was a guy named Jerry Oziel. He was actually treating the Menendez brothers. He was the one that got them busted. When there's a doctor-patient relationship you can't tell [things the patient tells you in confidence when you're the doctor]. He had two mistresses and he had told his mistresses that they had killed their parents. And he told his mistresses that if they told anybody, that the Menendez boys were going to kill them. This guy was my touchstone. I would tell him this horrible story from my life and he would go, "Well, what do you think about that?" I remember thinking, "I'm paying you a hundred fifty bucks an hour to tell me what you think about it. You tell me. I think I want to blow my brains out. I think I want to go into a shopping center with a rifle. I think I'm wrong." He was just a douche.
The big change I really had was I did a thing called The Landmark Forum. It used to be est a long time ago. It was a three day class and it changed my perception of the world is. It changed everything, it was, "Okay I got it now." That's the day I decided to get a TV show, that's when I changed my act to what I talk about now. That's made all the difference.
est was that thing Werner Erhard started?
Werner left the organization and these other guys bought it and they've kept improving it. There's no more seven day class where you can't pee. It got me through my divorce. It's the greatest class I've ever taken. Whenever I want to go back, I pay for a class and sit down for three days and I'm through it. It gives you a way to look at things. It makes you realize A, you're not special. And then you realize that when something's not working in your life, there's no excuse for it except for you. Whatever doesn't work in your life, whether it's relationships, your job or anything else, the one person that's a constant throughout that is you. They kind of point out that if all these things are going wrong, it's no one else's fault. The one ingredient that's the same in all these problems is you, so what are you doing to make that happen?
They let me speak at a lot of their events because without them, I never would have come up with Titus, never would have written it. My family was my family. My mom was mentally ill and my dad was kind of a raging alcoholic, smoker, party guy and also incredibly responsible financially but still out of his mind. I used to think my mom's craziness [meant] my mom hated me. Well the Forum teaches you you can pick your meaning. None of it's the truth anyway. My mom didn't hate me. My mom was just crazy. That's it. Once I got that my mom was just crazy and it wasn't anybody's fault, I could love my mom again even though she was already dead.
The Forum clears everything in your life to where you can create from a place of how great you can be as opposed to all the bullshit you've dealt with all your life. Like all of those stories you build up about yourself. I'm this, I'm that. Or someone says, "Wow you're kind of sensitive." Your parents tell you your sensitive so the rest of your life you're sensitive. No you're not. Someone told you that so you get to make up your own life. If I could tell you, "Anything you want you can have." You get to make it up. None of it's past based. None of it's anything anyone told you. You get to make it up right now. And you can have anything you want.
I was a D/F student. Barely got out of high school. No college. I took The Forum in '95, I took the advanced course the same year. By 1998 I had a deal with Fox and by 1999 I had my own television show on the air that I wrote, started and created and it was on prime time. Then I got a Writers' Guild nomination for a script I wrote and I don't have any college.
You probably occasionally get a heckler, how do you deal with them?
I'm brutal. I give no quarter. My girlfriend does comedy too and she's always stunned [by how I handle it] but she does it now too. Here's what I do, if you heckle me -- and by the way this is not a challenge to anybody -- here's what happens if you heckle. I talk about it in the new show. The problem is that I hear them in line and I have to laugh because every comedian that's on that stage has fifty things in his head that he's used a thousand times that whatever you say, he's going to say one of those things and they're guaranteed laughs. The audience is going to hate you. Then you're going to say it again and he'll say something else and then they'll hate you again. Then you'll say something else and the comedian's going slam you again and then your girlfriend's not going to sleep with you tonight. That's what's gonna happen.
There's a bunch of different hecklers. Now it's weird because I have fans. So sometimes they're just, "We love you dude!" And they're screwing the show up but they're doing it in a positive way. That's the hard one to deal with because I have to find a way to make fun of them and acknowledge that they like me. It's really weird.
The ones I like to deal with are when someone's drunk and they're being a prick and they're just like, "Dude, f-you!" That guy? I will go after and trash him. I'll trash his family. I'll go after what he's wearing. I'll talk about his job and I won't stop and say, "You want more? Say something else. Go ahead." What that does is that if one guy heckles and I go after him and nail him to the point where he puts up his hands and goes, "Okay I'm done." No one else heckles the whole show. Everyone else is, "Damn, I'm not saying anything." So if I get a heckler early on, I make an example out of him so no one else heckles.
