Christopher Titus on happiness, joking about guns, and Pawnography

Christopher Titus is a singular voice in standup comedy, with a unique style and profound personal connection to his fanbase. Titus stood out early on with appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Premium Blend, and managed to turn his one-man show Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding into the eponymous sitcom Titus, which ran from 2000 t 2002 on Fox until it was cancelled following a dispute with executives. Titus remained prolific in the aftermath, releasing standup specials The Fifth Annual End of the World Tour, Love is Evol, Neverlution and The Voice in my Head in the space of a few years. He now co-hosts the Titus Podcast and is working to fund a movie called Special Unit, co-starring Denver's own Josh Blue, as well as gearing up for his next special, The Angry Pursuit of Happiness. Titus will headline at Comedy Works South this week; in advance of those shows, Westword caught up with him to discuss honesty in comedy, dismantling pro-gun hysteria with humor, and his new History Channel game show, Pawnography.

See also: Paul Reiser on his Sundance film and returning to standup after twenty years

Westword: So, you're in town this weekend to do Comedy Works. You've been there a bunch of times, right?

Christopher Titus: I would say this, if anybody in that town has not been to that club --the downtown one and the Landmark one, which is like a little theater -- if anyone has not been to that club, they're missing out. It's the best club in the country. Bar none. The only club that can even compare is this club in Tempe. The woman who runs it, Wende, has built kind of a comedy dynasty and she is so committed to comedy in that town. If you guys live in that town and don't know how good the comics are, Wende keeps them focused. If you're new, don't expect to get paid, but she does push comics in the right direction. It's not like that in the rest of the country. Denver is one of my favorite comedy towns.

That would the Angry Pursuit of Happiness Tour? Are you planning to record that hour for a special anytime soon?

We film it in September and then I start writing the new one. I always try to come back with new material. Denver really appreciates that kind of stuff. If you keep coming back with new material, people will keep come up to you after shows and not only remember the last time, but they'll compare it with you. The comedy audiences are really smart there.

Fans like that are probably the best insurance against becoming a hack. Having comedy nerds on your team means they notice and appreciate the work that goes into generating and refining all those jokes.

Yeah, there's also just desperation and fear to keep me writing new material. It's all desperation and fear. I've seen a lot of guys stick to an act for year, and what ends up happening is that they fade. I listen to comedy radio all the time to hear who's funny, who's new and great; I really try to stay up to date. It's my job. Seeing someone get 45 minutes and just ride it out is amazing to me. My dad would come back from the grave to beat my ass if he knew I wasn't doing my job.

Yeah, I've seen a few hacky road dogs just sleepwalk through their sets before. It's dispiriting. You know, doing like a ten-minute shout-out to the troops just to fill out their time?

Yeah, if you're still doing "Don't we all hate Sadam Hussein" jokes, you really need to re-think about what you're doing up there. Seriously, re-think. Any bit that starts out with, "Hey, remember when..." just to bring up a pop reference -- like "How about that Casey Anthony?" Just stop. Read a newspaper. There's at least a new douchebag you could probably use those jokes on. At least update your subject matter. So I have an attitude about comedy. I really do have an attitude. That's why my comedy has never really been dick joke-based, or reference-based -- not because it's bad or good. I've tried to stop being so critical. If I see a guy doing a lot of dick jokes or scatological jokes, I'll always say, "Listen, if you can't write a dick joke as well as Dave Attell, you should just avoid it. It's such a well-traveled road." If you start there, it tweaks your show. It weirds them out.

The audiences are a living, breathing entity. They know when you're lying, they know when you're being inauthentic. Not consciously, but they'll change, they'll get quiet. I've learned that the best thing to do is to tell the truth and point out what a loser you really are. Which is easy for me now. Keep reading for more from Christopher Titus. I've noticed that you have a bit different pace and style. Your specials run a little longer, you tell longer jokes and they're more storytelling-driven. You use a lavalier mic, and there's not much on the stage in the way of a stool or a mic stand. When did you start working that way and what made you decide to veer in that direction?

I wanted to get rid of all the props of comedy. You'll notice I don't drink water onstage. I'll drink like six bottles of water before I hit the stage.

What if you need to pee, though?

I don't usually, because of the intensity of the performance. In a weird way, it's like my body goes into a functional coma when I'm onstage. If I'm sick, that goes away. If I've got to drop a deuce, that goes away. There've been times when I had like a 103 degree fever, walked out on stage and was fine until I walked off stage. It's really weird.

But yeah, my shows are ninety minutes because I go to the Bruce Springsteen school of performing. I want to blow their faces off. I want them to be tired, for their faces to hurt from laughing so much. I'm not the type to do 45 minutes and walk off. Now, if it was just extra talking and no jokes, then I would cut it to 45 minutes. But I'm a long-winded son of a bitch.

Springsteen aside, was there anyone in particular who inspired you to perform that way?

You know, I saw Lily Tomlin a few years ago, doing a show called "Finding Intelligent Life in the Universe" And I remember leaving that show thinking, "Man, you can do so much more with comedy than I'm doing." I used to do a bit about "Ever been a long road trip with your parents and then when you get out, you've got car butt?" And then I'd walk across the stage all funny. It was funny, funny is fine.

It's relatable?

But it's not unforgettable. Lately, I've been doing a bit called "Arm the children" where I argue that all our nation's problems could be solved if we just arm the children. It came out of all the crazy stuff the NRA was saying after Newtown and Aurora. I decided that I'm going to out-crazy the NRA. I wanted to comment on it, but at first the bit was really sappy. "Guns are BAD!" When I read it, I thought, "I will hate myself if I go onstage and say this."