They threw this girl out one time because I got so harsh on her that she stood up and started screaming and flipping me off. Then she was grabbing her crotch going, "F-you! Suck it!" So they dragged her out of the club. While they're dragging her out, I have the whole audience singing, "We Are the World." And she's screaming over it. It was ridiculously funny. They get her outside and we start the show again. Three minutes later, I see that from the back door, she's running at the stage. My buddy Tommy was there doing security and he tackled her. He had to tackler her ass and drag her out. Here's the thing, I'm at my job and I've got a room full of people to take care of and my job is to make them laugh. If you're going to come and try and screw up my job, then you've opened the door and there's no rules anymore. These people paid money to see me. I'm supposed to be funny. I'm continuing to do my job by tearing you a new a-hole. I always think it's funny when heckler's get incensed. You screwed up the whole show and now you're mad because I went after you? Idiot. You have to go after them. You have to just destroy them.
Did you really have to change Erin's name to "Kate" for legal reasons for the Love is Evol special?
No, I didn't really. You it's the weirdest thing that everything I said happened. So she put it into a record in the court saying horrible things about me. So if she ever said, "I'm going to sue him for libel." I could just go to the public records of the court and go, "She said it! It's right here." So she kind of screwed herself in a way.
That's unfortunate but funny.
Funny and expensive but it got me another ninety minute special.
Do you feel that exposing yourself so much in comedy has been pretty therapeutic for you in the long term?
Yeah, I think I haven't needed therapy since I've started doing comedy like this. I don't have a desire to go back to therapy because if something's really bugging me, I'll just get up and talk about it.
If you watch what [Richard] Pryor did -- and I'm kind of a student -- he'd get up on stage and if you broke down what he said, you'd be shot. He does this one bit and I think it's the Long Beach special. Here's the scene: he's at his house, he's got a .44 magnum, and he's blowing holes into his Rolls Royce because he doesn't want his wife to take his car. And they're in a fight. At that point, two white LAPD officers show up. In reality, we all know this story, the black guy is dead. But he makes it so funny, and it's such a bizarre story.
I had Rachel watch Pryor and she's like, "I don't get it." And told her "Comedy is different now but at that time he was pushing an envelope beyond what anyone understood what he was doing then. In that heart attack bit where he re-enacts his heart arguing with him and he goes, "Yeah you weren't saying that when you ate all that pork." He's doing that bit and you realize it's all pain based. It's all tragedy based. I think that's where I realized I could talk about my mom's suicide. Or I could talk about my divorce and the horrible things my ex did.
This show is called Scarred For Life. This one's about every screw-up I ever made. This one's about how I lost thirty million dollars by pissing off the network president.
You've probably taken inspiration from comedians other than Richard Pryor. Who are some of your other favorites?
I think Carlin was the best wordsmith we ever had. Carlin was a guy that as a comic, to even sit down and try to write like Carlin is daunting. Plus he's inspired me to keep writing new specials. I'm non-stop now. When Scarred For Life is filmed, I'll move on to the next one and write another one. If you really want to be a comic, you have to look at Carlin and go, "Okay, this guy did fourteen HBO specials and twenty-one albums." No one gets to play that game. There's no one even attempting that game. I'm attempting it now. I intend to beat Carlin. By the time I'm dead, I want to beat Carlin with material and quality. He's the gold standard.
Currently, I think Patton Oswalt is a genius. I watch Patton and I think I should be a welder sometimes. There's some bits that Patton has that I just go, "Where the hell did that come out of his brain?" I saw Paul F. Tomkins' last special. It was great. Really good storyteller. My girlfriend watched and said, "It's kind of slow." And I said, "Just stay with it." She stayed with it and he starts to unfold this story and pretty soon you're just riveted. I love storytellers. This whole shows is all about me telling stories about what a loser I am.
Paul F. Tompkins is brilliant in how he sets up a story.
He's really smart and really funny. And quirky funny like, what? The on the woman side, I think the only one that's gold standard right now is Maria Bamford. It's almost like someone takes over her body when she does those characters. It's like, "How is that voice coming out of you?" She's really good.
In the middle of those two groups of comics, Pryor, Carlin and those three, you go to Dana Carvey. When I started comedy, I got to work with Dana Carvey and I learned more from Dana Carvey in about two weeks of working than I've learned since.
What did you learn from Dana Carvey?
Everything, man. I asked him to watch my act one night and he asked, "Do you really want me to tell you what I think?" I said, "Yeah!" Here's the thing, because my dad was so hard on me, I can handle criticism. I can handle criticism. I want to hear what you really have to say and in fact, I won't respect it if you won't tell me the truth. So I get off stage and Carvey goes, "Well, number one, you don't look at the audience." I go, "Yeah, I do. I'm looking right at them." He says, "No you're not. You're looking over them at the back wall. You didn't look at the audience one time. That's why you're not connecting with them."
He made me do this thing where he said, "Next show, I want you to do this. Do your set-up to the joke to one person. To the person sitting right in front. Right in their eyes. Then I want you to say the punchline to the room. Then I want you to pick the next person and say the set-up to them and then the punchline to the room." He made me do this and it changed my show. I've given this advice to millions of comics and I would give Dana the credit on it. It changes everything because the audience all of a sudden becomes your friend.
I asked him, "When you get on stage, what do you feel like?" He said, "I like to be the guy in high school class, when the teacher has to run to the office, who gets up in front of the room and starts going off." I thought, wow, if you approach every show like that, the audience would just love you. There's a million other things I learned when I worked with him. Timing, commitment. By watching Dana I learned how to tell the same joke I've told a thousand for the first time every show.
That's probably pretty challenging.
It's not once you get it. It's all about the passion you have for the story. You have to hear the story for the first time. I would give him most of the credit for my learning. He doesn't even know. He did my charity benefit last year and I told him that. "You have no idea that without you, I wouldn't even be a comic." He goes, "What are you talking about?" I told him all those stories. He says, "I don't remember any of that." I said, "Of course you don't. You were just being a headliner helping a young comic out but all those things you told me, I still do." I think it might have creeped him out, quite frankly.
Why do you feel the internet has allowed you to make the most of your career?
The internet has made it so the artist can actually get paid for his art. I'm always shocked now by offers given to me [like when someone will say], "We want to buy your next special?" And I said, "Okay, what will you give me for it?" They give you a tiny bit of money and you look at your deal and you realize you've just spent two years of your life working on a new ninety minute show that's gonna make people laugh and when it's on DVD it's going to make them laugh for years. Then this middle management is going to take it over and they're going to get sixty percent of the profits or more. I just thought, "How the fuck do you guys believe that's fair?"
Now I know why Prince wrote "Slave" on his face when he had his Warner Brothers contract. It's so obnoxious that these guys come in and go, "We're going to put you in Wal-Mart and Best Buy." "Oh great, what am I going to get for it?" "Not a whole lot. We'll probably make three hundred grand. You'll make maybe forty grand." Why should I take that deal again?
Because of the internet and modern technology, there are companies that will do your DVDs for you. I do my own artwork on Illustrator. All the album covers I've done and I did them even when they were getting distributed. Now I sign every one and the fans get a personal thing and you can only get them from me. So by selling ten percent of what I would sell at Best Buy, I make twice as much money. All these companies are going to die off.
Obviously you've considered that your parents' behavior may be genetic in some way. Do you find you have to consciously avoid patterning those behaviors unexpectedly?
Oh my god, man, my dad's voice comes out of me all the time. My mom's, thank god, doesn't come out because my mom had too many voices coming out of her. I look at how I ended up when my dad raised me and I think there's a point that it was too much and that's the part I've taken out with my kids. But when it comes to taking responsibility and doing what you're supposed to do when my kids are in trouble. We were coming back on the airplane today and this little kid was just screaming and his dad was like, "Marcus, be quiet. Just calm down, Marcus." He just got louder. I would have given my kids just one look and they would have shut up. Because although I've never beaten, they think that I will. That's all you really need.
What inspired the "Armageddon Update" portion of your podcast? It was a guy who ran a radio show and he asked me to send him stuff every week. I was spending all this time writing all these Armageddon Updates, and sending it to this guy, and it became popular. I started to realize I was getting nothing from this so I stopped doing it. Adam Carolla, of all people, said, "Why aren't you starting a podcast?" I said, "Well, I mean, I don't know." He goes, "It's going to help your comedy. It's going to help what you do on radio and you have an outlet to sell stuff. It'll be fine. People get to see you every week around the whole country and around the whole world. We did one and the sound was horrible because I didn't know what I was doing. For some reason these characters came out of it. Everybody says, "I never feel like I'm doing a show. I just feel like I'm hanging out with my friends." I get to rant and rave about the world. The world pisses me off lately. It's a cancer cure. If you just suck it in all day, you'll go, "Oh god, the world's horrible." But I get to get up every week on the microphone and rant.
Sometimes I piss people off. We get letters that are angry. In The Forum I learned that not everybody is going to like what I do but that if I always told the truth, I would always be okay. I learned that if I don't piss a couple of people off every show, I'm not doing my job. If everybody's really happy, then I'm way too soft. If two people are like, "I'm never coming to see this guy again." The rest of the people are like, "I'm coming to see this guy every time he's in town." But those two people who say they're not coming to see me again, I'm okay with that.
Directly related to perhaps irking a few people, perhaps many, why did you and why do you have such a problem with Sarah Palin?
You've heard about that whole thing, right? I don't even have a problem with Sarah Palin. I have a problem with the ego of Sarah Palin and the narcissism of Sarah Palin. What I have a problem with is that we've become this society that we've become so monkey-brained now that we're watching this woman. She made Dan Quayle look like a genius. And she said shit that made you go, "What the fuck is she talking about?" And yet people kept going, "Yeah, she should run for president." I just wanted to shake the country like the baby and go, "What are you guys thinking?!"
So when she came up with that Paul Revere thing...look, I barely graduated from high school and I'm twice as smart as Sarah Palin. Even Paul Revere thing, "He was shooting the guns and ringing the bells and he warned the British that the British were coming." And I said, as a joke, "If she's going to run for president, I'm going to reserve a spot on the grassy knoll." We did it in a comedy club, they laughed really hard and we move on. Two days later, Fox's blog said, "Christopher Titus threatens to assassinate Sarah Palin." "What? What are you talking about?"
Then Bill O'Reilly got on and he called me a pinhead on TV, on the Fox News network. He said, "If this guy wants to come on and talk about it, we'll be glad to have him." So I called my publicist and go, "Call. I want to go on tomorrow." And they go, "No, we've settled it." Here's the weird thing: I had like four hundred death threats. Which is ironic because, "You can't threaten to kill somebody. Now we're going to kill you." What? There was a lot of irony with these idiots.
So I wrote an apology to the Palins and it said, "If you guys actually thought I was going to kill one of you, I apologize. That's not what I meant at all. It was just a joke. To that, the reason I wrote this, and the reason the audience laughed, is because we in America have set the bar so low on a possible leader that we would actually consider Sarah Palin? You don't give the stupid cheerleader the Uzi." That was my apology.
Yeah, this was the woman who talked about having so much international experience but didn't have a passport.
Right. Exactly. But she could see Russia from her front yard. It scared me that people got so fired up about it. You know, she lost John McCain the presidency. Let's be straight up clear: she lost John McCain the presidency. Had he chosen someone who was a competent leader, it would have been a lot closer than it was. No one just comes out and says that.
Many famous comedians do short bits at comedy clubs to stay sharp. What do you do to keep up your comedy chops?
You know, I don't. I just go out and do my show. I got in trouble with my manager recently. Here's how much I love comedy. They asked to go on a couple of auditions. I read the scripts and if I'm funnier than the script I'm reading, I won't go in on it. I don't want to dumb myself down. So I called him and said, "I don't want to do this." So my manager called back and said, "Listen, you've got to get back on TV. You've got to do this." I said, "No, you listen. Stand-up comedy has paid for my life. Stand-up comedy brought me from a guy who was a D/F student who could do nothing to a guy who gets to go around the country and make people laugh for a living. And I get paid very well. Movies and television have paid for my life for very short periods of time. And the whole time it was paying for my life, I was scared I was going to lose it. No matter what you do to me. No matter what you take from me, I can still go on that stage and be funny. So I'm going to keep doing comedy and I'll go on the stuff I want to go on." He couldn't argue with me. He said, "You're really frustrating."
Oh yeah, you mentioned how you want to beat Carlin and he did stand-up until the end of his life.
I love it. We had a week off and then we went back and I looked at Rachel Friday night and went, "God, I'm so glad I'm working." It's not that I was making money, it was that happy heroin that live comedy is. You can't find it anywhere else.
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