You don't want to be too strident up there.

No way. The self-righteous comic? Blech. I asked myself what George Carlin would do, and what he did was go at a topic all through the back door and make his point without making his point. So that's what I did.

It seems like you've got fans from across the political spectrum. Do you think that having built up a fan base that has a strong sense of who you are from your act allows you to work with premises that challenge their beliefs?

Yeah, I have that with that bit. I have another one where I prove in a three-step process that it's impossible for the government to take your guns away. I start that bit, and you can her people who have thirty guns at home in the bunker under their house, you can hear those people lock into that mindset. You have to unravel them a little bit. If I see someone reacting like that, I'll go after them a little bit. It's so funny because by the end of it, they're howling with laughter. You can lead an audience anywhere as long as you don't bludgeon them with it. Some comics will go up there and start out with the evil side of it. I like just edge them towards it joke by joke until they think, Oh god, we're in a dark room. How did we get here?" It's leading them down a tunnel where the lights get dimmer and dimmer, but you got to open the door at the end. Some guys leave with that weird silence that you get to -- some guys are good at it -- when you've made a point. What they forget to do is get the audience out of it. You can't leave them in that dark room. I have a bit about going to my father's funeral -- this whole show is about how I had to face the fact that I was happy. It's funny to you, but it's not funny to me because of how I was raised.

No, I know exactly what you mean. Being too happy is anathema to a comedian. Where am I going to get my material?

Yeah, when darkness and Satan is your muse because the nightmares of life take you out, where the hell do you go when, all of a sudden, life is working out? It's in my upbringing too; it's like "What, no one's going to jail this year? I don't have to appear in court? No one is addicted to anything? What's going on here?" I basically feel like the universe is just pulling the rubber band tighter and tighter so that it can snap it. If nothing bad happens, that means the pressure's not relieved. Isn't that sad. though, that's what I'm thinking? I got married again, the kids are working out, and I wasn't enjoying any of it, I wasn't enjoying any of life. I can't just accept that life's okay.

You have stuff to lose now. It's a "hierarchy of needs" kind of thing.

Yeah, exactly. So I wrote this show, basically to say that we can all be worried and pissed off at life, but it doesn't matter, the end date is the end date. We'd all like to think that we're the exception, we're the Highlander, but it's coming. It's coming for all of us, whether you like it or not, and there's nothing you can do to change that, no matter how mad you get.

Yup, the coastlines are going to sink, whether or not you hoard guns.

The comet will hit us eventually. You might as well enjoy it while we're here, because whatever you do -- at the end, it ain't gonna matter. We've been trained from birth - it says it in the Declaration of Independence -- to expect "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It doesn't say we're going to be happy all the time, it says that we'll pursue it; we'll rent an apartment across the street from happiness and track its movements. In this country, men want a bigger car and a smaller girlfriend, women want a cuter car and a bigger boyfriend, I want to pay down my debt so they'll raise my limit, so then I can put a down payment on the facelift that will finally make me happy. That's not what's going to happen. None of us are going to be Beyonce and Jay-Z. You're going to die, your muscles will relax, and you're going to poop on yourself. That's how we're going out.

That's what was going on with me, but I can't be the only one. I never write shows to teach the audience something, I write to learn something myself. That's another thing that I think prevents me from becoming irrelevant or hacky. Keep reading for more from Christopher Titus.

So, I wanted to make sure to ask about your new History Channel show, Pawnography.

Yeah. Pawnography. Which is such an unfortunate name. When they told me the name, they were all nodding, and I was like, "Really guys? Pawnography?"

The dudes from Pawn Stars are on that show as well though, right? So you had to have seen that pawn/ porn pun coming.

Well, not only that, but I saw an ad that said, "Get your hands on these guys' junk." Come on, really? We're really gonna keep doing this? But, basically, it's a game show. When they called me up and asked me, my first reaction was "no." Then they asked me what I'd do it for, then came back with an offer and I thought, "God, I'd love to do a game show." I'd met some reality stars on the road, or doing morning radio, some Bachelorettes, some former Real World people; and honest to God, some of them of them are real douchebags. Just easy fame, they hadn't written a song, or a joke, or done anything to earn their fame other than yell at each other on reality TV.

So I was really hesitant to work with anyone involved with reality TV because I know what a douchebag I am, and I work really hard. But then I met the guys Corey, Rick and Chumlee, and honestly, they were the nicest, most normal dudes on the planet. They really appreciate what they've got. To the point where I was the douchebag on set. I was complaining because they kept interrupting me with camera problems or whatever -- and you know how comedians hate being interrupted -- and Corey told me about how he used to work at a lumber mill hauling 100 pound logs up a hill all day right as an assistant brought me a bottle of water. I said, "I bet nobody brought you water at the lumber mill." And he said "nope." That's what those guys are like. It's a really fun show. It's four douchebag buddies hanging out. So, I didn't get the chance to listen to your podcast, but does it have a similar tone to your standup? I know you've got some co-hosts.

The podcast is a weird thing for me. The podcast is something that I started doing because it keeps me writing every week. For standup, I'll write the show and then the focus is on honing and distilling those jokes. I'll stop writing for a while. The new ideas for the next show are just starting to come now. The podcast makes it so I don't get stale. It keeps me loosened up every week. I write a four-page bit about what's going on in the world, my take on it. I keep thinking at the beginning, what you said about not becoming a hack, and podcast keeps me fresh. My comedy and the way I write has evolved. I'm thirty years in and I'm finding new ways to tell jokes.

Christopher Titus will be performing at Comedy Works South from Thursday, July 17, through Saturday, July 19, Ticket prices vary and can be purchased through the Comedy Works website.

Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham